"The Purest Form of Eros"

A few years ago a group of social psychologists posed the following question in an article on conversational styles. “What is the source of the ineffable “chemistry” that some couples enjoy? The question is both fascinating and frustrating: fascinating because of its richness and complexity; frustrating because it has defied simple answers. Indeed, precisely why members of some couples get along better than do others has, for the most part, remained cloaked in mystery.”

This is a question that has longed been an interest of mine. In their latest book, Click: The Magic of Instant Connections, Ori and Rom Brafman try to unravel the mystery of this phenomenon. They begin with what is clearly well known to anyone who has experienced this “almost euphoric state.”

Clicking can be defined as an immediate, deep, and meaningful connection with another person or with the world around us…we immediately sense that we can just be ourselves around that person. Things feel right: we hit if off.

Only a very few times in my life have I felt this way. Once it occurs, I think you are changed forever. The experience sets a standard against which you tend to measure all your future relationships. There is a responsiveness to each other that is rarely found with other individuals. You can say something to one person and nothing happens. When you say the very same thing to a person you click with, there is an immediate understanding, an even faster reply, which in turn, gets another and the cycle continues until you both need to stop to take a breath.

“You’re so clever, sometimes, with words, and I’m every so clever when I’m talking to you….You’re appreciative of my cleverness, you laughed at my jokes, you make related jokes back, implying that you’ve heard and actually LISTENED to what I said.”

After discussing a range of conditions in which clicking occurs, Brafman and Brafman describe “five click accelerators—ingredients or factors involved in a click—that show up time and time across different contexts."

The first is the power of vulnerability, the willingness “to disclose to others the kind of person you are, to drop your protective armor....” An example is the way shared adversity can become a key factor in bringing people together.

Proximity is the second accelerator that can make a big difference. This is not the least bit surprising. The likelihood of clicking with someone in Montevideo if you live in Omaha is pretty close to zero.

Similarity is said to be an accelerator. That is also fairly obvious, although far from a necessary condition, as two people with widely different interests often get along just fine.

In 1979 Woody Allen met Mia Farrow and they stayed together for many years. Yet Woody once said. "I could go on about our differences forever: She doesn't like the city and I adore it. She loves the country and I don't like it. She doesn't like sports at all and I love sports. She loves to eat in, early -- 5:30, 6 -- and I love to eat out, late… She can't sleep with an air-conditioner on; I can only sleep with an air-conditioner on. She loves pets and animals; I hate pets and animals. … She would love to take a boat down the Amazon or go up to Mount Kilimanjaro; I never want to go near those places… She has raised nine children now with no trauma and has never owned a thermometer. I take my temperature every two hours in the course of the day."

The Brafmans identify the environment as the fourth click accelerator. Here they speak of shared communities working together for a common goal or to overcome adversity. They mention soldiers who become lifelong friends after fighting together, individuals who lived together on a kibbutz or individuals who worked together in the same office for years.

Finally they say certain personalities simply seem to click more readily. They come almost preset with an open and levity spirit. This, in turn, can often lead the other person to respond in the same way.

Have the Brafman brothers contributed to our understanding of the mystery of connecting with another person? To be sure they have described various components of the relationship and they have done so by discussing a good deal of current empirical research. I view their analysis as identifying some of the key predictors of clicking.

But even when all these factors are present, there is no guarantee the other person will be on the same wavelength. We can disclose all we want but that may only lead someone else to clam up. Similarly, neither similarity nor proximity seems to me necessary for these kinds of relationships to develop. Nor does a sparkling personality absent a shared temperament.

The mystery remains. Of all of the factors the Brafmans identify the one that seems to have the most practical value is disclosing personal details of your life, what they call “the power of vulnerability.” But this is a very tricky matter, as well as a bit manipulative. More likely, that “ineffable chemistry” simply happens or it doesn’t, the gears will mesh unpredictably, uncontrollably perhaps once or twice in a lifetime—if you are lucky. Let it be. No matter your age, your current relationships, your joys or heartbreaks, you’ll recognize it instantly.


21st Century Commonplace Books

Has the commonplace book tradition come to an end? I know there are still a few people who keep a private collection of memorable passages from the books they read. At the same time, in recent years a considerable number of “commonplace books” have migrated from their handwritten or printed version to the Web. Perhaps they are the wave of the future, the dominant form that 21st Century commonplace books will take.

While these electronic analogues of their forerunners have probably not led to a revival of the commonplace tradition, they have surely broadened the audience for what was always a largely private activity. Several of these sites include a section in which the author gives a brief statement of its background. For example the author of The Sheila Variations writes:

Years ago - in high school - I started keeping a 'commonplace book' - although I had no idea at the time that there was a NAME for it. I just wanted to keep all the quotes I really liked in one place. I called it my quote book. Then much later, I realized that there's a long, long tradition of people keeping these "commonplace books" - especially "those guys" that I love so much in the 18th century. I've shared a ton of those quotes with you all here.

The Commonplace Book Website is authored by a librarian, J. Jacobs is distinctive in that it has an author and word index, as well as a search tool for specific topics and “random quotes.” To locate the passages that Jacobs has entered into his Commonplace Book, it is first necessary to type the name of a topic, word, or author in the box on the search page. An author search for Shakespeare resulted in three selections, one for Borges yielded eleven, and a topic search for “Literature” yielded over a dozen passages, some of considerable length. For example, the search for Hemingway produced the following passages that seemed especially timely a few years ago:

No one man nor group of men incapable of fighting or exempt from fighting should in any way be given the power, no matter how gradually it is given them, to put this country or any country into war.

The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.

A few electronic commonplace books are designed as collective sites, a Wiki in Internet parlance, where anyone can contribute to the list of passages. The Literary Works Commonplace Book is an unedited collection of quotations drawn from a list of book titles arranged alphabetically. For example, a click on the link for The American Scene by Henry James displays 17 passages including their page and chapter number, while the link for Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities cites 19 passages with their chapter number.

Another is The Commonplace Book for Advisors is a collection of quotations that educators might find instructive in guiding their students. It has been created by the voluntary submissions of unknown advisors from unknown places. Most importantly, it is organized around a set of fourteen topics including careers, decision making, overcoming adversity, success, and friendship.

Most of the remaining commonplace books on the Web consist of a cumulative set of unrelated quotations and sometimes drawings and photographs from literary or artistic sources on various topics that simply follow one another in chronological order.

Does the public visibility of these commonplace books increase their readership? In response to my question about the number of hits or visits their Websites get during an average week, one author said about 50-75 hits a week, another said 150 each week, while the author of the most widely visited said his gets about 762 during an average week. On a yearly basis, this ranges from about 2,600 to 39,624, an enormous degree of variability that surely depends on the subject matter of the Website, as well as its placement in Internet search engines.

Regardless, it is clear that readership on the Web is far greater than would be expected for a printed volume of the same material. Of course, these figures don’t tell us how much is read, or what a viewer derives from the experience, nor how many readers were stimulated to start their own commonplace books after viewing these electronic collections, all of which would be very interesting to know.


On Moving

We are moving once again. This will be the 23rd time we have moved to a new residence since graduate school days and I am hoping most fervently that it will be the last. Dream on, Richard.

We move, I move, because it is one of the pleasantries of academic life—a sabbatical here, a visiting professorship there. And then again we move, I move, because of the restlessness that I cannot escape, wandering from town to town, from neighborhood to neighborhood in search of I know not what.

This has to be the craziest move of them all. How else to look upon it? From our current rental overlooking beautiful downtown Portland, we are moving to the very same unit one floor below—same view, same floor plan, same everything, only now contrary to my irrefutable arguments, we will own the place rather than rent it. So much for my powers of persuasion

I search for writers who have written about moving. What did Emerson have to say? What about Montaigne—he had something to say about everything? But no, neither has written even a snippet about the matter as far as I can tell.

But Lawrence did: We make a mistake forsaking England and moving out into the periphery of life. After all, Taormina, Ceylon, Africa, America -- as far as we go, they are only the negation of what we ourselves stand for and are: and we're rather like Jonahs running away from the place we belong.

A friend who has recently moved writes: I am not ashamed to admit that when I go back to Atherton, I am homesick. I first saw Atherton when I was 10 years old when my parents went to visit the Walkers who had owned the lumber company in Westwood…and still think of it as my "Eden."

I surely don’t feel this way about our current move. Portland has never been my Eden and I have never felt the least bit like Lawrence, never felt I belonged in Portland. Other places have felt more like home, but they are far away and English is not spoken there, both of which have always been problems for my best beloved.

Andre Aciman writes more perceptively than anyone I know about the larger meanings of these journeys, journeys across the seas or just down the block. In A Literary Pilgrim Progresses to the Past he admits, I may write about place and displacement, but what I'm really writing about is dispersion, evasion, ambivalence: not so much a subject as a move in everything I write.

I may write about little parks in New York that remind me of Rome and about tiny squares in Paris that remind me of New York, and about so many spots in the world that will ultimately take me back to Alexandria. But this crisscrossed trajectory is simply my way of showing how scattered and divided I am about everything else in life.

And a little later in the same article he continues, Ambivalence and dispersion run so deep that I don't know whether I like the place I've chosen to call my home, any more than I know whether I like the writer or even the person I am when no one's looking. And yet the very act of writing has become my way of finding a space and of building a home for myself, my way of taking a shapeless, marshy world and firming it up with paper, the way the Venetians firm up eroded land by driving wooden piles into it.

So like Aciman, I write a bit about this move, playing “musical-condos” if you will, because it is one of the ways I have to make note of writers who express the follies of my life.


Is Google a Commonplace Book?

Look closely at the photo. It’s a page (9th) of a Google search for “Search Engine.” Note at the top it shows 81-90 of 87,600,000 listings that were obtained by Google in lightning speed--0.07 seconds.

Is that page or any of those that precede or follow it a commonplace book? Steven Johnson in his lecture The Glass Box and The Commonplace Book says it is:

What I want to suggest to you is that, in some improbable way, this page is as much of an heir to the structure of a commonplace book as the most avant-garde textual collage.

To understand Johnson’s claim consider the various meanings of commonplace book. There seem to me to be three. The first refers to a set of quotations from a text that follow one another sequentially without any structure or organization. An example is the blog simply known as Commonplace Book that posts from time to time a referenced quotation without a comment or note.

The second meaning is the one I follow in my commonplace book where I list the passages I have made note of in each of the books or articles I read. After I have finished reading the work, I type in a Word document a heading with the name of the author followed by the title of the text. I follow this with each of the passages I’ve marked. My commonplace book consists now of well over 600 typed written, single spaced pages of such passages.

Thus, it isn’t organized in any systematic fashion, say by subject matter, theme, or category. That has to be done subsequently during a time-consuming analysis. While I’ve done that for the first 300 pages, the second remains a task for the future. I am hoping to find a method that will be simpler and more efficient than the one I employed initially.

I might have used the approach John Locke used as long ago as 1652 in A New Method of Making Commonplace Books that represents the third and most complete meaning of the term. Locke developed an elaborate system for indexing and categorizing the contents of his commonplace book by creating at the outset an index keyed to each letter of the alphabet that was, in turn, divided into five separate sections corresponding to one of the five vowels. He explained his procedure this way:

When I meet with any thing that I think fit to put into my Common-Place-Book, I first find a proper head. Suppose for example, that the Head be EPISTOLA, I look into the Index for the first Letter and the following Vowel which in this instance are E.I. If in the space marked E. there is any number, That directs me to the Page designed for words that begin with an E and whose first Vowel, after the initial Letter, is I. I must then write under the word EPISTOLA in that Page what I have to remark.

Locke did not begin with a pre-determined set of topics or “heads” as he referred to them; instead, they were created during the course of his readings. They included a broad array of themes followed by the passage he selected to fit the theme, and a comment of his own. This sounds like a commonplace book at his best. He not only copied passages but he classified, indexed, and annotated them at the same time. I know of no one who keeps a commonplace book in this manner today. It really isn’t that intricate, although it clearly takes a good deal more time than the two other methods. It also encourages the commonplacer to identify the reason the passage was selected in the first place.

Does a Google search employ this method? In citing Locke’s example, Johnson claims that is precisely what its algorithm does and it does so almost instantly. However, every commonplace book I know about has been created by a real person. Although the Google algorithm performs some of the same functions, insofar as I can tell, it is not such a creature.

On review, I should have included the “real person” component to the commonplace book concept. So while a Google search does provide a set of references (without form or structure), still it is not generated from the reading experience of an individual reader. And while it does provide a list of citations with a brief description (snippet) for the specific search phrase, it doesn’t index them or organize the sub-set in any particular way. Rather they are enumerated one after the other without regard to informative value, author or quality. If I really stick with a Google search for page after page, I am often startled to find the very document I want or the one that is most useful a good many pages beyond the initial one.

Johnson’s really fine lecture has stimulated me to think further about the commonplace book concept, as well a new way of viewing the results of a Google search. It seems to me such a results page or cluster of pages might be viewed as a second or third order variation of a commonplace book, something in between the first and second forms I have described.

It is more a remixing, recombination of ideas and references from a vast range of sources, as in a collage or cento, that are almost miraculously put together in not much more than a nanosecond. But a cento is not a commonplace book in the strict sense of the term, although it may be derived from one.

Johnson ends this portion of his lecture optimistically: “But all of this magic was predicated on one thing: that the words could be copied, re-arranged, put to surprising new uses in surprising new contexts. By stitching together passages written by multiple authors, without their explicit permission or consultation, some new awareness could take shape.”


Experiments to Fight Poverty

I first learned about Esther Duflo and her approach to poverty in Ian Parker’s profile, The Poverty Lab, in the May 10th issue of The New Yorker. Subsequently I watched her presentation at the TED 2010 Conference where she spoke about the critical role of randomized field experiments in formulating social policy in the developing world.

Doing this kind of research doesn’t seem especially innovative but, according to Duflo, it is rare in economics, the field in which she was trained. She says, “I hated economics. I thought it was moronic.” In response she has taken economics out of the lab and its tradition of modeling into the field in trying to discover the sources of poverty and the means to eradicate it.

For her work at the Poverty Lab at MIT she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship last year and this year was the winner of the Clark Medal which is awarded by the by the American Economic Association to "that American economist under the age of forty who is adjudged to have made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.”

I spent my professional life teaching the virtues of randomized, control group experiments. This was in the area of experimental social psychology where this type of design is the gold standard among researchers. So when I read about her work, at first, I was far from impressed. In my naïve way, I imagined that’s what everybody was doing in studying methods of overcoming poverty.

No, this was far from the case. Instead, most programs to combat global poverty form aid agencies, build schools, distribute medical information and supplies and above all distribute enormous sums of financial assistance. They do all this without clear evidence that their programs are working. In fact, a recent article in the Times reported that nearly half of the people in the world still live on less than $2.00 a day and a fifth survive on $1 or less.

To overcome this widely recognized failure of most aid programs, Duflo believes it is necessary to conduct the same type of randomized control experiments that are common in medical research, say in testing a new drug. “I have one opinion—one should evaluate things—which is strongly held….Randomization takes the guesswork, the wizardry the technical prowess, the intuition, out of finding out whether something makes a difference."

Duflo asks, for example, “When trying to prevent very poor people from contracting malaria, is it more effective to give them protective bed nets, or to sell the nets at a low price…?" Theoretically, I would have predicted that people would be more likely to use the nets if they paid a small amount for them rather than if they were distributed freely. However, in testing two groups in Kenya a colleague of Duflo’s found that the best (likelihood of using one) price for bed nets was free.

In another study, she addressed the problem of frequent teacher absenteeism in 120 schools run by an Indian nonprofit group. The teachers in half of the groups were asked to have their photograph taken with the students at the start and end of each school day. Teachers in the other 60 groups were not photographed. Teacher pay was based on their attendance record. The photographed teachers were much more likely to be present than those in the control groups.

Duflo comments: “Who do you care about? Lazy teachers who show up sixty percent cent of the time, or the kids? O.K., I care about the kids.” Because the teachers were more often present in class, the kids were taught more and they performed much better on tests.

In spite of her success in applying randomized experiments, doing this kind of research in the field is not without its difficulties. Anyone who conducts research like this immediately confronts practical problems that undermine the degree of rigor that is possible in the lab. There is also the problem of generalizing from one field setting to another.

As a case in point, Duflo has long wanted to test the effectiveness of microfinance programs. Parker reports, “As she saw it there was little beyond anecdote to support claims that the technique had any special power to combat poverty, gender inequality, and ill health.” In spite of several years of experimental research evaluating the impact of microfinance, the findings revealed that it was no “miracle.”

Parker reports “there had been no rise in average consumption (the best way to get a sense of economic well-being) and no evidence of improvement in levels of education, health or women’s decision making.” At this point we are left with mostly anecdotal evidence that the program helps some individuals to hold a steady job, expand their business, enable them to build a house, etc. But for many Duflo had to admit, “We tried to help them. They don’t want to be helped. Too bad.”

Still she remains optimistic: There is a lot of noise in the world. And there is a lot of idiosyncrasy. But there are also regularities and phenomena. And what the data is going to be able to do –if there is enough of it—is uncover, in the mess and the noise of the world, some lines of music that actually have harmony. It’s there, somewhere.


Sources of Influence

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated….John Donne

Imagine a scale of influences upon a writer where at one extreme, a subtle unconscious return of a forgotten sentence or passage by a writer is used by another writer. At the mid-point of the scale, a writer quotes or reworks the words of another writer with due citation or acknowledgement. Lastly, at the other extreme, a writer copies or plagiarizes the work of another writer, without any citation or acknowledgement.

According to F. K Taylor the first is known as Cryptomnesia that he defines as the return of a memory without its being recognized as such by a writer who believes it is something new and original instead of the work of someone else.

In his widely discussed essay The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem suggests that many writers and artists may have exhibited a form of Cryptomnesia. “The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon…”

He wonders, for example, if Nabokov’s Lolita might in fact have been based on an unacknowledged memory of an almost identical tale written by Heinz von Lichberg published forty years before Nabokov’s novel. In addition, he claims unrecognized “appropriation” has occurred in a good deal of Dylan’s and other songwriter’s music.

David Shields recent “manifesto” Reality Hunger is an example a work that falls at the mid-point of influence where an author quotes or remixes the words of another writer with some citation or acknowledgement. Shield’s book is made of up 618 numbered sentences or paragraphs that are largely drawn from other sources. He claims that a collage of this sort overcomes the tedium and boredom in reading novels which he believes are outmoded and have come to the end of their line. We need to get this word out to all those devoted readers of literary fiction.

I read Shields book or more accurately I tried to read it and I found it utterly boring, indeed, I had to push myself to get from one sentence to the next and ended up skimming the second half as quickly as I could. Readers need or want or expect stories. As Joan Didion put it, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” There is no story in Reality Hunger. And it is not especially edifying either.

While Shields did cite the sources of his quotations, he only did so at the insistence of his publisher in order to avoid allegations of copyright infringement. They are also placed at the end of the book that, in my view, greatly interferes with the reading experience in contrast to footnoting them on the same page where they are quoted.

At the other extreme are examples of outright plagiarism where a writer literally copies all or portions of the work of another writer without acknowledgement or citation. Lethem cites, as an example, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch that he claims “incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism.” Still Lethem admits this method did nothing to detract from the enormous excitement and thrill he experienced in reading the novel.

In the final analysis, most works of literature appear to be a “mélange” of quotation, remixing, and “original” writing. Can it be otherwise? It is all but impossible to know the sources of our ideas, what we draw upon in composing our work, or how we came to compose the lines we end up writing.

Giorgos Seferis, the Greek poet, put it this way: “Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” And it may very be as Helene Hegemann, said in defense of her controversial novel, Axolotl Roadkill that incorporates a great many passages from other works, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,”

Lethem concludes his essay on this note: Any text that has infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone With the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses inexorably joins the language of culture….The authors and their heirs should consider the subsequent parodies, refractions, quotations, and revisions an honor, or at least, the price of a rare success.

In the surprising and lengthy final section of his essay Lethem provides a Key that "names the source of every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together as I “wrote” (except, alas, those sources I forgot along the way)…Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly—for necessities of space, in order, to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.”

Note: I am indebted to Jonathan Lethem for the John Donne passage that he quoted in his essay, The Ecstasy of Influence, published initially in Harper’s Magazine, February 2007.