Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘literature’

What is literature for?

There is an amazing interview in the newest Spiegel with the 99-year-old Traute Lafrenz, the only survivor of the Munich student anti-Nazi resistance group, the White Rose. She has been living in the US for 70 years, and has apparently never spoken publicly about her war experience. (The journalist simply showed up unannounced. When he phoned from the airport she informed him “Frau Lafrenz is no longer living. She died very suddenly.”)

I was struck by one exchange, about a teacher she had, in Hamburg, who was arrested by the Gestapo and threatened with execution for “premeditated corruption of youth”. She was commenting on her disappointment with a fellow student — who happened to be the later Chancellor Helmut Schmidt! — who declined to speak up for her.

Laf­renz: Ab 1935 ver­an­stal­te­te sie heim­li­che Tref­fen mit uns. Wäh­rend das Land im Gleich­schritt mar­schier­te, ent­ar­te­te Kunst und ver­bo­te­ne Bü­cher ver­brann­te, lud sie uns ein, ge­nau die­se Bü­cher mit ihr zu le­sen. Tuchol­s­ky, Kaf­ka, Erich Käst­ner. Das war, wie ge­gen das Böse ge­impft zu wer­den.

SPIEGEL: Kul­tu­rel­le Bil­dung hat Sie im­mun ge­macht?

Laf­renz: Auch Adolf Hit­ler war Bü­cher­narr. In sei­ner Pri­vat­bi­blio­thek stan­den 16 000 Wer­ke, er konn­te Shake­speare oder Nietz­sche ver­eh­ren und trotz­dem Mil­lio­nen Men­schen ver­ga­sen las­sen… Viel­leicht braucht man Em­pa­thie, da­mit Schön­heit et­was in ei­nem aus­löst. Je mehr Bü­cher ich las, des­to mehr mach­ten sie Front in mir.

Lafrenz: From 1935 she held secret meetings with us. While the land was marching in lockstep, burnt forbidden books and deviant art, she invited us to read precisely these books. Tucholsky, Kafka, Erich Kästner. That was like being vaccinated against the evil.

SPIEGEL: Cultural education made you immune?

Lafrenz: Even Adolf Hitler loved books. There were 16000 works in his personal library. He could worship Shakespeare or Nietzsche, and still have millions of people gassed… Maybe you need empathy, before beauty can have an effect on you. The more books I read, the more they created a conflict for me.

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!

Don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?

I’ve had a number of conversations with Europeans that made me realise that many Europeans actually believe in the British self-image, that they are by nature calm and pragmatic. I may be wrong, but I think Americans — in common with Canadians and Australians — tend to have a more clear-eyed view of Britain, a nation so much in the grip of their ideologies — even as they flit from one to the other — that they can’t even recognise them as ideologies. Since the Thatcher reign the obsession has been market liberalism.

If there’s one thing the British excel at, it’s marketing, and they have marketed their own image brilliantly. It’s only with Brexit that the scales are falling from the eyes of the Europeans. One foreign academic who I was talking with today on the picket line said, in her first years in the UK she was constantly stressed because British colleagues would never keep to any agreement. If you try to appeal to the fact that something was agreed, even that it’s written down in a contract, you’ll be told how petty and unreasonable you are being. “Reasonable” is a favourite power play, because only the in-group knows which of the vast number of rules a “reasonable” person has to follow.

Anyway, I just happened to be reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, written at a time when the British were marketing a different self-image, and came upon this passage:

“Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear.”

It reminds me obliquely of when I came upon the odd passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he remarks with pride how easily Englishmen pick up other languages, contrasting it with the incapacity of foreigners to learn English:

This also is proper to vs Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in vtterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Gréeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that sauoreth of English trulie.

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.)

Naked Brexit

Arlene Foster is sad! So sad 😦 Why is Arlene sad?

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has accused the Irish government of hijacking the Brexit negotiations to promote a united Ireland… She said: “The Irish government are actually using the negotiations in Europe to put forward their views on what they believe the island of Ireland should look like in the future.”

The sacred Brexit negotiations are being misused to promote a nationalist cause! Outrageous!

This is Burroughs’s naked lunch, the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”, is something Britain — a declining power treated with far more deference than its actual power warrants — should have tried to put off as long as possible. Now it’s Britain that’s on the end of the fork. And it’s their own fork. (more…)

The people let down the NHS

I saw this headline in the Daily Mail yesterday:

Pity the poor NHS. Doing its job perfectly, but being cruelly let down by the shiftless population. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, perhaps it would be better were the NHS to carry out a root-and-branch reform of the British public. Eliminate waste. Get rid of the dead wood.

Destroy the monsters!

I think often of a lecture I heard many years ago by the late Richard Marius at Harvard, on Shakespeare’s Richard II. He made the point, novel to me, that the inviolability of kingly rule demanded that critics of the monarch direct their wrath ostensibly at the king’s advisers: The king is not unfit to rule, he is only being misled or corrupted. Compare:

Several politicians told the Guardian that Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who act as the prime minister’s joint chiefs of staff in Downing Street, must take responsibility for the poor result, which saw the Tories lose their majority. The pair were at the centre of recriminations flying back and forth between MPs on WhatsApp groups and even resulted in one cabinet minister branding the pair as “monsters who propped her up and sunk our party”.

Yes, those monsters! May should be furious at how badly they performed in the election campaign. I suspect that they are also the people — wasn’t one of them Home Secretary or something? — who were responsible for the “tolerance of extremism” and failed anti-terror policies of the past seven years that May rightly excoriated when she laid out her detailed new “Things need to change” policy.

It’s a good thing that she’s now formed an alliance with a party famous for lacking all tolerance (for terrorism).

Petard erection

A NY Times report on Trump’s first 100 days quotes senior Obama aide Ronald Klain

If Trump finds himself hoisted on the 100-day test, it is a petard that he erected for himself.

Does one erect a petard? I think not. Really, is it too much to ask, that a flack decorating his political bromides with Shakespeareana actually know what the words mean?

Das ist bei uns nicht möglich

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

Montaigne on random controlled experiments

In the past I’ve read a few individual individual essays by Montaigne, but lately I’ve been really enjoying reading them systematically — partly listening to the English-language audiobook, partly reading the lovely annotated French edition by Jean Céard et al. It’s fascinating to see the blend of inaccessibly foreign worldview with ideas that seem at times astoundingly modern. For example, in the essay titled “On the resemblence of children to their fathers” (which seems to have almost nothing at all to say about the resemblence of children to their fathers), in the course of disparaging contemporary medicine Montaigne suddenly anticipates the need for random controlled trials — while at the same time despairing of such a daunting intellectual project. After acknowledging a few minor cases in which physicians seem to have learned something from experience he continues

Mais en la plus part des autres experiences, à quoy ils disent avoir esté conduis par la fortune, et n’avoir eu autre guide que le hazard, je trouve le progrez de cette information incroyable. J’imagine l’homme, regardant au tour de luy le nombre infiny des choses, plantes, animaux, metaulx. Je ne sçay par où luy faire commencer son essay : et quand sa premiere fantasie se jettera sur la corne d’un elan, à quoy il faut prester une creance bien molle et aisée : il se trouve encore autant empesché en sa seconde operation. Il luy est proposé tant de maladies, et tant de circonstances, qu’avant qu’il soit venu à la certitude de ce poinct, où doit joindre la perfection de son experience, le sens humain y perd son Latin : et avant qu’il ait trouvé parmy cette infinité de choses, que c’est cette corne : parmy cette infinité de maladies, l’epilepsie : tant de complexions, au melancholique : tant de saisons, en hyver : tant de nations, au François : tant d’aages, en la vieillesse : tant de mutations celestes, en la conjonction de Venus et de Saturne : tant de parties du corps au doigt. A tout cela n’estant guidé ny d’argument, ny de conjecture, ny d’exemple, ny d’inspiration divine, ains du seul mouvement de la fortune, il faudroit que ce fust par une fortune, parfaictement artificielle, reglée et methodique Et puis, quand la guerison fut faicte, comment se peut il asseurer, que ce ne fust, que le mal estoit arrivé à sa periode ; ou un effect du hazard ? ou l’operation de quelque autre chose, qu’il eust ou mangé, ou beu, ou touché ce jour là ? ou le merite des prieres de sa mere-grand ? Davantage, quand cette preuve auroit esté parfaicte, combien de fois fut elle reiterée ? et cette longue cordée de fortunes et de rencontres, r’enfilée, pour en conclure une regle.

But in most other experiences, where they claim to have been led by accidents, having no other guide than chance, I find the progress of this information hard to believe. I imagine a man looking about him at the infinite number of things, plants, animals, metals. I don’t where he would start. And when his first whim took him to an elk horn, which might be easy to believe in, he would find his second step blocked: There are so many diseases, so many individual circumstances, that before he could arrive at any certainty on this point, he will have arrived at the end of human sense: before he could find, among this infinity of things, that it is this horn; among the infinity of diseases, epilepsy; among the individual conditions, the melancholic temperament; among all the ages, the elderly; among all the astrological conditions, the conjunction of Venus and Saturn; among all the parts of the body, the finger. And all of this, being led by no argument, by no prior examples, by no divine inspiration, but purely by chance, it must be achieved by the most completely artificial, methodical and regulated turn of chance. And suppose the cure has been accomplished, how could you tell whether the disease might not have simply run its course, or the improvement occurred purely by chance? Or if it might not have been the effect of some other factor, something he ate, or drank, or touched on that day? Or the merit of his grandmother’s prayers? And if you could provide complete proof in one case, how many times would you need to repeat the trial, and this long series of random encounters, before you could conclusively determine the rule.

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