Telling Stories

Jonathan beat me to one of the core ideas of a post I’ve been working on for a few days – a post about evil, art, and self-delusion. Here goes anyway.

Concerning the New Deal, John Updike is a poet in the Platonic sense. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

The impression of recovery–the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out–mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics.

To which the great Greg Mankiw replies:

When evaluating political leaders, it is better to trust “the moot mathematics of economics” than “the impression of recovery.”

Wise words, but hardly new ones. In the fourth century B.C.E., Plato is said to have uttered pretty much the same thing:

And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding-there is the beauty of them –and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight?

— Most true.

And this, surely, must be the work of the calculating and rational principle in the soul

— To be sure.

And when this principle measures and certifies that some things are equal, or that some are greater or less than others, there occurs an apparent contradiction?

— True.

But were we not saying that such a contradiction is the same faculty cannot have contrary opinions at the same time about the same thing?

— Very true.

Then that part of the soul which has an opinion contrary to measure is not the same with that which has an opinion in accordance with measure?

— True.

And the better part of the soul is likely to be that which trusts to measure and calculation?

— Certainly.

And that which is opposed to them is one of the inferior principles of the soul?

— No doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider myself a Platonist, philosophically*. But Plato does pretty much define my objections to an education founded only on the Humanities:

Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colors and figures.

What I take away from this passage is something I concluded long before I went back to pick up on what I’d missed in Classical education: most people need some real-world experience in real pursuits before they can judge the merits of a work of art and the applicability of its message to their lives. One fundamental flaw in a Humanities education is that it creates a voting adult who may have never actually done anything concrete in their lives outside of a few shop and art classes in middle school. The fact that our educational system is churning out tons of such people who consequently have no BS filter pretty much single-handedly accounts for the success of Dan Brown.

Robert E Lee pretty much felt the same way, if his instructions to his daughter reveal any of his true feelings on literature:

“I hope you will also find time to read and improve your mind. Read history, works of truth, not novels and romances. Get correct views of life, and learn to see the world in its true light. It will enable you to live pleasantly, to do good, and, when summoned away, to leave without regret.”

The New York Times recently ran a story on the human tendency to tell stories. Humans have a deep-seated need to construct narratives about their experiences, even if the person in question never collects those stories into a coherent autobiographical whole. The type of personal narrative constructed may reflect the personality, or even the genetic makeup of the story-teller. As the story noted, the details of tale that is told often reflects the listener as well as the teller. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as the speaker is aware of the mental dynamic in play. Otherwise, one tends to try to fool oneself, which is never a healthy proposition. A personal mythology develops that hinders growth.

I know several people who have a string of failed relationships and a pattern of what looks to me to be borderline mental illness. These people to a person have a story of their lives ready to trot out that ignores huge swaths of their personal history. They say they want to settle down and raise a family while parading a line of significant others who are just, to put it bluntly, idiots. Do my acquaintances (and unfortunately a few family members) really mean what they say they do? Sadly, probably they do. But until they drop the narrative and look at their actions in the cold light of cause-and-effect, they are going to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

On the broader scale, nations and movements do the same thing with their official histories. And it is here that one begins to see the flaws in the Romantic view of life. The two greatest evils (and killers) of the twentieth century, Communism and Nazism, were offshoots of the Romantic vine that has its roots in Rousseau. Both systems continued to blindly insist on the literal truth of their various story lines long after the flaws were evident. Mythology kills.

One of the problems with narrative as a form, especially if it is done well, tends to work against creating an evolutionary framework for seeing the world. The narrative becomes a reference text that is taken as literal truth. This is one reason why fundamentalist religious types share so much in common with Marxists. It was always amusing to me that the Soviets would speak about “scientific Marxism” while they (and Marx) perpetuated the most un-scientific worldview, where the text was never challenged with emerging real world data. The continuous re-checking of established stories with facts is the hallmark of the scientific mind.** This is what separates the practitioners of what passes for the Humanities in today’s Academia, from the old-school Enlightenment bastion of the Academic Sciences. That dichotomy was pretty much the entire premise of the second-greatest takedown of the postmodernist Academic left, Gross and Levitt’s book Higher Superstition. (The greatest being the Sokal Hoax).

Don’t mistake what I’m saying here, though. Scientists do construct narratives. Let’s take the development of a few ideas that became publications that I am intimately familiar with (not my own thesis, however, which followed a quite different pattern, except for the bum steer ideas from my advisor). The pattern of discovery is often thus:

  1. Advisor comes up with a hare-brained idea.
  2. Graduate student wastes a lot of time on this and then decides to come up with own project.
  3. Graduate student goes down about 5 blind alleys before conducting an experiment that does not fit with the established thinking.
  4. Graduate student repeats that experiment.
  5. Graduate student goes to advisor to help think over the implications of said experiment.
  6. Graduate advisor, who could rationalize the first 50 numbers in the phone book into a mathematical theory, comes up with a plausible explanation.
  7. Graduate student connects the dots and designs a few other experiments that ought to work if the explanation is true.
  8. Graduate student conducts the experiments. If they don’t give the expected answers, it’s back to step 5. If they do, on to step 9.
  9. Someone, hopefully the grad student (if the advisor is any good), writes up the experiments as if the outcome had been known in advance: here’s the hypothesis we wanted to test, here’s how we tested it, here’s the data we got back, and here’s what we think it all means. And, oh yes, here’s what we want to ask the NSF to give us money to do next year. The paper neglects to mention all the blind alleys and hare-brained ideas.
  10. In a few years another grad student (hopefully in the same group) finds a flaw or conducts an experiment that doesn’t fit, and it all starts over again.

While step #9 of that process sound an awful lot like the construction of any other narrative by a non-scientist, step #4, step # 7 and step #10 are what separate the scientific mindset from the mindset of the rest of humanity.

The other problem with non-scientific narrative, one that I struggle with when choosing the very few works of literature that make their way into my busy world these days, is what can this artist tell me? Does this new perspective add anything that I should take note of, or am I simply looking at the world through the eyes of an a**hole? Unfortunately, given the lives of most artists, I think the latter is more likely. Almost every arts and letters article about an artist I’ve read over the past few weeks has been an object lesson in how not to live a life. So these guys can spin a good yarn. So what? Why are they spinning it? As Plato noted:

Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men, something of evil is communicated to themselves.

Here is where Jonathan beat me to the punch. I think I saw one episode of Oz, and have never seen even part of an episode of the Sopranos. Why would I? Granted, it’s good to look at a few pieces of art like that to get an idea of what people are capable of – I’d rather encounter them in art so that I can avoid them in real life. I certainly looked at more than a few such pieces of art in my youth. But I’ve had my fill, and unless I’m truly learning something new, a steady diet of that is not good for me. I meet enough sociopaths in everyday life, that just describing one in art is not teaching me anything. The modern artistic sensibility which holds that a piece of art either needs to shock or scorn the ethos that has held our society together for centuries – that the underbelly is the only aspect of a culture worth studying – is a foreign one to me. James Joyce has been an evil influence on the modern artistic world.

Look at those two amoral scuzzbags in the links above, Jiménez and Waugh. You’re telling me someone who was screwing Spanish nuns at the turn of the century is a role model? That some of that amorality does not leak out into the larger body of his poetry? Or, take Evelyn Waugh. Perhaps he had enough EQ to fake human empathy in his works, but he was a freaking sociopath. Not to say I won’t read Waugh (as for Jiménez, I’m just not a big poetry person), but I won’t have a steady diet of him, because I’ll be thinking the whole time about his son lying near death in Cyprus. How exactly is this different from Stalin’s response to the German offer to trade his son Yakov (captured in the initial stages of the German invasion of 1941) for a captured German general?*** It isn’t. If Stalin had written something like “The Motorcycle Diaries” would the Western Left be making movies about his life? I’m afraid to answer that question. I’ll take Terry Pratchett over Waugh any day, fantasy genre or not.****

One way to make sure that one’s literature is reflecting reality is to read works by people who are or were professionals in field other than English Lit. I tend to read science fiction written by such people, although there is a significant portion of hard SF that is just plain bad writing, at least I know I’m not being fed total BS. Plato kind of fixated on strict division of labor*****, so he’d be appalled at today’s trend of professionals going off and writing novels as a second career, but it does help get around the problem of know-nothings misrepresenting subjects in print. Those kind of books are not as thick on the ground as I’d like, though.

I view narrative as a possibly loaded gun. You never handle a weapon someone hands to you without checking for yourself that there is no round in the chamber or under the hammer. Similarly, without continual re-checking (via the scientific method), that the chamber is empty, eventually someone is going to pull the trigger on a bad narrative while it’s pointed in a direction where it shouldn’t be pointing. Just don’t point the thing at me.

* My own life would be much poorer if I had not studied the Humanities:

I remember clearly the graduate overview class in Russian Literature that solidified my views on monasticism. We were discussing “The Three Old Men” by Tolstoy, and I came to the conclusion that those men were holy because they had no temptations, and that was not holiness, but rather laziness and absence of temptation that led to their sin-free life. I also then came to the conclusion, at age 23, that raising kids was one of the hardest and most meaningful activities that a human could engage in, and by severing his protagonists from that aspect of life (this story was written after Tolstoy had fathered his 13 kids and then decided that sex was bad, bad, bad…), he’d taken such a huge part of the human experience away that I could not respect their spiritual pronouncements. Sort of the way I look at the Catholic priesthood now. My views on this subject would be considerably poorer and less thought out if it weren’t for the literature classes I was taking. I certainly have never interacted much with monks (other than buying their wine), so this was a way for me to broaden my mental life in a concentrated dose. This makes me a more educated voter when issues spiritual spring up in the public domain. But studying only literature does a disservice to the student who is really not mentally capable of sorting wheat from chaff without actually having some experiences in the physical world, and like it or not, that describes the vast majority of humanity. I think most people need to major in something practical in order to make any sense out of literature.

** It is just too bad that so many scientists only apply this method of thought only to a few areas of their professional work, rather than to their entire lives.

*** “I have no son.”

**** More about Terry in the next post.

*****And this is the reason why in our State, and in our State only, we shall find a shoemaker to be a shoemaker and not a pilot also, and a husbandman to be a husbandman and not a dicast also, and a soldier a soldier and not a trader also, and the same throughout?”

5 thoughts on “Telling Stories”

  1. I think the issues you discuss are important. It’s easy to confuse reality and narrative or metaphor. For example, the term, “mind/body problem” is meaningless if one does not define the metaphor, “mind.” Most people who discuss “mind/body issues” assume that mind exists, without considering it an empirical question. Similar examples abound and may be dangerous. Your loaded-weapon simile is appropriate.

  2. George Will wrote a column the other day reviewing the recent book about the New Deal, “The Forgotten Man”. Nothing he said was particularly unusual, and the thesis of the book is not new, (I remember reading similar analyses decades ago), although the various comments I have read about it lead me to believe it is well written and documented to a high standard of evidence.

    The interesting part of the column, to me at least, were the several comments attached to it from people who were obviously incensed by any criticism of FDR or the New Deal. There was no argument, nor was any data presented disputing the author’s contentions. Instead, one commenter after another attacked Will personally, disparaged his conservatism in very acidic style, and praised the legacy and psychological impact of the FDR years as being beyond any question.

    There are myths so entrenched in our national psyche that facts are simply insufficient to change the story that “everyone knows”.

  3. Making the rounds this year is an exhibit of Napoleonic art. The curator’s comments concentrate on the gilt-covered world he created, its allusions to the Roman emperors, the vastness and precision of his sense of symbolic detail. The narrative Napoleon created was the emperor as hero, as God-like (a vision still powerful in many places today). Napoleon blessing his troops as they die in the snow is remarkable.

    Of course, it is hard not to compare these narratives with those of his contemporaries across the ocean, whose revolution had led to a world in which Washington’s term concluded and Adams took over, then Adams lost the next election and Jefferson presided. Meanwhile, across the ocean, a man divorces his first wife because he wants an heir; this, of course, was the French’s interpretation of equality and fraternity after their quite different revolution.

    Not that the American ego is no less likely to be tempted by the absolute power that corrupts absolutely – we were wise enough to include checks and balances that keep that temptation out of eye’s and hand’s reach. And, no, Gitmo is not evidence we’ve thrown that tradition down the drain, but rather, evidence to anyone with a broader perspective of how much that tradition remains important to us.

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