human nature

At fifty, there isn’t enough time left to do them sequentially


Bettines letzte Liebschaften shows the now 50-ish Bettina von Arnim — once made famous by her youthful correspondence with Goethe and now an established cultural figure — traveling several hundred miles through a snow-storm to meet her youthful poet-correspondent, in hope of consummating the heretofore epistolographical affair. Once tete-a-tete in his quarters, the poet begins to duck, evade and change the subject, and when he is finally openly pinned down to declare himself, denies volubly that he finds her too old (not an ageist, he) but claims that his erstwhile passion died in response to reports of Bettina’s similar attempts made recently on two other youthful poets. She admits she has made such attempts, but says they are over and claims now to live only for him – to no avail. Take aways (as they say in college):

1.  Youthful poets are happy to “do a Bettina” – i.e. establish their fame by way of amorous correspondence with senior high profile poets/poetesses – but their eagerness for literary achievement may not necessarily extend to acts of physical self-sacrifice. And:

2.  Fiftyish established poetesses (and poets) – when he wrote it, Dieter Kuehn – no, not the East German footballer who is the only German of that name with an English wikipedia entry – was fiftyish himself – become desperate enough to follow every lead, several at once. Time is running out, there isn’t enough of it left to do them sequentially.

On Chivalry and Mental Health (in the matter of Cervantes and Dostoevski)

Lesser’s book on rereading (Nothing remains the same) is a failed book.  It was written to a scientifically identified market demand for a 250 page product, but the author having had only enough material for 50, she was obliged to add 200 pages of “words, words, words” (as they say in Scandinavia); and the publisher — to print, and sell under false pretenses.  It would be shameful if the practice were not so common.  In a world of “made books” (just look at Amazon) to criticize this one would be unfairly to single out.  (Fie).

But even a failed book, can sometimes help one see better what he thinks.


Like all modern commentators, Lesser misses the point of Don Quixote.  It is true that Cervantes and various figures in his novel keep harping about the bad bad bad romances of knight-errantry and how Don Quixote is supposed to be an attack on them (see the introductory material to Volume 2), but the truth is that the topic of the book is not romances of chivalry but chivalry itself; and that all those characters criticizing the romances of chivalry must in fact be understood the way anyone criticizing anything must usually be understood — as in fact attacking something else altogether, something to attack which directly would be unseemly; and therefore attacking it indirectly, tarring it, as it were, by association; they are all attacking the notion of chivalry.

My grandmother understood chivalry the way Digby did:  as a kind of moral code of conduct.  (Chivalry is only a name for that general spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic actions, and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world, etc.)

And this is how she passed it on to me. To her, and therefore to me, chivalry has been a living philosophy of life, a valid code of conduct:  to be truthful, gallant, and courageous, to keep promises, to stand up for the weak and against injustice, to give a fair fight to one’s opponents — have all seemed to me worthy precepts of conduct.  To Wendy Lesser, like to everyone else in modern West today it seems, chivalry is a quaint archival curio; something akin to the Eleusinian Mysteries, perhaps; only…  worse: unlike the Mysteries, chivalry is rendered malodorous by its association with the hateful evil political system of the past. (Droit de seigneur and all that, even if no such thing has ever existed.  I will probably never write that overdue essay about the evil droit de seigneur about which everyone has heard and which everyone quotes as the most aggregious excess of the ancien regime but which has never ever existed except “over there” — to Baumarchais in evil Spain; to Spaniards — in Tsarist Russia, etc.) Political commitments require Lesser and everyone else to ridicule chivalry because they require her to hate and ridicule everything aristocratic.  Her reading of Don Quixote it inevitable; she learned it in school, in Civics 101, at the impressionable age of 12 or 14.

Lesser does note that “chivalry has costs” — but in her mind they are costs to others; she fails to see that the person most endangered by its commitment to a selfless ideal is in fact the knight himself — the person obliged to practice heroic rectitude and self-sacrifice — which seems to have been de Saavedra’s central point:  that chivalry is an attractive ideal which it is unwise to adopt; and wiser still to give up, my dear Lord-Knights.  Though, of course, so very sad to do so.  (“Last year’s nests have no chicks,” says Don Quixote when he comes to his senses and — everyone cries).


In discussing Dostoevski, Lesser describes all the things that irritate her in his novels: such as that they are all about some sort of a nasty injustice which goes on unopposed; or that they are an endless processions of characters throwing tantrums and telling others all sorts of nasty things about themselves and each other. This is of course why I invariably throw Dostoevski away in exasperation (disgust?) — but why Lesser, it turns out… likes them! She openly confesses to liking these features — and the resultant feeling of irritation! So, here we have it: my puzzlement over Dostoevski’s popularity has been resolved: it is not that his admirers don’t see what I see; it is that they see it and — like it! (To each his own, I suppose.  Some like crumbs in their bed so why not hangnails?)

Lesser does not note that which is my strongest reason to dislike Dostoevski: that all his characters also appear to be sick, depraved, twisted, and perverted — racked by self-doubt, envy, hate, chemical dependency, fear, resentment, epilepsy, and remorse — which I have fancifully taken on as proof that there is something congenitally rotten with the “deep” Russian soul (“over there”) and a ready-made explanation why all my attempts at acquaintance with Russians (and Mainland Chinese) always seem end up in some sort of horrendous humiliation.

But Lesser’s omission is very meaningful here: that she does not notice suggests that to her these characters appear… normal— not Russian (“over there”) but — at home, i.e. that they are similar enough to people she knows — Americans and Britishers and so forth. Which seems odd because I don’t know many such people either among the Anglos or — any race. But perhaps I do not know such people because a) I am careful to avoid such people once I have formed a suspicion about their character (i.e. I not giving them a chance to (dis)prove themselves); and b) I am willing to not notice minor signs of mental disturbance in people I know slightly but am not obliged to learn better (i.e. I lipstick the pig).  I happily assume the race is better than it really is as a kind of… willful self-deception. 

While in fact, Lesser confirms by silence, things are very bad indeed and Dostoevski tells it like it is.  Lesser’s acceptance of Dostoevski’s heroes as ordinary men allows me to understand better the real reason why I have chosen to live unnoticed, in internal exile, away from men.

It also explains why the lessons of Civics 101 would be so eagerly embraced and chivalry so openly ridiculed. Every Dostoevskian person will be relieved to be given a reason (“evil immoral past”) to refuse a moral code which demands of him or her to be what s/he can never be. If Dostoevski’s right, than the code of chivalry can be expected to have a lot of natural enemies.

It’s no accident The Idiot contains many references to Don Quixote.

Reading history: the witch hunt and the profit motive

“In Trevor-Roper’s view, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were part of the reaction against growing doctrinal pluralism, and were ultimately traced back to the conflict between the rational worldview of such thinkers as Desiderius Erasmus and other humanists and the spiritual values of the Reformation.”

History was an art, insisted Hugh Trevor-Roper, but even he was not free of the historian’s occasional ambition to be a “scientist”: in his The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries Trevor-Roper proposed a kind of thermodynamic theory of witch hunts:  as the social pressure rises, things begin to boil (you know: p = tv etc.).  Presumably it follows that the wearing off of the witch hunts would serve as a gauge of some kind of lowering in the “social pressure” — the “social pressure” in question remaining undefined.  But both the rise and the wearing off of witch hunts had direct causes minutely and clearly described in Roper’s essay, which — though wholly unnoticed by its author — are so obvious as not to require any special theoretical apparatus such as “social pressure”.

If you wish to stick with the scientific ambition, you could say that instead of the (very vague) thermodynamic model, an epidemiological model is called for:  the witch-hunting meme is like any other virus in his native environment:  it is a disease vector which under normal circumstances is under control — lies dormant in harmless fairy tales and, in our own times, TV mini-series — but give it a chance and it begins to replicate geometrically causing a break out of the disease. Why it should break out so easily is not hard to understand:  we are wired by nature to suspect that some people within our midst are secretly conspiring against our interests because in fact this is the case — think of the most obvious (and supposedly “harmless”) examples:  brewers secretly manoeuvre to corner the beer market, doctors the prescribing of medicines, etc.

But better yet — and far simpler — is the economic model.  As any accountant will tell you: when you wish to understand something, follow the money.  In the 17th century, the witch hunting meme began to replicate suddenly when some enterprising genius — acting in his best understood self-interest — discovered that it could be used to achieve money and status.  Trevor-Roper describes the way in which witch hunters — all self-made, self-proclaimed men — made money and gained social status, chiefly by blackmailing and extortion (though also to some extent by rewards of property seized from their victims) — he even describes the public displays of wealth by their wives, but — perhaps historians by their nature are blind to the profit motive — he fails to see money as the driving force of the phenomenon.  He can’t imagine that the witch hunters were pursuing profit and proposes that they were merely responding to some kind of “social pressure”.

Likewise, he describes how the field soon became crowded with many practitioners competing for the business and how eventually they turned on each other.  (This was another brilliant exploitation of the meme:  how come this witch hunter know so much about witches?  perhaps he himself has secret dealings with the devil?).  When witch hunters themselves began to burn at the stake, the business became too dangerous and quickly emptied of volunteers.  (Perhaps they moved on to promote penny stocks).

If you look at every other witch hunting phenomenon — from Roman persecutions of Christians, to Moor hunting in Iberia, to Jewish ritual murder cases, to McCarthyism — they all follow the same structure:  someone discovers a “secret plot” scheme which he can exploit to his advantage; soon others get on his bandwagon and the thing becomes a huge money- (and tragedy-) maker; eventually the field becomes overcrowded, the entrepreneurs turn on each other and — the phenomenon dies out.

Viewed in this light, civilization — “progress” — is really a kind of arms race between human inventiveness on the one hand (people inventing ever new ways to exploit ugly aspects of human nature for personal profit) and human inventiveness on the other — the commonwealth trying to adopt ever new rules to prevent the same bad habits from wreaking havoc.  (Er…  Hobbes?)


The really interesting thing about this phenomenon is that none of the successful witch hunts has ever sported a meme about money:  in other words, there has never been a witch hunt against monopolistic connivings of drug companies, for instance.  It is always about some weird and disgusting thing:  people stealing babies to drink their blood, etc.  Why?  I think the explanation is that the entrepreneurs who drive the witch hunts go out of their way to hide their true motive.  Therefore the theory of the “evil them” cannot involve money.  In the words of Borges:  “What is the single word prohibited in a riddle about chess?  Chess.”