Christopher Buckley and Dipsomania: Apparently Hard To Let It Go

The writers of great literature often supply us mere mortals with memorable lines, especially if they serve as the openers for their works. Thus, for instance, Tolstoy‘s Taxonomy of the Family, which kicks off Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This serves as raw material for endless variations which then embellish our own–lazy–conversation and writing:

All successful sports teams are alike; every unsuccessful sports team fails in its own way

Or,

All good movies are alike; every bad movie is terrible in its own way.

And so on. You catch my drift.

Or to consider another example, consider Jane Austen‘s unforgettable opening for Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Armed with this line, one can, with some facility, provide a suitable response to Christopher Buckley‘s homage to dipsography, the art of drinking, and, as it turns out, his drinking buddies, the slogan for which reads, ‘Alcohol makes other people less tedious. And food less bland.’ (‘Booze as Muse‘, The New York Times, 30 June 2013):

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a boring drunk’s boring drunk friends will write chapter and verse–boring ones–about their drinking exploits and their love of the bottle.

In this tedious jaunt through the flagon-and-Boy’s Club-infested shelves of his life, Buckley describes ‘three-martini lunch’ dreams involving Tom Wolfe, writing assignments involving Bloody Mary recipes, works in the obligatory Kingsley Amis reference (among several others to–mostly male, I think–writers), before leading up to what surely was the central motivation for writing this piece, the opportunity to let us readers know that he, too, like many before him, had tried to, but failed to keep pace with, that writer’s writer, that drinker’s drinker, Christopher Hitchens:

I mentioned Christopher Hitchens a moment ago. It seems fitting that he should provide our nightcap. He and I once had a weekday lunch that began at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. I spent the next three weeks begging to be euthanized; he went home and wrote a dissertation on Orwell. Christopher himself was a muse of booze, though dipsography and fancy cocktails were not his thing. Christopher was a straightforward whiskey and martini man. In his memoir, “Hitch-22,” he made a solid case for liquidity.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he writes, “and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”

Unfortunately, very little could have made less tedious the increasingly unhinged rantings of Hitchens as his expiry date loomed, and on the evidence available to us, the same goes for this considerably-less-than-novel paean to alcohol of Buckley’s. Men musing about their alcoholic recipes and proclivities is boring enough, but my tolerance runs out especially quickly when confronted with boastful tales of consumption marathons in the company of equally uninteresting hacks.

The next time Buckley feels the ‘entheos’ to write about his alcoholic adventures and adventurers, he should respond to it in the only way possible: drink himself to sleep, and spare us the details.

Walter Kaiser on Online Instability vs. Printed Stability

In reviewing the fifteen-volume cataloging of the massive Robert Lehman Collection (‘An Astonishing Record of a Vast Collection‘, New York Review of Books, 7 March 2013), Walter Kaiser writes:

Like the collection itself, its impressive catalog may well be the last of its kind–and there aren’t, as I’ve said, very many of its kind to begin with. In this era of revolutionary technological innovation, online catalogs are bound more and more to replace such endeavors, and one can only wonder about the future of the printed catalog. The great advantage of an online catalog is that attributions, conservation work, exhibitions and bibliography can all be updated in perpetuity.

However, perpetual aggiornamento brings with it losses as well. At least for someone of my generation, the handsome volumes of the Lehman Collection have an enduring stability and nobility that any online catalog, essentially mutable and transient, lacks. What is more, these volumes tell you important things about the time in which they were written, the point of view of the author, and the way in which art was perceived at a certain moment in history; an online catalog may or may not give you that information and authorial voices, which are one of the aspects of the Lehman catalog that make it so special, may well be lost.

These are a perceptive set of remarks. They capture a curious feature of the online: that while it promises greater endurance–as evinced in the slogan ‘digitize it if you want it to persist!’ and in the very real fear that our online identities are well-nigh impossible to erase–its content is also more susceptible to constant alteration and emendation, and thus to easily provide a snapshot, a moment frozen in time. (Software version control systems are, if nothing else, an attempt to maintain a running image of the code changes over time for purposes of quality control and debugging as are the tracking features of word processors.) As I noted in my post here on Robert Viscusi’s epic poem Ellis Island, this feature of the digital is what makes possible that poem’s endlessly generative aspects; it would be rather intractable to attempt to replicate that same feature in a traditional, paper version of the poem. (Or if not intractable, then perhaps exceedingly clumsy.)

There is, in the journalistic context, another not-benign aspect of this digital transience: the less-than-entirely scrupulous journalist or blogger may edit his articles online–without making note of his changes–to cover up mistakes and misstatements. These can be recovered from cached versions of the page in question but these might not always be available. In a personally amusing instance of this, a blogger who had once found my analysis perspicuous enough to cite in a post of his own, but found a later article infuriating and said so in a subsequent post, went back to his first post and edited it to scrub me from it. So determined was he to ensure that no trace of his archaic appreciation ever existed.

Sometimes the instability of the digital can function not like a feature, but like a bug.

On School Libraries – I

The first school library I can remember using was during my sixth grade. I had transferred schools after the fifth grade, and perhaps because of the trauma of losing my favorite school teacher, some memories of those first five school years seem to have been obliterated. Including the ones about libraries.

My new school’s library had the standard furnishings: some open shelves, some books in shelves with glass doors (its collections were all hardcover), long reading tables, vertical stands for reading newspapers, and most prominently, the librarian, a stern-faced older gentleman who sat at a centrally located desk and peered out suspiciously from behind a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles at the grimy schoolboys and schoolgirls that filed in for their library class period. (He was the first to remind me that ‘my reputation’ preceded me; my brother studied in the same school and was well-known to him; thus did my determination to find an alternate locale to flourish in receive its first impetus.)

The library’s holdings were modest, obviously, compared to the other two libraries my parents were members of, and to which I, as a consequence, also enjoyed access: the British Council Library and the US Information Service Library. Still, it had its charms: I had my own library card, not a dependent’s; its collections of Indian magazines were unique; and of course, the library period, once a week, came as blessed relief from the onerous demands of the remaining seven class periods of the day. When it was over, and the bell rang, signalling our return back to our classrooms, I would reluctantly drag myself away from whichever reference book I had taken down from the shelves to peruse.

The library code of hushed silence was rather rigorously enforced, and more importantly, observed in those days; my abiding memory of the library period are the sounds of rustling pages, creaking fans and the occasional scrape of the chair pushed back by a reader going for seconds.

Among my various borrowings in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades–the three years that I spent in that school–I can only remember one: a compendium of photographs selected from one of India’s leading news magazines of the time: The Illustrated Weekly. I do not why this title was not in the reference section but I wasn’t about to turn down this particular gift horse. I took the tome home and spent hours poring over its black and white photographs. Among them, two shocking images from the 1971 war with Pakistan still persist in my mind’s eye: a young boy with his guts torn out by shrapnel and the reprisal bayoneting of razakars in a Dacca public square by Bengali militia (after the Pakistani Army surrender). 

I was a conscientious library patron; I never returned books late. (That nasty habit only reared its head once I began graduate school.) There was little chance I would, of course; I was a reasonably fast reader and I was eager to get on with the next borrowing, which would only be possible once I had returned the previous one.

I was a day student, and not a boarder, so my contact with the library was limited to that single period during the week. My relationship with libraries would change dramatically when I transferred in the ninth grade to a boarding school, a very different one in many respects.

On that experience, more anon.

On Being a ‘Professional Philosopher’

A recent post in The Philosopher’s Magazine blog set me thinking about some of the strictures on being a professional or academic philosopher, which today amount to pretty much the same thing. (I realize this might leave out bioethicists, some of whom do not have the typical duties or work profiles of philosophers that are faculty members, but in many important regards, especially writing, they are bound in the manner I describe below.)

To be a professional philosopher today, in the political economy of the modern university, requires that you have a particular theoretical orientation: whether you conceive of yourself in a particular way or not, it is quite likely that in the Anglo-American or European world, you will be classified as either an ‘analytical’ or a ‘continental’ philosopher. Matters might be different in say, Latin America or Asia, but even there, many departments of philosophy aspire to such a classification. (When I visited Taiwan in 2009, many of its recent faculty hires were graduates of Anglo-American or European universities and as such, had imported their own classifications into their department. My guess is that their influence on future hiring would further entrench whatever ‘orientation’ the department had taken on.) Obviously, those who work in say, Eastern philosophy–still considered ‘exoteric’, ‘less rigorous’ or straightforwardly ‘marginal’ in most Anglo-American departments–do not fall into these categories, but that merely serves to confirm their outlier nature. If your work does not fall straightforwardly into these categories–because of style or content–there is a decent to middling chance that you will not be considered a philosopher, but rather, a member of some other discipline. Maybe you are a political scientist, an environmentalist, a literary theorist, or a scientist who is fond of speculation, but you aren’t a philosopher.

To write as a professional philosopher means that you must write in particular venues, in particular fora. The chunks of writing are quite well-defined: five-thousand to fifteen thousand word articles in journals published by corporate publishing houses. Or books: seventy-five thousand to one hundred twenty-five thousand word monographs published by half-a-dozen publishers, some corporate and some university. (There are another twenty or so publishing houses that also have decent catalogs but in terms of professional influence on peers, if you aren’t publishing in that first group, you might as well be invisible. This second group is mainly useful for CVs, for promotion or tenure boards.) Many philosophers blog, and perhaps these venues will someday be established as accepted venues for writing and publication but that day is not here yet. And even then, the style–see below–remains the same.

The content of these publications is quite rigorously controlled: professional philosophers write on a well-defined set of topics. These are typically those of interest to well-established luminaries–mostly male–who have already written on them recently, thus setting off a flurry of responses, counter-responses and embellishments. A smart PhD student should check the back issues of journals for the past two years to figure out what topic to write his dissertation on. Every once in a while, in a field, like say, metaphysics or philosophy of  language, a topic rises to the surface, enjoys its day in the sun, and then sinks. Some fifteen or so years ago, deflationary theories of truth were the rage; now, you’d be an idiot if you wrote on them. (Or perhaps the vogue is back; I haven’t checked in a while.)  Needless to say, the broader subject areas of these topics are also clearly articulated: in the Anglo-American analytical world, these are metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind as the big three (or perhaps, if you count philosophy of language, the big four). Then, closely following on their heels: philosophy of science, political philosophy, logic and ethics (including applied ethics). Aesthetics trails just a bit. If your topic does not fall neatly into these categories, you stand a good chance of being reckoned as not doing philosophy.

Lastly, style. To write like a professional philosopher, you must employ certain locutions, phrases, and sentence constructs profusely; your journal articles should also follow a well-established structural template. (For instance, identify the target of your critique, state and articulate the target argument, and then present your ‘solution’ and its advantages. I write ‘solution’ because it is ‘understood’ that ‘problems’ are being ‘solved’ when philosophers write.) By reading recent journal articles the current style can be figured out quite accurately and then followed for one’s own journal or monograph submissions. Deviance from this style is very likely to prompt the judgment that–you guessed it–you aren’t a philosopher at all.

None of what I’ve said above is new or too startling. It is not new because many before me–professional philosophers, I think–have said as much, and it is not startling because members of the discipline understand these constraints as defining it in the modern university. If the discipline–that word, so redolent of permission and boundaries!–was not demarcated thus, it would–the implicit fear goes–simply ebb away, its edges worn down, transformed into an inchoate mess, absorbed into other disciplines and departments or perhaps utterly marginalized and finally made invisible.

I will address teaching as a professional philosopher–including the business of departmental course offerings–in another post in the near future.

Dostoyevsky’s Gambler on the French and the Russians

Dostoyevsky‘s The Gambler, contains, like some of his other works, sweeping portraits of character types; in this quasi-autobiographical work, among others, those of a particular nationality.

First, then, the gambler, Alexey Ivanovitch, on the French:

De Grieux was like all Frenchmen; that is, gay and polite when necessary and profitable to be so, and insufferably tedious when the necessity to be gay and polite was over. A Frenchman is not often naturally polite. He is always polite, as it were, to order, a little out of the ordinary, then his freakishness is most stupid and unnatural, and is made up of long accepted and long-vulgarized traditions. The natural Frenchman is composed of the most plebeian, petty, ordinary practical sense–in fact, he is one of the most wearisome creatures in the world. In my opinion, only the most innocent and experienced–especially Russian young ladies–are fascinated by Frenchmen. To every decent person, the conventionalism of the established traditions of drawing-room politeness, ease and gaiety are at once evident and intolerable.

Then, by way of contrast, on the French and the Russians :

You simply take for granted that I don’t know how to behave with dignity, that is, perhaps I am a man of moral dignity, but that I don’t know how to behave with dignity….Yes, all Russians are like that; and do you know why? Because Russians are too richly endowed and many-sided to be able readily to evolve a code of manners. It is a question of good form. For the most part we Russians are so richly endowed that we need genius to evolve our code of manners. And genius is most often absent, for, indeed, it is a rarity at all times. It’s only among the French, and perhaps some other Europeans, that the code of manners is so well defined that one may have an air of the utmost dignity and yet be a man of no moral dignity whatsoever.

And finally, in a revealing passage, given Dostoyevsky’s own troubles with gambling, on the Russians again:

Hearing what I had lost, the Frenchman observed bitingly, even spitefully, that one ought to have more sense. He added–I don’t know why–that though a great many Russians gamble, Russians were not, in his opinion, well qualified even for gambling.

“In my mind,” said I, “roulette is simply made for Russians.”

And when at my challenge the Frenchman laughed contemptuously, I observed that I was, of course, right, for to speak of the Russians as gamblers was abusing them far more than praising them, and so I might be believed.

“On what do you base your opinion?” asked the Frenchman.

“On the fact that the faculty of amassing capital has, with the progress of history taken a place–and almost the foremost place–among the virtues and the merits of the civilized man of the West. The Russian is not only incapable of amassing capital, but disputes it in a reckless and unseemly way. Nevertheless we Russians need money, too,” I added, “and consequently, we are very glad and very eager to make use of such means as roulette, for instance, in which one can grow rich all at once, in two hours, without work. That’s very fascinating to us, and since we play badly, recklessly, without taking trouble, we usually lose!”

Is it just me or does it seem like novelists these days don’t offer–as often at least–such sweeping generalizations of nationalities and ethnic types?

Note: Excerpts from 1996 Dover edition of The Gambler; translation by Constance Garnett.

Procreating in a World With an Uncertain Future

A few days ago, Aaron Bady asked on Twitter:

Do people think about climate change when they think about whether or not to have kids? I m genuinely curious.

As might have been expected, this sparked an interesting set of responses. I thought of tweeting a reply, but then decided that I’d rather think about it and write a more considered response.

The short answer to Bady’s question is: Yes. I did think about it. The longer answer is, well, longer.

Our decision to have a child was a complicated one, as many such decisions are. The factors that went into our decision calculus were varied, as most people’s are: the economics of child rearing, the impact on our professional careers, the paucity of childcare options–especially as neither of us have family living in New York City that could serve as babysitters–and so on. These are almost identical to the issues that press most heavily on would-be parents in our socioeconomic class and circumstances. We are, of course, also a very privileged couple in many ways: for instance, we both have jobs that afford us some flexibility in working hours and offered us reasonably good deals for parental leave. (We both work in unionized workplaces, you see. Don’t hate us; just unionize your own.)

The factors I have mentioned above were supplemented by, in my case, a host of genuine worries that made me quite reluctant to have a child. It seemed to me that I would be bringing a child into a world that besides facing an uncertain future–precisely because of the climate change that Bady asked about–would be one infected by sexism, violence, rampant economic inequality, diminishing financial opportunity, religious fundamentalism, a crass consumer culture, and most prominently, a growing political-corporate nexus worldwide that aims to aggregate its power and entrench itself firmly in a position to control the world’s intellectual, cultural and material resources to the detriment of the ‘rest.’ This world didn’t seem like a great one to grow up in; it didn’t seem like a great world to function as a parent.

I don’t intend–in this highly public space–to ruminate about the excruciating, highly personal details of the discussions that finally prompted my wife and I to press on regardless and have a child. Suffice to say our decision  was just a little irrational, precisely because it felt compelling even in the face of so many perfectly rational arguments made against it. Parents who will read this line of mine might nod their heads in agreement; others’ mileage will vary.

Still, the natural, if man-made, disasters of climate change were, in the Great Procreation Decision balance sheet of ‘For’ and ‘Against’, less significant than the disasters–listed above–that are visible everyday. Perhaps that’s because the effects of climate change, manifested quite regularly and uncomfortably, are acute reminders that it is a man-made catastrophe, one requiring for its redressal, a kind of political change that would also address the weekday worries we entertained.

Now that I am the father of a girl, I worry far more about this world’s vicious sexism, its continued violent oppression of women, its day-in, day-out, active subjugation of women, the limited opportunities it offers them.

To sum up: we did think about climate change, even as other political, economic, and cultural factors seemed more pressing; we did go ahead and have a child anyway. I hope she finds our decision agreeable.

‘Racial Weakening’ and the Decline of Ancient Rome

Muslim migration to Europe in recent times, and the resultant presence of large Muslim immigrant communities in several European countries, has often prompted much alarmist commentary ranging from accusations of Fifth Column style betrayal to suggestions that Muslims are incapable of assimilating in any shape, manner or form into ‘European culture.’ The decline of Europe downwards and into ‘Eurabia‘ thus appears foretold by the presence of that lurking menace, the Muslim.

Theories of this kind, which find contamination by an external agent as cause for the internal weakness and degradation of a civilization, ‘race’ or nation, and often prompt horrendously misguided responses, are not uncommon or even new in European history. Indeed, they have a distinguished pedigree, as they have been offered as an explanation for the end of the ancient world: the decline of Rome, and the commencement of the Middle Ages.

In The Origins of the Middle Ages: Pirenne’s Challenge to Gibbon, Bryce Lyon makes critical note of these theories.  For instance  M. P. Nilsson argued in Imperial Rome that:

[T]he quality of Roman civilization depended upon racial character and that alien races and barbarian tribes, to be assimilated, must be interpenetrated by the conquered. Unfortunately, because the Romans did not succeed in interpenetrating those who conquered them, their birthrate declined while that of the non-Romans increased, Roman blood was diluted by inter-marriage, and the mingling of races produced not Romanization but a mongrelization that spread across the empire, resulting in the loss of stable spiritual and moral standards and the death of a proud civilization. [quote from Lyon]

As Lyon points out:

The rebuttal to this interpretation of the Romans as a kind of master race is that they simply appropriated the rich cultures that the conquered Greeks and peoples of the Middle East had already created. Who can say that Roman ability to build roads and a national system of law is superior to Greek literary, artistic and philosophical talent or to eastern religious perception? Why also did the eastern Roman empire, the Byzantine, that was essentially Greek and eastern, survive a thousand years after the Roman empire in the West was no longer a political entity?

Lyon also points to Tenney Frank who concluded that:

Rome and the Latin West were inundated by Greek and oriental slaves who, as they became emancipated and achieved citizenship, changed the character of the Latin West. He has estimated that, ultimately, ninety percent of Rome’s inhabitants were of foreign origin and that this ‘orientalizing of Rome’s populace has a more important bearing than is usually accorded it upon the larger question of why the spirit and acts of imperial Rome are totally different from those of the republic,’ a situation that inevitably created the triumph of oriental despotism or absolutism, the popularity of oriental mystery religions, the decline in the quality of Latin literature, and the disappearance of those Romans with a flair for government who had built the empire. Rome’s disintegration is thus explained by ‘the fact that the people who had built Rome had given way to a different race.’

Lyon’s refutation is short:

[E]pigraphical research has..placed in doubt Frank’s statistics, suggesting that his sample is invalid, and that he has confused eastern with western slaves.

The long history of the failure of such theories, and their dubious foundations in misapplications of Darwinism, have certainly proved no barrier to their continued expounding by demagogues and racists of all stripes.

Much tedious rebuttal lies ahead.