psychology

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.

1

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).

2

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.

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Of air and lies

November 2011

The invisible visible air of New Delhi

How do you know your plane has started descent towards The New Delhi International Airport? When you begin to smell car exhaust inside the plane’s cockpit. Inside the terminal the smell persists and as you step outside, an acrid, sour, burning smoke assails your eyes and nose. On the way to the guest house you keep the taxi windows closed and try to breathe into your hankie to protect yourself from the nauseating effects of the blue cloud through which your taxi is moving.

At the guest-house you are welcomed by the charming, helpful and efficient hostess who yet manages to surprise you with an oddity: “What’s with the air?” you ask her (meaning: “Has something happened? Was there an explosion? A fire downtown?”) and thinking that, surely, the sheer scale of the disaster would have been first page news. But it hasn’t been: the hostess is nonplussed. “The air? Oh, in the winter it always gets foggy here, and then the dust blows in from the desert.” When you tell her that you have spent several winters in Delhi in the past and that the blue color of the air outside, its acrid smell of combustion, and the huge dust particles that palpably bounce off your face are like nothing you have ever seen before, she is surprised.

You then realize that your hostess is somewhat in the old line of pucca (“proper”) ladies and lives in a kind of purdah (“seclusion”), hardly ever going outside; and that remaining all days indoors has protected her in part from the worst of the pollution outside. Plus, the change in the quality of air must have been to some extent gradual, and therefore people living in Delhi without interruption may have been less aware of it. Still, there must be another cognitive mechanism at work here: the difference between Delhi air in November 2011 and November 2006, the time of my last visit, is so stark that no one with any sense can possibly have failed to notice it – unless they do not want to. And the truth is that most Delhites are trapped in the city and have nowhere to flee to; all they can do is pretend that things aren’t really as bad as they are and hope it will pass.

It will not. In the last decade, the city has moved most public transport to greener liquified natural gas and built a metro to try to ease the traffic congestion; yet the rise in motor vehicles has continued unabated, turning Delhi roads into one huge snarling traffic jam; and the construction of a whole new city of Gurgaon, just south of Delhi, though it has sucked out some old Delhites, has done nothing to abate the relentless population growth as more people move in from everywhere to take advantage of Delhi’s higher wages. Delhi air, never especially good, is far worse today than it was ten or even five years ago and for some, like myself, is simply unbearable.

Although statistics are not easy to come by – government’s annual surveys of Delhi air quality have not been published since 2009 (having been suppressed, some say, for the sake of not scaring off the Commonwealth Games in 2010) – reports circulate that two in five Delhites suffer from respiratory ailments. Certainly all of the city’s professional drivers hack and retch; the pollution has performed a public health miracle: unable to breathe, most seem to have quit smoking.

By miracle of evolution, we’re each a little different, and some of us are better equipped to handle the pollution: I find one of my fellow guests at the guesthouse – a North European – is actually sunning himself on the open-air terrace the next morning. Yet, even he’s not blind: yeah, he admits, the air is bad – better taken in through a cigarette filter, he quips – but at least it is better than last time I came through, a week ago. “Now, that really was bad.” I shudder and thank God I was not in Delhi a week ago; but do recall reading Delhi’s weather forecast at that time: “dry, it said, high 30 degrees centigrade, smokey”. Even Yahoo Weather noticed something was up with the air.

Originally, I had booked my Delhi room for two weeks: the plan was to spend part of the season in the city to catch as much classical music and dance as I could – in quickly “modernizing” India her classical performing arts are progressively more difficult to see; but after just three days, during which I did manage to catch one very good vocal concert (well attended but by an audience of whom none – except myself – was less than fifty), I realized I would have to leave Delhi if I wanted to live: I was choking on the air, feeling physically sick. A friend offered his house in the hills and a spare servant. “Go up there, he said, the air is good, the views are astounding, the walks invigorating.” I had missed the hills almost as much as I had missed India’s classical arts, so instead of rescheduling my flight and advancing my departure from India, I headed for the hills. Ten days is a short time for a Himalayan trip – it takes so long to get there – but that seemed a better idea than to leave India defeated, after mere three days, probably never to come back.

Two days later, about seven in the morning my car came into the full view of the Dhauladar Range. It looked, as always, magnificent; but looking down a bit, around the mountains’ midriff, I suddenly spotted clearly against her snow… clouds of brown smoke meandering in the upper air. Smog!

Around noon, the host took me up to see a property he’s contemplating buying (in order to escape Delhi air). He had selected a beautiful site: within easy access from the State Highway, yet screened from her noise by a low, but steep hill, it sits across the top of a mild hillock, with views in all directions: the Himalayas in the back, the plains in front. On a good day, he says, you can see all the way to Chandigarh; I follow his gesture but all I can make out is milky-white haze of sunlight scattered in the fine dust suspended in the air. “A bit of a fog today”, says my friend, though the temperature is in mid 20s, it has not rained in three months and the air is bone dry; “but look at the mountains, aren’t they magnificent?” They are; though a bit hard to see, veiled as they now are by a purplish-brownish haze. Suddenly I remember: The Asian Brown Cloud. I had never seen it before: and here it was, visible from ground level, with the naked eye.

My friend does not notice. “And the air, he says, ah, the air, isn’t it wonderful? That’s why I want to move here!” Actually, the air is not wonderful. It does not have the acrid smell of smoke which it has in Delhi, but it has none of the bracing freshness of mountain air which I remember from previous visits. I now recognize the phenomenon: I have seen it before.

Pattern recognition

I have of course seen it before – in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which, when I first came to live there in 2001, had mostly manageable air, little traffic, and beautiful views of Doi Suthep, a mountain which towers above it. When I arrived there, the city had a small expatriate population; over the next decade agreeable climate, low prices, favorable tax treatment and a good standard of living have caused the expatriate population to rapidly expand. By 2006 major international magazines declared Chiang Mai to be one of the best places to live in the world, throwing expatriate immigration into overdrive. Ironically, the 2006 positive publicity for the city, and what seemed like a quantum jump in new expat arrivals, coincided with the city’s first environmental disaster. Pro-growth policies of the government of Thaksin Sinawatra in part aimed at decongesting the country’s capital, Bangkok, have caused the city’s population to explode from 250,000 in 2000 to more than 2 million in 2011. Policies designed to capture car assembly business have expanded the number of cars on Thai roads even faster. As has been the case with Delhi, infrastructure development did not keep pace. In February 2006 Chiang Mai experienced its first smokey weather.

Both Chiang Mai and North India lie in the subtropical monsoon zone, at the foot of the Himalayas. The monsoon climate means between four and six months of daily rain which washes the air somewhat and six (or more) months of rainless weather, when dust, once kicked up into the air, does not get washed out from the atmosphere and stays airborn indefinitely – until the rains break again. The solid wall of mountains to the north means that the prevailing Southwest winds concentrate air pollution in the foothills – they effectively sweep garbage from the whole plain south of it and dump it overhead.

I first noticed that something was amiss with Chiang Mai air in December 2006, from my motorcycle, on one of my usual trips into the surrounding hills: a stretch of the road which runs along the top of a ridge used to afford wonderful views over successive mountain ranges fading into the distance towards Burms, each bluer and fainter than the one before. But riding along the same road in now I realized suddenly that one simply could not see the mountains: the view had completely disappeared into a kind of milky haze. Unlike my Delhi friend, I realized immediately that the haze was… no mist.

By late January, Doi Suthep – 1600 m mountain at the edge of the city – traffic-willing the top of the mountain is only 20 minutes away – has disappeared from view; by early February, Chiang Mai experienced its first “blue days” – blue clouds of exhaust hanging over its streets, an acrid burning stink of exhaust, palpable dust in the air, brushing one’s face as one rode through the streets.

Traditionally, the tourist season begins in Chiang Mai with the onset of the dry weather, sometime in late October; this is also when most new expatriate immigrants arrive. In 2006, when the first Blue Days arrived, the largest contingent yet has just bought their properties or signed their leases; people were just settling into their furniture when the pollution struck.

Their reaction to the disaster was much like that of my Delhi hostess: they chose not to notice. They had simply invested too much in their move to Thailand to allow themselves to realize that they have made a mistake.  With time, the expats began to complain about the air (though usually pretending that there are only a couple bad weeks in the winter).  Finally, this year (2012) the penny began to drop (see this discussion) though not before the Thai government began to wonder in public whether it should just evacuate the entire population from the North of the country. And the expats are still blaming it on  Thais burning rice-fields in the winter.  Yet, the truth is that Thais have been burning rice fields for about 700 years, but the smog reached catastrophic proportions only now — a clear sign that something else is at fault.  What?  The Asian Brown Cloud emanating out of India and China. Last year there were reports of Chinese pollution causing smog in Western Japan.  This year — in Hawaii.

How bad is it?  Just look at the photos of Kangra Fort, in Kanga Valley, 550 km north of New Delhi.  What you are seeing is not mist. It is the Brown Cloud visible (and smellable) at ground level.


That most people would fail the Turing Test

The Turing Test concerns machine intelligence. The question is: when can it be said about a machine that it is “intelligent”? Answer: when we cannot tell from observing its conversation that the machine is a machine.

Trying to think about this test, I have identified three areas that seem essential to me personally in any human interaction – three features of personality which I look for in every human encounter. All three are readily tested through conversation.

Perception

To some extent perception can be trained. For instance, looking at lots of song birds and comparing one’s findings with entries in ornithological guides trains the “mind’s” eye: it teaches the looker to look for features such as “rump” and “wing coverts” which an untrained looker might not notice (having no clue what he is looking at/for); or: looking at lots of very fine details (say, magnitude +6 stars with one’s naked eye) teaches one the trick of looking at things by not looking at them directly but rather by focusing one’s sight just to the right or left of the object (in order to engage one’s peripheral vision); and: smelling lots of roses teaches one not only that roses of different colors smell differently, but that a rose cannot be smelled too long before the brain no longer detects the smell (usually about 20-40 seconds), after which the nose must be “washed”; and that one can improve one’s sense of smell by pouting one’s lips (so that the upper lip creates a kind of “funnel” under one’s nostrils).

But all of these are techniques; and are useless if their owner is not interested to look/ smell/ taste/ observe; and then interested/able to reflect on what s/he sees. This kind of curiosity for the world around us is linked to something Konrad Lorenz called “exploratory instinct” and ascribed to all mammals (mice and hamsters in particular). But it is clear that not all mammals possess it: a great number of human beings are perfectly uninterested in observing and learning. And when they do (as tourists in my city do, for instance) they are perfectly happy to follow a manual (notice only what is pointed out to them).

Yet, to be in any way interesting a person must be able to tell us something new about the world, something they have not read in a book, or heard on TV, but something they saw and realized themselves. Otherwise, why listen to them in the first place? (And without listening The Turing Test cannot be performed).

Authentic aesthetic and/or emotional response

Another thing I look for in people is their ability to surprise me with original, novel, and authentic responses to the world. By authentic I don’t mean heartfelt, but – their own. i.e. ones not borrowed from others (Mom, friends, teachers, TV). I do not only ask them their opinions of things or love stories (or “art stories”), but also look at their clothing, accessories, apartments and furniture. By this measure most people are unoriginal in every way: they furnish their homes at IKEA and paint the walls white; they dress like they see others dress; their professional life is dictated to them by the market (“plastics”); and their emotional life is a copy of what they have seen on TV and read in romantic novels. If you ask them why they do this, or feel that, they shrug: as far as they are concerned, that’s how it is and there is nothing they can (or care to) do about it. Generally, my interlocutors are surprised when they are told they could do something/feel about something differently; prodded to say why not they can’t say why not, merely resist in a kind of panicky, animal, unthinking refulal: it is simply unthinkable. If you think about it, this is how computer generated characters in fantasy action games behave: they behave in some way and you cannot argue with it.

Independent planning

I am interested to talk to people who live their lives “differently” – who do not marry, or reproduce, for instance; or who do not live all their lives where they were born; or who do not buy a 42 inch flat screen TV when everyone else does – and generally do not buy anything when everyone else does; or who do not take a mortgage; or who opt out of the state pension program; or who do not own a car; or who wake up before daybreak; or who do not go to the beach on Labor Day; or who, during rush hour, when all traffic goes zig, drive the only car in the opposite lane, zagging; or who don’t know who won last night on penalty shots and genuinely don’t care; or who marry a woman twice their age, or live with two.

But this in itself is not interesting: a lot of non-conformist behavior is hard-wired – and hard-wired actors can’t tell you why they are doing what they are doing. These are not so interesting, no matter how odd their course of life.

The really interesting people are the ones who are doing odd things – or normal things, but oddly – because of a calculation: people who have thought about their objectives and then plotted their own course because that is what they wanted to do and this was the best way to get there. (They are called “autotelic”).

Conclusion

I can safely say that on these three measures, a very large majority of human beings would fail the Turing Test. Indeed, to an observer applying these three measures to his test, most of us would appear to be automata engaged in an elaborate deception to produce the (false) impressions that we are independently observant, sensitive and autotelic, that we have a taste, or emotions, or cunning; that we are, in other words, actually human. But this deception is easily exposed: put your ear to their forehead and listen carefully: you will distinctly hear the low murmur of the cooling fan.


The remarkable disappearance of the female ankle

Part 1 of 3

[Once again, we interrupt the usual programming, to bring you our recent reflections of the Sir-C-hates-to-read’em variety]

The sudden arrival of summer has caused the fair sex to drop excess clothing and appear before us (nearly) as nature has made them. And nature has made them, it would appear — incredibly! — without the — talocrural joint — sans the synovial hinge — sine angulus, in short — nature has made them — ankleless!

The aesthete’s eye is amazed to see that by and large the human female leg does not, after all, appear to sport the narrow waist of his imagination — as the divinely-shaped, and heavenly-delicious porcine trotter does; but instead the female foot appears to connect directly to the calf, without any attempt at defined ligature, or modulation; in the style of the Doric column, the Egyptian pylon, the pachyderm leg, or the modern parking-lot carrying support-column. Can this be possible? To explain his misconception, the aesthete has gone back to search the various Roman and Renaissance Venuses and to his surprise has discovered that among them, too, the ankle is — notably missing. (Unbelievable, but true).  (See above).

Now, the aesthete knows form personal experience — observation of several significant others — that, in principle, the female ankle does exist; but he is now compelled to admit that it would appear to be a commodity in severe shortage.

His fetish — if that’s what it is — the aesthete does not spend excessive amounts of time slobbering over his significant other’s ankles; but he will generally and instantly lose interest in anyone shown to lack a well-turned one — isn’t his alone: he remembers others commenting on women’s ankles — fine-ankled Rajasthani upper-class women; deftly-brushed Edo-era floating-world habitues — and wonders why such an interest should exist. Clearly, fine ankles are far more rare than agreeable faces — could it be that a good ankle is harder to make? Is a fine ankle and indication of good carpentry — a better tool for running and jumping? (Desirable for one’s offspring). Or is it the opposite — that an unsightly ankle is an indication of bad health? (A swollen ankle is the one most obvious indication of circulation problems).

As many aesthetic preferences do, the ankle-interest appears to have speciating effects: those who pay attention to ankles appear to have good ankles themselves!

*

[Incidentally, while looking for an illustration for this post I discovered that the category of photo which could be described as “a female ankle unuglified by some sort of an ill-conceived tattoo” appears to have gone extinct; closer inspection revealed that all those photos sported non-ankles; presumably the tattoo was there as a form of disguise].

*

[It is hard to suspect Greek sculptors and Italian Renaissance painters of not having liked a good ankle; and therefore its general absence from the European cannon must be explained by the Annibale Carracci Phenomenon (ACP):  among his early paintings there is an early ugly, chunky nymph, the sort amateur-porn websites call “amateur BBW” (big-beautiful-woman); “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” crowed one of the well-known art theorists about it – I can’t be bothered to remember which; and wrongly:  the story of the painting, it turns out, was that young Annibale had neither the money nor the  fame with which to attract a proper model; and the model for the painting was one of his cousins who agreed, reluctantly, to bare for free; in short, the artists do not paint what they think is beautiful; they paint what they can].


Thoughts on selling the house

One does a fairly good job of isolating himself from humanity – after all to do so is the only way to survive it. But one does such a good job of it that one begins to forget that he is doing it. And thus, in the course of going about this carefully isolated life and dealing with the carefully selected few one begins to develop… a distorted picture of humanity:  men (and women) begin to seem more reasonable and more decent than they in fact are. Mankind in general begins to seem well-made enough, sometimes even worthwhile.

It is a sampling error.

Because then one does something which exposes him to humanity in general, such as put his house up for sale:  to view this house all sorts come, not just the carefully preselected lot to which one has heretofore limited himself; invariably discussions follow touching upon the personal – the choice of bathtub; or where one has located the light switches; and progress to the complicated: terms, prices, money; and then one begins to realize that all is not well; worse: that much is outright wrong.

And then one remembers again what one has known but has carefully forgotten: that although our brains are a result of natural selection and fit our contingencies fairly well, they continue to evolve, which means to mutate, and that mutations are random, some for the better and some for the worse, and that many of the mutations for the worse are not critical, which is to say they continue to function, or rather malfunction – function badly, with many mistakes, but nevertheless somehow manage; and that as the defects are internal, one cannot tell from just looking that there is something wrong; that the brain is in fact a production failure, a reject; and that – were it an industrial product it would have been scrapped without ever seeing the light of day; one has to in fact engage that brain in some task, such as that of trading a house, to discover that it’s not working, that inputs do not result in rational outputs, and that outputs are rubbish.

But then one looks around to see how people live – the housing they find acceptable, the life partners they take on, the ideals they commit themselves to, their biographies, their financial decisions and it all suddenly makes sense: we live in a world populated by – and mostly run by – defective brains.

Happy New Year.