Treasures of the Hispanic Society in the Prado

Treasures of the Hispanic Society in the Prado

I’ve just returned from visiting the new special exhibition in the Prado: Treasures of the Hispanic Society of America. It is fantastic. I had no idea that the Hispanic Society—a relatively unknown and ignored museum in uptown Manhattan—had such a vast and beautiful collection. The special exhibit adds a completely new dimension to the Prado; it is like having an entire additional museum inside the original one. It opened on April 4th and will continue until the 10th of September, and so I recommend you go see it while you can.

The Hispanic Society of America is a museum and library dedicated to Spanish and Latin American culture. It is housed in an impressive Beaux-Arts building in Audubon Terrace, situated in uptown Manhattan. (I’ve never visited or even seen the museum; and since it will be closed until 2019 for renovations, it seems as if I won’t be seeing it anytime soon.)

The museum was founded in 1904 by the exceedingly wealthy and Spain-obsessed Archer Milton Huntington, heir to the Huntington railroad fortune, who commissioned the Audubon Terrace three years later. This building complex (so named because it was built on land formerly owned by the famous naturalist), although beautiful, was not the ideal location for a museum. Being so far uptown, inconveniently distant from the tourist center of Manhattan, the Hispanic Society has attracted relatively few visitors over the years—and this, despite having the finest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain, and despite being free to visit.

The new exhibition in Madrid’s Prado has recently changed this. The Hispanic Society lent its collection to the Prado as part of a mutually beneficial exchange. The Society’s building in New York is in need of repair. Its lack of air conditioning makes it a poor environment to preserve cherished works of art; and there is not enough space to display the Society’s huge collection. The Hispanic Society also lacks the funds necessary to restore some of its priceless paintings. The Prado, in exchange for being allowed to borrow the collection, agreed to undertake these renovations at their own expense. Along with the help of the bank BBVA, the museum is even paying the transportation and exhibition costs. When interested are aligned, cooperation can accomplish marvels.

Even more important than the restoration and renovation work, the Prado’s special exhibit has already helped to make the Hispanic Society more well-known. By the end of the exhibit, 400,000 visitors are expected—and this is incredible, considering that the museum was getting only 25,000 visitors per year in New York. (I am getting most of this information from the excellent article recently published in the New York Times about the exhibit.) Considering what I’ve seen today, it is a shame that the museum languished in obscurity for so long; it certainly deserves a more ample reputation.

It is impossible to talk about the Hispanic Society without discussing its founder. Archer Milton Huntington’s fondness for all things Spanish is particularly peculiar, considering that he was active immediately after the United States fought and won the Spanish-American War in 1898. This was a period of scant respect for Spanish culture, and a period of cultural anguish in Spain (which eventually culminated in an artistic and intellectual revival by those known as the Generation of ‘98; more below).

Huntington used his vast fortune to purchase archaeological artifacts and old manuscript collections, along with works of art in nearly every medium, including several by Spanish masters. (I wonder what I would do if I were born into such a wealthy family; probably not anything nearly so admirable.) But he was careful to extend his activities to the present day as well. Huntington formed close ties with the contemporary Spanish painters Zuloaga and Sorolla, and commissioned the latter to paint several works for the Society. Indeed, what is sometimes regarded as Sorolla’s masterpiece, The Provinces of Spain—14 giant murals depicting Spanish life—was commissioned by, and remains in, the Hispanic Society.

The exhibit in the Prado is organized chronologically, from prehistoric Iberia to the early 20th century. Every object on display is fascinating. The visitor is greeted by copper-age pottery, from around 2,000 BCE, decorated with fine geometrical patterns. We then swiftly move into Roman times: a mosaic, the torso of a goddess, delicately decorated bracelets. There is an exquisite belt-buckle from the Visigothic period, and a pyxis (a small ceramic vessel) from the Ummayad caliphate period of Moorish Spain—covered in vegetable motifs of stupefying beauty. Even more stunning is the so-called Alhambra Silk, from a later period of Moorish Spain, woven with the same intricate, mathematical patterns as the tiles in that famous palace in Granada. Reliquaries, funerary statues, and, most memorably, gothic door-knockers with fantastic beasts—iron dogs, lions, and dragons snarling in wait for the visitor—give yet another intimate look into the Spanish past.

One of the Hispanic Society’s prized possessions is its extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts. There is a private letter from Carlos V to his son, the eventual Philip II, advising the young man how to govern in Carlos’s absence. Illuminated bibles and even a copy of the Torah, every inch of every page decorated with care and skill, along with official grants and royal decrees, bearing both elaborate ornamentation and the original leaden seals—all this is collected for the visitor’s pleasure. I cannot fathom how much time it would have taken to create even one of those books. Everything had to be done by hand; and since every page was beautified with elaborate drawings and designs—even documents of state, which presumably needed to be produced in some haste—I am led to imagine scores upon scores of scribes and artists in the service of the king and the church.

I was especially gratified to find the historic maps on display. It is always fascinating to see old maps; they capture so much about the worldview of the time. There is one map of Teocaltiche—a province of Mexico—drawn up, if memory serves, either by the missionary or the colonial governor stationed there. It is an extraordinary thing: instead of a useful tool for navigation, it is a cartoon featuring naked natives practicing human sacrifice, battling the Spanish invaders with bows and arrows, and in general causing all sorts of chaos. The thing is clearly the work of a European mind, horrified by the “savages” he encountered. More beautiful is the map of the world by Giovanni Vespucci, nephew of the more famous Amerigo Vespucci. This map is impressively accurate, for the most part, in addition to being attractively made. The shape of the American continents is left vague and undefined, mostly because Europeans hadn’t gotten around them yet.

The most prized items of the collection are the three paintings by Velazquez. There is one portrait of a little girl—unnamed, but perhaps a relative of the painter—which showcases Velazquez’s talent for capturing charming young faces. Even better is Velazquez’s full-length portrait of the Conde Duque, Gaspar de Guzmán, Philip IV’s most powerful minister, a kind of Spanish counterpart to Cardinal Richelieu. He stands proudly, dressed in velvety black, looking every inch the ruler. The Hispanic Society also boasts an excellent portrait by Goya of the Duchess of Alba. She is dressed as a Maja (a lower-class resident of Madrid who tended to dress splendidly; there was apparently a fashion for adopting lower-class dress at the time) and pointing proudly down at her feet, perhaps to signify that she owns the land. It is a wonderful picture; there is so much energy in the Duchess’s feature and pose.

I thought that the exhibit would end with Goya, but the Prado has dedicated another floor to the collection. After an escalator ride I found myself surrounded by even more excellent paintings. Of these, the most important and impressive is a series of portraits by Sorolla—an excellent and perhaps underrated portraitist—of notable Spanish intellectuals and artists from the time, including most of the prominent members of the Generation of ’98. This includes the novelist Pío Baroja, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, and the poet Antonio Machado, along with Azorín himself, the essayist who coined the name “Generation of ‘98” (the generation of artists and intellectuals whose lives were shaped by Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898). All of the portraits are remarkable examples of the portraitist’s ability to capture a complex personality in a gesture, a posture, and an expression.

Along with these works by Sorolla—which also includes two of his enchanting beach scenes—the collection also includes some notable works by Zuloaga. My favorite of these was his The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter, which manages to combined startling realism of feature (I was immediately reminded of Ribera) with more modernist touches of color and shading. This blending of traditional and modernist seems to have been a persistent feature of his paintings, and allowed him to please both parties. He was particularly praised—both by Huntington and by Unamuno, at least—for his ability to capture the ‘essence’ of Spain. (This was a time when many countries were preoccupied with their ‘essences’.)

This little essay has been hastily dashed out, with enthusiasm and love, for a heretofore underappreciated cultural institution. I naturally feel a particular attachment to the Hispanic Society, since it is from New York and connected to Spain. After visiting this exhibit, it is impossible not to share, at least in part, Huntington’s passion for all things Spanish. What a wonderful breadth and depth of history is collected here.

Review: A Time of Gifts

Review: A Time of Gifts

A Time of GiftsA Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I began this book, I fully expected to join the universal chorus of praise. The premise of this book could hardly be more promising: a naïve, bookish nineteen-year-old decides to walk from Holland all the way to Constantinople. We have here all the makings of a literary adventure: an author sensitive enough to language and art to appreciate the finer points of culture, and impetuous enough to get into scraps and misadventures. The only book I can think of that holds comparable promise is Gerald Brenan’s South From Granada, which begins, similarly enough, with the young, bookish Brenan settling down in the south of Spain to read Spinoza.

Well, to get straight to the point, even by the end of the introduction I found myself disappointed. This was surprising. At first I thought I was misinterpreting my own feelings. The book had everything I expected: fine prose, snippets of culture and history, a few youthful misdeeds here and there. Why the persistent feeling of letdown? Is it me? But in the end, true to form, I have decided that my instincts are not misfiring, and that this book is not quite the masterpiece it has been made out to be.

To me, Leigh Fermor is the epitome of superficial learning. No doubt he is well-educated. His vocabulary is vast; he has a solid grasp of art history and a fine appreciation of architecture; he can speak and read several languages; his knowledge of English poetry borders on encyclopedic. And yet all this learning functions, in him, as the feathers in a peacock’s tail: as a bright, beautiful, and at times intimidating display—but a mere display, nonetheless. Leigh Fermor deploys recondite words, the names of painters and poets, and the weighty facts of history, neither to express deep sentiment nor to communicate insights, but as mere ornament.

George Elliot both anticipated and perfectly summed up Leigh Fermor in Middlemarch, in the character of Will Ladislaw—another young Englishman with vague literary and artistic ambitions who travels to the continent to bask in the culture: “rambling in Italy sketching plans for several dramas, trying prose and finding it too jejune, trying verse and finding it too artificial, beginning to copy ‘bits’ from old pictures, leaving off because they were ‘no good,’ and observing that, after all, self-culture was the principal point.” This description fits Leigh Fermor to a T—the total aimlessness, the nebulous hopes of someday writing a book, the amateurish sketching that Leigh Fermor himself is careful to denigrate.

I admit that I am lobbing these accusations at Leigh Fermor with an uneasy conscience, because in so many ways he is leaps and bounds more learned and eloquent than I am. Yet to misuse one’s gifts seems more culpable than not having gifts in the first place. But let me stop being vague. Consider this passage from the beginning, right when the writer is setting out and saying goodbye to his loved ones:

Haste and the weather cut short our farewells and our embraces and I sped down the gangway clutching my rucksack and my stick while the others dashed back to the steps—four sodden trouser-legs and two high heels skipping across the puddles—and up them to the waiting taxi; and half a minute later there they were, high over head on the balustrade of the bridge, craning and waving from the cast-iron quatrefoils.

While I like certain aspects of this sentence—specifically the bit about soggy trouser legs and puddles—the final effect is unpleasant and false. First is the curiously passive construction in the beginning, giving agency to haste rather than people; and the ending focus on cast-iron quatrefoils is emotionally leaden (he isn’t thinking about his family?), and implausible (is this really what the young Leigh Fermor was focusing on in that moment?), and, in sum, strikes me as a purely pedantic inclusion—a word used because he knew it and not because it fit.

This tendency to use words just because he knows them often spoils Leigh Fermor’s prose for me. I grant that his verbal facility is extraordinary. But to what purpose? He is like a virtuoso jazz pianist who shows off his chops in every solo, even on the ballads, without tact or taste. This comes out most clearly in his architectural passages:

The archway at the top of these shallow steps, avoiding the threatened anticlimax of a flattened ogee, deviated in two round-topped lobes on either side with a right-angeled central cleft slashed deep between the cusps. There had been days, I was told, when horsemen on the way to the indoor lists rode in full armour up these steps: lobster-clad riders slipping and clattering as they stooped their ostriche-plumes under a freak doorway, gingerly carrying their lances at the trail to keep their bright paint that spiraled them unchipped. But in King Vladislav’s vast Hall of Homage the ribs of the vaulting had further to travel, higher to soar. Springing close from the floor from reversed and bisected cones, they sailed aloft curving and spreading across the wide arch of the ceiling: parting, crossing, re-joining, and—once again—enclosing those slim subdivided tulips as they climbed.

Aside from illustrating his penchant for refined obscurity, the bit about the horseman with lances in full armor exemplifies another irksome quality of Leigh Fermor: his romanticism. He seems totally uninterested in actually learning about what he sees. Like Byron, he treats the cathedrals, castles, and local history solely as food for his imagination. The closest thing to a real investigation in these pages is his attempt to explain why, in A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare speaks of Bohemia, a landlocked country, having a “coast.” This line of questioning is somewhat amusing, sure, but also captures Leigh Fermor’s mentality: there he is, in a foreign land, and the question he occupies himself with is how a dead English playwright made a geographical error—a question of scant literary or historical value, a meaningless curiosity.

His tendency to fetishize learning and his romanticism are, I think, both symptoms of a deeper malady: the habit of looking at only the surface of things. Or, to put this another way, the exclusive preference for the specific at the expense of the general.

To be just, Leigh Fermor is marvelous when it comes to surfaces and particularities. He seems to notice every small, fleeting detail of everything he sees: buildings, cities, people, sunsets, landscapes. His love of strange words and foreign phrases fits equally well with this wont—the verbal flavor of an unusual term more important to him than its ability to communicate meaning. Leigh Fermor’s propensity to drown in an ecstasy of aesthetic observation—rendered in gloriously profuse prose—often reminded me of Walter Pater’s similar flights. But even Pater, an extreme aesthete, is not as wholly superficial as Leigh Fermor—who seems entirely incapable of holding abstract ideas in his mind.

Now, I am being rather unduly harsh towards a book that is generally good-natured and light-hearted. Partly this hostility comes from defensiveness: If I am to accuse someone as highly respected as Leigh Fermor of writing badly, I must make a strong case. As the final exhibit in my prosecution, I include this snippet of a description from a bar in Munich:

The vaults of the great chamber faded into infinity through blue strata of smoke. Hobnails grated, mugs clashed and the combined smell of beer and bodies and old clothes and farmyards sprang at the newcomer. I squeezed in at a table full of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs to my lips. It was heavier than a brace of iron dumb-bells, but the blond beer inside was cool and marvelous, a brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth.

To my ears, this is just painfully overwritten. Including infinity and blue strata and iron dumb-bells in a simple bar scene is too much. And the final touch of calling a glass of beer a “brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth”—besides being a nonsensical image—is yet another example of his adolescent imagination: he can hardly touch anything German without his fantasy flying off into legendary knights and Germanic sagas. There is something to be said for enlivening a regular scene using colorful language; but there is also something to be said for honest description.

Now, despite all this, was I often astounded by Leigh Fermor’s diction and his fluency? Yes I was. Did I enjoy some parts of this travel book? Undeniably I did—particularly the section where he is taken in by the German girls. Do I think Leigh Fermor is insufferable? Often, yes, but he can also be charming and winsomely jejune. But did I learn something about the places he traveled to? I’m honestly not sure I did; and that, more than anything, is why I felt the necessity to write in opposition to the famous travel-writer.

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Review: Saldavor Dali

Review: Saldavor Dali

Salvador Dalí: las obras de su vidaSalvador Dalí: las obras de su vida by Nicolas Palmisano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Salvador Dalí is one of the few visual artists of the twentieth century with truly popular appeal. Granted, this probably had as much to do with his moustache and his antics as with his work. But his work is undoubtedly popular. You do not need to be an art history major to appreciate The Great Masturbator, for example; even the title is enough to produce snickers in middle school students. The Dalí Museum in Figueres, Catalonia—which Dalí created himself in an old theater during the last few years of his life—is the second-most visited museum in Spain, after the Prado in Madrid; and this is especially impressive, considering that Figueres is a small town, not very close to Barcelona or any other major city.

This book is one of those omnipresent omnibus collections of artists’ works, cheap enough for tourists to buy on a whim, portable enough for tourists to stuff in their rucksacks. For what it is, it’s done well: full of glossy, high-quality pictures of Dalí’s major works, with some basic biographical information. There’s nothing in this book that you couldn’t find online—the biography on Wikipedia is fuller than the one here—but having a physical copy of an artist’s work, even a cheap one, is undeniably appealing.

As many have noted, the striking thing about Dalí—which is true, although in a different way, of Gaudí—is the combination of radical innovation and extreme conservatism. Dalí was kicked out of his academy; his surrealism was avant-garde; and his lifestyle anything but traditional. Not only that, but he pioneered the role of the zany artist in the 20th century, making media appearances in bizarre getups. And yet, for all this, he was a genuinely religious man, reconciled himself enough with Franco’s reign to move back to Spain, and thought of himself as a Renaissance man in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci.

It is worth noting that many other great artists and thinkers have exhibited this tension in different ways—Joyce, Stravinsky, even Marx—and, indeed, the desire to place oneself firmly within a tradition, while reserving the artistic right to innovate upon that tradition, strikes me as the defining mark of great geniuses. Only lesser artists see innovation and tradition as antithetical.

Dalí’s tension of traditional and experimental is illustrated in his particular brand of surrealism: the use of careful draughtsmanship to realistically render fantastical scenes. The solidity of Dalí’s paintings, achieved using familiar, traditional technique, is why his work has become so popular, I think. Nobody can accuse Dalí of drawing like a child. Unlike many works in contemporary galleries, his paintings are as visually engaging as any special effects-laden movie. Like the works of Hieronymous Bosch—an obvious precursor—Dalí’s paintings are so full of detail and bizarre images that they always entertain, even if their symbolic meaning escapes the viewer.

One thing this book did allow me to see is the remarkable consistency in Dalí’s work over the years. From his beginnings, before he was even comfortable calling himself a surrealist, to well after he was thrown out of the surrealist group and began interesting himself in Catholicism and quantum physics, the same clear aesthetic sensibility pervades his entire oeuvre. This is the reason for the oft-repeated accusation that he was an artistic one-trick pony. While there is some justice in this, as well as in the accusation that his publicity stunts trivialized his work, I think Dalí is easily one of the greatest painters of the last century. His works seldom have a great emotional impact; indeed, sometimes they produce only slightly amused nods. But he was a visual genius: there is no unseeing a work of Dalí, nor mistaking it for another person’s work. And unforgetability is, I think, the ultimate test of any artist.

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Review: The History of England

Review: The History of England

The History of EnglandThe History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A traveler must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills.

Sir Thomas James Babington Macaulay, Baron of Rothley—more commonly known as Lord Macaulay—is yet another of those creatures of former ages who could fill volume after volume with excellent prose, seemingly without effort. He wrote reams: this work itself, in the original, runs to five volumes. And everything he wrote—from poems to essays, from speeches to history—was both instantly successful in his day and still remains a model of force and clarity. The power of his style is why Macaulay is most frequently cited nowadays. He is the only English historian (except perhaps David Hume) whose writing can be mentioned in the same breath as Edward Gibbon; indeed the two of them are grouped together as models of elegance, in much the same way as were Demosthenes and Cicero.

Brilliant stylists they both were; but quite different in their brilliance. Gibbon is stately, while Macaulay is luminescent. To borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, Gibbon tried to see history from God’s point of view: as a pure spectator, a neutral observer, emotionally unmoved but intellectually engaged. Macaulay imitated the more dramatic styles of Thucydides and Tacitus, narrating history as an enormous spectacle with heroes and villains. Here he is describing the fate of the Scottish colony of Caledonia during the failed Darien scheme:

The alacrity which is the effect of hope, the strength which is the effect of union, were alike wanting to the little community. From the councilors down to the humblest settlers all was despondency and discontent. The stock of provisions was scanty. The stewards embezzled a great part of it. The rations were small; and soon there was a cry that they were unfairly distributed. Factions were formed. Plots were laid. One ringleader of the malcontents was hanged.

Macaulay’s punchy, declarative sentences have an overwhelming effect when piled atop one another in cumulative description. Indeed, Macaulay never simply describes: he dramatizes. He pays at least as much attention to the emotional effect of his words as their literal accuracy. Granted, Macaulay is seldom as quotable or as graceful as Gibbon; but he is leaps and bounds more exciting to read.

This difference in style, as often happens, mirrors a difference in attitude. Gibbon had his fair share of prejudices, but he was not partisan. Macaulay is partisanship incarnate. He is largely responsible for popularizing what is commonly called Whig History. This is the thesis that sees English history as “the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement” caused by political reform. This thesis became historical orthodoxy for a time, until, like all orthodoxies, it bred a heresy that became the new orthodoxy.

Nowadays the idea that history is a grand progress from barbarism to civilization will strike many as terribly simplistic, mostly wrong, and nauseatingly complacent. After two world wars and the atom bomb, we are apt to view any suggestions of progress with skepticism. Nevertheless, to condemn Macaulay’s perspective for being old-fashioned would be to forget, what Hugh Trevor-Roper reminds us in the introduction, that the “severest critics themselves are generally unaware of the extent to which they depend on the achievement of their victim.”

The terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ appear with great frequency both within the book and in discussions of Macaulay; and yet these political positions can be bewildering for a non-British reader. This is in keeping with the general Britishness of this book. Macaulay’s history is a national history; it is a book written for Brits. For any British reader, I suspect this book will excite some strong emotions, positive or negative. For me it appealed mainly to my anthropological curiosity.

In fairness, Macaulay’s conception of Great Britain is wide enough to include Scotland and Ireland. And although this book is full of shocking insults against the Scots and the Irish (as a prophet of progress, Macaulay sees Scotland and Ireland during this time as hopelessly backward), Macaulay’s history was nevertheless important—or so says Hugh Trevor-Roper in the introduction—for treating those two realms as of integral importance to British history.

As Trevor-Roper also points out, Macaulay’s partisanship expresses itself most damagingly in his dealings with individuals. Macaulay is not an acute psychologist. He occasionally breaks off the narrative to engage in a lengthy description of some figure—such as his unforgettable portrait of George Jeffreys—but these descriptions are inevitably either philippics or eulogies. There are no memorable personalities in these pages; only flat heroes and villains. This tendency to choose good guys and bad guys often led Macaulay into errors or even chicanery. He deliberately misrepresents the evidence to blacken William Penn’s name, while going so far as to assert that “extirpate” is commonly understood to mean “disarm” rather than “eliminate” in order to clear William of the Glencoe Massacre.

Purists may have some misgivings about reading this abridgement. For me, I see abridgements like this as an ideal place to begin reading: it gives you a decent overview of the whole work, and allows you to decide if you’d like to commit to five volumes. Trevor-Roper did an excellent job with this edition, giving a satisfying overview of the narrative arc, providing the necessary connections between the missing parts, as well as enlivening the experience with his own cutting commentary. As a writer, Trevor-Roper is fully within the Macaulay school: sharp, direct, and unmerciful. The book is full of footnotes pointing out where Macaulay is erring or being underhanded. The introduction, too, is unsparing: “[Macaulay’s] descriptions of art, architecture, music are of a frigid, conventional pomposity if they are not positively absurd.”

To my surprise, I found this period of time to be relevant to contemporary American politics. James II—a bumbling, petty, egotistical monarch in league with a foreign ruler—couldn’t help but remind me of Trump’s Russia affair. The way that James would fill government posts with cronies, or would try to circumvent long-held traditions by browbeating his subjects in personal interviews, was eerily similar to what James Comey describes in his statement. Macaulay’s sections on the National Debt and the partisan squabbles between Tories and Whigs were also astoundingly applicable. This is curious, if not exactly meaningful.

Hopefully one day I will have the time and inclination to read the unabridged version of this masterpiece. Until then, I can say that Macaulay’s reputation is well deserved: as a stylist, and as a partisan.

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The Illogic of Discrimination

The Illogic of Discrimination

Discrimination is a problem. It is a blight on society and a blemish on personal conduct. During the last one hundred or so years, the fight against discrimination has played an increasingly important role in political discourse, particularly on the left: against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and white privilege. Nowadays this discourse has its own name: identity politics. We both recognize and repudiate more kinds of discrimination than ever before.

This is as it should be. Undeniably many forms of discrimination exist; and discrimination—depriving people of rights and privileges without legitimate reason—is the enemy of equality and justice. If we are to create a more fair and open society, we must fight to reduce prejudice and privilege as much as we can. Many people are already doing this, of course; and identity politics is rightly here to stay.

And yet, admirable as the goals of identity politics are, I am often dissatisfied with its discourse. Specifically, I think we are often not clear about why certain statements or ideas are discriminatory. Often we treat certain statements as prejudiced because they offend people. I have frequently heard arguments of this form: “As a member of group X, I am offended by Y; therefore Y is discriminatory to group X.”

This argument—the Argument from Offended Feelings, as I’ll call it—is unsatisfactory. First, it is fallacious because it generalizes improperly. It is the same error as someone commits when they conclude, from eating bad sushi once, that all sushi is bad: the argument takes one case and applies it to a whole class of things.

Even if many people, all belonging to the same group, find a certain remark offensive, it still is invalid to conclude that the remark is intrinsically discriminatory: this only shows that many people think it is. Even the majority may be wrong—such as the many people who believe that the word “niggardly” comes from the racial slur and is thus racist, while in reality the word has no etymological or historical connection with the racial slur (it comes from Middle English).

Subjective emotional responses should not be given an authoritative place in the question of prejudice. Emotions are not windows into the truth. They are of no epistemological value. Even if everybody in the world felt afraid of me, it would not make me dangerous. Likewise, emotional reactions are not enough to show that a remark is discriminatory. To do that, it must be shown how the remark incorrectly assumes, asserts, or implies something about a certain group.

In other words, we must keep constantly in mind the difference between a statement being discriminatory or merely offensive. Discrimination is wrong because it leads to unjust actions; offending people, on the other hand, is not intrinsically wrong. Brave activists, fighting for a good cause, often offend many.

Thus it is desirable to have logical tests, rather than just emotional responses, for distinguishing discriminatory responses. I hope to provide a few tools in this direction. But before that, here are some practical reasons for preferring logical to emotional criteria.

Placing emotions, especially shared emotions, at the center of any moral judgment makes a community prone to fits of mob justice. If the shared feelings of outrage, horror, or disgust of a group is sufficient to condemn somebody, then we have the judicial equivalent of a witch-hunt: the evidence for the accusation is not properly examined, and the criteria that separate good evidence from bad are ignored.

Another practical disadvantage of giving emotional reactions a privileged place in judgments of discrimination is that it can easily backfire. If enough people say that they are not offended, or if emotional reactions vary from outrage to humor to ambivalence, then the community cannot come to a consensus about whether any remark or action is discriminatory. Insofar as collective action requires consensus, this is an obvious limitation.

What is more, accusations of discrimination are extremely easy to deny if emotional reactions are the ultimate test. The offended parties can simply be dismissed as “over-sensitive” (a “snowflake,” more recently), which is a common rhetorical strategy among the right (and is sometimes used on the left, too). The wisest response to this rhetoric strategy, I believe, is not to re-affirm the validity of emotions in making judgments of discrimination—this leads you into the same trap—but to choose more objective criteria. Some set of non-emotional, objective criteria for determining whether an action is discriminatory is highly desirable, I think, since there is no possibility of a lasting consensus without it.

So if these emotional tests can backfire, what less slippery test can we use?

To me, discriminatory ideas—and the actions predicated on these ideas—are discriminatory precisely because they are based on a false picture of reality: they presuppose differences that do not exist, and mischaracterize or misunderstand the differences that do exist. This is important, because morally effective action of any kind requires a basic knowledge of the facts. A politician cannot provide for his constituents’ needs of she does not know what they are. A lifeguard cannot save a drowning boy if he was not paying attention to the water. Likewise, social policies and individual actions, if they are based on a false picture of human difference, will be discriminatory, even with the best intentions in the world.

I am not arguing that discrimination is wrong purely because of this factual deficiency. Indeed, if I falsely think that all Hungarians love bowties, although this idea is incorrect and therefore discriminatory, this will likely not make me do anything immoral. Thus it is possible, in theory at least, to hold discriminatory views and yet be a perfectly ethical person. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between whether a statement is offensive (it upsets people), discriminatory (it is factually wrong about a group of people), and immoral (it harms people and causes injustice). The three categories do not necessary overlap, in theory or in practice.

It is obvious that, in our society, discrimination is usually far more nefarious than believing that Hungarians love bowties. Discrimination harms people, sometimes kills people; and discrimination causes systematic injustice. My argument is that to prove any policy or idea is intrinsically discriminatory requires proving that it asserts something empirically false.

Examples are depressingly numerous. Legal segregation in the United States was based on the premise that there existed a fundamental difference between blacks and whites, a difference that justified different treatment and physical separation. Similarly, Aristotle argued that slavery was legitimate because some people were born slaves: they were intrinsically slavish. Now, both of these ideas are empirically false. They assert things about reality that are either meaningless, untestable, or contrary to the evidence; and so any actions predicated on these ideas will be discriminatory—and horrific.

These are not special cases. European antisemitism has always incorporated myths and lies about the Jewish people: tales of Jewish murders of Christian children, of widespread Jewish conspiracies, and so on. Laws barring women from voting and rules preventing women from attending universities were based on absurd notions about women’s intelligence and emotional stability. Name any group which has faced discrimination, and you can find a corresponding myth that attempts to justify the prejudice. Name any group which has dominated, and you can find an untruth to justify their “superiority.”

In our quest to determine whether a remark is discriminatory, it is worth taking a look, first of all, at the social categories themselves. Even superficial investigation will reveal that many of our social categories are close to useless, scientifically speaking. Our understanding of race in the United States, for example, gives an entirely warped picture of human difference. Specifically, the terms “white” and “black” have shifted in meaning and extent over time, and in any case were never based on empirical investigation.

Historically speaking, our notion of what it means to be “white” used to be far more exclusive than it is now, previously excluding Jews and Eastern Europeans. Likewise, as biological anthropologists never tire of telling us, there is more genetic variation in the continent of Africa than the rest of the world. Our notions of “white” and “black” simply fail to do justice to the extent of genetic variation and intermixture that exists in the United States. We categorize people into a useless binary using crude notions of skin color. Any policy based on supposed innate, universal differences between “black” and “white” will therefore be based on a myth. Similar criticisms can be made of our common notions of gender and sexual orientation

Putting aside the sloppy categories, discrimination may be based on bad statistics and bad logic. Here are the three errors I think are more common in discriminatory remarks.

The first is to generalize improperly: to erroneously attribute a characteristic to a group. This type of error is exemplified by Randy Newman’s song “Short People,” when he says short people “go around tellin’ great big lies.” I strongly suspect that it is untrue that short people tell, on average, more lies than taller people, which makes this an improper generalization.

This is a silly example, of course. And it is worth pointing out that some generalizations about group differences are perfectly legitimate. It is true, for example, that Spanish people eat more paella than Japanese people. When done properly, generalizations about people are useful and often necessary. The problem is that we are often poor generalizers. We jump to conclusions—using the small sample of our experience to justify sweeping pronouncements—and we are apt to give disproportionate weight to conspicuous examples, thus skewing our judgments.

Our poor generalizations are, all too often, mixed up with more nefarious prejudices. Trump exemplified this when he tweeted a table of statistics of crime rates back in November of 2015. The statistics are ludicrously wrong in every respect. Notably, they claim that more whites are killed by blacks than by other whites, when in reality more whites are killed by other whites. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, since most murders take place within the same community; and since people of the same race tend to live in the same community, most murders are intra-racial.)

The second type of error involved in prejudice is to make conclusions about an individual based on their group. This is a mistake even when the generalizations about the group are accurate. Even if it were statistically true, for example, that short people lied more often than tall people, it would still be invalid to assume that any particular short person is a liar.

The logical mistake is obvious: even if a group has certain characteristics on average, that does not mean that every individual will have these characteristics. On average, Spaniards are shorter than me; but that does not mean that I can safely assume any Spaniard will be shorter than I am. On average, most drivers are looking out for pedestrians; but that doesn’t make I can safely run into the road.

Of course, almost nobody, if they had a half-second to reflect, would make the mistake of believing every single member of a given group had whatever quality. More often, people are just wildly mistaken about how likely a certain person is to have any given quality—most often, we greatly overestimate.

It is statistically true, for example, that Asian Americans tend to do well on standardized math and science exams. But this generalization, which is valid, does not mean you can safely ask any Asian American friend for help on your science homework. Even though Asian Americans do well in these subjects as a group, you should still expect to see many individuals who are average or below average. This is basic statistics—and yet this error accounts for a huge amount of racist and sexist remarks.

Aside from falsely assuming that every member of a group will be characterized by a generalization, the second error also results from forgetting intersectionality: the fact that any individual is inevitably a member of many, intersecting demographic groups. Income bracket, race, gender, sexual orientation, education, religion, and a host of other categories will apply to any individual. Predicting how the generalizations associated with these categories—which may often make contradictory predictions—will play out in any individual case, is close to impossible.

This is not even to mention all of the manifold influences on behavior that are not included in these demographic categories. Indeed, it is these irreducibly unique experiences, and our unique genetic makeup, that make us individuals in the first place. Humans are not just members of a group, nor even members of many different, overlapping groups: each person is sui generis.

In sum, humans are complicated—the most complicated things in the universe, so far as we know—and making predictions about individual people using statistical generalizations of broad, sometimes hazily defined categories, is hazardous at best, and often foolish. Moving from the specific to the general is fairly unproblematic; we can collect statistics and use averages and medians to analyze sets of data. But moving from the general to the specific is far more troublesome.

The third error is to assert a causal relationship where we only have evidence for correlation. Even if a generalization is valid, and even if an individual fits into this generalization, it is still not valid to conclude that an individual has a certain quality because they belong to a certain group.

Let me be more concrete. As we have seen, it is a valid generalization to say that Asian Americans do well on math and science exams. Now imagine that your friend John is Asian American, and also an excellent student in these subjects. Even in this case, to say that John is good at math “because he’s Asian” would still be illogical (and therefore racist). Correlation does not show causation.

First of all, it may not be known why Asian Americans tend to do better. And even if a general explanation is found—for example, that academic achievement is culturally prized and thus families put pressure on children to succeed—this explanation may not apply in your friend John’s case. Maybe John’s family does not pressure him to study and he just has a knack for science. (This would be the 2nd error again.)

Further, even if this general explanation did apply in your friend John’s case (his family pressures him to study for cultural reasons), the correct explanation for him being a good student still wouldn’t be “because he’s Asian,” but would be something more like “because academic achievement is culturally prized in many Asian communities.” In other words, the cause would be ultimately cultural, and not racial. (I mean that this causation would apply equally to somebody of European heritage being raised in an Asian culture, a person who would be considered “white” in the United States. The distinction between cultural and biological explanations is extremely important, since one posits only temporary, environmental differences while the other posits permanent, innate differences.)

In practice, these three errors are often run together. An excellent example of this is from Donald Trump’s notorious campaign announcement: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic.]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Putting aside the silly notion of Mexico “sending” its people (they come of their own accord), the statement is discriminatory because it generalizes falsely. Trump’s words give the impression that a huge portion, maybe even the majority, of Mexican immigrants are criminals of some kind—and this isn’t true. (In reality, the statistics for undocumented immigrants can put native citizens to shame, as demonstrated here.)

To be fair, Trump avoids the second error (concluding from the general to the particular), by admitting that he assumes some are “good people.” But he then falls into the third error by treating people as inherently criminal—the immigrants simply “are” criminals, as if they were born that way. Even if it were proven that Mexican immigrants had significantly higher crime rates, it would still be an open question why this was so. The explanation might have nothing to do with their cultural background or any previous history of criminality. It might be found, for example, that poverty and police harassment significantly increased criminality; and in this case the government would share some of the responsibility.

Donald Trump committed the second error in his infamous comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was overseeing a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Trump attributed the Curiel’s (perceived) hostility to his Mexican heritage. Trump committed a simple error of fact when he called Curiel “Mexican” (Curiel was born in Indiana), and then committed a logical fallacy when he concluded that the judge’s actions and attitudes were due to his being of Mexican heritage. Even if it were true (as I suspect it is), that Mexican-Americans, on the whole, don’t like Trump, it still doesn’t follow that any given individual Mexican-American doesn’t like him (2nd error); and even if Curiel did dislike Trump, it wouldn’t follow that it was because of hiss heritage (3rd error).

These errors and mistakes are just my attempt at an outline of how discrimination can be criticized on logical, empirical grounds. Certainly there is much more to be said in this direction. What I hoped to show in this piece was that this strategy is viable, and ultimately more desirable than using emotional reactions as a test for prejudice.

Discourse, agreement, and cooperation are impossible when people are guided by emotional reactions. We tend to react emotionally along the lines of factions—indeed, our emotional reactions are conditioned by our social circumstances—so privileging emotional reactions will only exacerbate disagreements, not help to bridge them. In any case, besides the practical disadvantages—which are debatable—I think emotional reactions are not reliable windows into the truth. Basing reactions, judgments, and criticisms on sound reasoning and dependable information is always a better long-term strategy.

For one, this view of discrimination provides an additional explanation for why prejudice is so widespread and difficult to eradicate. We humans have inherited brains that are constantly trying to understand our world in order to navigate it more efficiently. Sometimes our brains make mistakes because we generalize too eagerly from limited information (1st error), or because we hope to fit everything into the same familiar pattern (2nd error), or because we are searching for causes of the way things work (3rd error).

So the universality of prejudice can be partially explained, I think, by the need to explain the social world. And once certain ideas become ingrained in somebody’s worldview, it can be difficult to change their mind without undermining their sense of reality or even their sense of identity. This is one reason why prejudices can be so durable (not to mention that certain prejudices justify convenient, if morally questionable, behaviors, as well as signal a person’s allegiance to a certain group).

I should say that I do not think that discrimination is simply the result of observational or logical error. We absorb prejudices from our cultural environment; and these prejudices are often associated with divisive hatreds and social tension. But even these prejudices absorbed by the environment—that group x is lazy, that group y is violent, that group z is unreliable—always inevitably incorporate some misconception of the social world. Discrimination is not just a behavior. Mistaken beliefs are involved—sometimes obliquely, to be sure—with any prejudice.

This view of prejudice—as caused, at least in part, by an incorrect picture of the world, rather than pure moral depravity—may also allow us to combat it more effectively. It is easy to imagine a person with an essentially sound sense of morality who nevertheless perpetrates harmful discrimination because of prejudices absorbed from her community. Treating such a person as a monster will likely produce no change of perspective; people are not liable to listen when they’re being condemned. Focusing on somebody’s misconceptions may allow for a less adversarial, and perhaps more effective, way of combating prejudice. And this is not to mention the obvious fact that somebody cannot be morally condemned for something they cannot help; and we cannot help if we’re born into a community that instructs its members in discrimination.

Even if this view does not adequately explain discrimination, and even if it does not provide a more effective tool in eliminating it, this view does at least orient our gaze towards the substance rather than the symptoms of discrimination.

Because of their visibility, we tend to focus on the trappings of prejudice—racial slurs, the whitewashed casts of movies, the use of pronouns, and so on—instead of the real meat of it: the systematic discrimination—economic, political, judicial, and social—that is founded on an incorrect picture of the world. Signs and symptoms of prejudice are undeniably important; but eliminating them will not fix the essential problem: that we see differences that aren’t really there, we assume differences without having evidence to justify these assumptions, and we misunderstand the nature and extent of the differences that really do exist.

Review: Stoic Pragmatism

Review: Stoic Pragmatism

Stoic PragmatismStoic Pragmatism by John Lachs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The questions of philosophy will continue to haunt us so long as we remain finite, baffled animals. The fact that philosophy offers no final answers is not an impediment but a lesson. That first great lesson of philosophy is that we must learn to live with uncertainty.

Since it’s that time of year, I’ve lately been seeing many of my friends—struggling artists, mostly—reposting graduation speeches by famous actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and other celebrities. So many of these communal pep talks boil down to one message: persist. Every artist worth her salt has a story about how they struggled in the purgatory of unsuccessful oblivion for ten centuries—eating ramen and living in a closet—before finally ascending to the paradise of fame. Jonathan Goldsmith, for example—now famous as the Most Interesting Man Alive for the Dos Equis ads—was an obscure actor for over forty years before his “breakout” role.

But success stories and inspiring graduation speeches all have one obvious, debilitating shortcoming: survivor bias. Of course, every successful person was once unsuccessful and then became successful; so for them hard work paid off. But the vital question is not whether hard work ever pays off, but how often, and for whom? History has been the silent witness of generations of brilliant musicians and talented actors who remained obscure all their lives. The world is simply stuffed with artists of all kinds, many mediocre, but a fair number extremely talented—far more than will ever be able to support themselves in comfort with their craft. The plain fact is that, even if every budding artist in those ceremonies follows the advice to persist, not even half will achieve anything close to the level of success as the person on the podium.

And, indeed, even if there is an appealing wisdom in carrying on in the teeth of disappointment and failure, there is also a wisdom in throwing in the towel. Better to cut your losses and do something else, rather than struggle pointlessly for years on end. The real difficulty, though, is knowing which choice to make. What if you give up right when you’re on the cusp of a breakthrough? Or what if you persist for years and get nowhere? And this isn’t just a question for young artists; it is one of the basic questions of life. I recently encountered it in the philosophy of science: When should a hypothesis be abandoned or pursued? An overly tractable scientist may give up on a truly promising theory with the first hint of difficulty; and an overly stubborn scientist may spend a career working on a bankrupt idea, in the vain hope of making it work.

Seeking an analysis of this dilemma, I picked up John Lachs’s book, Stoic Pragmatism, which explicitly promises to address just this question. Lachs is attempting here to combine the pragmatist doctrine that we must improve the world with the stoic resignation to the inevitable. Unfortunately, he does not get any further than noting what I hope is obvious—that we should improve what we can and resign ourselves to what we can’t change. This is true; but of course we very often have no idea what we can or can’t change, what will or won’t work, whether we’ll be successful or not, which leaves us in the same baffled place we started. Insofar as truly answering this question would require knowing the future, it is unanswerable. Uncertainty about success and the need to commit to potentially doomed actions are inescapable elements of our existential situation. The best we can hope for, I think, are a few good rules of thumb; and these will likely depend on personal preference.

In any case, this book is far more than an analysis of this common dilemma, but an attempt to give a complete picture of Lachs’s philosophical perspective. Lachs promises a new philosophical system, but delivers only a disorganized gallimaufry of opinions that do not cohere. For example, Lachs begins by denigrating the professionalization of philosophy, holding that philosophy is not a discipline that seeks the truth—he asserts that not a single proposition would command assent by the majority of practitioners (though I disagree!)—rather, philosophy is better thought of as intellectual training that helps us to make sense of other activities. But the book includes lengthy analyses of ethics, ontology, and epistemology, so apparently Lachs does see the value in answering the traditional problems of philosophy. To make matters worse, Lachs continually excoriates philosophers who do not practice what they preach; and then he goes on to outline an ethical system wholly compatible with a middle-class, bourgeois lifestyle (our main obligations are to do our jobs and to leave other people alone, it seems).

I am being unfairly satirical. I actually agree with most of what Lachs says; and this of course means I must make fun of him. (According to the “Lotz Theory of Agreement” no intellectual will permit herself to simply agree with another intellectual, but will search out any small point of difference, even a difference in attitude or emphasis, in order to seem superior.) Lachs is an inspiring example of an academic trying to address himself to broader problems using more accessible language. He is an attractive thinker and a skilled writer, a humane intellectual capable of fine prose.

Nevertheless, I must admit that this book makes me despair a little. Here we have a man explicitly and repeatedly repudiating his profession and trying to write for non-specialists; and yet Lachs is so palpably an academic that he simply cannot do it. The book begins with his opinions about the canonical philosophers, frequently breaks off to criticize fellow professors and intellectual movements, and includes academic controversies (such as how to interpret Santayana’s use of the word “matter” in his ontological work) of no interest to a general reader. Lachs tries to come up with an ethical system that he can follow himself as an example of a committed intellectual, and then ends up creating an ethical system with no obligations other than to do one’s job (which, in his case, consists of writing books and advising graduate students). Lachs’s primary example of committed moral action, to which he returns again and again, is signing a petition to remove the president of his university (and he notes that most of his colleagues refused to do even this!).

I am being unduly harsh on Lachs. Really, he is one of the very best examples of what academics can and should do to engage with the world around them. And yet his example demonstrates, to me, the enormous gap that separates academia from the rest of society. Lachs dwells again and again on the pointless abstractions of professional philosophers and the wisdom of everyday people, and then the next moment he launches into an analysis of the concept of the individual in the metaphysics of Josiah Royce—Royce, someone who not even most professional philosophers are interested in, much less the general public—and all this in the context of a book that emphasizes self-consistency over and over again.

This makes me sad, because I think we really do need more intellectuals in the public sphere, intellectuals who are capable of communicating clearly and elegantly to non-specialists about problems of wide interest. And yet our age seems to be conspicuously bereft of anyone resembling a public intellectual. Yes, we have popularizers, but that’s a different thing entirely.

Seeking an answer to this absence, I usually return to the model of specialization in the university.

To get a doctorate, you need to write a dissertation on something, usually a topic of excessive, often ludicrous specificity—the upper-arm tattoos of Taiwanese sailors, the arrangement of furniture inside French colonial homes in North Africa in the 1890s, and so on. This model originated in German research universities, I believe; and indeed it makes perfect sense for many disciplines, particularly the natural sciences. But I do not think this model is at all suited to the humanities, where seeing human things in a wide context is so important. This is not to deny that specialized research can make valuable contributions in the humanities—indeed, I think it is necessary, especially in fields like history—but I do not think it should be the only, or even the dominant, pattern for academics in the humanities.

If I can put forward my own very modest proposal in this review, it would be the creation of another class of academic—let’s call them “scholars”—who would focus, not on specialized research, but on general coverage in several related fields (I’m thinking specifically of philosophy, literature, and history, but this is just one possibility). These scholars would be mainly responsible for teaching courses, not publishing research; and this would give them an incentive to communicate to undergraduates, and by extension the general public, rather than to disappear into arcane regions of the inky night.

These scholars could also be responsible for writing reviews and critiques of research. Their more general knowledge might make them more capable of seeing connections between fields; and by acting as gatekeepers to publication (in the form of a reviewer), they could serve as a check on the groupthink, and also the lack of accountability, that can prevail within a discipline where sometimes research is so obscure that nobody outside the community can adequately judge it (thus proving a shield to shoddy work).

I’m sure my own proposal is impractical, has already been tried, is already widespread, or just plain bad, and so on. (Even if you agree with it, the Lotz Theory of Agreement will apply.) But whatever the solution, I think it is a palpable and growing problem that there is so much intellectual work—especially in the humanities, where there is far less excuse for unintelligibility and sterile specialization—that is totally disconnected with the wider society, and is unreadable and uninteresting to most people, even well-educated people. We simply cannot have a functioning society where intellectuals only talk to each other in their own special language. Lachs, to his credit, is doing his best to break this pattern. But this book, to me, is evidence that the problem is far too serious for well-intentioned individuals to solve on their own.

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Podcast

Hey everyone!

I was fortunate enough to be featured in the lastest episode of the podcast, Thought Stack. Jon Stenstrom, its host, interviewed me about reading—how to read, what to read, why to read, when to read—and also asked me for a few writing tips. Here’s your chance to hear my sonorous voice!

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Review: Poet in New York

Review: Poet in New York

Poet in New York: A Bilingual EditionPoet in New York: A Bilingual Edition by Federico García Lorca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to cry because I feel like it
as the boys in the back row cry,
because I am not a man nor a poet nor a leaf
but a wounded pulse that probes the things of the other side.

Poetry is an odd thing. You notice this when you encounter poetry in a second language. This happened to me a few weeks ago, when I went to a poetry reading in Madrid. There were four or five poets there, some of them fairly well-known, with a crowd of hushed listeners hanging on their every word. Meanwhile, with my very imperfect Spanish, I was only able to catch bits of phrases and scattered words that added up to nothing.

“Look, I can be a poet,” I said to a friend after the show: “A cow is a moon, / a moon is a balloon.” That’s really how it sounded to me.

In a way, this isn’t surprising, of course; but it got me thinking how strange a thing is poetry. We string phrases together that, interpreted literally, are either false, absurd, meaningless, or banal; and yet somehow, when the poetry works, these phrases open up subtle emotional reactions in their listeners. Why is it that a certain phrase seems just right, inexhaustibly expressive and unutterably perfect, while a similar phrase may be dead on arrival, impotent, sterile, and maybe even unpleasant? Bad poetry, indeed, can be excruciating and embarrassing to witness, perhaps because it is in bad poetry that the essential strangeness of the act of poetry is most acutely manifest. We feel that this whole thing is silly—trying to make portentous sounding phrases that signify close to nothing. And yet the genuine article, once witnessed, is undeniable.

I usually group poetry along with novels and short stories, as literature; but lately I think that poetry may be closer to another art form: dance. Dance is distinct from every other kind of movement—from walking to golf to sign language—in that it is not oriented towards any external goal. That is, the movement itself is the goal; the point is to move, and to move well. In poetry, too, our words—which normally point us towards the world, if only to an imaginary or a hypothetical world—are stripped as much as possible of their normal denoting function; the point becomes, rather, the pure manipulation of diction and grammar, in much the same way that, in dance, the point becomes the pure movement of limb and trunk.

This is a healthy thing, I think, since in life we can get so preoccupied with the attainment of a goal that we become blind to everything that does not advance our progress towards our object. A coach of a football team, for example, is only concerned with how well his players’ actions increase the likelihood of winning; and likewise, normally when we use language, we are using it to accomplish something specific, from ordering pizza to chiding children. Dance and poetry, by stripping away the intentionality of the act, reveal the subtle beauty in the activity itself, allowing us to slow down, to appreciate the rhythm of a word or the gentle flexion of an arm.

I must hasten to add that this description of poetry and dance does not apply equally to all examples. Alexander Pope’s poetry approaches very nearly to prose in its use of denotation; and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is on the other side of the spectrum. A similar spectrum applies in the case of dance, I suppose.

Federico García Lorca’s poetry is much closer to Eliot’s in this regard, perhaps even further along in its tendency towards connotation. This makes his poetry doubly hard for a foreigner like me to appreciate, since the specific emotional flavors of his words are bland in my mouth. As a young man Lorca lived in the famous Residencia de Estudiantes, in Madrid, where he became close friends with Dalí. The two exerted a mutual influence on each other, both moving towards the surrealism that was becoming trendy in the art world.

Lorca wrote this book many years later, during and after his visit to New York City in 1929-30, during which he witnessed the Stock Market Crash. Economic depression or not, however, the inhuman vastness of the city, the crowds and concrete, the money-obsessed workers and the poor and the homeless, the racial discrimination and the absence of nature, seems to have made a deep impression on the rural Andalusian poet. These poems are his anguished response to this experience.

Lorca’s poetry is surreal in the textbook sense that he uses a succession of vivid, concrete images that, taken together, add up to something nebulous and unreal. Much like Dalí, Lorca has a talent for creating bizarre images that nevertheless manage to be emotionally compelling. Opening the collection more or less at random I find:

All is broken in the night,
its legs spread wide over the terraces.
All is broken in the warm pipes
of a terrible, silent fountain.

Admittedly it does take some time to find the odd beauty in the apparently random, unconnected pictures. My first instinct was to read them like metaphors; but if Lorca did indeed have something specific in mind that he was trying to allegorize, the allegories are much too complicated and disjointed to be deciphered. Rather, I think these poems must be read simply for the beauty of the language, the striking collisions of words, the flashes of light and the rumblings of sound. The poems seem to capture nothing more nor less than an emotional mood—different shades of desolation—that presents itself to the conscious mind in a kind of personal mythology, as in a dream. Dalí was deeply influenced by Freud during his stay in the student residence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lorca was too.

Even if it is difficult to articulate the structure and meaning of Lorca’s image-world, it is certainly not random. Certain words and images come up again and again, as in a dream sequence, being shuffled and re-shuffled throughout the collection. Some of these words are oil, ant, worm, thigh, moon, void, footprint, hollow, glass, night, wounded, agony, sky, cracked, death, coffin, iron… The ultimate effect of these words, recombined again and again, is cumulative; they create echoes of themselves in the reader’s mind, calling up half-remembered associations from other poems, creating an emotional coherence in the literally incoherent text.

Look at concrete shapes seeking their void.
Mistaken dogs and bitten apples.
Look at the longing, the anguish of a sad fossil world
that cannot find the accent of its first sob.

The emotional resonance of the words themselves is also important, something that is unfortunately lost in translation. For example, the word for “oil,” aceite, has an interesting blend of comforting familiarity and a tint of the exotic. I think this is because the word originally comes from Arabic, and maintains a certain foreign flavor, even as it denotes something absolutely integral to the Spanish culture: olive oil, which is used in everything. The word also brings up the rolling olive fields, stumpy trees on sandy soil, that fill Lorca’s Andalucía; and this again calls to mind the age-old farming tradition, the intimate connection with the land, totally absent in New York City. There is also the double association of oil as integral to cooking and as something potentially toxic and polluting. A native Spaniard will likely disagree with this chain of associations, but I think the word is undeniably resonant.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think I can articulate exactly why the text of these poems is gripping, in the same way that I cannot articulate exactly why I find some dancers compelling and others not. You cannot learn anything about New York City from these poems, and arguably you can’t learn very much about Lorca, either. I’m not even sure that the cliché is correct, that these poems can “teach you about yourself.” Maybe they don’t teach anything except how to feel as Lorca felt. I don’t think that’s a problem, though, since the point of reading is not always to learn about something, just as the point of moving isn’t always to get somewhere. Sometimes we read simply for the pleasure of the text.

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Review: Defending Science—Within Reason

Review: Defending Science—Within Reason

Defending Science - within Reason: Between Scientism And CynicismDefending Science – within Reason: Between Scientism And Cynicism by Susan Haack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is quark theory or kwark theory politically more progressive?—the question makes no sense.

Ever since I can remember I was fascinated by science and its discoveries. Like Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, I grew up in New York City going routinely to the Museum of Natural History. I wondered at the lions and elephants in the Hall of African Mammals; I gazed in awe at the massive dinosaur fossils, which dwarfed even my dad in height and terror; I spent hours in the Hall of Ocean Life gaping at the dolphins, the sea lions, and the whales. The diorama of a sperm whale fighting a giant squid—two massive, monstrous forms, shrouded in the darkness of the deep sea—held a particular power over my childhood imagination. I must have made half a thousand drawings of that scene, the resolute whale battling the hideous squid in the imponderable depths.

Growing up, I found that not everybody shared my admiration for the process of science and its discoveries. This came as a shock. Even now, no intellectual stance upsets me more than science denial. To me, denying science has always seemed tantamount to denying both the beauty of the world and the power of the human mind. And yet here we are, in a world fundamentally shaped by our scientific knowledge, full of people who, for one reason or another, deny the validity of the scientific enterprise.

The reasons for science denial are manifold. Most obviously there is religious fundamentalism; and not far behind is corporate greed in industries, such as the coal or the cigarette industry, that might be hurt by the discoveries of scientists. These forms of science denial often take the form of anti-intellectualism; but what troubles me more are the various forms of science denial in intellectual circles: sociologists who see scientific discoveries as political myth-making, literary theorists who see science as a rhetoric of power, philosophers who see knowledge as wholly relative. Add to this the more plebeian forms of science denial often encountered on the left—such as skepticism about GMOs and vaccines—and we have a disbelief that extends across the political spectrum, throughout every level of education and socio-economic status.

And all this is not to mention the science-worship that has grown up, partly as a response to this skepticism. So often we see headlines proclaiming “Science Discovers” or “Scientists Have Proved” and so on; and time and again I’ve heard people use “because, science says” as an argument. Scientists are treated as a priestly class, handing out truths from high up above, truths reached by inscrutable methods using arcane theories and occult techniques, which must be trusted on faith. Needless so say, this attitude is wholly alien to the spirit of the scientific enterprise, and ultimately plays into the hands of skeptics who wish to treat modern science as something on par with traditional religion. Also needless to say (I hope), both the supinely adoring and the snobbishly scorning attitudes fail to do justice to what science really is and does.

This is where Susan Haack comes in. In this book, Haack attempts to offer an epistemological account of why the sciences have been effective, as well as a critique of the various responses to the sciences—from skepticism, to cynicism, to paranoia, to worship, to deference—to show how these responses misunderstand or mischaracterize, overestimate or underestimate, what science is really all about. Along the way, Haack also offers her opinions on the relation between the natural and the social sciences, science and the law, science and religion, science and values, and the possible “end of science.”

She begins, as all worthy philosophers must, by criticizing her predecessors. The early philosophers of science made two related errors that prevented them from coming to grips with the enterprise. The first was assuming that there was such a thing as the “scientific method”—a special methodology that sets the sciences apart from other forms of inquiry. The second mistake was assuming that this methodology was a special form of logic—deduction, induction, probability, and so on—used by scientists to achieve their results. In other words, they assumed that they could demarcate science from other forms of inquiry; and that this demarcation was logical in nature.

Haack takes issue with both of these assumptions. She asserts that, contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a special “scientific method” used only by scientists and not by any other sort of inquirer. Rather, scientific inquiry is continuous with everyday inquiry, from detective work to historical research to trying to find where you misplaced your keys this morning: it relies on the collection of evidence, coming up with theories to explain a phenomenon, testing different theories against the available evidence and new discoveries, using other inquirers to help check your judgment, and so on.

Because of this, Haack objects to the use of the adjective “scientific” as an honorific, as a term of epistemological praise—such as in “scientifically tested toothpaste”—since “scientific” knowledge is the same sort of knowledge as every other sort of knowledge. The only differences between “scientific” knowledge and everyday knowledge are, most obviously, the subject matter (chemistry and not car insurance rates), and less obviously how scrupulously it has been tested, discussed, and examined. To use her phrase, scientific knowledge is like any other sort of knowledge, only “more so”—the fruit of more dedicated research, and subjected to more exacting standards.

What sets the natural sciences apart, therefore, is not a special form of logic or method, but various helps to inquiry: tools that extend the reach of human sensation; peer-reviewed journals that help both to check the quality of information and to pool research from different times and places; mathematical techniques and computers to help deal with quantitative data; linguistic innovations and metaphors that allow scientists to discuss their work more precisely and to extend the reach of the human imagination; and so on.

Haack’s most original contribution to the philosophy of science is her notion of ‘foundherentism’ (an ugly word), which she explains by the analogy of a crossword puzzle. Scientific theories have connections both with other scientific theories and with the observable world, in much the same way that entries in a crossword puzzle have connections with other entries and with their clues. Thus the strength of any theory will depend on how well it explains the phenomenon in question, whether it is compatible with other theories that explain ‘neighboring’ phenomena, and how well those neighboring theories explain their own phenomena. Scientific theories, in other words, connect with observed reality and with each other at many different points—far more like the intersecting entries of a crossword puzzle than the sequential steps of a mathematical proof—which is why any neat logic cannot do them justice.

It is possible that all this strikes you as either obvious or pointless. But this approach is useful because it allows us to acknowledge the ways that background beliefs affect and constrain our theorizing, without succumbing to pure coherentism, in which the only test of a scientific theory’s validity is how compatible it is with background beliefs. While there is no such thing as a “pure” fact or a “pure” observation untainted by theory, and while it is true that our theories of the world always influence how we perceive the world, all this doesn’t mean that our theories don’t tell us anything about the world. Observation, while never “pure,” still provides a real check and restraint on our theorizing. To give a concrete example, we may choose to interpret a black speck in a photograph as a weather balloon, a bird, a piece of dirt that got on the lens, or a UFO—but we can’t choose not to see the black speck.

Using this subtle picture of scientific knowledge, Haack is able to avoid both the pitfalls of an overly formalistic account of science, such as Popper’s deductivism, and an overly relativistic account of science, such as Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. There may be revolutions when the fundamental assumptions of scientists radically change; but the test of a theory’s worth is not purely in respect to these assumptions but also to the stubborn, observed phenomenon—the black speck. Scientific revolutions might be compared to a team of crossword puzzle-solvers suddenly realizing that the clues make more sense in Spanish than in English. The new background assumption will affect how they read the clues, but not the clues themselves; and the ultimate test of those assumptions—whether the puzzle can be convincingly solved—remains the same.

One of the more frustrating things I’ve heard science skeptics assert is that science requires faith. Granted, to do science you do need to take some things for granted—that there is a real world that exists independently of whether you know it or not, that your senses provide a real, if imperfect, window into this world, that the world is predictable and operates by the same laws in the present as in the past and the future, and so on. But all this is also taken for granted when you ruffle through your bag to find the phone you dropped in there that morning, or when you assume your shoelaces will work the same way today as they did yesterday. Attempts to deny objective truth—very popular in the post-modern world—are always self-defeating, since the denial itself presupposes objective truth (it is only subjectively true that objective truth doesn’t exist?).

We simply cannot operate in the world, or say anything about the world, without presupposing that, yes, the world exists, and that we can know something about it. Maybe this sounds obvious to you, gentle reader, but you would be astounded how much intellectual work in the social sciences and humanities is undermined by this inescapable proposition. Haack does a nice job of explaining this in her chapter on the sociology of science—pointing out all the sociologists, literary theorists, and ethnologists of science who, in treating all scientific knowledge as socially constructed, and therefore dubious, undermine their own conclusions (since those, too, are presumably socially constructed by the inquirers)—but I’m afraid Haack, in trying to push back against attempts like these, is pushing back against what I call the “Lotz Theory of Inquiry.”

(The Lotz Theory of Inquiry states that you cannot be a member of any intellectual discipline without presupposing that your discipline is the most important discipline in academe, and that all other disciplines are failed attempts to be your own discipline. Thus, for a sociologist, all physicists are failed sociologists, and so on.)

Because I am relatively unversed in the philosophy of science, I feel unqualified to say anything beyond the fact that I found Haack’s approach, on the whole, reasonable and convincing.

My main criticism is that she puts far too much weight on the idea of “everyday inquiry” or “common sense”—ideas which are far more culturally and historically variable than she seems to assume. This is exemplified in here criticism of religious inquiry as “discontinuous” with everyday forms of inquiry, since it relies on visions, trances, supernatural intervention, and the authority of sacred texts—normally not explanations or forms of evidence we use when explaining why we got food poisoning (the Mexican restaurant, or an act of God?).

While it is true that, nowadays, most people in the ‘developed’ world do not rely on these religious forms of evidence and explanation in their everyday life, it was not always true historically (think of Luther explaining the creaks in the walls as prowling demons), nor is this true across cultures. One has only to read Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande to see a society in which even simple explanations and the most routine decisions rely on supernatural intervention. In cultures around the world, trances and visions, spirits and ghosts, are not seen as discontinuous with the everyday world, but a normal part of sensing and explaining the world around them.

Thus Haack’s continuity test can’t do the trick of demarcating superstitious or theological inquiry from other (more dependable) forms of inquiry into the observable world. It seems that something like Popper’s falsificationism (if not exactly Popper’s formulation) is needed to show why explanations in terms of invisible spirits and the visions caused by snorting peyote don’t provide us with reliable explanations. In other words, I think Haack needs to say much more about why one theory ought to be preferred to another in order to provide a fully adequate defense of science.

This criticism notwithstanding, I think this is an excellent, refreshing, humane book—and a necessary one. It is not complete (she does not cover the relation between science and philosophy, and science and mathematics, for example), nor is it likely to appeal to a wide audience—since Haack, though she writes with personality and charm, is prone to fits of academic prolixity and gets into some syntactical tangles (such as when she begins a sentence “It would be less than candid not to admit that this list does not encourage…” This, by the way, only supports what I call the “Lotz Theory of Academic Writing”—that the quality of prose varies inversely to the number of years spent in academe—but I digress.) Yet for all its flaws and shortcomings, this book does an excellent job of capturing what is good in science and defending science from unfair attacks, without going into the opposite extreme of deifying science.

As the recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement shows, science denial is an all-too-real and all-too-potent force in today’s world. Too many people I know—many, smart people—don’t understand what scientists do and misconstrue science as a body of beliefs, with scientists as priests, rather than a form of inquiry that rests on the same presuppositions they rely on every day. Either that, or they see science is just a “matter of opinion” or as a bit of arm-chair theorizing. Really, there must be something terribly wrong with our education system if these opinions have become so pervasive. But perhaps there are some reasons for modest optimism. The United States shamefully backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement, but nearly every other country in the world signed on.

So maybe we naive people who believe we can know something about the world need to take a hint from the sperm whale, with its enormous head, preparing to descend to the black depths of the ocean to battle the multi-tentacled squid: hold our breath, have patience, and buck up for a struggle. We may get a few tentacle scars, but we’ve pulled through before and we can pull through again.

[Cover image by Breakyunit. Taken from the Wikipedia article on the Museum of Natural History; used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license.]

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