Pierre Menard and Jack Malik

I very much enjoyed the new film Yesterday, a romantic comedy with a crudely drawn science-fiction premise — What if The Beatles never existed, but one lone musician still remembered their songs — but I felt disappointed at how philosophically tame it was. At various points perplexing questions are raised about the authorship of the Beatles songs in this alternative reality.

One of my favourite short stories is Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote“. In Borges’s best pseudo-academic prose it recounts the life of French author Pierre Menard, whose most important (and least known) works are “chapters nine and thirty eight of the first part of Don Quijote, and a fragment of chapter twenty-two”. The life project of Menard, it seems, was to write a modern Don Quijote. Not to write a new version of the novel, and not to copy the original, but to write the same novel, from a modern perspective. That is, he wants to lead himself, through his intellectual and life experience, to write the same words that Cervantes wrote three and a half centuries earlier. The narrator then proceeds to analyse Menard’s Quijote, and compare it to Cervantes’s version. The (very serious)’ joke is that the words are identical, but the interpretation is radically different, because of the context in which the words are being written. Continue reading “Pierre Menard and Jack Malik”

The strange and disturbing life of Hugo Bettauer

I’ve become fascinated by the early-20th-century Austrian writer Hugo Bettauer, author of the prescient satire on antisemitism Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews). It’s a fascinating look at how Nazism (and allied antisemitic movements) appeared, a decade before it came to power in Germany, when it still seemed a tolerable subject for humour. Among the more striking features of the novel: The Austrian chancellor who proposes the law describes himself as a great friend and admirer of the Jews, in a frighteningly devious speech. The middle-class Viennese women, in Bettauer’s depiction, are distraught at the loss of the Jewish men, with whom most of them were having sexually adventurous and lucrative extramarital affairs. The Jews themselves are portrayed as essentially indifferent to their expulsion (with one important exception), and many of them move to the obviously more tolerant and cosmopolitan Germany. And when the Jews are ultimately allowed to return it is not because anyone has any sympathy for them, but only because it has become clear how useful they are for the economy, and how boring life in Vienna is without them. In one of the weirdest bits of rhetoric, an elderly lawyer, speaking to the salt-of-the-earth waiter in the now empty (because mainly Jews used to populate the cafes) traditional Viennese cafe, remarks

Wien versumpert, sag’ ich Ihnen, und wenn ich als alter, graduierter Antisemit das sag’, so ist es wahr, sag’ ich Ihnen! Ich wer’ Ihnen was sagen, Josef. Wenn ich gegessen hab’, muß ich, Sie wissen’s ja am besten, immer mein Soda-Bikarbonat nehmen, um die elendige Magensäure zu bekämpfen. Wenn ich aber gar keine Magensäure hätt’, so könnt’ ich überhaupt nichts verdauen und müßt’ krepieren. Und wissen S’, der Antisemitismus, der war das Soda zur Bekämpfung der Juden, damit sie nicht lästig werden! Jetzt haben wir aber keine Magensäure, das heißt, keine Juden, sondern nur Soda, und ich glaub’, daran wer’n wir noch zugrund’ geh’n!«


Vienna is rotting, that’s what I say, and when an old dedicated antisemite like me says that, you can believe it. Let me tell you something. After I eat, you know I always have my little bit of bicarbonate of soda, to fight the stomach acid. But if I didn’t have any stomach acid, I wouldn’t be able to digest anything, I’d just croak. And you know, antisemitism was just the soda to fight against the Jews, so that they didn’t get too annoying! But now we have no stomach acid, that is, no Jews, but only soda, and I think we’re all going to perish.

Curious about his life, I had a look in Wikipedia, and found numerous brief remarks that each seemed like there was material for a feature-length movie hidden behind it, if not for a whole miniseries. The son of a wealthy stockbroker, Bettauer ran away from home at the age of 16 to Alexandria, “where the Austrian Consul sent him straight back again”.

In Zürich he married the love of his youth, Olga Steiner, with whom, after the death of his mother, he emigrated to the United States. During the crossing, in a disastrous speculation Bettauer lost his entire fortune.

Unable to find work in the US, despite acquiring US citizenship, Bettauer and his wife moved to Berlin, where he became a prominent journalist.

In 1901 after the suicide of the director of the Berliner Hoftheater, whom he had accused of corruption, Bettauer was expelled from the Kingdom of Prussia

Following a divorce and then remarrying during another eventful crossing to America, and half a decade as a journalist in New York, he returned to work for the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna, where he was then excluded from army service in WWI because of his US citizenship. In one of the oddest turns,

In 1918, after an altercation caused by a defective typewriter, he was fired from the Neue Freie Presse.

He went on to become a prominent and controversial novelist — Greta Garbo’s first international film was based on one of Bettauer’s novels — until he was assassinated by a Nazi dentist in March 1925. The assassin was declared insane, and released after 18 months in a psychiatric clinic.

Hugo Bettauer

“Spirit of innovation”

I’m fascinated by the way ideologies get hardwired into language, so that the ideology becomes unchallengeable and yet invisible. And sometimes you only notice it when you observe how words have changed their meanings or their valence over time.

Thus I was brought up short by this remark of George Washington (quoted in Michael Klarman’s wonderful new account of the origins of the US Constitution The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution) expressing his concerns that the first Congress, considering the clamour for a Bill of Rights and other immediate amendments would produce such

amendments as might be really proper and generally satisfactory without producing or at least fostering such a spirit of innovation as will overturn the whole system.

I’ve never seen the word innovation used to express something to be avoided, rather than something to be promoted and praised. (The one exception is in time-series analysis, where the “innovation” has a purely neutral technical sense.) There is a whole world-view wrapped up in our modern veneration of “innovation”.

Prescience and the opposite

I’ve just been reading a book of collected essays by Tony Judt, the wonderful historian of the 20th century who died in 2010. The book was from 2006, and some of his observations seem remarkably prescient, while others… have not aged well.

On the plus side is this, from the introduction:

It was in large measure thanks to the precautionary services and safety nets incorporated into their postwar systems of governance that the citizens of the advanced countries lost the gnawing sentiment of insecurity and fear which had dominated political life between 1914 and 1945.

Until now. For there are reasons to believe that this may be about to change. Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.

Few democratic governments can resist the temptation to turn this sentiment of fear to political advantage. Some have already done so. In which case we should not be surprised to see the revival of pressure groups, political parties, and political programs based upon fear: fear of foreigners; fear of change; fear of open frontiers and open communications; fear of the free exchange of unwelcome opinions.

Those inclined to see Donald Trump as a sad symptom of decline for what was once a party of Republican giants, would be disappointed (in the extremely unlikely event that they would read this book) by his portrayal of Nixon’s foreign policy — in the context of reviewing William Bundy’s book on the subject — as a first-time-tragedy adumbration of Trumpism:

His criticism concerns deception, and the peculiar combination of duplicity and vagueness that marked foreign policy in the Nixon era. “The essential to good diplomacy,” Harold Nicolson once suggested, “is precision. The main enemy of good diplomacy is imprecision.” And, paradoxical as it may seem, the main source of imprecision in this era was the obsession with personal diplomacy…

[Nixon] was so absorbed in the recollection and anticipation of slights and injustices, real and imagined, that much of his time as president was taken up with “screwing” his foes, domestic and foreign alike: Even when he had a defensible plan to implement, such as his “new economic policy” of 1971…, he just couldn’t help seeing in it the additional benefit of “sticking it to the Japanese”. He warned even his allies against offering unwanted (critical) counsel… He surrounded himself with yes-men and hardly ever exposed his person or his policies to open debate among experts or more than one adviser at a time.

Purely neutral in the prescience-stakes I was amused to be reminded that the phrase “Make America Great Again” appeared as the subtitle of Peter Beinart’s 2007 Bushian-psycho-militarism-but-from-the-left screed.

On the other side of the ledger,

Liberalism in the United States today is the politics that dare not speak its name… Today a spreading me-first consensus has replaced vigorous public debate… And like their political counterparts, the critical intelligentsia once so prominent in American cultural life has fallen silent.

This seems like an accurate portrayal of the universal rejection of “liberalism” in the US in the GW Bush years, and Judt can’t really be faulted for not having predicted that nearly a decade after his death out-and-proud liberals would be battling self-proclaimed socialists for control of the Democratic party, while free-market ideologues would be trying to rebrand themselves as “classical liberals”.

And then, on its own special plane of awful there is his defence of Arthur Koestler against the accusation of his biographer that he was “a serial rapist”:

If Koestler were alive, he would surely sue for libel, and he would surely win. Even on Cesarani’s own evidence there is only one unambiguously attested charge of rape.

I think I have a pretty good memory of cultural change over my lifetime, but still I was amazed to see a smart and humane person — someone who entirely identified with the Left even — suggesting that a man who had violently raped a woman (with other accusations unproven or more ambiguous, or at least nonviolent) had been unfairly maligned by calling him a “serial rapist”. His confidence that the man would have prevailed at an imaginary libel trial is just extraordinary, and even more extraordinary is to consider that under the conditions that prevailed at the time, so recently, he might have been right.

So long, Sokal

I wonder how Alan Sokal feels about becoming the new Piltdown, the metonym for a a certain kind of hoax?

So now there’s another attack on trendy subfields of social science, being called “Sokal squared” for some reason. I guess it’s appropriate to the ambiguity of the situation. if you thought the Sokal Hoax was already big, squaring it would make it bigger; on the other hand, if you thought it was petty, this new version is just pettier. And if, like me, you thought it was just one of those things, the squared version is more or less the same.

The new version is unlike the original Sokal Hoax in one important respect: Sokal was mocking social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff physicists say. The reboot mocks social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff other social scientists say. A group of three scholars has produced a whole slew of intentionally absurd papers, in fields that they tendentiously call “grievance studies”, and managed to get them past peer review at some reputable journals. The hoaxers wink with facially ridiculous theses, like the account of canine rape culture in dog parks.

But if we’re not going to shut down bold thought, we have to allow for research whose aims and conclusions seem strange. (Whether paradoxical theses are unduly promoted for their ability to grab attention is a related but separate matter. For example, one of the few academic economics talks I ever attended was by a behavioural economist explaining the “marriage market” in terms of women’s trading off the steady income they receive from a husband against the potential income from prostitution that they would forego. And my first exposure to mathematical finance was a lecture on how a person with insider information could structure a series of profitable trades that would be undetectable by regulators.) If the surprising claim is being brought by a fellow scholar acting in good faith, trying to advance the discussion in the field, then you try to engage with the argument generously. You need to strike a balance, particularly when technical correctness isn’t a well-defined standard in your field. Trolling with fake papers poisons this cooperative process of evaluation. Continue reading “So long, Sokal”

Written wordplay

Isaac Asimov, in a side-remark in his Treasury of Humor, mentioned a conversation in which a participant expressed outrage at a politician blathering about “American goals”. “His specialty is jails, not goals,” and then seeming to expect some laughter. It was only on reflection that Asimov realised that the speaker, who was British, had spelled it gaols in his mind.

I was reminded of this by this Guardian headline:

Labour has shifted focus from bingo to quinoa, say swing voters

The words bingo and quinoa look vaguely similar on the page, but they’re not pronounced anything alike. Unlike Asimov’s example, this wordplay is in writing, so spelling is important. My feeling is that wordplay has to be fundamentally sound-based, so this just doesn’t work for me. Maybe the Guardian editors believe in visual wordplay.

Alternatively, maybe they don’t know how quinoa is pronounced.

Odysseus and the NRA

From Emily Wilson’s lovely new translation of The Odyssey:

I put [the weapons] safe away from all that smoke.
Some spirit also warned me if you drink
too much and argue, you could hurt each other,
dishonoring your banquet and your courtship.
Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight.

This sounds like a classic gun-control position, refuting the classic “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” gun-rights line. Weapons themselves provoke violence. Gun control saves lives.

But! In context, the meaning is exactly the opposite. This is one of Odysseus’s deceits. He is preparing this line as an argument for removing the suitors’ weapons, to leave them defenceless when he chooses to attack them. The lesson: don’t listen to the sword-grabbers who claim that disarming will make you safer.

Odysseus for NRA president!

Dostoevsky on the Dunning-Kruger effect

From The Idiot:

There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own—to be, in fact, “just like everyone else.”
Of such people there are countless numbers in this world—far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can—that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.
To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving… Others have but to read an idea of somebody else’s, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The “impudence of ignorance,” if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases;—unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.
Our friend, Gania, belonged to the other class—to the “much cleverer” persons, though he was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the “clever commonplace” person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair.

(A description of the D-K effect here.)

True friends and False friends

This week’s Spiegel has a headline quote from Emmanuel Macron:

Ich bin nicht arrogant… Ich sage und tue was ich mag.

I don’t know whether everyone does this, but whenever I read a line translated from a language that I know well, I subliminally translate it back. Often you find, particularly in news reports, that lazy translators have used false — or at least dubious -cognates. For example, I vaguely remember a quote from an English source referring to a leader being irritated by protests getting translated into irritiert, which actually means confused.

In this case, my own subliminal process stumbled over the cognate tue, meaning “I do” in German — so Macron said “I say and do what I want”, but “I kill” in French. Which immediately mapped onto another language giving me a momentary flash of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the things he loves

It would have been pretty interesting if Macron had actually quoted Wilde to say “Je tue ce que j’aime”.

As for the other part, it’s probably a pretty good bet that if you find yourself insisting “I’m not arrogant”, you’re probably pretty arrogant. Speaking of which, I recently came across these videos of Donald Trump actually (and apparently unironically) acting out the classic punchline of the guy who boasts about his exceptional humility:

In the second one he manages to innovate beyond the obvious comedy of boasting about humility, by going one step farther and ridiculing the interviewer for being too stupid to be able to appreciate his humility.

Rejecting Voltaire?

Emmanuel Macron’s election speech was reassuring. Intriguing that he took his long walk to the podium with the European anthem playing, rather than the French. One thing that disappointed me: He rejected fear, lies, division, fatalism, all good things to reject, but I just can’t get behind

Nous ne céderons rien à… l’ironie…

I don’t see how he can claim to be defending the values of the Enlightenment.

The word he used at the beginning interested me:

Je sais qu’il ne s’agit pas là d’un blanc-seing.

I’ve never heard the word blanc-seing before. It’s funny that we use a french phrase, carte blanche, for the same thing.