The Mystery of Change

I truly cannot understand the language of my former heart. Who was that person?
Zadie Smith

Earlier this month (12/17/12) the New Yorker published an essay by Zadie Smith titled, “Notes on Attunement.” It took me a while to figure out what she meant by “attunement.” It’s not a widely used word. In fact, it’s not in most dictionaries.

But what she meant was that there was a time, early in her youth, when she couldn’t stand the music of Joni Mitchell. In other words, she wasn’t in tune with her songs. Instead, she loved songs that made her, dance, laugh, or cry. Joni’s did none of that. To Smith, her songs were just noise.

Her friends asked her: “You don’t like Joni? My friends had pity in their eyes.”

But then after many years, she finally began to appreciate her songs, to come to love them, in fact. Then she asks a question I wish I heard more often.

“How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such change occur?”

Her question gets to the heart of how major shifts in behavior occur and what that implies about a person’s identity. Her transformation came unexpectedly, it wasn’t gradual, or develop as her musical appreciation matured. Smith writes:

“Involving no progressive change but, instead, a leap of faith [the pleasure that Joni Mitchell’s songs now gave her]. A sudden, unexpected attunement. Or a returning from nothing, or from a negative, into something soaring and positive and sublime.”

Today the effect of listening to Joni Mitchell brings her to tears, uncontrollable tears. She says it’s embarrassing and she can’t listen to her songs when others are present. But they bring her a sense of joy, of “almost intolerable beauty.” “I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me.”

On my understanding many major shifts in behavior happen this way. They simply occur over time, without any external pressure or the influence of another person. Sometimes they occur after a major change in one’s life or a “progressive change in taste,” but I don’t sense that either of these factors played a role in Smith’s feelings about Joni Mitchell’s tunes.

What does her observation suggest about a person’s identity? Smith writes, “The girl who hated Joni and the woman who loves her seem to me similarly divorced from each other, two people who happen to have shared the same body.”

Again, I think that is a common observation. I know, for example, that I sometimes wonder how I ever managed to teach psychology or write those articles on issues that seem so foreign to me now. I say to myself that must be another person. It isn’t the me who is the me of today. The discontinuity of the life I lead today and the one I led after I left graduate school is striking.

Many have written about the multiple selves people often have. Perhaps that’s all it is. We are two or three selves at any time in our life, often in opposition or inconsistent with one another, and yet, we occupy the same physical body, maybe a few more wrinkles here and there, a few gray stands of hair, sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier, but we generally look the same so that the friends we had in college recognize us when we see each other at our 50th reunion.

Towards the end Smith writes: “What created this easy transit in the first place is a mystery: I feel I listened to as many songs in childhood as I read stories, but in music I seem to have formed rigid ideas and created defenses around them, whereas when it came to words I never did.”


Annual Report of Briefs

My reading notebook, otherwise known as my commonplace book, consists of two sections now—Briefs and Passages. Passages are the notable thoughts and ideas I collect from the books and periodicals I read. Briefs are provocative comments, a word or phrase, a quotation from a random collection of almost anything I read—a newspaper, blog, journal, essay, etc. The Briefs for each year are usually just a few pages while the Passages can be anywhere from 50 to 90 pages. To give you an idea of the kinds of things I collect in the Briefs, here are those I saved this year

Growing older is like climbing a mountain: the higher you get, the more strength you need, but the further you see
. Ingmar Bergmann

At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who had said “No.” Susan Sontag

“String together a thousand short feature stories and you’ll have a book
.” William Manchester

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. Simone Weil

I know an elderly couple…who lived together for 70 years. They lived identical lives…What kept them together for so long? A wondrous fact: during all these years they quarreled, endlessly. The unusual endurance of their lives and their marriage came from the strength of their disagreements. Doris Grumbach

So what she had, in fact, asked herself was who had time for justice? And the fact that she had articulated this question, even if only privately to herself, jolted her
. Elliot Perlman,

I am still working on trying to understand August Wilson’s significance. The black life he describes in his many, many plays is something I can recognize, certainly, but surface recognitions don’t add up to much in my book, unless they trigger emotional recognitions, which little of Wilson’s work does: I see his situations, but don’t feel them.
Hilton Als

The mind always returns to needs for beauty, truth and insight. Harold Bloom

What is the use of wisdom, if it can be reached only in solitude, reflecting on our reading? Most of us know that wisdom immediately goes out the door when we are in a crisis
. Harold Bloom

In early 2009 I started using voice-recognition software to write…On the first day, when I was sick of the mess of it, I said, “This is a fucking pile of shit.” and the software typed: “This is a flocking to the pilot sheets.” After a day of training, recognition reached 99%, but by the end of the month, I knew I would be able to dictate fiction. [However] writing fiction is the physical act of pushing words round the page until they look good and tight. Using speech to write was like doing a jigsaw with mittens on. Turns out I need to use my hand to write fiction. I find the words, feel them out; need pen and paper and the act of typing to put the right words in the right order. M. J. Hyland

What is life but a gradual shipwreck? John Banville

[Writers] show us what we never expected to see in ourself. Michael Ondaatje

Love is the word used to label the sexual excitement of the young, the habituation of the middle-aged, and the mutual dependence of the old. Lynne Schwartz


Grosse Fugue

The power of music to move is an awesome force. How they were stirred.
Ian Phillips

I have turned away from all too many books because the writing was not appealing to me. That was the case with Ian Phillip’s Grosse Fugue. I found the language almost baroque, excessively flowery. But after a few months I started in once again, pulled back in by its story and bracketed Phillip’s style as best I could.

The three sections of Grosse Fugue mirror the last movement of Beethoven’s string quartet of the same name: The violinist, Reuben Mendel’s, experience during World War I, when he lost perhaps the best friend he ever had; surviving the Holocaust and the horrors of the several camps he was sent to; and his struggle to come to terms with those years, his guilt over failing to save his family, and, at the end, the meaning of Judaism.

Reuben saw his life shaped by the violence of 20th century European history. Born in a small Jewish town in Poland, he very early showed signs of being a musical prodigy. His family fled to England, then to Vienna, where Reuben became a violin virtuoso, and then to the trenches of the Great War.

Like all his comrades, Reuben was forever scarred and shaped by the carnage he had fortuitously escaped. The rest of his life would be spent in its long shadow, the transformation irreversible.

He married, moved to Paris, only to have to flee once again, this time from the Nazis as they descended on France. From house to house in the countryside he managed to evade them, until he and his family were captured in the foothills of the Pyrenees as they were about to reach Spain.

They trusted me to keep them safe—and I failed them, completely failed them.

Thereafter, he was sent to one concentration camp after another until he arrived in Auschwitz where he was separated from his wife and children, never to see them again. The Nazis learned he played the violin and so together with other Jewish musicians they formed a small orchestra to entertain their captors in the evening, after a day of back breaking labor, little food, and bitter cold.

It is only at the end of the novel that he confronts the moral issues of his behavior in the camp. Had he compromised music itself by playing in the orchestra? When he ate, and so deprived another of food, did he commit some crime of self-preservation…By the very fact of survival in that place, had he shuffled off civilization, rather than affirm life by dying without accommodating evil?

Reuben raised these questions, they swirled around in mind for years, but he was never able to answer them, never really tried. However, ever so slowly, he reached a point where his guilt began to recede and playing his violin with a string quartet took its place. Music was his salvation, rescuing him as it always had.

For he had the consolation of knowing he would never be alone, that whenever loneliness and despair became too much to bear, he need only pick up his violin and close his eyes.


The Five "Best" Books of 2012

When we speak of literary taste, we may imagine we refer to preferences regarding subject matter, genre, form and the varieties of narrative prowess. But much of what taste in reading boils down to is less conducive to objective analysis, less neatly parceled into scholarly-sounding brackets. Simply, it’s the extent to which we take pleasure in the company of the author — or rather, a facsimile thereof, a phantom version composed of and subsisting on words alone. Leah Hager Cohen

‘Tis the season for the Best Books of the Year. The 10 Best, the 100 Best, the absolutely all time ever Best. In the spirit of the season, I reviewed the books I read this year, and while it wasn’t exactly a stellar year, at least for me, I did find five that I can call my favorites.

To say they are the Best, of course, is presumptuous; the Best for one reader might very well be the Worst for another. So I call them, my Favorites and no sooner do I say that than I ask what constitutes a favorite Book.

As I try to answer the question, I realize it is probably the one I remember most vividly and that I am likely to recall a year or so down the path. But it must also contain a goodly number of ideas and those special truths that I find in literature. A few is usually sufficient; a great many is a great good fortune

I did enjoy and was greatly amused by one of the top five, but I doubt I’ll recall much about the story for very long. On the other hand, the remaining four were either so grim or provocative, that it would be inaccurate to say they were pleasurable.

But I digress…as usual. Here are the Favorite Five of 2012, listed alphabetically by author with a link to the blog I wrote about each one:

Jennie Erdal, The Missing Shade of Blue
Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth
Elliot Perlman, The Street Sweeper
Eyal Press, Beautiful Souls
Irvin Yalom, The Spinoza Problem

With the exception of Beautiful Souls, they are novels, to a large extent philosophical novels. After mulling this over for a while, I have concluded that Eyal Press’s Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, is the book I rank number one.

It is the book I am most likely to consult again, not only because it has led me in a new research direction, but also because it describes individuals who command my respect. I will not forget the effort of Paul Gruninger to enable Jews fleeing the Nazi’s to seek safety in Switzerland. Or the Israeli, Avner Wishnitzer, a solider in the IDF who refused to serve in the occupied territories. Neither can I forget the whistleblower Leyla Wyder who exposed the Ponzi scheme at the Sanford Financial Group.

Press describes the courageous acts of these and other individuals with great skill that reflects a good deal of research and first hand interviews. Not surprisingly his book is not on anyone’s list of the best books of the year, regardless of the size of the list, but for me it was the most notable book of 2012.


Travels with Epicurus

It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.

Many years ago I took a hydrofoil to the village of Hydra on the Aegean island of the same name. It’s about 40 nautical miles from the Piraeus, with a crescent shaped harbor, packed with fishing boats and expensive yachts around which were clustered shops, cafes and art galleries.

We walked up the cobblestone stairs high into the hills, passing by white stone homes, sleepy cats, and frolicking children. Yes, one of those classic Aegean ports.

I never thought of returning, although after reading Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, it sounds like a very fine idea. In his early 70s, Klein returned to Hydra where he had been many times before. He went this time to figure out how to spend the rest of his life and took with him a suitcase full of philosophy books.

The prospect of reading the ancient Greek philosophers while surrounded by the rocky, sunlit landscape where their ideas first flourished feels just right to me.

Foremost among them was Epicurus’ Art of Happiness that proclaims the virtues of old age, “the pinnacle of life,” and urges those no-longer young to relax, slow down, reflect and surrender to the natural rhythms of growing old. Klein does just that.

For hours he sits on the terrace of a rural Greek taverena, taking in the conversation of those he finds there, playing cards, and befriending Tasso, who simply wants his friend to be with him, sometimes only to share the silence of their companionship.

Klein writes, “I have 73 years of experiences, and if I don’t reflect on them now and see why I did things and what they meant to me, I’ll never do it. How nice that there is a chance to do it.”

He not only read Epicurus but also Plato, Nietzsche, Sartre, Russell, and Erik Erickson, who divided a person’s life into discrete stages, each with its own features, and inherent value.

What did he conclude about the year he spent on Hyrdra idling among the philosophers who joined him at the taverena and those in the books he read? It was not a revelation, or a life-changing idea, but rather nothing more than the way it was before.

Everything is confused again, but this confusion is me!...Clumsy as it was, maybe it was a daring attempt to fathom the unfathomable question of what makes a good and gratifying old age. Perhaps simply raising the question has been some kind of an end in itself.


The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, but Some Don't

We must not expect more precision than the subject matter admits.

Not long after I embarked on the study of psychology, a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with the field began to take hold of me. It took me a while before I realized why I felt this way, but eventually I came to understand that it was due to two factors:

1. The limited ability of the discipline to capture the emotional truths of ordinary experience.

2. The high degree of uncertainty and lack of agreement about research findings.

Perhaps I was asking too much of the discipline, too much at this time in its development. However, in my lifetime, I really didn't see anything to indicate it was making much progress. Quite to the contrary, all I could see was growing conflict between theoretical accounts, increasing neuro-physiologizing, and continuing contradictions between empirical investigations.

I have come to believe that psychology will always have to be content with limitations on the generality of its findings. They may hold for some people, some of the time, but one never can be sure on any given occasion if they apply to a particular individual in the situation at hand.

Nate Silver in The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t suggests I really need to change my way of thinking. He very persuasively argues that we can never make the kind of objective predictions I am seeking, that we must learn to think probabilistically about them, and understand that there will always be a certain degree of uncertainty to any prediction.

…we must think differently about our ideas—and how to test them. We must become more comfortable with probability and uncertainty. We must think more carefully about the assumptions and beliefs that we bring to a problem.

Silver has written an important and extensively documented analysis of predictions made in wide range of subjects including the recent financial meltdown, elections (Silver correctly predicted the Obama’s electoral and popular vote in the last election on his 538 Blog at the Times.), baseball player performance, weather, earthquakes, disease epidemics, the stock market, global warming, terrorist attacks, etc. The notes alone consist of 55 pages of densely annotated citations.

He also treats at some length how we can improve on the accuracy of the predictions we make. The more eagerly we commit to scrutinizing and testing our theories, the more readily we accept that our knowledge of the world is uncertain, the more willingly we acknowledge that perfect prediction is impossible.

Silver confronts head on the biases that influence many predictions. Overconfidence is especially common, as is our fundamental ignorance of probability theory. This prevents us from thinking in terms of the conditional probability of a future event.

The virtue in thinking probabilistically is that you will force yourself to stop and smell the data—slow down, and consider the imperfections in your thinking. Over time, you should find that this makes your decision making better.

But nowhere does Silver treat at any length the kinds of questions that psychologists pose, say, for example, how an individual will feel about a future stressful period in their life, the likelihood that they will change a long-held habit, or the nature of their social relationships, and cognitive processes.

Whether or not his methodology can be usefully applied to such issues is an open question. Regardless, whatever forms his analysis would take, it would inevitably be formulated in probabilistic terms and its value would depend on a certain willingness to accept a considerable degree of uncertainty. Thus, we circle back to the basic concerns I expressed about psychology at the outset.

No doubt Silver will remind us once again that we will inevitably be faced with epistemological uncertainty, especially when it comes to the very considerable difficulties of predicting human behavior.


The Zookeeper's Wife

Somewhere between doing and not doing, everyone’s conscience finds it’s own level…
Diane Ackerman

From what a friend told me about Diane Ackerman’s, The Zookeeper’s Wife, I thought it was a novel. But no, as I began reading it, I soon realized it was a non-fiction account of wartime Poland and particularly the effort of the two zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina and Jan Zabinski , to save hundreds of people, including several hundred Jews.

There were 380,000 Jews who lived in Warsaw at the start of World War II. A fraction survived the Holocaust, among them were the 300 that Antonina and Jan managed to smuggle, hide, and keep alive at the zoo until the war ended. They were hidden amongst the rubble of the zoo that was virtually destroyed by the Nazis, in underground tunnels, and in the villa that was the Zabinski’s home on the zoo’s grounds.

I knew about the Nazi effort to exterminate the Polish Jews and the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. After reading Ackerman’s account, I knew a great deal more. For example, that anti-Semitism was rampant in twentieth century Warsaw, a city of 1.3 million people, a third of whom were Jews.

“I ask nothing of the Jews except that they disappear.” German Governor Frank

And that there was a well organized resistance movement in Poland that was larger and in many respects more effective than the better-known French Resistance.

With courage and ingenuity, the Polish Resistance would sabotage German equipment, derail trains, blow up bridges, print over 1,100 periodicals, make radio broadcasts, teach in covert high schools and colleges…, aid Jews in hiding, supply arms, make bombs, assassinate Gestapo agents, rescue prisoners, stage secret plays, publish books, lead feats of civil resistance, hold its own law courts, and run couriers to and from the London-based government-in-exile.

Lastly, that the spirited rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto collapsed after 30 days of ferocious street to street fighting with much of the Ghetto in rubble after the Nazi’s massive effort to destroy both the Ghetto and the city of Warsaw itself.

The uprising is the Ghetto was the largest single revolt by the Jews during World War II and also the first mass uprising in German occupied Europe.

The origin of The Zookeeper’s Wife also interests me. While Ackerman is a naturalist, it was her Polish grandparents who first drew her to this story and from them she learned a great deal about living in Poland then. She also chanced upon the memoir Antonia had written, had it translated, and began interviewing those who knew her and had managed to survive the war. Her research into books and documents in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish was extensive and she has skillfully brought it to the pages of the book, a book that I keep thinking is a novel, and even though it isn’t, still reads like one.

At the end Ackerman raises a question that continues to be at the center of every book I read about the Holocaust. Namely, what led some people to come to the aid of Jews at the risk of their life and the life of everyone in their family? She offers the same reasons most rescuers give when asked this question.

They say they could not turn away from a person fleeing the Nazis, that it was the right thing to do. Ackerman writes, Rescuers tended to be decisive, fast thinking, risk taking, independent, adventurous, openhearted, rebellious and unusually flexible—able to switch plans, abandon habits, or change ingrained routines at a moment’s notice.

However, most people didn’t want to get involved and we have no account of those Poles or the citizens of any other country who did not put their lives at risk to save Jewish individuals fleeing the Nazis. The difference between the rescuers and non-rescuers is a topic worthy of any serious investigator of the Holocaust and altruistic behavior in general.


Goodbye Philip

Quit while you're ahead. Philip Roth

When is it time to quit, to stop doing what you’ve done all your life? I am reminded of this question by the self-proclaimed end of Philip Roth’s writing days. “To tell you the truth, I’m done…I did the best I could with what I had.”

I’m a great admirer of the tennis legend, Roger Federer, for his elegance and grace and winning ways on the court. Every time Federer loses, and that occurs more and more often now, I learn once again an important lesson about loss. I also think perhaps it is time for Federer to stop playing, although I am aware of how much he loves the game.

Ted Williams of the always-losing Boston Red Sox, retired from baseball at the peak of his performance, although he could have continued playing for several more years. He hit a home run his last time at bat and remains to this day the last hitter in the major leagues to hit over 400 in a single season.

Roth is not the first writer to stop writing near the peak of their skill. His last novel, Nemeses, is one of his finest. His work has always meant a great deal to me and I will miss reading another one. A friend wrote to me about Nemesis, “The last 3 pages are some of the most beautiful lyricism I've seen.”

Other writers have not bowed out so gently. Hemingway shot himself, Wallace hanged himself, the young Plath stuck her head in a gas oven, and Zweig, along with his wife, took their own lives with overdose of barbiturates. He wrote, “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”

Many writers simply run out of things to say, they have nothing new to write about, and even if they did, it would be far from their best and they were not ready to settle for anything other than their best. Roth has written over 30 books, several short stories, as well as a good many critical studies of authors he admired or wanted to introduce to a wider audience. What more could he do that he hasn’t already done before?

Maybe age is getting the better of him. It is the topic of some of his last books. The “massacre” of old age, he called it. He is 79 years old now and he is not only running out of years, but perhaps he has lost the ability to concentrate for sustained periods or the remarkable energy and vitality that characterized those sentences when he was at his best.

I am sure many writers, especially those as prolific as Roth, run out of ideas at some point in their life. Then it becomes a question what to do next, how to get through the day to be utterly frank. Roth doesn’t seem concerned with that question, not yet anyway.

In what he claimed was his last interview, reported by Charles McGrath in this Sunday’s Times, Roth said he sat around for months trying to think of an idea for a new book. He concluded, “I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it…I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration…It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

Not long ago he reread all of his books, beginning with the last, Nemesis. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was more or less a success.”

His many readers concur and, as he did, will want to reread a goodly number of his previous books. I am fairly sure we will conclude, as he did that it was “more or less” worthwhile.

Here is Roth in an interview last year:


On Blogging

“When I began to make friends, writing was the vehicle. So that in the beginning, writing, like reading, was less a solitary pursuit than an attempt to connect with others. Jhumpa Lahiri

What is the function of blogging, the unspoken motive beyond the desire to inform, rant, or report in all the ways that blogging has given rise to? Laura Gurak suggests one reason, especially for young bloggers, in her study, “The Psychology of Blogging:”

“…the most popular topic among bloggers is “me.… the blur between private (“me”) and public …are truly the most interesting psychological features of blogging.”

In her paper Gurak claims that blogging, like writing therapy, is to a certain extent therapeutic for some individuals. Journaling has been both recommended and reported to be a way to reduce stress and express emotions. A recent report indicates that blogging may also have that effect for teenagers.

In this well-controlled field experiment, adolescents were assigned to one of six separate groups for a period of ten weeks. Two of the groups were asked to blog about their current emotional difficulties, one open to responses and one closed. Two other groups were asked blog about any subject, again one open to responses and one closed. Another group was asked to write freely in a diary, while the sixth group was a no-treatment control.

The results showed that adolescents who blogged about their current difficulties, regardless of the response condition, improved the most on all social-emotional measures and that these effects were maintained two months later in a follow-up assessment.

I suspect there are reasons other than lessening emotional stress why blogging might also be therapeutic. And in a way I continue to find the experience beneficial. Like a classroom assignment, it gives me something to think about and I confess sometimes simply sets the agenda for a few hours.

From the beginning I had always viewed blogging as an intellectual exercise where I had a chance to write something coherent about an issue that mattered to me. After writing it, I sometimes felt good about what I’d done.

I have no interest in Texting, Tweeting or Facebooking. The increasing popularity of theses forms of expression among young adults cannot be taken lightly. According to a recent Pew Internet research report, social networks are starting to replace blogging as the preferred means of communicating for teens and young adults (less than 30 years of age). In 2006 approximately 28% of teens and young adults were said to be bloggers, while a few years later in 2009 the number decreased by half to 14%.

I’ve not read any blogs written by this group but I do know the kind of writing and fragmentary comments on social media sites does little to sustain a habit serious commentary. I also have no idea if this way of communicating to other individuals has any lasting value. Any such account of the effects of social media must remain speculative for now and I’m not one who does much of that.

Note: In order to embark on a new project, Marks in the Margin will take a break from blogging on a regular basis for a while. Postings, if any, will be sparse and intermittent during this period.


The Friendship of Books

“Lasting friendship is rare. It requires constant maintenance and is never a passive accomplishment. Not so with books. Despite our neglect and ingratitude, they remain constant, happy whenever we return.”
Patrick Kurp

You form your friendships where you find them. They can be anyone, anywhere, at anytime. There was an era when book collectors and readers had a close relationship with books and its characters. They viewed them as friends, companions, as real as any person and for some that era still lives on.

In Companionable Books, first introduced to me by Patrick Kurp on his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, George Gordon writes, “What most men and women are looking for all their lives is companionship…There is a companionable quality in some books that skips the centuries…”

The neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, in Ian McEwan’s Saturday is as real to me as anyone I will ever hope to meet. I continue to think about his ideas, his medical expertise and his sense of humor. Perowne’s daughter is a poet and he is amused by her tutorials to try to get him up to speed about literature.

In turn, I was entertained by their delightful banter and the ironic exchanges they have about his disinterest in following her lead. And it is clear that Perowne isn’t much of a reader. So even though he is a deeply reflective man, I suppose one should not have been surprised, as I was a first, by the following passage:

Henry read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.

No, Henry is a scientist devoted to his work and the promise he sees in neurophysiology. Still he is restless, at times silently dissatisfied with his life, and yearns for something more. If it is anything, the missing element is music.

There’s nothing in his own life that contains this inventiveness, this style of being free. The music speaks to unexpressed longing or frustration, a sense that he’s being denied himself an open road, the life of the heart celebrated in the songs. There has to be more to life than merely saving lives.

It’s hard to find a friend quite like Henry Perowne. But he became a close friend during the time I was reading the book. I greatly enjoyed his company and the chance to spend some time with him. And once in a while, I think back on our conversations and return to the ideas we discussed. It seems we had a good deal in common especially our tendency to spend part of each day ruminating about one thing or another and examining the contents of our mind down to the smallest synapse.


The Anne Frank Game

I’m not good at games—my only defence is not to play it back but to opt out of the game altogether. Samantha Harvey

Have you heard of the Anne Frank game? It’s not exactly Scrabble Light. In fact, it’s a dangerous game, full of unknown risks and devastating consequences, especially if you play it with your dearest friend or spouse. Beware: Falling Rocks Ahead.

Nathan Englander described the game in his short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” first published in the 12/5/11 issue of the New Yorker. It is also one of several other stories in his recent book with the same title. Each of the tales is said by Englander to involve a moral test of its characters.

The game is a “thought experiment” in which you make a prediction about another person’s behavior. In this case, it’s a prediction about whether or not the individual will hide you in the event of another Holocaust. When asked about the origin of the game, Englander replied:

“The truth is the idea for the game comes from the fact that my sister and I have played the game forever and ever. She is older. And she invented it. And it become clear to me that it wasn’t a game at all. The highest compliment we give to certain friends is to say something like, “Yes, Nicole would hide me. She really would.”

In the story, the narrator and his wife are talking with old friends of his wife who are visiting from Israel. All four are Jewish, the Americans living in Florida are secular Jews, while the couple from Israel have shifted from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox. The characters are drunk and high and begin trying to decide who might hide them and who might betray them if there ever was to be another Jewish genocide.

The game becomes quite another matter when the couples move beyond their friends and neighbors, strangers, Christian or Jew, and start trying to decide if they would save their spouse. Would you hide your wife or your husband and would you say what couldn’t be said?

You see how risky this so-called game can be? Had you known that, you might not have agreed to play. However, in the story, the characters had been drinking all afternoon and then started smoking marijuana. And so they began. Elsewhere Englander says,

I am obsessed with the social contract, or rather the ways it can be tested and eventually broken. It fascinates me how an individual has to hold so many opposing realities in his or her head simply in order to survive.

Let’s look at this game from another perspective, one less a test of a person’s character and more a matter of what is known about predicting future behavior. And what has been confirmed over and over again in studies of this issue is that individuals are woefully inaccurate in predicting their own and anyone else’s behavior.

Given that you know about the game and the fallibility of human judgment, would you want to play at all?

There are many roads that lead to Rome. If fact, all roads are said to lead to Rome. Some are more scenic than others, but they can be treacherous in spots. Whatever road you take will have its consequences.


Modern Times

"I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots." Einstein

First it was the telephone and then the television and now e-mailing and texting and the constant stream of whatever it is that people are staring at or listening to on their cell phones. Rarely do I see a young person walking about without their eyes focused on its screen or talking to someone with the thing. What is it that they are talking about? How can they have so much to say to one another?

At dinner one night at an outdoor cafĂ© in Italy, I observed a couple sitting silently together at their table. Each one was peering at their cell phone. I never once saw them speaking to one another. Instead, they spent the entire time talking to someone on their mobile. And when they were finished speaking, they continued to fiddle with it, no doubt searching for the latest text message or poking around the Web. I thought they were surely a couple on the verge of a meltdown. Since then, I’ve seen this scene played out at almost every restaurant and on the streets of every place I’ve been to recently. And it’s just not the young who are doing this.

What is lost when people no longer experience or know how to deal with the “separation” and the desire to be alone for any length of time, or even a moment of reflection? “First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self…Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading.” William Deresiewicz

What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the drivers were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking to a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. Philip Roth Exit Ghost

We were sitting in the window of the luncheonette and could see people walking by on the street. At the moment I looked up, every one of them was talking on a cell phone. Why did those phones seem like the embodiment of everything I had to escape? They were an inevitable technological development, and yet, in their abundance, I saw the measure of how far I had fallen away from the community of contemporary souls. I don’t belong here anymore, I thought. Philip Roth Exit Ghost

I guess this is nothing new. Even the speedy Mercury was fixated on his cell phone.


Into the Ark

“We have a hundred-year flood every two years now.” Governor Andrew Cuomo

Hurricane Sandy reminds me of two natural calamities that occurred in Portland, Oregon where I have lived for many years. One was the eruption of Mount St Helens on May 18, 1980. A dense cloud of volcanic ash drifted over the city, covering everything with a thick blanket of dark gray ash that virtually shut down the city for days. We were told not to go out and, if it was necessary, to wear a mask.

Not so many years ago, ice storms descended on Portland each winter, making the roads so treacherous it was impossible to drive anywhere. The ice broke limbs on trees throughout the city and led to power outages that lasted for days. The windows in our home, not yet weatherized with double-paned glass, were covered with ice. We used a Coleman stove to heat our food, flashlights to read, and slept in sleeping bags by the fire.

But we haven’t had an ice storm for years which some say is yet another sign of the world heating up. Can global warming clarify our understanding of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive force? Perhaps so, although, as with any weather related event of this magnitude, it is impossible to attribute it to any single factor.

However, we do know that oceans throughout the world are gradually rising as the ice melts away in the northern ice fields. The effects of this are most noticeable in the low-lying areas as we saw in New Orleans and now New York and New Jersey, as well as along some coastal areas of India and Bangladesh during the monsoon seasons.

When these tragedies strike this country or one of its cities, people come together as a community. They begin taking to one another again. At least, there is something to talk about, something we have in common, and a way to help our neighbor. Why it takes these calamities to engender this spirit is yet another tragedy. In such times, we often turn to the poet:

Into the Ark
An endless rain is just beginning.
Into the ark, for where else can you go,
you poems for a single voice,
private exultations,
unnecessary talents,
surplus curiosity,
short-range sorrows and fears,
eagerness to see things from all six sides.

Rivers are swelling and bursting their banks.
Into the ark, all you chiaroscuros and half-tones,
you details, ornaments, and whims,
silly exceptions,
forgotten signs,
countless shades of the color gray,
play for play’s sake,
and tears of mirth.

As far as the eye can see, there’s water and hazy horizon.
Into the ark, plans for the distant future,
joy in difference,
admiration for the better man,
choice not narrowed down to one of two,
outworn scruples,
time to think it over,
and belief that all this
will come in handy someday.

For the sake of the children
that we still are,
fairy tales have happy endings.
That’s the only finale that will do here, too.
The rain will stop,
the waves will subside,
the clouds will part
in the cleared up sky,
and they’ll be once more
what clouds ought to be:
lofty and rather lighthearted
in their likeness to things
drying in the sun—
isles of bliss,

Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Note: I am grateful to Sasha Weiss on the New Yorker’s online blog, Page Turner, for reminding me of Szymborska’s poem.


All is Song

And philosophy was the pure song, the purest of songs, heard only with training, and hanging at a pitch outside of the common range. Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey invites a reader to consider several issues throughout her philosophical novel, All is Song—the power of brotherly love, the choice between questioning and conforming, and the pervasiveness of anti-intellectualism in society.

Not everyone likes this kind of novel. One reviewer found the writing “labored.” Another commented on the “overwhelming beauty of the prose.” So much for critical reviews.

Leonard Deppling returns to London after the end of his marriage and caring for his dying father. He has come to join his brother, William, a former lecturer and activist. Leonard seeks to understand why William never visited his ailing father or attended his funeral. He moves in with William’s wife and three children.

William is a thoroughly unconventional man, unworldly, and forever questioning. What? How? Why? He is a modern version of Socrates, walking about the neighborhoods of London, talking informally with young people, and gathering quite a dedicated group of followers. He says,

…to my mind, far from being arrogant, asking questions is the most humble thing a person can do. And my freedom isn’t a reward if it’s at the expense of reason and honesty.

Imagine being with such a person, a person who never ceases to question what you say never assuming he understands what you said, or that you understood it either. He takes the simplest thing you say and breaks it down into little linguistic puzzles. What do you mean by this? The word has several meanings. I am not sure what you meant by this. William says,

“The problem is that you’ve used a lot of ideas in that sentence I can’t even begin to understand. The just, the good, the natural.” Leonard gathers himself together and says, “Allow me a sentence free of charge sometimes; allow me that, yes? William replies, “I won’t do anything without proper thought.”

Finally, one of William’s young followers, Stephen, commits a crime that for any serious reader is one of the worst imaginable. Stephen flees the country and because of the close association of the two men, William is implicated in the crime.

Recall what happened to Socrates when he was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens. William acts similarly during his trial as an accessory to the crime. He says, “I’d rather share below room in a prison cells than give away a millimeter of space in my mind.”

Harvey’s novel is a philosophical work of fiction par excellence. If you like reading novels of ideas that probe relentlessly into debate about morality, religion, existence, friendship and obligations to the persons you love, you’ll enjoy All is Song.

In spite of William’s questioning and the spiraling inquiry this usually led to, nothing he could say or do had slightest effect on the deep bond between the two brothers. The kindness and love between them remained in tact.

I see kindness at times among all the bullshit, and I see love.


On Silence

Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?
Lawrence Durrell

Much of my day is spent alone, surrounded by a silent world. I’m no longer a member of the academic world, the world of almost constant conversation. I rarely attend a lecture, watch television, or speak with colleagues.

Is this world of quietude affecting me? Sometimes I catch myself using a word or unusual phrase and recognize it was something I often heard X use. Listening to these words will begin to diminish now. Will I come up with those of my own? Will I eventually forget how to speak at all, let alone engage in a decent conversation?

No, I don’t think that will happen. Once you begin to speak and then to speak in genuine sentences that become more complex, you’ll never forget. Talking is like riding a bicycle; once you learn, you’re set for life.

Over time, what you say becomes more distinctive and more your own way of speaking. But what happens when so much of your world grows silent? The poet writes:

In the silence
The silence of my days
Deepens, the wind is still:
Unbroken cloud or haze
Wraps up the world until
The minds which once seemed full
Seem empty, dark and dull.

I speak, and no one hears:
I listen, no one speaks.
There is no sound of tears,
No laughter. No one seeks
The future in the past
Where it must come at last.

And is the future new?
They say so, who ignore
Adam and Eve show through
Today as heretofore.
The murder done by Cain
Is daily done again.

Celebrate if you will
The triumph of your genes:
The past is working still
—That is all that it means.
In every spoken word,
Always, the past is heard.

Perhaps silence is best,
But if there must be speech,
Then watch it closely, lest
It stretches out of reach.
The future is too far:
The past is all we are.

C. H. Sisson


Conversations With My Gardener

I remember once…I met this woman…She was an Indian woman. Older than I was. And it was there…we knew each other at once. You have to trust this kind of thing. …It has nothing to do with age, or sex, or color, or anything of that sort. Doris Lessing

When was the last time you had a genuine conversation with someone, rather like a dialogue where one person poses a question or makes a statement and the other replies in kind and it continues on this way until you run out of steam?

A few days ago I had a chance to see Conversations with My Gardener once again. How could I resist? The beauty of the French countryside, in this case the area around Rhone Alps, close to the Swiss border in southern France, drew me to the film the first time. I also went to see the no less special nature of the friendship between the Parisian painter and the gardener he hires to bring back to life the vegetable garden at his country estate.

This time I saw something different, namely the character of the conversations between the two men, each from a different class, educational experience, and life’s work. What was the source of the deep rapport between these two dissimilar men? How were they able to find so much to talk about, from the mundane to the reflective, with such pleasure? Was there any distinctive feature of what they said or how they it that created such a perfect blending?

As I viewed the film once again and thought further about it, I realized it was their total honesty in disclosing themselves, in bringing their own experiences to each other. Each of them in turn followed with something about their own life. They listened to one another. They heard one another. And they responded to what was said.

How rare is that, how often does it occur to you? You have to let down your guard and hope that it will be appreciated and reciprocated. You never know if that will happen. But it’s a good way to start, if that kind of exchange means anything to you.

It isn’t associated with men or women; it can occur with the young and the old. There is nothing sexual about it. That would only ruin it, although there is an element of intimacy connected with it. It happens immediately and is thoroughly exhilarating.

One night several years ago, I had dinner with a librarian. She was about to head out of town to play poker in Las Vegas. Yes a poker playing librarian; they seem to come in all varieties now. Naturally, the juxtaposition of librarian and poker player fascinated me. (The Secret Lives of Librarians, a Times Notable Book of the Year.)

Anyway, we talked as one does when having dinner with a librarian, especially, a poker playing one. I tried to find out what it is about poker than meant so much to her. She replied, “I am most myself when I am playing poker.”

It is a phrase I sometimes use about myself in some situations, but not while playing poker which is not among my current activities, although now that I know a local librarian, it might become one. After our rendezvous, I began to think further about when individuals are most themselves.

I began by looking more closely at the concept. What does it mean to say you are most yourself? The phrase implies that each person has a central core, one that is in some way set apart from the other self or selves that we usually display. The oracle admonished us to “Know thyself.” What is this self that the oracle is referring to?

I think the Graham [Greene] was not simply “made up of two persons.” Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence. Shirley Hazzard Greene on Capri

The conversation between the painter and gardener was something like that, two persons who realized when they met that they had been childhood friends, each expressing the way they felt at this time in their life--the painter struggling with a separation from his wife, the gardener enjoying his time in the garden, as he was succumbing to an illness.

Both men becoming increasing attached to one another, the pleasure of their friendship and the opportunity to display it and help one another. They were different people at other times and situations, the painter a sophisticated art critic, the gardener a railway company laborer. Don’t we all carry around another self or several, rather than one?


The Forgetting River

One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore.
William Zisseer

I know nothing about why my grandparents fled their homes in Europe, how they viewed this country when they finally arrived, and the reasons they settled where they did. Now there is no one left to answer the many questions I have.

In The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity and the Inquisition, Doreen Carvajal writes about this dilemma and her effort to unravel the mystery of her unknown past. All she knew was that her ancestors had left Spain centuries ago during the Inquisition, that her family had been raised as Catholics, and lived in Costa Rica and California.

But she always had doubts about her religion and, in time, began to think that her family was, in fact, Sephardic Jews, Christian converts known as conversos. The puzzle of her identity “so nagged at me that I tried to resolve it by collecting masses of evidence.”

She conducted interviews, read documents, analyzed records, had several DNA tests, none of which were conclusive, and finally moved to Arcos de la Frontera, a small village in southern Spain where she knew her ancestors had lived before the Inquisition.

There she began to discover hidden clues and cryptic messages that hinted at her past. Carvajal writes, “Persecution forces secret communication. It provokes a unique form of creativity, truth delivered between the lines to careful observers.” But none of these clues gave her the kind of evidence that provided conclusive proof of her historical identity.

As a writer and journalist, all she wanted was a scrap of paper with some words, perhaps a paragraph or two. Finally she found it in an old wooden desk hidden away a small drawer, where small cards were kept. On the back of one, she writes:

“…was a prayer, Psalm. The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, They will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the temple of our God They will still bear fruit in old age. I clasped my hand over my mouth in disbelief. Luz Carvajal, who had told others in the family that we were sefarditas, had gone to the grave with a traditional Sabbath prayer, the shir shel yom, “a psalm, a song for the day of Sabbath.”

It had taken Carvajal 13 years to find the little funeral card stashed in the drawer of the old desk. Taken together with other clues she had discovered in her search, her doubts about her religious upbringing were finally over. She knew her family was actually of Sephardic Jewish ancestry whose identity was hidden, had to be hidden to survive, and silenced for centuries.

Elsewhere she speculates on why the mystery of her history had always haunted her. She wonders if the history of our ancestors is somehow conveyed in unexplained ways from one generation to the next. Investigators of this process tell her that the only way this can happen, other than the normal sources of verification, is through genetic transmission.

At the heart of the field known as epigenetics is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents…can directly affect us decades later.” So this is where the trail has led her, questions of genetic influence, mode of transmission, difficult questions that are no less puzzling than her initial ones.

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started... and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot


Resistance in Nazi Germany

We learned too late that it is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern write about "The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi" in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. Like other individuals I have written about, I was attracted to their essay by the moral courage displayed by both men in Nazi Germany.

To resist the Nazis was to invite imprisonment, torture and more likely death to yourself and immediate members of your family. As a result, the number of Germans engaged in resistance activities was very small with nothing like the somewhat more coordinated French, Polish and Italian groups.

Both Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were fully aware of the consequences of their activities. Yet they opposed the regime both overtly and covertly for several years. What can we learn about resisting injustice from their example?

Diestrich Bonhoeffer was a well-known pastor. Once the Nazis proclaimed that race, not religion, determined one’s identity, Bonhoeffer joined 2,000 other religious leaders in challenging the Nazi view. In 1935 he left Berlin to assume a teaching position in a remote “preachers’ seminary” where he made clear his opposition to the ideology of the Nazi party.

Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was a virtually unknown lawyer. In 1934 he became aware of various Nazi illegal acts and began keeping a record of them in a secure safe to be used in any subsequent prosecution of Nazi criminals once the regime was overthrown. He also joined together with other German officers opposed to Hitler and his planned takeover of Czechoslovakia.

After Krisallnacht and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Nazis began watching both men closely. During a short sojourn in America to study with his mentor Reinhold Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer realized he had to return to Germany. He wrote:

I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany…Christians in Germany are going to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose.

Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi, separately and together, began more active forms of resistance once the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and escalated their program of exterminating Jewish men, women and children.

• Both men were able to arrange the “deportation” of Jewish individuals to Switzerland.

• Dohnanyi somehow managed to plant a British-made bomb in a plane carrying Hitler back from Russia, but the mechanism didn’t work.

• A few days later they participated in another failed attempt to assassinate Hitler because of last minute changes in his plans.

• Both men were arrested the following month and were taken to different prisons in Berlin. While there, they stayed in touch with coded or smuggled messages. In this way they were able to inform others of what they knew of the Nazi atrocities and encourage them to continue with whatever resistance work was possible.

Eventually the Nazis discovered some of the documents revealing their conspiracy against Hitler. In April, after sham trials, Dohnanyi and Bonheffer were executed by hanging.

Sifton and Stern conclude, “One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohanyi and Dietrich Boinhoeffer. …Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said they were “on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.” So few traveled that path—anywhere."


A Day in the Life of a Blog

I've always felt sort of nourished by the New Yorker, finishing an issue feeling ...enlightened, learning something about a subject that was written by a master of his craft.... Anonymous

The best thing about the New Yorker today is their online blogs,

I regard them as the new New Yorker, as the old New Yorker is long gone, a fading memory of the golden era of the literary arts.

Every weekday there are several posts, not one as is the common practice. In fact, there is a group of New Yorker bloggers, whose blogs are listed in the top headline of the blog page. The link I use is their Cultural Desk that is their centralized hub for commentaries on literature, music, film and art.

On Thursday, September 27th, a fairly representative day in the life of this blog, I counted
eight separate postings, as follows.

The New York Art Book Fair

Writing Negative Reviews on Amazon

Contemporary Films

The Songs of Iris Dement

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

The Daily Book News

Prime Minister Netanyahu Caption Contest

Classical Musician and Orchestral Rapper, Chilly Gonzales

This is quite a rich and varied collection and they represent but a small portion of what also is available on the magazine’s Website. You can check the weekly issue to learn the table of contents and which of the articles are not blocked. The fact that the new New Yorker doesn’t make them all available is a bit annoying, largely a matter, I imagine, of Conde-Nast’s corporate interests and we all know what they are.

However, if you are a subscriber, you can also sign in to read them all. The magazine now has a number of digital editions, iPad, iPhone and some but not all Android tablets, free to subscribers, but not to non-subscribers.

Who needs a print edition of the magazine anymore? If you are interested in politics, celebrities, entertainment, food, fashion, etc, then it remains your cup of tea.

P.S. The next day there was another set of eight posts about: the Moby Dick Read, The New York Film Festival, a rehearsal for a new play, the Pale King Archive, long forgotten food recipes, a humorous post on punctuation marks, Japanese photo books at the New York Art Book Fair, and the regular book news.

And just yesterday, that was a long and amusing post about Haruki Murakami and his readers, the Harukists, who were disappointed that he didn’t win the Nobel Prize.


Portraits of The Portrait of a Lady

It is the business of the artist to make humanity aware of itself. Ezra Pound

Is it reasonable to write about a book I’ve never read? I’ve read a fair amount about the book, but not the thing itself. However, I have read a reverential review by Anthony Lane of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady in the New Yorker last month.

Lane writes about how much the book meant to him and reviews a recent book by Michael Gorra about James’s novel titled, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. Once in a while I dip into a James novel, but I’ve found his formal style and ponderous loquaciousness of little appeal.

And while I don’t usually get much out of the movie reviews Lane writes for the New Yorker, his treatment of Portrait and enthusiasm about it was different. I say to myself, if I can’t write a classic novel or expect to enjoy it, the least I can do is read about it.

At this point then, what I have is second order accounts of the novel—Lane’s, Gorra’s as viewed by Lane, along with some timely quotations from James, Lane and Gorra. Lane begins his account the way James began Portrait.

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

This is hardly the view of anyone I have ever met, although it is one that I still continue to practice. Not the traditional English way with scones, jams and other treats. Simply a cup of tea wherever I am and if it’s in the tropics, no doubt iced tea, and if it’s in Portland, hot tea most days in that town in the far north of this land. In the best of all possible worlds, it would be good to share that time with someone else, but that is largely a dream these days.

Lane quotes a passage early in the novel, “She had been looking all round her again,--at the lawn, the great trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house; and, while engaged in this survey, she had also narrowly scrutinized her companions; a comprehensiveness of observation easily conceivable on the part of a young woman who was evidently both intelligent and excited…”I have never seen anything so beautiful as this,” she declared.

Whereupon Lane remarks, “I have never read anything as beautiful as that.” He says the beauty of this passage isn’t the scene James describes but rather the excitement and quickness of Isabel Archer’s response.

Lane acknowledges, as any reader does who rereads a novel they first read when they were young, that his appreciation of The Portrait of a Lady bears little relationship to how he finds it today.

He turns to Gorra’s book about the novel and commends him for approaching James by treating, in depth, only one of his works. He reminds us there are many books about a single book, including Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, etc.

Lane asks if you love a book so much, should you “leave rough traces of that love, or should scholarship smooth them over?” Reading Lane’s essay leaves little doubt in my mind where he stands. Or, for that matter, Jeffrey Eugenides, author of widely praised The Marriage Plot, who called James’s novel, “the best marriage plot novel ever….It’s much darker than anything Austen did, and it leads straight to the moral ambiguities and complexities of the modern novel.”


Failure to Rescue

Scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery after something goes wrong—whether it is an infection or some bizarre twist of the stomach. They call them a “failure to rescue.” More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more. Atul Gawande

Suppose you are faced with surgery and need to choose between two different hospitals. Both have the same death rate following surgery. But they differ in terms of surgical complications. The first has fewer complications, while the second has more, but is better at rescuing patients from them.

Which hospital would you choose? Normally you’d prefer the first, hoping at all cost to avoid any complication. That’s what Atul Gawande, an eminent surgeon and staff writer at the New Yorker, said he would have chosen during his talk at the New Yorker Festival last weekend.

But he admitted he was wrong. You would have been better off having surgery in the second hospital. He said this was crazy and counter intuitive. He pointed out, however, that problems during surgery depend on many unknown and complex circumstances—chance, how poor the patients are, their health, etc., that you really want the hospital that has a better record of rescuing patients from any unforeseen difficulty.

In his lecture, Gawande cited some of the medical studies supporting this idea and explored their implications. He pointed to the British Petroleum oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago. According to the official investigation, there were many signs that the drill pipe was having problems, but the companies involved did nothing about them before the night of the explosions and the crew testing the well the day after did not take immediate action once they recognized how serious the situation had become.

When something goes wrong or a mistake is made, more often than not, we tend to ignore it or diminish its importance and hope it won’t happen again. Less often do we acknowledge the problem and then plan carefully what to do if and when it happens again. The BP crew did not have such a plan ready to employ once they were aware something was wrong.

The hospitals that had a better rescue rate did have in place a well-prepared set of scenarios about what to do once something went wrong. The surgical teams had practiced it, talked about it, and each member of the team knew what to do in the event of an emergency.

Gawande also mentioned the widely discussed case of the US Airways flight that crashed in the icy waters of the Hudson River a few years ago. While most everyone praised the skill of the Pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, even he acknowledged that had little to do with avoiding any casualties. That depended far more on his crew, the plane’s attendants, the proximity of the ferryboats that rushed over to the plane, and above all the well-rehearsed plan they had for responding to emergency situations.

Gawande’s discussion of this issue suggests a general strategy for anyone who wants to deal effectively with unforeseen errors, accidents, and mistakes: Have a plan, practice it, and prepare for as many possible difficulties as possible.

He spoke about this topic in his recent Commencement address to the graduating students at Williams College, concluding:

So you will take risks, and you will have failures. But it’s what happens afterward that is defining. A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it—will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right?—because the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.


Digital Ping-Pong

Several years ago, I read about an air force pilot who deliberately crashed his jet into a remote area of the Rockies. I don’t usually pay much attention to things like that, but for some reason the mystery of this one took hold of me. I was moved to write a poem-of-sorts about it to my wife. A few days later I sent it to her in an email.

It is all over.
Such a disappointment.
They located the plane.
Confirmed it was the pilot.
Soon the bombs will be uncovered
I had been so hoping
It would remain a mystery

Where did the plane go?
What was up with the pilot?
How were the bombs to be used?
What fun to speculate.
Chapter one through six.
A best seller.
Blockbuster film.
Italy each summer.

After I sent her the poem-of-sorts, it didn’t take her long to reply in kind. Her reply itself was unexpected, especially its speed. Her volley was sparkling.

No more mystery?
I disagree.
Why did he do it?
What terrible thing ate at his soul?
Why did he wheel away?
Only to land
In the silent snow
Buried in ice
Fragments scattered

Did he long for the quiet?
Turn off the engine
Give up the struggle
Had he dickered with dying
Had he thought it all through
Was it just an impulse
Or nothing
And everything
A mechanical failure of the soul
Or only a mechanical failure
No more mystery?
Now even more.
Paris in the Fall

I was overwhelmed by her reply. Our exchange was a breathtaking moment in the history of the Internet, to say nothing of our marriage.


Share-It Square

Something is wrong with too many places in America today. Mark Lakeman

Where are the public squares in this country like the piazzas in Italy where people gather to chat with their friends or anyone else who happens by? I recall a suburban square, one like countless others in this country, that was recently built on the main street in a town outside of San Francisco. I have driven by that square many times and not once have I seen anyone there or even anyone approaching the place.

I admire the square, the trees and benches that have been abundantly distributed throughout. I hope that it will eventually become a popular gathering place. But in all honesty, I have no reason to believe it will, as long as you have strap yourself in your three-ton utility vehicle every time you want to go there.

Think of the even more numerous intersections in this country where only automobiles gather to wait for the signal to change. What is an Italian piazza anyway but an intersection where cross streets come together? What might be done to create a more public setting in the lonely intersections of this country?

I first read about how to reinvent the intersection in an interview with Steven Johnson discussing his new book, Future Perfect, in which he discusses once again the importance of peer networks in developing new ideas. He describes a fellow in Portland, Oregon who realized that “throughout human history, cross streets have been places where civic culture happens.”

So he got together with people in his neighborhood to start sprucing up the intersection, now known as Share-It Square after the intersection streets, SE 9th and Sherrett Streets. They built a small lending library, a food stand, 24 hour solar powered tea station, a bulletin board and placed paintings here and there. The idea caught on. Soon there was another one in Portland known as Sunnyside Piazza and then several others, at last count over 20.

After Share-It Square had been developed, the organizers surveyed their individuals in the immediate area and found that an overwhelming majority felt that crime had decreased, traffic had slowed, and communication between neighbors had improved ((85% on each of these measures).

The Sunnyside Piazza intersection is said to attract people throughout the day. Neighbors say they intentionally detour through the intersection to and from the nearby streets, perhaps to visit the kiosk, run into friends, or simply participate in whatever is going on there.

What did it take to change a neighborhood intersection into a public square? One person, who apparently realized on a trip to Italy that cross streets have historically been places where people gather. Initially, the civic officials in Portland resisted his idea, but eventually relented, then neighbors joined together to transform the intersection, and once Share-It-Square became so successful, the concept spread rapidly, as these things do these days.

Imagine what might happen if this idea spread throughout a number of the many empty intersections in this country. Instead of being a boring old cross streets where only cars drive through, they became neighborhood-gathering places. Perhaps, a few might become what they are in Florence and almost any other city in Italy.

“Now at Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day’s work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, artists, doctors technicians, poets, scholars. A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity; the changeable temper of a thousand spirits by whom every object of discussion is broken into an infinity of sense and significations—all of these spring into being, and then are spent. And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.” Richard Goodwin The American Condition


Questions in Fiction

“She communicates largely by asking questions, not personal questions about his life or past history but questions about his opinions on topics ranging from the weather to the state of the world.”
Paul Auster

What is the role of asking questions in fiction, a question that I regard as rather important in itself. Recently I carried out an informal study to look more closely at the role of questions in the passages I recorded from works of fiction in my commonplace book.

To extract questions from electronic digital record of the second volume of my commonplace book, I simply entered a question mark in the Word Find box and recorded the question found. This is one of the simplest ways a commonplace book can become a research tool.

I selected about three quarters of the questions (227) from 151 separate works of literature. Some like Night Train to Lisbon had a great many questions, others like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road had only one, as did John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In most cases I selected questions that had a general application and avoided those that did not raise a larger issue. Those not selected were trivial, uninteresting, or framed rhetorically without seeking information or an answer.

Then I classified each one of the questions in terms of the general topic, issue, or subject that it raised. The first round of this procedure identified 48 categories. Since there was considerable overlap between them, they were combined and reduced in number to 17.

For example, questions initially classified as relating to marriage, friendship, romance, and relationships were combined into the general topic of Relationships. Those concerning memory, thinking, language, and neuroscience, were grouped together as Cognitive, while Life represented a combination of Fate, Luck, Work, and Future

The ten most frequent categories, rank ordered in terms of frequency, along with a few examples are shown below:

Someone to thank you once in a while and tell you you’d done well—everyone needed that, didn’t they? Rachel Cusk Arlington Park

The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which comes closer to the truth? Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon
But how do you stop doing something when you are completely unaware that you are doing it? Geoff Dyer Jeff in Venice

Had they stopped playing by the rules because they got nothing following them? Bernhard Schlink The Weekend

It would be interesting to compare novelists on this dimension. Do some employ questioning more than others and if so, what might be responsible for their practice? Do they come from a particular tradition or are they, like Peter Bieri, the pen name of Pascal Mercier involved in a discipline, philosophy, where questioning is a common practice?

Regardless, it reflects a style of writing that is one of probing and wrestling with ideas. Questioning is not a critical feature of the novels I like most. I may enjoy that style of writing and tend to think that way myself, but it probably plays little if any role in my reading preferences.

However, when questions are posed in a work of fiction, I become more engaged with the text and begin to make all the associations that come with my experience and what I know or want to know about the topic. In a way, I join with the author who, with his questions, invites me to think further about the issues he posses and participate with him exploring the story further.

“I learned because I asked questions. It’s the soul that asks, the heart that demands.
Doreen Carvajal The River of Forgetting