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.