Monday, September 15, 2014

Fabulous, magnificent!

I had some trouble finding my groove with Robert Walser's Berlin Stories, because they're not really stories. They are vignettes, sketches, poetic musings. Nothing really happens in them. Walser calls one of them an essay, and another reads like a reminder to himself.

Finally I was able to give myself over to them. Their meditative quality demands a slower pace, some introspection. These stories are lovely! Full of life and humanity. Here there are keen observations of people of diverse kinds, many of them in the theater, their peculiar behaviours, their interactions with others, but also their relationship to the space they occupy. Truly, Berlin is the most magnificent character inhabiting these stories.

Robert Walser, Swiss-born, moved to Berlin in 1905 to join his artist brother. The stories in this collection were written between 1907 and 1917. The city was burgeoning.

This book is highly quotable. It seems every couple pages I'd turn to someone: "Listen to this — Isn't that perceptive, don't you find that's true?" I've noted so many passages, it's hard to choose what to share.
Often I heard through the thin wall a sound that I was only ever able to explain to myself with the thought that someone was weeping. The tears of a wealthy, stingy woman are surely no less doleful and deplorable, and speak a surely no less sad and moving language than the tears of a poor little child, a poor woman, or a poor man; tears in the eyes of mature human beings are appalling, for they bear witness to a helplessness one might scarcely believe possible. When a child cries, this is immediately comprehensible, but when old people are induced or compelled to weep despite their advanced years, this reveals to the one hearing and seeing this the world's wretchedness and untenability, and such a person cannot escape the oppressive, devastating thought that everything — everything — that moves upon this unfortunate earth is weak, shaky, and questionable, the quarry and haphazard plaything of an insufficiency that has entwined itself about all that exists. No, it is not good when a human being still weeps at an age when one should consider it a divinely lovely activity to dry the tears of children.

Berlin Stories was for me a badly needed breath of fresh air, reminding me to slow down, not just in my reading. Just look around you, really look.

My favourite story by far is "Fabulous," written in 1907. Just three paragraphs long (text available here), it evoked for me such joy the morning I read it. Magnificent!

You Are the Robert Walser! sums up the mood quite nicely.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Your suffering's taste

I recently acquired The Poetry of Rilke, translated by Edward Snow and with an introduction by Adam Zagajewski (excerpt), a volume I've been wanting for years. I unpacked it and opened it randomly:
You must suffer long, not knowing what,
until suddenly out of bitterly chewed fruit
your suffering's taste comes forth in you.
Then almost instantly you'll love what's tasted. No one
will ever talk you out of it

— Rainer Maria Rilke
Paris, March 1913

It's a bilingual edition, and I read aloud in my imaginary German.

I've been looking into taking German classes. Am I crazy? I want to learn German for the poetry. No one will ever talk me out of it.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Hockey, poetry

I don't watch a lot of TV, hence I don't see many commercials, so forgive me if you've been overexposed to this ad, but I couldn't help but pay attention when this aired other night. Apart from it being funny and clever, I think it says something interesting about the target demographic. Sports video games are for people who have disposable income, but this ad also presumes they'll get the joke — they're of a certain age, but also of certain cultural smarts. Hockey, video games, beat poetry — they go so well together, n'est-ce pas?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Berlin is outstanding

A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention. Elsewhere he is permitted to stop up his ears and sink into willful ignorance. Here this is not allowed. Rather, he must constantly pull himself together as a human being, and this compulsion encircling him redounds to his advantage. But there are yet other things as well.

Berlin never rests, and this is glorious. Each dawning day brings with it a new, agreeably disagreeable attack on complacency, and this does the general sense of indolence good. An artist possesses, much like a child, an inborn propensity for beautiful, noble sluggardizing. Well, this slug-a-beddishness, this kingdom, is constantly being buffeted by fresh storm-winds of inspiration. The refined, silent creature is suddenly blustered full of something coarse, loud, and unrefined. There is an incessant blurring together of various things, and this is good, this is Berlin, and Berlin is outstanding.
— from "Berlin and the Artist" in Berlin Stories, by Robert Walser.

I've been wanting to visit Berlin for more than twenty-five years now, since I first saw Wings of Desire. I must go someday.

I love this passage. Reminds me a little of Patrick Hamilton's description of London in The Slaves of Solitude.

(Perhaps I shall begin collecting literary city descriptions, to compile a sort of travelogue...)

More excerpts from this and other Walser stories at The New York Review of Books.

Friday, September 05, 2014

All kinds of thinking

I recently completed a MOOC on neuroeconomics. Basically, the study of decision-making. It's a little more exacting than other courses I've taken, but sometimes I think if I just let things play in the background I'll become smarter through osmosis.

The course actually covered some fairly familiar concepts regarding intuitive thinking versus rational thinking, how responses are affected by whether a situation is framed positively or negatively, how those responses can be primed by unrelated factors in our environment, etc. And the material referenced the work of scientists with which I'm actually conversant, like Antonio Damasio and Steven Pinker.

And then: Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. And I realized I have a book of his lying around somewhere unread that I received for Christmas a few years ago. Well, Thinking, Fast and Slow: no longer unread.

Kahneman summarizes the book in his conclusion:
I began this book by introducing two fictitious characters, spent some time discussing two species, and ended with two selves. The two characters were the intuitive System 1, which does the fast thinking, and the effortful and slower System 2, which does the slow thinking, monitors System 1, and maintains control as best it can within its limited resources. The two species were the fictitious Econs, who live in the land of theory, and the Humans, who act in the real world. The two selves are the experiencing self, which does the living, and the remembering self, which keeps score and make the choices. In this final chapter I consider some applications of the three distinctions.

I read the whole book word for word, cover to cover (is that how people read nonfiction?). The writing's a bit tedious at times; basically it's a retrospective of Kahneman's career, touching on all his research and the discoveries he made along the way. Anyone with an interest in cognitive processes will find examples and case studies to entertain or to puzzle over, some resonating more than others.

What Kahneman saves for the conclusion, though, caused a lightbulb moment. Individuals make intuitive but irrational decisions, and contradictory judgments, and "objective" assessments imbued with external influences — and these issues hold at the societal level of decision making as well. Kahneman makes a soft appeal for libertarian paternalism, where, given the known workings and weaknesses of systems of reasoning, policymakers should judiciously guide individuals using the principles of behavioral science (with experts to advise the policymakers, of course). Examples of applications of these principles include opt-out enrolment in social plans (like health care) and regulations regarding the labeling on food packaging and the framing of disclosures regarding fuel consumption. So, not just brain theory stuff.

Reviews and Insight
Two Brains Running — Jim Holt in the New York Times
And frowning — as one learns on Page 152 of this book — activates the skeptic within us: what Kahneman calls "System 2." Just putting on a frown, experiments show, works to reduce overconfidence; it causes us to be more analytical, more vigilant in our thinking; to question stories that we would otherwise unreflectively accept as true because they are facile and coherent. And that is why I frowningly gave this extraordinarily interesting book the most skeptical reading I could.

How to Dispel Your Illusions — Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books
There are huge differences between Freud and Kahneman, as one would expect for thinkers separated by a century. The deepest difference is that Freud is literary while Kahneman is scientific. The great contribution of Kahneman was to make psychology an experimental science, with experimental results that could be repeated and verified. Freud, in my view, made psychology a branch of literature, with stories and myths that appeal to the heart rather than to the mind. The central dogma of Freudian psychology was the Oedipus complex, a story borrowed from Greek mythology and enacted in the tragedies of Sophocles. Freud claimed that he had identified from his clinical practice the emotions children feel toward their parents that he called the Oedipus complex. His critics have rejected that claim. So Freud became to his admirers a prophet of spiritual and psychological wisdom, and to his detractors a quack doctor pretending to cure imaginary diseases. Kahneman took psychology in a diametrically opposite direction, not pretending to cure ailments but only trying to dispel illusions.

The King of Human Error — Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair
There's a quality both impish and joyous to Kahneman's work, and it is most on display in his collaboration with Amos Tversky. They had a rule of thumb, he explains: they would study no specific example of human idiocy or irrationality unless they first detected it in themselves. "People thought we were studying stupidity," says Kahneman. "But we were not. We were studying ourselves." Kahneman has a phrase to describe what they did: "Ironic research."

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why is there something instead of nothing? That's the question — along with some variations ("What banged? Why did it bang? And what was going on before it banged?") — Jim Holt asks, and sets out to answer (but, unsurprisingly, doesn't, entirely), in Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story.

Coincidentally I was about 20% of the way through this book (so maybe Holt does answer it, I dunno) when this TED Talk turned up. Why Does the World Exist? is Argo Bookshop's next book club title, set for discussion on September 25.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Craving fiction

I've been a bit irritable this week. There was a bit of stress in getting the kid back to school — her supplies, our routine — but not enough, I don't think, to account for my crankiness. I think it's because I'm not reading enough fiction.

Working from home a couple days and getting a lift a couple other days meant not reading on my commute. My days are regularly grounded, or framed, or inspired, or escaped, by those twice-daily quarter-hour immersions in an imaginary world. Their absence is felt.

I'm still reading, though, but nonfiction. I'm actively reading two nonfiction books, one because it's related to a MOOC I've been following, another is for book club; there's a third languishing on my nightstand — I read a page now and then. They're all very interesting. But they're not exactly entertaining.

I deliberately decided that I needed to supplement my current nonfiction reading with some fiction. Short pieces by Robert Walser (which I've been meaning to get to for a couple years) seemed to fit the bill. But I was wrong. These Berlin "stories" are lovely prose poems, meditative essays, descriptive vignettes; but they're not stories.

[I've even found myself craving (gasp!) television this week.]

But I feel compelled to finish all these books before starting something new. So, here's to a couple more days of restlessness, here on a fact-based Earth, before escaping to a fictional universe.