Monday, January 27, 2020

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. The Air You Breathe is definitely one of those books I had no idea existed, and likely would never have decided to read. We had a great discussion about this book, I must say, and it was universally enjoyed by our club.

The Air You Breathe is historical(ish) fiction. I give it the qualifying “ish,” because it doesn’t particularly closely follow history, in the usual sense. Since Sir Walter Scott essentially created the genre (although you could argue that Shakespeare - or Herodotus - should get credit for that), there have been certain rules about how to do it. If an historical person is the subject (or comes into the book), that person must at least not contradict the know facts about him or her. The historical events should be reasonably accurate, at least as to the major events. It is okay to focus on fictional characters rather than the historical figures; Scott often did this. As I said, these are the usual rules, whether you agree with them or not, so when they are bent, it stands out. 

So, this book is very loosely based on two historical figures, Carmen Miranda and Chavela Vargas. And when I say “loosely,” I do mean “loosely.” The book is essentially “about” a Brazilian singer (Graca, aka “Sofia Salvador”) with more than a passing resemblance to Carmen Miranda. It is told from the perspective of her former servant and then best friend Dores, who is sort of based on Chavela Vargas. Obviously, there is a huge bit of license taken here. The two of them were, in real life, not connected at all, coming from different countries (Brazil and Mexico, respectively), and different styles of music. Oh, and they were 10 years apart in age too. There are plenty of other differences. The real Carmen Miranda didn’t die of suicide at age 26 - although she did die in her 40s of a heart attack with alcohol and drugs (the Hollywood studios were thoroughly complicit in this death as with others) as factors. And the real Miranda wasn’t an heiress, exactly, either. 

So, what I would instead say is that the part of the book that details Sofia Salvador’s professional trajectory hews pretty closely to the real story of Carmen Miranda. And the character of Dores is definitely patterned after that of Chavela Vargas, although the story has rather little in common with Vargas’ biography. 

Having explained all that, the point of the book isn’t really to tell history, but to tell an engrossing tale of friendship, music, love, desire, and grief. And at that, the book does a good job. I found it quite the enjoyable read - in the vein of a light summer book rather than literary fiction. For the most part, the writing is good, although not exactly profound, and the story keeps one turning the pages. There is also a cast of interesting characters, although I did kind of wish a few of them had been fleshed out a little better. But, this is the consequence of the narrator - Dores - being obsessed with Graca and focusing on her throughout. 

It isn’t quite accurate to describe what Graca and Dores have as a friendship, I think. Graca is not really capable of true reciprocity or love - for anyone. She has her obsession with being a star, and she turns out to be really good at it. This does in fact reflect the real story of Carmen Miranda. She too went from obscurity to being a well-respected singer in Brazil. Then, she went to Hollywood during World War II, when the US suddenly needed South American allies, and started casting Latinos as exotic and desirable characters, rather than villains with mustaches and accents. The typecasting, discrimination, and exhausting hours that the book describes are accurate as well. 

As a musician, though, the scenes involving music were the ones that I enjoyed the most. The “roda” - the circular samba jam sessions - was rather like some of the jazz, blues, bluegrass, or rock oriented jams I have had the pleasure of participating in (although not on the regular scale described in the book.) The guitarist, Vinicius, who holds the band together musically and artistically, is well written, and very much of a recognizable type to any working musician. He is the guy that everyone knows is the key to the whole thing - if he (or she in many cases) leaves, the center cannot hold. And he (or she) is so devoted to the music that money or commercial considerations always take a back seat to the groove. 

Likewise, any working musician can recognize Graca. She is a diva. A really talented and mesmerizing diva. But a diva nonetheless. She doesn’t want to make time to practice, but can just jump in at the last moment and nail it anyway. (Something only possible on a solo part - don’t try that if you are a rhythm section player.) Everyone in the band knows that she (or he - there are plenty of male divas too) sells the records, lands the good gigs, and draws the crowds. But they (we - I’m experienced here) also know that it is all that hard work behind the scenes that makes the diva’s act possible. Without the practice and the dedicated background artistry, a band sounds like crap, no matter how good the lead singer. As long as a band has only one diva, this works, and everyone succeeds. More than one diva, and, well, the history of music is littered with the wreckage which results. 

I would also say that the relationship between Graca and Dores is fascinating. There is the initial dynamic, between servant and (young) master, that reflects the uneasy tension between children who want to be friends and the knowledge (which dates nearly from birth) of an uncrossable social gulf. Graca will always be loved by her parents and have a place to live as long as they do. But Dores, an orphan, could be abandoned to fend for herself or starve with impunity. True equality in a relationship is pretty doomed under those circumstances. Then when the two of them run away from the convent school to fend for themselves in Rio, things have to shift. After all, Dores is now the competent one in most ways, and tires of being expected to continually feed Graca’s ego. 

Complicating this is Dores’ sexuality. The real life Chavela Vargas was a lesbian, while Dores is written as a lesbian-leaning bisexual, so it isn’t a perfect match. But it is clear that Dores is madly in love with Graca - obsessed with her more than with anyone else. No other relationship she has with men or women really comes close to the level of passion that she has for Graca. 

Graca, on the other hand, is pretty strongly heterosexual, although her inability to form real bonds means that her sexual relationships with men are about her rather than deep bonding with another human. So this is the great unrequited love of Dores’ life, the one she obsesses over until she dies in her nineties, the one she nearly drinks herself to death over, and the one that haunts the story she tells. The author makes the relationship thoroughly believable, despite the outsized personality of Graca. 

The other characters are fascinating as well. There is Nena, the servant woman who adopts Dores after her mother dies. Nena can seem harsh to Dores, but at the core of this is the reality that Dores has to learn to survive in a world in which she is disposable. (If you read the slave narratives, this was rather common - and still persists today in the cultures of vulnerable minorities around the world. Survival often depends on a superhuman ability to submerge one’s dignity and natural human responses to abuse - and so parents and others feel they have to essentially abuse their children to train them to hide their hurt and anger.) Nena, though, ends up risking her own future to see Dores get a chance to thrive. 

Senhora Pimentel, Graca’s mother, is complicated. Married off at a young age to a dissipated and selfish man who wanted her money and an heir, she does her best to protect her daughter and show kindness to Dores. Her early death in childbirth is partly responsible for Graca’s self destructive behavior. 

I also enjoyed “Madame Lucifer,” the mobster who becomes Graca and Dores’ protector and promoter. He is the first to recognize two key things: Graca is a world-class vocalist and entertainer, and Dores has the ambition and ruthlessness to survive in a hostile world. He sees himself in Dores, so to speak. 

There are no truly simple characters in the book. Everyone is flawed in some way, and selfish in many. Even Senhor Pimentel, who is pretty dang loathsome - I mean, he rapes the servant girls as soon as they hit puberty, drinks constantly, and shows up late in the game to sponge off of Sofia Salvador - but he also acts very much in line with societal expectations. He marries for money, and tries to enable Graca to do the same. The fact that she would rather become a singer (a disreputable profession for an aristocrat!) isn’t his fault. And in his own mind, he is rescuing Graca from the clutches of the unscrupulous Dores by horning his way in as manager. He isn’t entirely wrong in his assessment of Dores, honestly. She doesn’t play by the rules - that’s a luxury for those for who wrote the rules to be in their favor. But she arguably does love Graca more than Senhor Pimentel does - loves her as a person, not as female chattel to be properly settled in life. Ultimately, Senhor Pimentel makes a fatal mistake in thinking that he can use his position as the man who legally controls Graca until she marries (and another man takes over ownership) and simply outlast Dores. But Dores refuses to be outlasted - and sees no reason to play fair either. 

But I am probably revealing too much of the book at this point. The story is engrossing, the characters are memorable and compelling, and the book makes a great vacation read. I wasn’t sure I would like it when our club chose it, but it grew on me pretty quickly. 


Our book club hosts played a loop of Carmen Miranda scenes (and played her music) during the time before our discussion. While I was familiar with Carmen Miranda, I hadn’t really seen much of anything she was in. (My wife is a different story - her knowledge of old movies and music is astonishing.) I was struck by just how electric she was. There is no doubt that she was the most interesting thing in every scene, and it was hard to look away from her face, despite the ludicrously over-the-top staging. She was one of those divas who was truly a superstar. 

Just for fun, here is what is probably her most famous - or infamous - scene, “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.” The book contains essentially a description of the filming, and the other diva in the film: director Busby Berkeley. I am inclined to agree with the New York Times review of the film, in which the reviewer said, “Mr. Berkeley has some sly notions under his busby. One or two of his dance spectacles seem to stem straight from Freud.” Yeah, there is some...ahem...disturbing imagery in this scene. And also a potential source of George Lucas’ idea of the Sarlaac. You won’t be able to unsee it once you see it. 

And, in contrast, here is some more authentic Samba:


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have loved Yiyun Li ever since I first read Gold Boy, Emerald Girl back in 2013. I followed that up with the eviseceratingly tragic yet beautiful The Vagrants about a year ago. It is hard to believe that English isn’t her first language - she shares Conrad’s ability to make amazing art in a language she didn’t grow up speaking. As this book reveals, she intentionally chose to write only in English, and never in her native Chinese. 

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life was published in 2017, five years after Yiyun had a serious mental breakdown, attempted suicide twice, and landed in the hospital for her own protection. The book itself is a series of essays wherein she explores her own psyche, her breakdown, her past, and her relationship to literature and writing. At least, that is the best I can do to explain the book, because it isn’t really like anything I have read before. And it is really, really good. Her writing is so luminous, and simultaneously oblique and devastatingly revealing, it draws you in. 

Yiyun has said in the past that she is “not an autobiographical writer.” That is, her stories are not about her or people she knew. But, as she admits in this book, that was a lie. I don’t think it was a lie in the sense of being actually untrue. She doesn’t write stories with her as a character. But if I am reading her essay on this issue correctly, her story is told through the psyches of her characters, not their situations, plots, or choices. And that feels right, after reading this book. She is a very private person, and her characters tend to keep their emotions mostly out of sight. But, just as her stories reveal the emotions of her characters in such flayed reality that you want to look away, her essays in this book are as introspective and self-revealing as anything I have ever read. I mean, you can see the viscera and throbbing arteries of her emotional experiences. It is hard to take at times, which is why I read the book slowly. The reality is just too real to be looked in the face. 

In an interesting coincidence, this is the second book I have read in as many months that had autobiographical explorations of depression and suicide. The other was a fictional work, Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater. While the two are very different - psychologically different too - the share that uncomfortable look into mental illness. As an example, Emezi’s character has multiple personalities, tends to be loud and act out, and seems like a being on fire more often than not. It is a violent vision of suicide, of self destruction, and inner torment. Yiyun’s on the other hand, is that of a person who is quiet, pleasant, polite, thoughtful, ridiculously erudite - but who is dying internally, filled with a rather quiet self-loathing and distaste for living. It’s really spooky the way she writes it. 

As I noted in the former review, I am not particularly prone to either depression or suicidal thoughts. I’ve been in a few dark places, but they tend to be connected to circumstances, not major depression. And also, I joke that I am more homicidal than suicidal. (Don’t worry, I’m not homicidal. I’m not a violent person, but more of a fuzzball with a smart mouth. I just tend to get angry rather than depressed.) So these books were really more about seeing into the mind of someone else, and recognizing some of the darkness, if not its manifestations. It is an indication of how good the writing is that these books felt so real and familiar - and how deeply they messed with my emotions while reading. 

Yiyun takes an interesting approach to things in the book. For the most part, she doesn’t talk directly about what happened or what she did. Rather, she talks about other writers. Some of these are ones I might have guessed: Turgenev, Chekhov, Marianne Moore, Stefan Zweig. But some were a bit surprising, such as Thomas Hardy. Wait, what?? And some others which I haven’t read, and were not that familiar with, such as Elizabeth Bowen, John McGahern, and William Trevor. (The last of which she formed a friendship with, and who gets most of a chapter to himself.) Yiyun traces her love affair with literature from her childhood through the present, and you can see exactly how she ended up going from a promising career in science to taking the leap into writing. 

Rather than try further to explain the book, let me mention a few quotes that I wrote down as particularly insightful. 

After years of living in America, I still feel a momentary elation whenever I see advertisements for weight-loss programs, teeth-whitening strips, hair-loss treatments, or plastic surgery with the contrasting effects shown under before and after. The certainty in that pronouncement--for each unfortunate or inconvenient situation, there is a solution to make it no longer be--both attracts and perplexes me. Life can be reset, it seems to say; time can be separated. But that logic appears to me as unlikely as traveling to another place to become a different person. Altered sceneries are at best distractions, or else new settings for old habits. What one carries from one point to another, geographically or temporally, is one’s self. Even the most inconsistent person is consistently himself. 

Cue a bit of Clint Black? What makes this a particularly great insight is her understanding of the American mythos, and the way we built an economy on the lie that we can become fundamentally different people if we consume the right way.  

There is another moment when Yiyun recalls a visit to Ireland during a heat wave, and notes that, like music, weather can be a crucial part of a memory - and trigger it. 

Children, unlike their elders, do not converse about the weather. It is a fact to them, connected to the present only. Is it because weather can represent too much that it is often reduced to small talk? Weather gives experiences a place in time: a mood in which to inset a memory, a variable or a constant when comparing now and then. 

It’s bits like that which separate competent writers from the best, and I can only dream of being able to write - and observe - like that. Or how about this recalling of what reading meant to her during her deeply unpleasant time in the Chinese Army? 

I did not see myself in Scarlett O’Hara; or Anna Karenina, or Tess Durbeyfield or Jane Erye; nor did I look for myself in Jean-Christophe or Nick Adams or Paul Morel or the old man fighting the sea. To read oneself into another person’s tale is the opposite of how and why I read. To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence. 

That last sentence is amazing. And I think that, while I am not so inwardly turned as Yiyun, I get that feeling. Perhaps it is how introverts tend to read? 

Running through the book is Yiyun’s own history, which certainly contributed to her breakdown. Her mother was, to put it mildly, abusive. And probably mentally ill. Yiyun was the favorite child, so her sister probably had it worse, but the things Yiyun tells of her childhood make it clear that her mother abused everyone in the family, including her father. Some of the things said and done are just horrifying, such as her mother telling her that she “deserved the ugliest death” because she didn’t love her mother enough, and on the day she got married, telling her that she had left her with only the hope for Li’s divorce. I mean, it’s bad, and yet Yiyun remains haunted and drawn to her mother. In this context, and the fact that her parents’ memories - even though she doesn’t share them - still affect her in unexpected ways, she quotes Ralph Ellison: “Things were not supposed to be this way.” 

One of the chapters is largely about Turgenev, who had a similarly abusive and possessive mother. How about this fact? After disowning Turgenev’s brother for marrying, and then acting indifferent when the children of that marriage died in the same year, she told Turgenev, “I alone conceived you. You are an egoist of egoist. I know your character better than you know yourself...I prophesy that you will not be loved by your wife.” 

Ouch. But Yiyun’s mother said something similar to her: “I don’t even need to lay my eyes on you to know everything about you because you came from my body.” Apparently, she said this to the young Li regularly. She then asks, “How do we live with what we have, unhaunted?” And the answer is clearly that we cannot. We remain haunted. 

I must admit, a good bit of this resonated with me. My mother was not even in the same class as these controlling and abusive mothers, but she was damaged by her own childhood, and never really was able to transition from the mother of children to the mother of adults in a healthy manner. I did hear all too often during my teens that she feared I would marry a sweet girl and run roughshod over her. In the actual event, I married a strong, confident, and assertive woman, and I am pretty sure my mom was disappointed, which is why she eventually antagonized my wife until she was unwilling to waste time on my parents at all. So yes, I am very much haunted, and have to live with what I have. Things were not supposed to be this way. 
Returning again near the end of the book to her mother, Yiyun gives yet another facet of the issue. 

Writing is the only part of my life I have taken beyond my mother’s storytelling. I have avoided writing in an autobiographical voice because I cannot bear that it could be overwritten by my mother’s omniscience. I can easily see all other parts of my life in her narrative: my marriage, my children, my past. Just as she demands to come into my narrative, I demand to be left out of hers. There is no way to change that; not a happy ending, not even an ending is possible.

Perhaps the most difficult and haunting part of the book is Yiyun’s description of her never-ending quest to be invisible, to not matter, to prove that nothing matters. And it is clear that she wants to be visible, to be loved, to matter, and to prove that everything matters. There is a line in which she perhaps allows herself a glimpse of why. 

Nothing matters. The belief was fallible, but I knew from experience that absence is more reliable than presence, and a lie sustains life with absoluteness that truth fails to offer. 

There are layers to unpack in that one. Most obvious is that Yiyun finds that reality leads her toward suicide, and that some form of self-delusion appears necessary to prevent that. This is some crazy philosophical stuff, to be sure, and it isn’t just her. (As the book makes clear.) But I think too that she hits on a truth about...truth. Truth is complicated and messy and human and ambiguous. A lie is absolute. Lies tell you that everything can be summed up in one rule, one statement, one “truth.” And this is why cults thrive and hate multiplies and people embrace obvious untruths. It is far easier - and simpler because it is absolute - to say “my problems are the fault of those people,” than to look at the complexities of life. Far easier to exterminate the Jews, or deport immigrants, than to address the layers of kludge and rules and laws and systems which have choked the average person. Finding true solutions is always hard work - it is the work of reformation, not revolution - while “solutions” are easy to find. They have an absoluteness that truth cannot offer. On a related note, this observation is interesting, particularly in the context of whether wishing to escape suffering is selfish or not. (Many consider suicide selfish, but are other methods of escape likewise selfish?) 

It is easier to take something away than to give. Giving requires understanding and imagination; taking away requires only resolution and action.

This too ties back: giving - like truth - is complicated, and requires understanding the one to whom one gives, and imagination in finding a mutual good. That’s the complexity of truth. And the lie is easier - just take things away from other people. Send them back. Lock them up. Tell them to shut up. 

In the same chapter is an unexpected insight, which caught me off guard. I mentioned that I was not expecting Thomas Hardy to make an appearance. I was doubly not expecting to find a quote from Phillip Larkin about Jude the Obscure and the ensuing discussion to change my perspective on that book. Yiyun points out something that bothered me about the book: 

Sue is so incoherent that she raises in my mind the question of believability. Not that I don’t believe her as a character--a complaint one sometimes hears as a criticism of a less successful character--but I don’t believe a character can achieve inexplicability as she has. “Really too irritating not to have been a real person” was Larkin’s conclusion, and some biographers have suggested Hardy’s first wife as a model. 

This is true. Characters in stories are not allowed the luxury of being inexplicable. They have to do things for reasons, and Sue seems to have no reasons behind her behavior. She makes no sense. But this is, perhaps, the way a lot of people in real life are, if you think about it. Not everyone, clearly, but enough. The whole passage on Jude and Sue in particular, is really insightful. Even though I still dislike what Hardy did with her, I can understand it better. 

The chapter on language was also fascinating. Yiyun essentially “abandoned” (her words) three key things: her mother, her motherland, and her mother tongue. She compares herself to Nabokov, who likewise had to write in a non-native language. He did it for different reasons, though, and with reluctance. Yiyun did it intentionally, for rather complex reasons (although the fact that her mother cannot read English is one of them.) I can’t even begin to duplicate the extended exploration of this, but I think this line is a good start:

I feel a tinge of guild when I imagine Nabokov’s woe. Like all intimacies, the intimacy between one and one’s mother tongue can demand more than one is willing to give, or what one is capable of giving. If I allow myself to be honest, I would borrow from Nabokov for a stronger and stranger statement. My private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody’s concern, is that I disowned my native language.

There are eight chapters, but also an “afterword” which seems in many ways to be its own chapter. I guess that is a matter of perspective. In any case, it has an amazing paragraph that I think makes a good way to finish this post. 

One cannot be an adept writer of one’s life; nor can one be a discerning reader of that tale. Not equipped with a novelist’s tools to create plots or maneuver pacing, to speak omnisciently or abandon an inconvenient point of view, to adjust time’s linearity and splice the less connected moments, the most interesting people among us, I often suspect, are flatter than the flattest character in a novel. Not only do we not have any alternatives, we discredit them. It has to be so--this indisputable conviction is often at the foundation of our decisions, including the most impulsive or the most catastrophic. It is easier to be certain of one thing than to be uncertain of a hundred; easier for there to be one is than many might have beens.

Yiyun Li has written one short story collection and two novels that I have yet to read. I was reminded again with this book why I love her writing so much. I definitely have her other works on my list, and I truly hope that she stays with us for a long time. 


This interview in The Guardian in relation to this book is pretty fascinating. 


A tragic footnote: soon after this book was published, Yiyun's teenaged son committed suicide. The amount of pain in this family of generations is lacerating. I wish I had a cure to offer, but life and humans are too complicated for simple answers.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Range by David Epstein

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was yet another book that was on the new books shelf that I randomly decided to pick up and read. 

The basic premise of Range is that in an era of increased specialization, generalists are both necessary and more likely to succeed. There is more to it than that, of course, which is why it is a book and not a short essay. I think the basic premise is sound, however, even if Epstein occasionally oversells things a bit. 

The core idea is that our world has focused on specialization over the last number of decades. And not just specialization, but narrow focus on that specialization from increasingly younger ages. In some cases, that works well. Certain skills do require careful repetition - Epstein specifically mentions musical instruments and sports - but much of life isn’t that way. In Epstein’s view, repetition and specialization work well in what he calls “kind” environments. That is, environments in which the same problems recur, and novel circumstances are rare. In a kind environment, the moving parts (so to speak) are visible and predictable. So, for example, playing a sport is in that sense predictable. There are no sudden changes in the rules, and consistency tends to win out. (Even there, Epstein notes some caveats, such as the fact that early specialization isn’t really a benefit - plenty of great players have picked a sport relatively late in life.) 

But most of life - and most problems to be solved - don’t exist in “kind” environments, but in “wicked” environments. The variables are not even known, let alone understood. Novel problems arise all the time, and creative thinking is necessary. The old solutions and tools are not guaranteed to work. In fact, the narrow focus in these cases will prove to be a hindrance, leading people to misdiagnose and mistreat problems. 

Epstein makes the case that the cure for this is range. Creative solutions require bringing in information and ideas from outside the specialty. A wider range of knowledge and experience greatly aids problem solving.

I have found this to be true in my own life. While I have a few areas of specialization (both as a classical violinist and in my legal practice), I have a wide range of interests, and a working knowledge of a variety of topics. I have found that these other areas of experience have helped me think outside the usual approaches and come up with synthesized ideas. For example, my knowledge of algebra assisted me in creating - and crucially, explaining - a timeshare calculation for a child support case. A knowledge of different forms of compensation helped me make an argument regarding a severance package and its relationship to spousal support. (Although my case never got appealed, a similar case did, and the appellate court came to the same conclusion as I did, which is always a nice thing to see.) I have used ideas from science and music and literature in my cases. And that’s before you get to things like trying to see people’s legal problems holistically, drawing from psychology and other areas of knowledge to try to get a more lasting result. Likewise, in music, while Classical is my main jam, my knowledge and experience in Pop, Rock, Blues, Bluegrass, and other genres has enriched my playing and brought new ideas to my art. 

One of the fascinating passages in the book involves the changing skills that children develop. Certain things seem to be pretty static: there is a limit to the total number of facts humans can store at a single time. But over the last century, abstract thinking has increased exponentially. For all the hand wringing over what kids these days supposedly don’t know, the ability to solve problems without having a previously learned method for doing so has gone up. And this is what our modern life demands: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. As the author puts it, “Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones.” 

An interesting side note here is one which Epstein spends a bit of time on: this is a learned behavior. There is a measurable difference between generations, but also between people exposed to modern work with its self-directed problem solving and those without that exposure. This can be seen in different societies as well as in socioeconomic strata in industrialized nations. 

But one particularly stood out due to my own experience. In certain traditional or orthodox (aka Fundamentalist) religious communities, there was a large gender gap. Where women are not permitted to engage in modern work with its intellectual demands, they do not develop the same abstract thinking skills. This pretty much proves Mary Wollstonecraft’s point: women are fully capable of equality, but absent education and experience, will not not develop fully. Thus, belief in the inferiority of women becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Just like with African Americans under slavery...which is why slaves were forbidden an education and why we still have gross inequality in educational opportunity…) 

In another fascinating section, Epstein looks at higher education, and the drawbacks of specialization. He describes a study of critical thinking skills given to top students at highly ranked state universities. The results were unexpected. There was essentially zero correlation between grade point average and thinking skills. There was, however, a correlation with major: economics majors did the best (probably because it is a broad field), while neuroscience majors did particularly poorly. As the researcher said, “the traits that earn good grades at [the university] do not include critical thinking of any broad significance.” Ouch. This is one reason that I have tried to include thinking skills wherever possible in my kids’ education. (My parents did a good job with this when teaching me, I must say.) We always look at the why, not just the how. 

Epstein also discusses a college course at the University of Washington, entitled “Calling Bullshit.” The course, which focuses on understanding how things fit together in an interdisciplinary manner, as well as being able to evaluate information, has been wildly popular. Honestly, much of our country needs a course like this, because bullshit seems increasingly popular. Call it “alternative facts,” or ideological blindness, it is distressing to see people accept obviously untrue things. In particular, my parent’s generation of white conservatives seems particularly vulnerable to bullshit - and not particularly open to being shown to be wrong. 

In addressing this problem, the course (which Epstein took - in the name of research of course) utilizes what it calls “Fermi Problems.” These are named after Fermi, and his ability to do “back of the napkin” calculations. In essence, these problems require solving unknows (such as “how many piano tuners are in New York City?”) by looking at the broader picture. How many residents? How many are likely to have pianos? How often are they tuned? How long does that take? By thinking through these broader factors, it becomes far easier to see through obvious bullshit. Good lord, this sort of thing is so needed. 

On a more positive note, things have gotten and are getting better. This is yet another case where perception and reality do not match up. (The classic, of course, is that the world is a more violent place than it used to be. It isn’t.) In the case of education, critical thinking skills are on the rise. Despite poll after poll showing people believe that students are getting a worse education - this belief has increased over the last 40 years - student ability has risen steadily over the same period. What has changed is that the goalposts have moved. The expectations are far higher than they used to be. Just one example of this is in the high school biology course that my teens take. I enjoyed all my science courses back in the day, and remember what I learned pretty well. But I was astonished at the level of detail in molecular and cellular biology my kids had to learn. It was far above what I was expected to know - and a lot of that is that our knowledge in those areas has exploded in the last 30 years. So much of what they need to know didn’t actually exist when I learned it. 

Likewise, the expectation for critical thinking skills has increased substantially. It is easy for those of us who excelled in school and in critical thinking to look at the broad population and think that skills have gone down. But if we think back to all of our peers, not just the brainy ones, a different picture emerges. Likewise, a comparison of generations is interesting. While I obviously know a number of Boomers who are razor sharp and think critically, there are a frustratingly high percentage who just...don’t. I am more likely to be able to discuss things at that level with my kids’ generation than my parents’. They are taught to think more critically. They are able to look at things more intersectionally and across the boundaries. Whereas a lot of the older generation tend to fall back on cliches from the 1970s or 1980s once a discussion goes beyond their personal experience. (If you want to understand “Okay, Boomer,” this is where it comes from.) And it isn’t hard to see that my kids’ generation already has a highly developed bullshit detector. 

Another passage which intrigued me was the one on analogies. I have an interesting history with this. As a kid, I was quite good at the portions of IQ tests which used analogies, but I wasn’t particularly creative with them. (Hence, good grades, but not a great out-of-the-box thinker. I’ve gotten better, I think, with practice.) Epstein discusses Kepler, who was a big fan of analogies himself. But I heard this in another context. Bill Gothard was also a fan of analogies as a learning tool, although, like other con artists, I don’t think he really understood critical thinking. The thing is, the analogies used in his “curriculum” (which was utter bullshit, to be honest) were really elementary. I mean, fine for using with your first graders, but way too easy for high school level critical thinking skills. I get the feeling that he ran across the idea somewhere, and thought it sounded good. It is kind of like his magical path to success in everything, which he created from a verse from Joshua taken out of context. (In essence: meditate on the Bible, and you magically will be a success in everything you do. Which is...bullshit. You still need skills and knowledge to succeed. I wouldn’t let an untrained surgeon operate on me, regardless of his knowledge of a sacred book.) Like any con artist, Gothard sold a “get-rich-quick” scheme, and glommed on to anything he could steal that had a gloss of plausibility, but rarely actually thought through the implementation part. One might say he lacked the critical thinking skills to see beyond a cliche to the deeper issues. Also, see above for why my parents’ generation fell for his lies so easily. 

There is a really ironic twist here, though. The Fundamentalist homeschooling movement and Gothard’s cult did actually teach some critical thinking, if perhaps inadvertently. The goal was to create an army of political culture warriors who would “take America back” from the modern reformers. We were to be the ones to return America to the “godly” 1800s. (Coincidentally - or not - when women and minorities “knew their place.”) But something went wrong: by teaching critical thinking skills, they enabled many of us to develop bullshit detectors, and eventually reject the propaganda and think for ourselves. It was thus the kids who went to Gothard’s law school and other programs who finally brought to light his sexual predation and abuse - and exposed his toxic theology. I believe it will also be those of us raised in the Culture Wars™ who will eventually stop the nasty white nationalist political movement that it empowered. A new era comes with new challenges, and 19th Century thinking isn’t going to solve them. 

Epstein’s chapter on discovering who we are was interesting as well. He advises trying a wide variety of things before settling on a career. He cites research that shows that not only do we change substantially over time, we predict that we will not change in the future. That’s kind of weird, but I think it is true. If we don’t change over time, that’s actually a bad sign. But most of us do. I know I sure have. Life experience tends to do that to you, and many of your dearly held dogmas do not stand up to reality. If anything, I think that the damage done by the Culture Wars™ has come from its insistence on preventing change. It seeks to preserve the past, in the face of overwhelming new information in every area. I see this too in my parents’ generation. Those who are open to learning, to new information, have adapted well to a new century. Those who have focused on retaining the same dogmas have done poorly, and have fallen for con artists like Gothard and Trump, and have lost their ability to think critically or empathetically. They became reduced to Fox News slogans and political ideas decades old. It is a sad thing to see, but Epstein gives insight into the phenomenon. In every area of life, those who continue to learn and grow and change do better than those who ossify. 

There are other chapters worth mentioning briefly. I thought Epstein did a great job of showing how and why outsiders can often solve problems better than insiders. The related issue of expertise (particularly narrow expertise) getting in the way of seeing the bigger picture is also useful. The chapter on Nintendo and the use of “outdated” technology for new purposes was also fun for multiple reasons. 

I found the story of Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon to be fascinating, if a bit frustrating. Ehrlich was the guy who wrote predicting that human populations would outgrow food supplies. Simon countered with a belief in the ability of technology and innovation to solve supply issues. The thing is, both were partially right. Ehrlich was comically bad in his predictions, but very much right about the effects of environmental degradation. Simon was correct that human ingenuity could solve problems, but he completely missed that many of those came about as a result of environmental regulations pushed by Ehrlich and people like him. Rather than recognize that they had incomplete knowledge, however, they dug in at their respective positions and became enemies. They doubled down on their theories rather than modify them to fit an evolving reality. I think Epstein captured this phenomenon really well - and we see the results in our present world.

There is a particular kind of thinker, one who becomes more entrenched in their single big idea about how the world works even in the face of contrary facts, whose predictions become worse, not better, as they amass information for their mental representation of the world. They are on television and in the news every day, making worse and worse predictions while claiming victory…

Although neither side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on this, things do go in cycles. The American Right, as it has become older and whiter, has experienced a troubling ossification of its ideas. Every problem, no matter what it is, seems to be crammed into their “single big idea” of how the world works. In this case, it is a few ideas - ones which have been proven wrong repeatedly over the last few decades. The first is “always cut taxes.” What might have been true when the highest marginal rate was 90% isn’t true when it is far lower. The second is “it’s all the fault of immigrants.” Which, again, doesn’t match with reality. The final one seems to be “all regulation is bad,” which is an ideology which can’t even minimally pass the bullshit test. The saddest thing to me about this is that I think there are viable ideas on the conservative end of the spectrum that really could be transformative in our time. Things like the elimination of restrictive zoning in areas with housing shortages. Or, addressing the explosion of administrative and management positions throughout government and education. Or investment in infrastructure. But these require thinking beyond the “single big ideas” that are clung to along with the mythology of the past. Instead, what I see is a shrinking party making worse and worse predictions yet claiming victory.

There is one final bit that I really found interesting. In the chapter on dropping familiar tools when circumstances change, Epstein talks about NASA and corporate culture. In essence, there are two basic philosophies. One emphasises process and cohesion, while the other individualism and dissent. The thing is, neither by itself is the most successful. As Epstein puts it, “The trick was expanding the organization’s range by identifying the dominant culture and then diversifying it by pushing in the opposite direction.” I have found this to be true as well. There are values to both approaches. Even in teaching my kids, there is a place for following procedures (Algebra comes to mind), and others where creativity works better. Critical thinking requires drawing from both approaches to solve problems. 

I think one can extrapolate that idea beyond corporate culture and apply it to other scenarios. One of the reasons I believe that Evangelicalism is committing suicide is that it has carefully purged dissent and diversity from its ranks. With a lack of other perspectives, it keeps trying to double down on the same ineffective and reality-defying ideas. The same has occurred - as I noted - in the GOP. As it becomes older and whiter, it has fewer and fewer new ideas - and lacks the ability to address new problems. While some find the ongoing internecine fighting in the Democratic party to be troubling, it also is the sign that there is a renewal of ideas happening. The establishment is being challenged by younger, hungry newcomers who have different perspectives. It isn’t just the old white good ol’ boys anymore. How this plays out in the short term remains to be seen, but in the long term, new ideas, new perspectives, a diversity of experiences: these will be where progress comes from. 

The book does have some weaknesses. First, because it is oriented to the casual reader, it doesn’t get into the details of the studies it cites. There are extensive notes, for those wishing to dig deeper. There are also parts where the book seems a bit overly simplistic, which, again, relates to what it is. One thing I did appreciate is that Epstein acknowledges that specialists are important, and cites the roles of specialists in many of his stories. His point is more that the world needs more than just specialists, and that even specialists would be well served by branching out a bit rather than developing tunnel vision. 

As a generalist myself, I have to agree with Epstein’s advice. Never stop learning. Try new things. Read a range of books on a variety of topics and from a variety of perspectives. Make friends outside your tribe. Look at life as wonderfully complicated and full of shades of grey that defy any “single big idea” to explain everything. Assume you will be wrong and fail sometimes. And never stop learning. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

Source of book: I own this.

I had intended to go see a modern adaptation of this play down in Los Angeles this summer, but was unable to find an open date. Truth be told, it was either this one, or The Mikado, and Gilbert and Sullivan tends to win that contest. I can’t say I regret the choice either, as we had a lot of fun.

For some reason, Ibsen seems to have gone out of style, and hasn’t been performed much around here. I think there was a production of A Doll’s House at The Empty Space over a decade ago (when small kids made it harder to go see stuff), but that’s literally all I remember seeing. I read Ghosts a few years back, and found that one fascinating. 

Anyway, it was high time I read some more Ibsen, and I went with this one. 

An Enemy of the People is a someone unusual play, and one that I felt pivoted from perceptive and timely to...I’m not sure what Ibsen was intending. In some ways, it is like the ending of Le Misanthrope, where Alceste stalks off and renounces humanity altogether, leaving everyone else wondering what just happened. But at least Moliere’s characters act in accordance with their personalities, while Dr. Stockman seems to just go off the deep end in ways that make no sense to me. Let me see if I can explain. 

Dr. Stockman is the brother of the mayor of the town, which has recently opened baths, expected to be a huge tourist attraction. Dr. Stockman serves as the medical officer for the baths, in addition to his private practice. As part of his duties, Dr. Stockman sends the waters of the baths out to a lab for analysis. However, when the results come back, they are quite unpleasant. Because of where the town decided to source the water, the baths are badly contaminated with dangerous bacteria. The choices are all likely to be unpopular. Either they shut down the baths, re-route the source pipes to a different supply at significant cost, or shut down the tanneries which are the source of the bacteria. Oh, and the biggest polluter happens to be Dr. Stockman’s father in law. Ouch. 

For Dr. Stockman, his duty is obvious: he must tell the truth about the baths, consequences be damned. He enlists the editor of the local liberal paper, and has his article about to go to press when everything falls apart. The wealthy owners of the baths basically have the Mayor in their pocket, and enough influence with various people and groups to control the narrative. The paper is coerced into dropping Dr. Stockman’s expose and instead printing a propaganda piece from the Mayor claiming the baths are perfectly safe. 

That’s pretty much the summary of the first three acts. Noble truth-teller is stymied by entrenched economic powers when he tries to warn of impending environmental disaster. That actually sounds a lot like our own time - 140 years later. Also prescient is the title itself, which has now been used by our own little fascist wannabe to describe any portions of the free press which criticize him. This part of the play makes sense. It is in the fourth act that things start to go really weird. 

Dr. Stockman, refusing to give up, finds a venue, and announces that he will be giving a talk, inviting the town to shop up. They do, but so does the Mayor, and manages to take control of the proceedings to an extent. But then, when Dr. Stockman does manage to get the floor, he doesn’t give his prepared remarks about the contamination of the baths. Instead, he launches into a diatribe against ordinary people in general and working class people specifically, spouting stuff about eugenics and how democracy is terrible because people are stupid, and goes quite off the rails. 

Predictably, this turns everyone against him, and he finds himself pretty much run out of town on a rail. The play ends with him defiantly proclaiming himself the only true man among them. 

It is this twist which makes for some serious whiplash. Who is the Doctor? Is he a noble whistleblower, concerned about shining a light on corruption and trying in good faith to prevent a bigger disaster? Or is he a misanthropic crank who just wants to shake his cane at the world? Or maybe an arrogant elitist who thinks only the “worthy” should have political power? Did his misfortune cause him to go insane? I have no idea, because Ibsen seems to get confused as to the point of the play. 

I read up on it a bit, and discovered that Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in response to public outcry against his previous play, Ghosts. To what extent he considered himself to be Dr. Stockman is not clear, and his comments on the play later in his life imply that he himself wasn’t sure whether his characters are intended to be farcical or serious. Take it as you like it, I guess. 

I do wonder if a stronger second half of the play would have made it both more powerful and more popular. As it is, in its unmodified form, it would be difficult to work with. This was already the case by 1950, when Arthur Miller reworked it, he took out the eugenics and made Dr. Stockman into a champion of the lower classes. There was only so much that could be done, however, and a comparison of the speeches show that, of necessity, a certain disdain for “primitive” people remains. 

That said, the framework of the play, along with the first three acts, tackle some important issues which have not gone away - they have increased in fact. The first is the key question of environmental protection versus economic interests. Ibsen will be instantly understood by the smaller towns dependent on, say, coal mining. The economic consequences of environmental protection tend to fall hardest on those least able to bear them, while the wealthy ride off with their fortunes into the sunset. In this case, the bath owners could certainly afford to spend the necessary funds to fix the contamination. But that would impair profits. So they tell the Mayor that if the town wants the fix, the town pays for it. And that would fall on ordinary taxpayers. It really does seem amazingly relevant. 

Another major theme is the question of ethics for professionals and experts. The Mayor insists that Dr. Stockman’s duty is to his employer: the baths. He is not a free man to tell the truth as he sees it, but must instead look out for the best interests of the people who pay him. This is the rub for experts in general. Is the higher duty to tell the truth and act in the public interest? Or to advocate for your boss? The lines are not always clear. (We lawyers have our own set of dilemmas along that line, as we are by definition advocates for our clients, but cannot knowingly mislead.) 

Finally, there is the set of challenges facing whistleblowers. Dr. Stockman faces losing everything. His home, his livelihood, his daughter’s livelihood, his reputation, his friends, and even his family. The reason we have whistleblower protection laws is for this very reason. Warning of malfeasance when that malfeasance is highly profitable is a dangerous act, and usually carry devastating consequences. Which is exactly why we protect whistleblowers. 

It is interesting the way Ibsen handles the family dynamics. Mrs. Stockman is mostly supportive, but urges him to be prudent. (Come to think of it, she is clearly the most sensible person in the play.) The eldest daughter is practically a radical in her support for her dad - she may go even further than he does. The boys are a bit young to really figure in things, except as a reason given why Dr. Stockman should be quiet and hush up the contamination. 

I have an old Modern Library hardback containing eleven Ibsen plays in English translation. For some reason, the book does not have (or no longer has?) the publishing date or the name of the translator(s). It seems to be a decent translation, although I don’t have the knowledge necessary to compare it to the original. There are some memorable lines, which I will assume Ibsen intended. 

First is this humorous exchange early on. The mayor, Peter Stockman, comments on how heartily Dr. Stockman’s children eat. (I hear that about my kids too.) 

“Lots of food - to build up their strength! They are the people who are going to stir up the fermenting forces of the future, Peter.”
“May I ask what they will find her to “stir up,” as you put it?
“Ah, you must as the young people that - when the time comes. We shan’t be able to see it, of course. That stands to reason - two old fogies, like us.”

More seriously, though, Peter has come to warn Dr. Stockman about going against those in power.

“You have an ingrained tendency to take your own way, at all events; and that is almost equally inadmissible in a well-ordered community. The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community - or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community’s welfare.”

Ah, there’s the rub. One must submit to the authorities, and keep one’s mouth shut. I very much thought of the ill-advised designation of Extinction Rebellion as a dangerous extremist group in Britain. Most telling is this line: the group is a risk to public safety because of “Anti-establishment philosophy that seeks system change underlies its activism…” Hmm, speaking up against the establishment and seeking system change...we definitely can’t have THAT! Nor can we have people telling rather obvious truths. 

“As usual, you employ violent expressions in your report. You say, amongst other things, that what we offer visitors in our Baths is a permanent supply of poison.”
“Well, can you describe it any other way, Peter? Just think - water that is poisonous, whether you drink it or bathe in it! And this we offer to the poor sick folk who come to us trustfully and pay us at an exorbitant rate to be made well again!”

Of course, here in the 21st century, we seem to prefer to inflict our poisoned water, not on rich suckers looking for a miracle cure, but on low income African American communities.

Peter suggests a more “reasonable” approach to the problem: put it aside for bit, then look at “remedies” which do not disturb the existing water supply. The Committee might consider “certain improvements” that are consistent with a “reasonable expenditure.” Sound familiar? 

And certainly, he shouldn’t go around spreading ideas about change. 

“Well, but is it not the duty of a citizen to let the public share in any new ideas he may have?”
“Oh, the public doesn’t require any new ideas. The public is best served by the good, old established ideas it already has.” 

Yeesh. There are some definite parallels to Fundamentalism there. “No new ideas! We already know everything and don’t intend to change!” This idea is stated in a more scandalous form during Dr. Stockman’s later screed, where he goes from the noble “new information leads to rethinking ideas” sort of thing to “truth only lasts for a little while then dies.” As I said, a bit off the rails. 

It later becomes all too obvious, though, who is pulling the strings. At the newspaper office, Aslaksen, the printer, and Hovstad, the editor, are informed by Peter that they cannot print Dr. Stockman’s article. Peter insists that it would bankrupt the town. Here is the exchange that follows:

Peter: “Of course it will be necessary to raise a municipal loan.”
Hovstad: “Surely you never mean that the town must pay---?”
Aslaksen: “Do you mean that it must come out of the municipal funds? --out of the ill-filled pockets of the small tradesmen?”
Peter: “Well, my dear Mr. Aslaksen, where else is the money to come from?”
Aslaksen: “The gentlemen who own the Baths ought to provide that.”
Peter: “The proprietors of the Baths are not in a position to incur any further expense.” 

And this is where I decidedly part ways with Libertarians. This is precisely what happens with pollution absent government action. Sure, sooner or later the truth might come out. But the investors will have looted the corporation and left a shell and a trail of damage. Seriously, look at any mining community. This is how unregulated (or underregulated) capitalism works. The rich plunder, privatizing the profit, while socializing the risk. Everyone else pays, they win. 

One could certainly see how Dr. Stockman would go crazy after this scene. A right and just result seems impossible. In that sense, Stockman’s speech in Act Four starts off so well:

“[W]hat I want to speak about is the great discovery I have made lately -- the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.”

I kind of concur. A lethal brew of xenophobia, social darwinism, and religious bigotry has poisoned our civic community, and particularly our churches. But then Stockman gets more and more vicious toward ordinary people, culminating in this nonsense which gets him booed off the stage:

“That is, the doctrine you have inherited from your forefathers and proclaim thoughtlessly far and wide -- the doctrine that the public, the crowd, the masses are the essential part of the population -- that they constitute the People -- that the common folk, the ignorant and incomplete element in the community, have the same right to pronounce judgment and to approve, to direct and to govern, as the isolated, intellectually superior personalities in it.” 

It is rather easy to recognize this sort of thing. I heard it a lot before I left the GOP, and continue to hear it in every justification for voter suppression. “If we could just keep those people from voting.” Usually meaning the poor, minorities, the disabled, those with criminal records. They don’t understand things as well as middle class white people, right? It gets worse, as the Doctor compares commoners to mongrels rather than purebreds, and so on. 

Near the end, Dr. Stockman considers emigrating to America, although he eventually concludes that things are probably bad there too, because “from one end of this country to the other, every man is the slave of his Party.” That one is pretty dang true, alas. One of the hardest things to stomach about the Trump Era is watching family members literally defend what they used to condemn, because the official stance of their party changed. 

The play never really resolves things, because Stockman apparently decides to stay, despite having no home or job or prospects. What he will do? Who knows. But he has made his moral point and that is that. Well, except for more complaining about how nobody likes him anymore. It is Mrs. Stockman who gets in the best line here:

“But, Thomas dear, the imprudent things you said had something to do with it, you know?”

Perhaps Stockman might have listened to his wife a bit earlier, stuck to his key point about the poisonous waters, and then let the furor die down one way or another. But that might not have made either as tragic or humorous (take your pick) ending. 

Having read this one, I think that my conclusion is that, on the one hand, the subject matter of the play is highly relevant, and the questions it raises are important. However, it isn’t as well conceived as Ghosts or his other better known plays. I have to wonder if Ibsen’s own ire at the reception of Ghosts caused him to lose his objectivity for a while, and the flaws in the play stemmed from that. 

My edition of the plays contains a delightful introduction by H. L. Menken (who, like Ibsen and many others of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, held eugenicist and racist ideas, sadly), who points out that Ibsen wasn’t nearly as radical as he was accused of being. His ideas are often obvious, if rather inconvenient, truths. But, as Menken puts it, Ibsen “put obvious thoughts into sound plays.” I considered quoting a bit of the intro, but I couldn’t decide where to start or stop. It is a really good bit of work, and worth reading, if you find it.