When things shine in Canada

Apologies for my absence lately – my administrative duties have taken over. But I’ve been reading the comment threads when I can, and I want to thank everyone there for keeping the discussion going. I’m going to try slowly to work my way back into posting. For the time being, I’m interested to know what people think of this review of All Things Shining at the CBC. The author seems to get the underlying idea that we are trying to illuminate the experience of a gift without a giver, and he seems to recognize that this is a difficult thing to understand. There are certainly infelicities in his description, but at that level it seems to me pretty perceptive.

In the category of things to look forward to in the future, I note that on March 30th, Bert and I sent in a short letter to the NYRB responding to Garry Wills’ review. I was surprised not to see it appear in the May 12th issue, but the editor did promise to publish it soon. Keep a look out for that, probably with a response by Wills.

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Garry Wills really did not like our book!

See here. Please discuss in the comments. I have to go watch a cello recital at daycare.

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On where Toronto is

Sometimes enough people misunderstand what you say that you begin to wonder how you could have said it more clearly. This is one of those times.

In the NYT piece on Watson I talked about Watson’s famous Toronto flub. In response to the clue “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle,” given in the category “U.S. Cities,” Watson answered “Toronto.” It turns out, Toronto is not a U.S. City. (Well, at least the one that Watson picked out is not a U.S. City.) “This is the kind of blunder that practically no human being would make,” I wrote.

I can’t tell you how many putative refutations of this argument I’ve read that have begun with paeans to the stupidity of the average American. Jay Leno has proven, these comments usually begin, that most Americans don’t know diddly squat. Probably most of them don’t know that Toronto is not a U.S. City. Ergo, the fact that Watson didn’t know Toronto is in Canada doesn’t show that it’s not thinking at all.

The blunder people took me to be attributing to Watson, in other words, was the blunder of thinking that Toronto is a U.S. City. But that’s not what I was saying at all. Let me be perfectly clear. The explanation of the blunder offered by the IBM team does not go by way of suggesting that Watson had some good evidence for the claim that Toronto is a U.S. City. Watson, with its equivalent of one million books of information about the world, has plenty of evidence that Toronto is in Canada. (And evidence, too, that Canada is not part of the United States.) Its mistake was not to claim that Toronto is in the U.S., but rather to downplay the importance of that fact in choosing its answer. In particular, it downplayed the mismatch between the category (“U.S. Cities”) and the answer type (a non-U.S. city). This is the mistake I thought it would be hard for a person (who understands Jeopardy) to make. That is, the mistake of knowing that Toronto is not a U.S. City, knowing that the category is U.S. Cities, knowing that Chicago (its second guess) is a U.S. City, and nevertheless choosing Toronto. The idea is that even if it is sometimes inappropriate to worry about a mismatch between category and answer type, any human being familiar with the game would recognize that this is not one of those times. They would recognize, in other words, that the fact that there is sometimes a mismatch between category and answer type is simply not relevant in this situation.

People make howlers too, of course. But this is not the kind of howler people make. Instead, this is the kind of howler that betrays, as Ken Jennings said, that Watson is simply doing something different from us. That was the point. I hope it’s clearer now.

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Watson, by contrast, couldn’t even be a football fan

See here.

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Watching the Super Bowl with Moby Dick

Captain Ahab would have made a heck of a football coach.  The monomaniacal anti-hero of Melville’s Moby Dick was the harbinger of the death of civilization as we know it.  But dang could he give a pep talk!

Well, ok, there’s probably more to being a good football coach than being able to give a pep talk.  Probably, for instance, you need to know something about football.  And football coaches aren’t really involved in the death of civilization, either.  (More on that later.)  But Ahab’s skill at getting his team up for the match, at getting them ready to sing out in unison, at the top of their lungs “A dead whale or a stove boat!” and really mean it, to believe with all their heart and all their rippling muscles that the only two options for a man in this business are to kill a whale or to be wrecked trying, that is a skill that any great coach needs.  And Ahab had it all in spades.  Even poor, wandering Ishmael, not much more than a second string place-kicker on the Pequod, gets caught up in Ahab’s “quenchless feud”.  “My shouts had gone up with the rest,” he said.

My oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul.

I’m telling you, Rex Ryan has nothing on this guy.

Now, it is probably an utterly mad conceit to examine America’s national obsession with football through the lens of Melville’s Moby Dick.  For one thing, the intersection between Melville lovers and football fans is probably, well, a lot smaller than Troy Polamalu’s hair.  Moreover, the most obvious connection between whaling and football is the brutal and vicious nature of each; and for the purposes of this examination I would like to place that issue completely to the side.  Without underplaying the importance of Greenpeace, we can all agree that theirs is not the most perspicuous or revealing perspective from which to encounter Melville’s work. So too, I submit, for the brutality of football.  There is no doubt it is a brutal sport.  But perhaps it is not bloodlust alone that draws our national attention to it.  Let me propose what I think is a more revealing approach, one that focuses on moodiness and risk.

Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and others have made a breathless appeal, over the last twenty years or so, for the importance of the emotions in any account of ourselves.  Affective neuroscience – the branch of neuroscience that studies the neural mechanisms underlying our emotions – is at that early and exciting stage of development in which it is just now publishing the enormous Handbooks that purport to cover all the basics of the field, and which will be discarded in another 15 years when we discover how much we’ve gotten wrong.  Now, it’s not exactly a newly discovered secret that we have an emotional life; literary characters from Dido and Aeneas to Romeo and Juliet would hardly exist without their emotional side.  And the slightly more sophisticated idea that our emotions bias our behavior and decision-making, or that they influence our ability to be rational, should hardly come off as much of a surprise in this literary context either.  But against the background philosophical claim that our essence is to be rational beings – an idea that, it is often asserted, can be found in something like its current form all the way back in Aristotle – against this background idea it is probably right to think that the importance of the emotions hasn’t been given its due.

But Melville’s world – like the world of football – is much more than simply an emotional one.  For emotions are usually understood as private, inner, psychological states, states like titillating happiness or lovesickness or personal depression.  But the moods of Melville’s world, by contrast, are essentially public; like the mood of a football game, they set the tone for what a whole group of people can experience together.  Public moods like these are shared with one another – they are literally contagious – and they change what we can see as important in the world and in the particular situation in which we find ourselves.  When a moment of genuine athletic excellence occurs on the ball field, for example, an overwhelming mood of wonder and joy and amazement whooshes through the crowd like a tidal wave.  People are brought together into a shared community by being caught up in this wave, and sharing such an experience with a family member or a loved one is setting down touchstones in a life that will bring you together through later periods of difficulty. Public moods, therefore, bring out an aspect of human beings that is not just a-rational, but is essentially social, communal, and infused with meaning.  Football can literally bring meaning to life.

Indeed, Moby Dick presents public moods as the salvation of the West.  Although a minor character in Ahab’s world, Ishmael is the biblically proportioned protagonist of Moby Dick who literally begins the world anew; he is the book’s only survivor when, at its completion, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”  And Ishmael’s single most important trait is his moodiness, his ability to get in touch with public moods, to live in them, experience the world as mattering and valuable by means of them, be brought together in community with others by sharing them, and then to begin the process all over again.  Moby Dick suggests that the Enlightenment account of human beings as rational, autonomous agents, as beings who create meaning in their lives through pure and individual acts of the will, is an account that leads to a worthless and meaningless existence.  Ishmael stands against this philosophical conception of human being by embodying an open-ness to public moods.  Ishmael would definitely have been a football fan.

Now, there is no denying that this is a risky pursuit.  When Ahab gave his pep talk he brought together a group of people to share with one another a sense of purpose, a sense of the importance of the task they were engaged in together, and a sense of their dependance on one another.  He gave to many of them a sense of meaning in their lives.  But Ahab is also something like the devil in Moby Dick.  Like the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost he is indignant, passionate, and often eloquent in his rebellion, taking along fallen angels by the horde.  Indeed, Melville’s Ahab is even more dangerous than Milton’s Satan; for ultimately Ahab’s monomaniacal quest succeeds in bringing down the whole of the Roman Christian world. So organizing one’s life around a passionate commitment to meaningful community, as the football fan does, is not just a philosophically revolutionary pursuit, it is laden with world-historical risk.

But this is a risk that is essential to take.  For every Ahab who would draw you to his side there is a Martin Luther King whose rhetoric lifts you up and makes you better; for every Jared Loughner whose crazy, paranoid, and murderous actions repulse there is a Daniel Hernandez whose background and sensitivity reveal for him his heroic path.  In taking the risk of a passionate engagement, therefore, not only do we need to open ourselves to the shared community of public moods, we need to learn to distinguish those we should celebrate from those we should condemn or bitterly regret. A moody and passionate world is an eminently risky one, and we must hope for and cultivate leaders who reveal the world at its finest, rather than those who set a mood of darkness and deceit, who bring about in us moods of jealousy and despair.  But the danger inherent in this passionate commitment is one we have to learn to confront.  For the world would be an infinitely poorer place if 200,000 people had not allowed themselves to be caught up in the mood of Martin Luther King on the National Mall, if they had all just walked away for fear of the madness of crowds.

The football stadium – like sporting arenas generally, or the concert hall or the celebratory meal – is a proving ground for these broader and more noble experiments in human excellence.  In its limited domain we learn to revere a certain kind of essentially human greatness, and to feel ourselves raised up together in its presence. That experience is something worth holding onto and cultivating in this world.  Of course the kind of excellence we can hope to see in a football game is not the same as the kind we could get caught up in by listening to Martin Luther King.  And if these moments of public worth are in some sense or another sacred moments of existence that is not to say they are identical with any particular form of religious worship.  But they rightly elicit our wonder and gratitude, and at their best they bring us together in the shared celebration of one aspect of what makes us great as the beings we are.  So we can all hope that this week’s Super Bowl raises us up together in the celebration of a certain kind of human worth.

I’ll be watching, with a copy of Moby Dick close at hand.

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Navigating between nihilism and fanaticism

My in-box has been flooded, and I know Bert’s has too, with e-mails from readers of All Things Shining.  It’s wonderful!  I only wish we could respond to each of you individually.  Unfortunately, that would be a full-time job, and we’ve already got those.  Instead, then, I’ll try to use this space occasionally to take up some of the more thought-provoking or difficult or perspicuous notes.  Or just the ones about which I think I might have something to say.

Let me start, then, with a difficult one from a reader named Gary, writing from Juba, South Sudan.  Gary says,

After reading your wonderful book, I have a question:  Might you give us on the “All Things Shining” blog examples of how you and Dr. Dreyfus and others practice in daily life the navigation between nihilism and fanaticism?

Well, the first thing to say is that there’s nothing particularly special about my life or Bert’s.  Both of us make mistakes, get unhappy, worry about what to do in various circumstances, and so on.  Our goal is not in any way to hold ourselves up as models.  But we do think there are models available, and one of the points of ATS is to read some of the great works in such a way as to reveal these aspects of what their characters are about.  In the case of navigating between nihilism and fanaticism, I think that Moby Dick’s Ishmael is a key one.  (Another character who would be good to look at in this context is Alyosha, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  We don’t talk about Dostoevsky in ATS, but if we write a follow-up then The Brothers K will almost certainly play a central role.)

For the time being, then, let’s take Ishmael.  The beginning of Moby Dick has Ishmael in a desperate state.  In the opening paragraph of the book he explains that he is suffering from “a damp, drizzly November in my soul”.  Now, we don’t get too much of an explanation here.  We don’t know in any great detail, for example, what Ishmael is unhappy about, or what form his unhappiness takes.  But in the context of the broader issues of the book it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think of this state as one in which the world has started to look, for Ishmael, as if it is lacking distinctions of worth.  Certainly, in any case, it is lacking shining things.  There aren’t too many of those in a damp, drizzly November.  So let’s take it as a working assumption that Ishmael’s opening state is one in which nihilism is threatening.  What is his response?

I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Now, going to sea here could be read, and perhaps it should be read, as a metaphor.  On such an account going to sea is unmooring yourself from the background presuppositions by which you have always been held, the presuppositions of your culture or society or upbringing that are so close to you that you don’t even notice you’re committed to them.  You do this not by focusing on yourself, though, but by focusing on others.  One of Ishmael’s goals in going to sea is find ways of life that don’t have the problem he is now encountering, ways of life that he can get in sync with, resonate with, and from which he can see meaningful aspects of the world to which his former way of life had closed him off.  Ishmael does this by literally going to sea, of course.  But one could just as well immerse oneself in literary worlds.

At sea Ishmael meets the hale and hearty pagan Queequeg.  Queequeg’s way of life seems to justify itself in the scene in which he lies on his deathbed, “nigh to his endless end”.  (He doesn’t actually die here, but it looks to everyone, including Queequeg, as if he will.)

But as all else in him thinned, and his cheek-bones grew sharper, his eyes, nevertheless, seemed growing fuller and fuller; they became of a strange softness of lustre; and mildly but deeply looked out at you there from his sickness, a wondrous testimony to that immortal health in him which could not die, or be weakened.

There are other indications in the novel that Queequeg’s way of life is in some way or another worth emulating. And one of the things Ishmael does is genuinely to emulate it. That is to say, he involves himself in the very ritual practices of idol worship that Queequeg finds so central to his life. Now, Ishmael doesn’t end up getting a whole lot out those particular practices. But he does seem to learn from Queequeg that you need to embody your way of life rather than simply to think about it.  And Ishmael commits himself to writing an understanding of the universe on his own body, the way Queequeg has one tattooed on his.

So what are we to make of this?  I take it that Ishmael’s way out of nihilism is to learn to share the various moods of his companions that reveal the world as meaningful.  This is one of the things that Ishmael is great at – he can get caught up in almost any mood.  Moods are interesting because they reveal things about the world that matter, things that if you weren’t caught up in the mood you wouldn’t be able to notice.  Ishmael gets caught up in the mood of agapic Christian love, for example, when he works together with his community to some rather trivial end (squeezing the sperm), and in that mood he experiences a joy that is like that of “the angels in paradise”; and he gets caught up in the isolated mood of Father Mapple’s Lutheranism when he listens to his sermon at the Whaleman’s chapel.  In various circumstances he finds himself caught up in Queequeg’s moods.  All these moods reveal different aspects of the way the world matters.  Getting in sync with revealing moods is a guarantor against nihilism, on Melville’s account.

But it is dangerous, too.  For some moods are maniacal, demoniacal, fanatical.  Some moods reveal a way the world matters only by closing you off to all the other meanings, only by making you narrow-minded and fanatical and joyless.  That is Ahab’s monomaniacal mood.  As Ahab says about himself, “I lack the low, enjoying power”.  (Perhaps one should be reminded here of Amy Chua, the Tiger Mama, whose extreme parenting techniques may be tied up with the fact that she is, by her own account, “not good at enjoying life.”  This actually feels wrong to me, but I’m not sure why.  Discuss.)

In any case, Ishmael even gets in sync with Ahab’s fanatical mood for a while.  “Ahab’s quenchless feud was mine,” he says, and he is caught up in that totalizing mood that organizes his understanding of everything that is.  Somehow, though, Ishmael manages to leave this mood behind.

I’ve written a lot already, so I won’t go on here.  But there is a serious question how Ishmael can leave himself open to moods that reveal the way the world matters without getting caught in a monomaniacal or fanatical mood, one that closes him off to all the others.  If getting caught up in revealing moods is a way to resist nihilism, then how does one resist the fanatical moods?  I’ll try to return to that question later, but for the time being I’d love to hear what people think.

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Happy New Year Edition

Well, the time has come to celebrate the new year and express our gratitude for the old.  I’m grateful for many things, of course, not the least of which is that our 1 year old has more or less recovered from the Christmas flu – a little gift  I brought back from China for everyone – and that he no longer runs around like a devil-child at all hours of the day and night, hopped up on some cocaine-like medication that the doctors prescribed for him twice daily.  I’m also grateful that our six-year-old is increasing his vocabulary.  His latest acquisition is the word “consider”, as in “Daddy, I made a New Year’s resolution!”  “What’s that, Ben?”  “Well, I’m no longer going to consider your nose to be very big.”

Yes.  My heart is overwhelmed with gratitude.

But really, I am enormously grateful to have such a wonderful family.  And also, of course, to be receiving such good attention for the book.  Some of the very with-it readers here have already mentioned the two latest book-related events – a new review out tomorrow in the New York Times, and an interview tomorrow with me and Bert on KQED’s radio show Forum, with Michael Krasny.  KQED, for those of you not from the West Coast, is the San Francisco affiliate of NPR, and our interview will take place tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. PST.  Forum is a listener call-in program, so hopefully some of you will get on the lines.  I believe that KQED streams their radio programs here.

I’ve been enjoying the discussion of the WSJ review and the Brooks column in the earlier thread, and I hope that people will use the comments in this post to talk about the newest review in the NYT, as well as the radio interview.  Bert and I are both nervous about the interview – it won’t be easy to talk about the book articulately in that context, and I’m sure that we’ll mess it up in various ways.  Pointers about how we could have done better are especially welcome.

And Happy New Year to everyone!

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