Monday, April 14, 2014

What Maisie Knew

This can be filed, along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as fiction that I excuse myself for reading because it is Relevant To My Dissertation, as opposed to fiction I have no excuse to read because I should be dissertating instead. According to the democratic reviewers at Goodreads, the primary import of this book is that it contains very long sentences, so there you have it. On the other end, Withywindle, aristocrat, has mentioned it as among the most memorable books he's read.

I'm not sure what to think of it. Some essential piece of common understanding about character or morality seems to have been lost in the pipeline from James's writing to my reading. I didn't quite see how Maisie comes to understand anything that she is discovered in the end to know from all the mysterious conversational innuendo to which she's exposed, nor what it is that she finally does know. In the movie - which I watched for clarification-by-comparison purposes (plus, it's streaming on Netflix now) - Maisie seems to know primarily that her parents are unreliable and maybe selfish. But Movie Maisie has loving step-parents who simply take the place of bad natural parents and all ends well and the goodness of family (broadly-conceived) is redeemed. Book Maisie's situation is much more stark - all the adults around her are somewhere between utterly reprehensible and, at best, well-meaning but spineless, and the only one who has any moral merit has no other merits to speak of. The family is not salvageable; Maisie is better off without one. This was also the case in the only other James novel I've read, Washington Square, where I also ground my teeth over being forced to sympathize with an upright dullard for total lack of brighter alternatives.

The problem is that I'm not quite sure what exactly makes all the adults in the novel so bad that's more complex than just selfishness. James Bowman, in his review of the movie, says "we have now to see what started out as a story about divorce as a story about bad parenting." That seems right; divorce is more central to the novel, which is much more concerned with domestic propriety and propriety generally than the movie. In the book, propriety as either itself a moral quality or as indicative of the morality underlying it. To breach propriety - by speaking to a child openly (and the way Maisie is spoken to is hardly open by present standards) about adultery, for example - is not just a matter of poor breeding in the novel, but really a serious moral crime. Maisie's rescue in the end is really only from further impropriety, but it's treated as a momentous moral triumph.

It's this link between the forms of conduct and the intentions behind it that I can't quite grasp. Is it that it's possible to be inwardly craven so long as you carry out your social offices correctly? Or that carrying them out according to these standards all but demands internal moral uprightness? If I try to draw a parallel to our own social proprieties, almost all of which have to do with public speech, it's hard to see how they do more than mask duplicity - you have to say the right things first to gain the freedom to think through them on your own later. But this does not seem to be James's point. I don't think, however, that my lack of understanding arises out of James's unclarity and long sentenciness, but rather that some unstated understanding about the "moral sense" so much spoken of at the end of the book that was abroad in 1897 holding this book together has up and left the room in the intervening years.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ross Douthat is clearly wrong

The left is completely willing to be honest about what it means by "diversity," at least at its net-roots. Just look at the comments to his column:
When people say they want a diversity of ideas it's implicit that the ideas pass even minor scrutiny. This means nearly all 'conservative' ideas don't pass muster.
An "NYT pick" of a comment. Seems pretty straightforward to me. Sure, sometimes there's inconvenient ambiguity involved, like when the same person simultaneously denounces FGM and the religion that facilitates it. But, in the end, there is always someone with unambiguously correct ideas to be found who will "pass muster," so to speak, so no one has to feel uncomfortably conflicted about the internal consistency of his idea of diversity for too long.

UPDATE: See, even the Crimson is willing to say it: "Brandeis should have more thoroughly vetted potential candidates to ensure that all of the recipients’ views were in line the university’s values." Santa makes his list, but sometimes he forgets to check it twice (incipient senility). Good thing the elves are so diligent! (Also enjoyable from this editorial is the invocation of the consensus of "the global community," which you may be surprised to discover requires only "6,800 signatures" on a petition. The WORLD has spoken.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Scifi as political theory, redux

Peeps, the new CW show The 100 is my dissertation. It features the state of nature, the origins of politics (mostly Hobbesian, unsurprisingly), the problem of rule by children (they are not so good at it), and also neon forests and two-headed deer and other imagined effects of nuclear holocaust. It's also Lord of the Flies set in a post-apocalyptic survival world, which also kind of means Lord of the Flies was my dissertation, but now my dissertation is on the teeveee. Becky told me about this (I've been boycotting TV due to overproliferation of shows that "make u think"), I've watched the first few episodes,'s not as bad as you'd perhaps expect.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The best percent, and the rest of the percent

Like Phoebe, I was vaguely troubled by the annual NYT announcement that selective college admissions grows ever more selective. Unlike Phoebe, I'm at the U of C right now (in the Reg even!), and I can attest to the devastating effects of this stringency first-hand: the undergrads, especially the women, have become a lot more attractive, or at least, cleaner since we were there. They were always more hygienic than the men, but now, whoa. Also, they all wear the same casual-but-actually-calculated side-flip hairstyle. It is a travesty.

However, the question this raises for me is: can you design an experiment that tests the quality of decision-making that goes on under conditions analogous to current high-prestige college admissions? These admissions counselors are always saying that they're turning away thousands of "qualified" applicants. But since they're human beings, their choices among this overflowing pool of the qualified cannot be or even approximate random selection. They're also consciously trying to select the best of the qualified. And, indeed, the casual inference to be drawn from an 8% acceptance rate is that the accepted students are in some kind of 92nd percentile and up of awesomeness out of the available options. Is there some way to test whether people making choices that they assume will have an enormous impact on people's life outcomes under such high-selectivity constraints results in their making, on average, better or worse choices?

I realize that the vagueness of what constitutes a correct choice in this case might present problems for such an experiment. But, I suppose you could use a sample of the applications of recent graduates who ended up doing very well academically at a school for your baseline of correctness and applications of students who fared worse for incorrectness. This is subject to some difficulty of course, since some students do poorly at a school for reasons that could not possibly be predicted by their applications, but maybe there is a way to correct for that? If so, then maybe mix these two sets of applications together, impose a drastically low selection rate on one set of deciders and a much higher one on another, and set them to work to see who picks more correct applications? Or, something else?

My suspicion is that, on the whole, the dull but solid applicants are more likely to get passed over under conditions of extreme selectivity where the stakes are high (that is, those deciding believe that admitting someone will substantially improve his life outcome), but that they are also more likely to be successful in college than colorful iconoclasts (and also might become more colorful later as the precociously colorful get duller), so that highly selective admissions processes produce slightly worse academic outcomes than moderately selective ones. But, having been a dull but solid admit in my day, I of course would suspect that. So I want this to be tested.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The day to buy a lottery ticket

Is when your bus pulls up just as you reach the stop, your train then arrives just as you get off that bus, the next train arrives just as you disembark to change lines, and your final bus is standing outside the train station waiting for you.

But I still didn't buy the lottery ticket, since fortune is "one of these violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and the buildings, lift earth from this part, drop in another...And although they are like this, it is not as if men, when times are quiet, could not provide them with dikes and dams so that when they rise later, either they go by a canal or their impetus is neither so wanton nor so damaging.” It was clearly my own great virtue that brought about my felicitous commute, but I have not yet discerned what sort of dikes and dams will channel the lottery to me.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Against updates and revisions

First Things, the CRB, and my precious Online Library of Liberty - all recently redesigned for the worse. First Things paywalled all their articles and now has fewer words on the front page than apps for pre-literate toddlers have in their entire interface, the CRB's articles resemble those biographical blurbs that CEOs and corporate lawyers feature on their company websites, and the OLL texts are no longer keyword-searchable - the greatest disaster of all. In case you ever needed decisive evidence that progress is an illusion, here it is.

I only discovered the CRB uglification because I'd been waiting for them to unlock Helen Rittelmeyer's witty African literature essay so I could link it. Now, here it is. In corporate bio form, with a lively and relevant graphic borrowed from the company letterhead, and the extremely enticing tab title: "CRB Article." Let's hope this is just an unfortunate transitional phase in the redesign. In the meantime, enjoy this digital magazine equivalent of Dimly Lit Meals for One.

(Incidentally, this is how my small-time college magazine has dealt with the contradictions of digital print: The Midway Review. Whimsy and relatively navigable readability, no Arial font.)

UPDATE: False alarm; OLL search option returns!
UPDATE II: Ugh, forget it. The CRB has, on top of its other crimes, paywalled its articles.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Confessions of small world delusions

Whenever I'm in Chicago, I spend a lot of time in Evanston and always fully expect to run into Joseph Epstein there, to recognize him, and to successfully waylay him. This has never once happened in the approximately 10 years since I first decided it would, but I remain entirely convinced that it will each time I walk down Church Street. If Phoebe can repeatedly run into Woody Allen in Manhattan, I'd think that the odds are in my favor here, given the relative diminuitiveness of both the city and the fame of the target in question.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Frigid vacation

Elliot Park, Evanston, IL

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Department of Bad Ideas: When you have no thoughts, just quote everything you've ever read and hope that no one notices

Shorter Chronicle essay on the complex but deep significance of marriage from a serial marrier:
Hello, I am a completely self-absorbed nitwit moonlighting as a philosophy professor. Occasionally but infrequently, I look outside myself and think, has my complete self-absorption perhaps caused others to suffer? Before I can answer this question, however, I am again distracted by myself and my whims, which I elevate to the status of philosophy because I adorn them with literary quotations so numerous that they outnumber even the quantity of wives I've had. Shakespeare, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Homer, Weber, Joyce, Coleridge, Twain, two fellow philosophy professors, one evolutionary biologist, a psychotherapist, a list I drew up at 3 am one time, and the Buddhist lama who officiated my third marriage in the Himalayas all agree with me! Marriage is great and I am great! My first two wives might be less great, but I've already forgotten about them. My self-satisfaction has now been vindicated by my further self-satisfaction, resulting in this great essay.
It is a strong contender for the worst thing written since the advent of the internet.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Memento Mori

Another excellent Muriel Spark book, gifted to me by Cheryl, that I will review for you long after Emily Hale already has, and so long after it was written as to be wholly redundant. Memento Mori is about old age, which is a very foreign country to Miss Self-Important, so it lacked the same charms of immediate recognition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but it was still wickedly funny and Catholicly critical of all non-Catholic efforts to make sense of human life.

In all three of the Spark novels I've read so far (the other was The Girls of Slender Means, which I didn't like as much), only the Catholic vantage offers the possibility of un-deceiving yourself about other people, so that only the Catholic characters really understand human motivation because, in part, only they can bring themselves to forgive its sinfulness. This was the case with Sandy in Miss Jean Brodie, but it is more the case here with Charmian and Jean Taylor. Taylor, like Sandy, is the heroine of the novel insofar as it has one, and is, also like Sandy, a kind of nun - never-married, living in the confinement of a nursing home which she refuses to leave even when offered the opportunity because she views her residence there as the will of God so that she may be a kind of witness to human suffering - "employing her pain to magnify the Lord," as Spark says with surprising bluntness on the last page. (I think Spark generally tries to conceal the Catholicism underlying her novels so that it emerges quietly at the end as the only remaining reasonable way to live, given the failures and derangements of the alternatives that she depicts.) Because the Catholic characters are able to clearly detect and forgive the other characters' failings, they attain sufficient magnanimity (something more than "resignation," a secular platitude that Spark dismisses) to accept death.

The other characters, a set of petty and vindictive high society geezers, are all variously and comically deluded about themselves and especially about the nearness of their deaths. They deflect their fears into a competition to out-live one another, gloating about their own (very relative) fitness whenever they discover some new frailty in one of their friends, not realizing how rapidly - within the year, for most of them - death is going to overtake them, and how insignificant a victory it is to abjure a hearing aid or retain most of one's "faculties" in light of that. (None of them seem to possess very many faculties in the first place, but they all assume that faculties are solely a function of age rather than underlying sense.) They also constantly amend their wills to write one another out of them, and go to great lengths to wrest bits of money away from each other, believing money to be the due "reward," as they repeatedly describe bequests, for all the sacrifices and sufferings of their earlier lives. The test of character (and most of the humor) in the novel is how each of them reacts to receiving mysterious phone calls instructing them to, "Remember that you must die." Some of them find this to be a friendly or at least helpful reminder - merely a statement of the truth - and others become outraged and paranoid and try to hunt down and punish the caller. The latter die venal and gruesome deaths, but with their revered "faculties" intact. ("A good death doesn't reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul," says Taylor, the would-be nun.)

The other route, besides Catholicism, to a reasonable acceptance of death seems to be to have a large family and nurture it - many children, then many grandchildren - as the wife of the retired Chief Inspector does, since childhood is close to old age in its frequent reminders of human weakness. Thus, when the troop of vicious geezers visits to confer with her husband about the mysterious phone calls, she is "troubled, in the first place, by the sight of all these infirm and agitated people arriving with such difficulty at her door. Where are their children? she had thought, or their nieces and nephews? Why are they left to their own resources like this?" But her own calm and contentedness is not really intentional; it's just an unforeseen byproduct of having children and nieces and nephews to support and occupy her old age.The retired Chief Inspector himself is also relatively sanguine about death and proportionally less vile than the other characters, apparently as a result of "philosophizing" about it (tellingly, he is described as giving "philosophical sermons"). But you will quickly realize how closely parallel to Catholicism these approaches - family and philosophy - are and, since they fall short of full self-understanding for both characters, how both are completed by faith.

Maybe after Miss Jean Brodie and Brideshead Revisited and Memento Mori - all these modern Catholic converts heaping their criticism and disdain on our post-Protestant self-satisfaction - Miss Self-Important should start a series devoted tracing the irritatingly persistent and persuasive shadow-life of Catholicism in Anglo-American thought, like my equally implausible series on the ancient Greek influence on country music. Fortunately, I think this will not happen.