Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Do Democrats Want Donald Trump Replacing Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

I already harped on this a couple of times previously.  For the Democrats in 2020 the question is very simple.  Do you want to be right or do you want to win?

Young liberal Dems seem to be the most energized part of the party.  I would classify them as the only Democrats with as much energy as Trump's legions of hardcore supporters.  In 2020 Trump will have more than 60 million voters turn out and attempt to re-elect him.  Political passion, articulation, intelligence and bright ideas are not what elections are all about.  Elections are about numbers.  Presidential elections are about Electoral numbers.  That's all.

So the wonderful ideas of change and a supposedly "better" world and so-called "progress" are bankrupt without the numbers supporting them.

Do the liberal Democrats think there are more of them than there are conservative Republicans?  If they do, they are dead wrong.  There are not enough rabid liberals in America to offset the rabid conservative vote.  Conservatives outnumber liberals by a 35% to 26% margin.  Meanwhile, 35% of the rest of the country considers itself "moderate."  The number of liberals has increased in recent years as the number of moderates has slightly decreased.  The number of conservatives has remain largely unchanged since the 1990's.  Obviously, both sides need moderate support to win the presidency.  The question is, which side wants it more?

According to another Gallup Poll, Democrats favor moderation more than Republicans, but not by much.  While 54% of Dems favor moderation, 41% of the party favor left-wing politics.  That is a significant minority that can easily win the primary season if no one in the crowded Democratic candidate fails to inspire the centrist base.  A failure to inspire the moderate Democrats is numerical suicide when it comes to electing a presidential candidate as opposed to merely nominating one.  

Extremist views tend to do well in primaries because these preliminary elections are local and regional in nature.  This is basically how Donald Trump managed to emerge victorious over moderate Republicans in 2016, much to ire of liberals, who were demoralized after the election.

Now this demoralization has been transmuted into liberal fire.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  So says Newton's Third Law.  And so it goes in 2019 for the Democrats.  Frustrated and angry about Trump's election, they seem hellbent on offering an equally extreme alternative from the other side of the political spectrum.  This is understandable but it is also dumb politics.

Consider these news items from today:

CBS is worried that Joe Biden will be "too moderate" to win the Democratic primary.  Uh oh.  I'm no great fan of Joe Biden but if victory in the primaries depends on someone to the left of a centrist candidate, then Trump will be re-elected.

Quoting RedState: "The latest polls have Biden out in front of all other potential 2020 candidates, and he has kept that place for some time. Meanwhile, the 'woke' parts of the Democratic party fully reject Biden, and despite being apparently smaller in number than the quieter moderate Democrats, they are horrifically influential.

"In fact, their influence is so great that they catapulted Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) from somewhere in the back to third in the polls after her CNN hit. Her qualifications and accomplishments as a politician aren’t many, but for Democrats who rely on identity politics to guide them, Harris fits the part optically.

"The problem is that many in the Democratic party are too moderate for a radical like Harris, and a third have already expressed interest in jumping ship to a 3rd party candidate like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who has exhibited moderate left leanings.

"Democrats best bet in 2020 remains Biden, but between now and the elections, Biden and the Democrats could do any number of things to self-sabotage."

It is worth restating, as of today 33% of likely Democrat voters have "expressed interest in jumping ship to a 3rd party candidate."  If that continues to hold true, Trump will get to do whatever he wants with a second term.

Media liberal darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (ACO) has aggressively attacked moderate Democrats, indicative of the momentum of the liberals who, as I have shown, don't stand a chance to getting a president elected without support from the very moderates they are bullying.  In some sense this is nothing new.

"Liberals and moderates battled in the early 2000s over how to shape policy –  including what became the Affordable Care Act. Then Democrats, many of them moderates, were wiped out in the 2010 election. Now they're back in power, thanks to dozens of Democrats who won in red and purple districts. Those representatives want to hold onto their seats, but they're fighting to separate themselves from a progressive wing of the party that has become expert at using social media to draw attention to their policies."

Meanwhile, seeing all this happening, Bill Clinton's former chief-of-staff Rahn Emanuel sees the Democrat's "left turn" as making Trump's re-election more likely.  Quoting Emanuel: "The last thing we should do is serve him slow pitches over the plate that allow him to define us on his terms. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Democrats have been doing since he went before Congress in early February. It’s almost as if we've been duped into reading from his ready-made script.

"Earth to Democrats: Republicans are telling you something when they gleefully schedule votes on proposals like the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, and a 70 percent marginal tax rate. When they're more eager to vote on the Democratic agenda than we are, we should take a step back and ask ourselves whether we're inadvertently letting the political battle play out on their turf rather than our own. If Trump's only hope for winning a second term turns on his ability to paint us as socialists, we shouldn't play to type."

Extreme liberal bias in the Democratic Party is making Trump more palatable to mainstream voters. This article in The Daily Beast laments that: "The Democrats could try to show decency, expertise, and competence and advance a center-left agenda. They’d win easily. But no, that’d be too obvious."

Further: "As it stands right now, the Democratic Party is going out of its way to alienate a lot of middle Americans who still matter greatly in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Donald Trump’s radical presidency has created a backlash so great as to render his adversaries virtually unelectable."

I'm not sure that Joe Biden is the "best bet" for the Democrats in 2020.  But, quite clearly, the loud and forceful liberal wing of the party is pulling away from the moderates and risk alienating them.  If moderate Democrats don't show up at the poles in November 2020, or, worse, if they flip for Trump as the "lesser of two evils" then Trump will be re-elected.  And Ruth Bader Ginsberg, unless she continues to serve until she's 100, will likely be replaced on the nation's highest court by a judge more favorable to Trumpism.

This is a slow-moving train wreck.  It's still avoidable, but the Democratic field so far seems hellbent on driving centrists away even more than Donald Trump's heinous behavior can.  Or, perhaps more likely, the moderates may become disenfranchised and decide not to show up at all in 2020.

That is more or less what happened to George McGovern in 1972.  Richard Nixon was a dirty crook but he was re-elected by the greatest landslide in American Presidential history.  Those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it. "So many Americans do not like Donald Trump, just as so many did not approve of Richard Nixon. But just as Nixon's negatives were overshadowed by fear of the leftist McGovern, so those of Trump may be overcome by revulsion against the new socialist Democratic left."

Its high-time to open your history books my liberal friends.  Your self-righteous fantasies are overriding the reality of the numbers it takes to win.  Sure you can win in New York, Massachusetts, and California.  But to defeat Trump you will need to win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  You will need to put traditional "red" states like Georgia and Texas into play.  Can you see any liberal making either of these last two states competitive?  If so, please seek help.  See a shrink.

Do you want to be right or do you want to win?

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Reading Proust: Swann’s Way

After the first 200 pages or so of Swann's Way the reader is acquainted with Proust’s style and what to expect in terms of elaboration going forward.  The first part of the book continues on in Combray.  That we are seeing things from the perspective of a young narrator is indicated by such passages as: “The walls of the houses, the Tansonville hedge, the trees of Roussainville wood, the bushes adjoining Montjouvian, all must bear the blows of my walking stick or umbrella, must hear my shouts of happiness, these being no more than expressions of the confused ideas which exhilarated me, and which had now achieved the repose of enlightenment, preferring the pleasures of a lazy drift towards an immediate outlet rather than submit to a slow and difficult course of elucidation.” (page 218)

Much of Proust’s novel is sensual in its expression.  An early significant erotic moment comes when the boy is out late on a walk, his parents giving him permission to do so (it was a different, rural world then), and he happens upon two young women making-out in a naughty fashion.  He is a voyeur, seeing them from outside into the living room through a crack in the draperies as darkness falls.  It is pretty racy stuff for 1913 and reads fairly sexy today, though there is only a simple surface description of things, the narrator being a curious boy.  Considering his mysterious (for him) encounter with “the lady in pink” earlier, and his attraction for the little girl, Gilberte, who he saw near the fragrant hawthorns, there is a sensual awakening in the young narrator, splendidly expressed, yet never overtly proclaimed, by Proust.

The boy has an epiphany later when, while riding atop a carriage in the late afternoon, he is awestruck: “At a bend in the road I experienced, suddenly, that special pleasure which was unlike any other, on catching the sight of the twin steeples of Martinsville, bathed in the setting sun and constantly changing their position with the movement of the carriage and the windings of the road, and then a third steeple, that of Vieuxvicq, which, although separated from them by a hill and a valley, and rising from rather higher ground in the distance, appeared none the less to be standing by their side.” (pp. 253-254)

The boy is so overawed with this moment in time that he immediately writes about the event while still on the carriage, borrowing paper and pencil.  He decides to dedicate his life and future career to writing.  The passage where Proust “quotes” the boy’s writing is well done, he is largely imitating himself.  And it is at this point that the novel shifts entirely.

“Swann In Love” follows “Combray” and is the only portion of the novel written in traditional third-person perspective.  Instead of being narrated to, the reader is now in direct contact with the characters innermost feelings and motivations.  My belief is Proust chose this mode because it reflects events that happened before the boy was born and, therefore, could not possibly be narrated in the sense of the rest of the novel.

This section lasts for about 280 pages.   In a nutshell, it is the story of how the wealthy gentleman Charles Swann fell in love with and had intimate relations with Odette de Crecy.  They meet at one of Paris’ high-class salons late in the 19th century.  Proust gives us a wonderful examination of the salon life by introducing us to many characters of elite society.  Swann was not initially attracted to Odette though he enjoyed her company.  She was obviously not as educated as him, nor as graceful as others.  Rumors that she was somewhat of a lose cheat surrounded her. 

Then, just as when the boy experienced the hawthorns before seeing and falling in love with Gilberte, Swann experiences a piece of music that stirs something deep within him, affecting his feelings for Odette.  This is a fantastic, charming  passage of the novel.  Just as Proust celebrates the art of writing with the fictitious character of Bergotte, now he gives us the fictitious composer Vinteuil whose Sonata for Violin and Piano contains a “little phrase” that impacts Swann.

“With a slow and rhythmical movement it led him first this way, then that, towards a state of happiness that was noble, unintelligible, and yet precise….And reappear it did, though without speaking to him more clearly, bringing him, indeed, a pleasure less profound.  But when he returned home he felt the need of it: he was like a man into whose life a woman he has seen for a moment passing by has brought the image of a new beauty which deepens his own sensibility, although he does not even know her name or whether he will ever see her again.” (page 296)

This echoes the Madeline section earlier in the novel, where the narrator feels less and less enchanted with his memory of Combray with each additional bite of cake dipped in tea.  Each return of “the little phrase” impacts Swann less, yet the initial impression is profound.  Soon, this phrase of music becomes associated with Swann’s loving relationship with Odette.  The phrase is sometimes played in honor of the couple.
Yet Odette does not stay exclusive with Swann, though she does continue to associate with him at her preference.  The stresses brought about by their differences ultimately make Odette give up on her passion for Swann and offer it to other men.  For a long while, Proust plays with the reader (as with Swann) by making this side of Odette seem unclear, possibly just bad rumor.  But, as Swann’s possessiveness and jealousy grows, he discovers that Odette has been with others.  Before she came to Paris Odette was apparently a highly sought after courtesan and enjoyed lesbian sex as well.  All of this leads Swann to great suffering.  

Their relationship was once so passionate, involving a very sexy make-out scene while the couple was in a carriage, for example.  It drives Swann crazy to think of her, apparently ample, passion be directed toward others. He goes to great lengths to catch her with someone else.  He basically stalks her, so blind and ridiculous is his jealousy.  

“It was true that Swann had often reflected that Odette was in no way a remarkable woman, and there was nothing especially flattering in seeing the supremacy he welded over someone so inferior to himself proclaimed to all the ‘faithful’; but since he had observed that to many other men besides himself Odette seemed a fascinating and desirable woman, the attraction which her body held for them had aroused in him a painful longing to secure the absolute mastery of even the tiniest particles of her heart.” (page 385)

Swann’s possessive jealousy is ironic because other men always found Odette far more attractive than did Swann – yet that only made him want her all the more.  “’Looking at things quite honestly, I can’t say I got much pleasure last night from being in bed with her.  It’s an odd thing, but I actually thought her ugly.’  And certainly he was sincere, but his love extended a long way beyond the province of physical desire.  Odette’s person, indeed, no longer held any great place in it.  When his eyes fell upon the photograph of Odette on his table, or when she came to see him, he had difficulty in identifying her face, either in flesh or on pasteboard, with painful and continuous anxiety which dwelt in his mind.  He would say to himself, almost with astonishment, ‘It’s she!’ as though suddenly we were to be shown in a detached, externalized form one of our own maladies, and we found it bore no resemblance to what we are suffering.” (page 436)

It is true that “Swann In Love” is told in third-person.  But I discovered upon this third time through that the narrator does, in fact, pop his head up in the story momentarily.  When we come to the part where the boy’s Uncle Adolphe, who we met earlier secretly entertaining “the lady in pink”, becomes possessive of Odette himself and “tried to take her by force”, we discover more about why this uncle is shunned by the boy’s family.  And yet, when discussing this, out of nowhere, the narrative suddenly shifts to “my great-uncle Adolphe” and “my uncle” repeatedly for only one page.  

It is difficult to believe this is a mistake by Proust.  But why would he choose to write the word “my” in this briefly inconsistent fashion?  I spent some time after finishing Swann’s Way contemplating this, among many other things.  This savoring of Proust and considering the text more deeply is appealing to me; part of why I was looking forward to tackling this great novel again.  My guess, and it is an amateurish guess, of course, is that Adolphe is the connection between the boy and “the lady in pink”, a sort of nebulous innocent sexual awakening.  His short-lived reemergence as the narrator has to do with his great-uncle’s relations with Odette before he was born.  

Odette becomes indifferent toward Swann as she enters into various liaisons.  Swann’s suffering finally subsides to where he is almost able to keep the thought of his former lover out of his mind.  But then Vinteuil’s sonata and its “little phrase” reappears at a party he attends.  When he hears this, the flood of memory of his days in love with Odette comes back to him “without pity for his present desolation, the forgotten strains of happiness.”

“Swann dared not move, and would have liked to compel all the other people in the room to remain still also, as if the slightest movement might imperil the magic presence, supernatural, delicious, frail, that was so soon to vanish.  But no one, as it happened, dreamed of speaking.  The ineffable utterance of one solitary man, absent, perhaps dead (Swann did not know whether Vinteuil was still alive), breathed out above the rites of those two hierophants, sufficed to arrest the attention of three hundred minds, and made of that platform on which a soul was thus called into being one of the noblest altars on which supernatural ceremony could be performed.” (page 501)

Swann’s renewed persistence with Odette pays off in a few additional passionate moments with her but, generally, it only serves to strengthen his jealousy and possessiveness.  In his unceasing drive to discover Odette’s past, Swann gets her to offer him a partial confession that she has been with many men and women.  Circumstantial evidence indicates that it is still the case, despite their partial reconciliation, which is short-lived.  The deep, secure, exclusive love is gone. 

In the end, Swann becomes a rather pathetic creature; yearning of a lost love and an utter failure to influence is former lover.  He exclaims, rather comically, “’To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!’” (page 543)  This is sad but silly at the same time.  Not appealing and not his type?  That’s putting things rather mildly.  He has a relationship with a woman whose primary attraction for him was that she was in high demand by others.  It is laughably twisted, as is much of Proust’s novel.

“Place Names – The Name” is the final section of the first book – about 60 pages in length.  We find ourselves in a different summer, this time at a beach resort called Balbec.  The overarching narrator returns to mention that the room he now occupies in the story is one of the bedrooms racing through his mind at the beginning of the novel.  Specifically, he is in his room at the Grand Hotel de la Plage.  Proust is almost neurotically obsessed the details of whatever environment he established in the narrative.

“The Bavarian upholsterer who had been entrusted with furnishing this hotel had varied his scheme of decoration in different rooms, and in that which I found myself occupying  had set against the walls, on three sides of it, a series of low book-cases with glass fronts, in which, according to where they stood, by a law of nature which he had not perhaps foreseen, was reflected this or that section of the ever-changing view of the sea, so that walls were lined with a frieze of seascapes, interrupted only by the polished mahogany of the actual shelves.” (page 545)

These exquisite details belie the fact that we don’t stay here long.  This served as a brief introduction to Balbec, a place that plays a larger role in the second book of the novel.  The narrator’s mind is moving through time again.  We are back in Paris.  The boy is sickly and his doctor advises limiting physical exertion to walks with Francoise, the family cook.  At a park along the walk, the boy encounters Gilberte while playing.  This time the two strike up a friendship.  The boy immediately falls in love with the red-headed girl, matching the red hair of her father, Swann.  But to Gilberte the boy is just another potential playmate, sort of symbolic of the way Odette was with Swann.

And yet it is revealed that, somehow beyond the reader’s understanding, Swann has married Odette, Gilberte’s mother.  Proust does this on several occasions throughout the novel.  He takes characters and completely changes how things turn out involving them, often in opposition to what he has previously told us.  In this case, Swann’s suffering and Odette’s indifference mysteriously transform into a marriage.  Now the lengthy third-person background story makes more sense.  Proust offers us insight into the beginning of the relationship of Gilberte’s parents.  

The book’s finale begins with a shift to Odette, now Mademoiselle Swann.  After she became a mother she took to traveling by carriage through a park, then exiting and, dressed grandiosely, strolled back to her home, putting herself on display. “…when she reached the pigeon-shooting ground she would tell her coachman to ‘break away’ and to stop the carriage, so that she might go back on foot.  And on days when I felt that I had the courage  to pass close by her I would drag Francoise off in that direction;  until the moment came when I saw Mme Swann, trailing behind her the long train of her lilac skirt, dressed, as the populace imagined queens to be dressed, in rich finery such as no other woman wore, occasionally looking down at the handle of her parasol, and paying scant attention to the passers-by, as though her sole object was to take exercise, without thinking that she was observed and every head turned toward her.” (page 596)

Proust immediately takes this moment, grand in the boy’s eyes, and makes it funny.  Two gentleman observing Odette speak of sleeping with her and how “she still looks superb.”  Proust often takes the elevated nature of things and juxtaposes against baseness.  The frequent extreme contrasts and disorienting character shifts are a source of the novel’s humor.

On page 598 there is a break; an extra line on the page indicating another shift.  This time the overarching narrator returns of discuss the Bois de Boulogne, the avenue where Mme Swann took her walks.  He recalls the place through the span of his Parisian life.  He does this with a vivid description of a quiet place, with trees and natural beauty and the rumble of carriages.  But now things have changed.  In place of the carriages there are automobiles.

The narrator laments all this.  “Alas! There is nothing now but motor-cars driven by a moustached mechanic, with a tall footman towering by his side. “  The way hat styles have changed distresses the nostalgic narrator to the point he proclaims “there is no elegance left.”  But, he realizes that this is as it should be when any place collides with the passage of time.

“The places we have known do not belong to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.  They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” (page 606)

The “fugitive” nature of places and events to a human life is basically what In Search of Lost Time is all about.  To that extent, Swann’s Way is an excellent setup for the rest of the novel.  We have seen the world of the boy and of that world just before he was born.  In the next book he will grow older and the narration will become a bit more sophisticated, less vague past the surface of things.  We will return to the seascape views of Balbec, which Proust seemingly randomly introduces to the reader at the start of this section.

The difficulty of the first few pages of Swann’s Way make most people give up when attempting to read Proust.  Of those who manage to stick with it, most only finish the first book and never go any further.  Swann’s Way is the most popular section of the novel, perhaps due to the fact that it is the most common part of the novel to be academically taught.  But, Swann’s Way is like sticking your toe in the vast ocean of Proust to test the water, a short hike on a much longer and ever-broadening path.  Anyone gathering the stamina to continue the hike is rewarded time and again by the most amazing writing, a fascinating cast of characters, and a philosophical examination of life, love, the senses, the darkness of our nature, and things to consider when we long for our own past.     

Monday, March 4, 2019

Buffalo Springfield's Last Jam

At the end of the last jam session.  Richie Furay, Stephen Stills playfully choking Neil Young, a shirtless Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer.  These guys would never all play together again.
For the past several months, I've been spending a lot of time on youtube exploring everything from rock classics to contemporary piano concerti.  One of the few instances where I don't mind my privacy being violated online is when youtube offers recommendations based on my viewing history.  There are usually some good ones in there and I have discovered several cool videos this way.  

None are more cool than a 1986 rough video recording I recently came across featuring the original members of Buffalo Springfield jamming out in the second of what was supposed to be three rehearsals for a proposed 20th anniversary tour that never happened.

The plans were always tentative.  The group was secretly meeting in one of Stephen's California homes.  It was hoped that some new material would emerge to combine with their old songs.  The videos mostly document the group working on a new tune Neil had "in his head."  The lyrics were not finished and the instrumentation evolves right before your eyes, a lot of back and forth between Neil and Stephen.

It seems everybody feels very positive by the experience of being reunited.  A third session was planned but, as with so many other times, Neil had a change of heart and never showed up again.  The anniversary tour was scrapped.

What makes the rough video worth experiencing is to watch the collaborative aspects between Neil and Stephen, the rest of the band playing very crisply together, and a couple of moments where everybody is totally in sync.  The song rocks along really nicely, even if it is unfinished.

The group is situated in a tight space, a small recording room in Stephen's house, which doesn't allow for a lot of movement.  Though he gets in a couple of nice riffs, Neil's performance is understated (for him) as he is showing Stephen and Richie how the song in his head should work.  Meanwhile, Stephen shreds his guitar on a couple of wild explorations into how a lead might play out.

Neil would later flesh out the song as "Road to Plenty" which he would take on tour with Crazy Horse later in 1986, instead of reuniting with Buffalo Springfield.  The song was further refined into "Eldorado," an excellent cut from Neil's highly successful Freedom album.  To be honest, I prefer the potential of the unfinished, rough-cut featured in the original video below. 

Of course, Neil worked with Stephen off and on for many years, they are still the close friends even though Neil left the band yet again in 2012 after only a few gigs of a reunion tour.  Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer played with Neil at Young's historic 1982 Berlin concert.  But Palmer died before the 2012 reunion.  So these sloppy videos are all that is left of the last time the original band members played together.

Even though the two tunes presented are unfinished and not the tightest of performances, these videos (particularly the first one) reflect what it is like when superior musicians get together to explore creativity without a solid master plan; the scattered moments when everyone is spontaneously playing their best and in unison are fun to witness.  Check out the first video at 7:10 for a great example of this.

I'm grateful that I came across this moment of rock history that never actually amounted to anything.  These guys were great together, but that apparently wasn't enough for Neil unfortunately, who constantly struggles with himself between being defined by his successful past and the need to satisfy his restless muse with new music.

Whatever.  Enjoy this jam.

This next video is of even rougher quality and overlaps the first video.  Skip to 4:24 to watch the group play around with a new tune Stephen was working on.  Neil plays keyboards.  Some goofy fun afterwards.

This last video picks up where the first jam left off until Neil breaks a guitar string.  Stephen, who is trying to retrieve his guitar at the end of the first video, has one more nice riff.  The five guys then just joke around at the end of the session.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Reading Proust: The First 200 Pages

Addressing a New Year’s resolution, I began reading Marcel Proust’s wonderful, demanding, lengthy novel, In Search of Lost Time, on February 12.  This is my third time negotiating Proust’s labyrinthine sentences, ample poetic prose, and philosophical explorations, my last journey was in 2008.  By happy coincidence, a new literary article on the novel was published on February 8 entitled, “Reading Proust Is Like Climbing a Mountain – Prepare Accordingly.”  It reemphasized the importance of my planning for Proust this past December.  

The article states: “Proust doesn’t write day hikes, Proust is more like the Appalachian Trail.”  Which is true enough.  His sentences and paragraphs meander through all sorts of interrelated ideas, often presented in little more than stream of consciousness, though there is clear a narrative structure accentuated with a luxurious maze beautiful and eloquent phrases.  The article suggests that a reader tackle the massive work in 20-30 page increments, taking every fourth day off.  

Since I am a Proust veteran, my own pace is a bit faster than that, closer to 40-50 pages per sitting but I haven't had very many sittings yet.  The rest of my life has consumed much of my time of late, but now I am ready to focus.  So far I have read the first 200 pages as I finished up a couple of other books and dealt with work and family in the real world.  When I started rereading the novel I was uncertain as to what my pace would be.  Would I race through the book over a series of several weeks as I did in my first reading?  Or would I move at a more leisurely pace and complete it over 8-9 months as with my second reading?

To date, I am leaning toward the later approach, perhaps taking even longer.  I find that my third reading of the novel is opening up new insights into the work and some passages are worth reading 2-3 times before moving on, savoring the exquisite verbosity and the mindful investigations of the narrator.  As with a long backpacking journey, I have found my first resting spot.  The first 200 pages is a good stopping point to reflect on the novel’s journey and to blog about the multifaceted, if sometimes challenging, experience of reading it.

I am reading the 1992 revised translation of the novel by D. J. Enright, which is the translation I read my second time through the novel.  Before that my first reading was a translation by the Terence Kilmartin, Remembrance of Things Past, updated in 1981 but loyal to the original English rendering by C.K. Scott Moncrieff from the 1920’s.  Though I am reading Enright, I have Kilmartin handy.  It is marked up from my first time reading the novel.  I use the older version to scout out sections that were of interest to me as a novice and compare those with my second-time notations and new ones being made as I read it for the third time.  Due to the difference in font size, 200 pages in Enright is equal to 155 pages in Kilmartin.

During these first 200 pages a great deal is happening for the reader to consider, though it may seem like nothing is happening at all to someone new to Proust.  “For a long time I would go to bed early.”  The novel’s first sentence is a statement by an overarching narrator about himself as a child being sent to bed by his parents.  Then the scene almost continuously shifts through the child trying to fall asleep, and as an older man too, in all the many bedrooms of his life, battling the random, racing brain of insomnia.  

Finally, the shifting narrator settles as the boy who is accustomed to having his mother kiss him and read to him before sleep.  Only tonight there is a social party and his mother must remain with her guests.  The boy is miserable.  Ultimately, the mother ends up kissing him and reading to him after all.  Many readers find these first 58 pages of the novel impossible to get through.  Proust’s prose is eloquent though sprawled out at a snail’s pace of actual narrative momentum.  He goes on and on and on and on and…until you sometimes forget what the subject of the sentence is even about.  Instead you are enjoying (or being bogged down by) a multitude of mini-poetic prose essays about the details of the characters lives.

Then (so early yet!) comes the most famous passage in the whole novel.  After many years of not giving it any thought, a mid-adult aged version of the narrator (Proust’s narration involves multiple levels of perspective which is part of the fascination about the work) is sitting and having a madeleine cake dipped in a cup of tea.  Suddenly, when he tastes the cake, a flood of memory overwhelms him and he is back at Combray, Proust’s fictitious quaint upper-class town near the Normandy coast.  The boy would go there in the summer’s to visit his aunt.  The writing over these several pages is lyrical, a pleasure to read.

"No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.  An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin." (page 60)  The narrator struggles to grasp the significance of his feeling, but he can't pin it down until...

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself.  The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray, when I used to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane….But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” (pp. 63-64)

At 65 pages we come to Part II of the opening section entitled “Combray.”  Whereas in the first section Combray is mentioned in passing as another place where he had trouble falling asleep as a boy, in the second section Combray comes alive with intricate details about the town’s street structure, its buildings with particular repeated reference to the church steeple in the middle of town, its people and street life; the boy’s home life staying at his aunt.  He was a sickly child (like Proust) and he loved to read (like Proust).

At page 104 the boy happens to interrupt his uncle as the married older gentleman is hosting “the lady in pink,” a young woman who immediately captivates the boy.  The narrator is too young to understand what is happening and is simply mystified by it all.  His uncle tells the boy to not say anything about any of this but, of course, the boy tells his parents everything, not seeing how this would impact his uncle.  The family banished him and the boy only saw him in passing after that.   

Proust posits the philosophical question on the significance of involuntary memory with the madeleine cake moment.  He becomes more deeply philosophical on page 115, a trait that will re-emerge through the rest of the novel, which features multiple philosophical themes.  In this case we are dealing with the relationship of reading to the actual world.

In the actual world, everyone is “opaque” to me.  I cannot be aware of them without being aware that I am aware of them, which means I can never know them directly.  But through stories, the reader can know every feeling and opinion, every hope and fear of the characters.  Though fictionalized, the fact is this transparency of knowing someone fully is relatable to the real world.  We all share in the joys and tragedies of characters in literature.  This allows us to relate on a level very rarely reached in an everyday face-to-face encounter.  And it also allows us to assign to various people we know the insight gained from reading and experiencing these characters.  Reading is a living part of the world.  Fundamentally, it will be the boy’s experience of reading that will lead him to want to become a writer himself, to show others the reality of the world through fictionalized characters, as Proust does.

Life in Combray is rather routine.  Everyone has their place and their duties and their schedule.  The boy spends most of his time reading.  To his delight, he discovers the fictitious author Bergotte.  Proust creates special characters throughout his novel who represent and to celebrate the arts.  Bergotte fulfills the role of artistic writer.  It should be pointed out that the much of the naarative at this stage of the novel is told in words reflecting the boy's perspective.  As he ages, the boy will become a teen who will become a young man and so on into old age.  This maturation leads to more sophisticated modes of expression and feelings in the later books of the novel.  At this point, Proust keeps his descriptions on the surface of things and uses phrases like “things half-felt by me, half-incomprehensible, the full understanding of which is the vague but permanent object of my thoughts.” (page 116)  This is the experience of a curious but innocent child.  Where needed, the overarching narrator, an older man we will meet near the end of the novel, chimes in to bring understanding beyond the boy’s narrative grasp.

When not reading, the boy takes part in walks with various adults.  There are two main paths around the Vivonne river near Combray.  The Guermantes Way is the longer path so most walks are taken along the Meseglise Way also known as Swann’s Way since it takes the hiker near the Swann estate, Tansonville.  Swann is a wealthy man of leisure and a frequent visitor to boy’s summer house, enjoying the company of his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  He always comes alone, however, due to his marriage to a woman of lesser reputation.  She is not welcome and is, therefore, a mystery to the boy.

Proust takes us on a walk one fine summer day with the boy and his grandfather.  Here the reader is treated to pages of detailed lyrical writing of the lilacs and, particularly, the hawthorns along the walk.  The rich sense of nature consumes the boy’s experience of the walk.  Just as he is admiring some particular pink, fragrant hawthorns the boy sees a girl.

“Suddenly I stood still, unable to move, as happens when we are faced with a vision that appeals not to our eyes only but requires a deeper kind perception and takes possession of the whole of our being.” (page 197)  He explores every little detail his eyes can see of her until a lady calls “Gilberte, come along; what are you doing?” 

“Thus was wafted to my ears the name Gilberte, bestowed on me like a talisman which might, perhaps, enable me to one day rediscover the girl that its syllables had just endowed with an identity, whereas a moment before she had merely an uncertain image.” (page 199) The lovely moment of the boy with the hawthorns is transformed into a powerful and captivating instant where the boy feels the first notions of attraction, perhaps initially stirred by the mystery he felt for the “lady in pink” earlier.

The boy doesn’t actually see Mademoiselle Swann to this point.  She is rumored to be having an affair with a wealthy gentleman named Charlus.  Having it, in fact, at Tansonville while sending Swann away to visit others – which only makes her shunned by the boy’s family all the more.  How scandalous!  

So it is that the novel is set up 200 pages in.  Many of the important characters have been introduced along with the style and general tone of the novel.  Proust has established that the boy has an affinity for reading, imagination, and the mystery of the opposite sex.  The lyrical prose of each character, with places like Swann’s Way and Combray being no less characters in Proust’s treatment of them, makes for rich and inspiring reading.  Proust has the uncanny ability to make the ordinary into the extraordinary with his joyous, exploding verbosity.  And the theme of voluntary versus involuntary memory has been presented. 

We’re just getting started on this very long hike, however.  Onward!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Reading Homo Deus

Picking up where he left off with Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes “a brief history of tomorrow” in Home Deus.  The book begins with a discussion of how humanity has addressed, and largely conquered, two of our traditional nemeses - disease and famine.  As examples, whereas the Black Death killed between 75 and 200 million people in the 1300’s and 15 percent of the French population died of starvation during the reign of King Louis XIV, today famine and malnutrition kill about one million per year worldwide.  Obesity, on the other hand, kills 3 million per year out of 2.1 billion overweight human beings worldwide compared to about 850 million undernourished people.  Today more humans are dying from excess than from the lack of anything.

Exposure of the native peoples of Mexico to Spanish explorers and conquerors in the 1500’s likewise had catastrophic implications in terms of disease.  The native Mexican population numbered about 22 million when the Spaniards arrived.  Within about eight months the diseases the Europeans brought with which the natives had no immunity reduced the population to 14 million.  Smallpox, flu and measles, among other infectious diseases, further reduced the population to less than 2 million within a few decades.

Such enormous catastrophes are far less likely today thanks to antibiotics, better hygiene, and more stable food production and distribution.  “Famine, plague, and war will probably continue to claim millions in the coming decades,” writes Harari.  “Yet they are no longer unavoidable tragedies beyond the understanding and control of a helpless humanity.  Instead, they have become manageable challenges.” (page 19)

In fact, advanced technologies today go far beyond merely alleviating these forms of mass human suffering.  Today we are extending human life to the point where we are, for the first time, seriously considering the possibility of challenging death itself.  “The breakneck development of fields such as genetic engineering, regenerative medicine, and nanotechnology fosters ever more optimistic prophecies.  Some experts believe we will overcome death by 2200, others say 2100. (page 25) 

Even if immortality turns out to be a pipe dream, life extension is not.  “In the twentieth century we have almost doubled life expectancy from forty to seventy, so in the twenty-first century we should at least be able to double it again to 150.  Though falling far short of immortality, this would still revolutionize human society.” (page 26)

Harari stresses that he is not attempting to predict the future impact of these “revolutionary” forces.  Rather, Homo Deus is intended as an overview and discussion of the possibilities currently before us.  He thinks a likely outcome of these converging new technologies and the subsequent evolution of human knowledge will be “upgrades” to Homo sapiens, gradual improvements to our lives that blur the distinction between technology and being human.  

He stresses that there is not going to be an apocalyptic robot revolt.  The future will move more slowly and imperceptibly until, one day, our ancestors will look back and wonder how we ever were the way we are now just as we today look back at a world without fax machines and smart phones and the internet (or pacemakers, kidney dialysis, and controllable artificial limbs) and wonder how it could have been like that in our past.

This is all by way of introduction to the book.  Harari sets the table with a message that Homo sapiens use technology to increasingly control their lives for the better.  This level of control and its enormous impact upon the Earth (as elaborated in Sapiens) leads Harai to conclude that since the Cognitive Revolution we have witnessed the dawn of a new geologic era (which I have blogged about before and have an entire e-magazine devoted to) called the Anthropocene. 

“For Homo sapiens has rewritten the rules of the game.  This single ape species has managed within 70,000 years to change the global ecosystem in radical and unprecedented ways.  Our impact is already on par with that of ice ages and tectonic movements.  Within a century, our impact may surpass that of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.” (page 73)

Thanks to human sprawl over the planet, ecological diversity is being minimized.  The world is becoming a collective ecosystem rather than a diverse and disparate one.  Though the modern human footprint is greater than ever, the Anthropocene has been a long time coming.  Our ancestors not only drove all other human species to extinction, they were responsible for the extinction of 90% of the large animals of Australia, 75% of America’s large mammals, and about half of the large mammals of the planet as a whole before they could write or make iron tools or even farm.

With the Agricultural Revolution humanity developed a more pronounced sense of religion, most likely beginning with animism.  With the Industrial Revolution, humanism began to replace religion – a process that is still continuing today.  According to Harari, as humanism is replacing religion, so too are humans replacing gods, and the Anthropocene is becoming more fully expressed.  

Over the past 20,000 years Sapiens have come to dominate the planet.  What made this possible?  According to Harari, all animals (mammals anyway) possess some level of complex objective and subjective experience.  Sapiens are not so different from chimpanzees or elephants or even dolphins in that regard.  What we have that no other species possesses, however, is an “intersubjective” dimension to our experience.  A band of chimps might be able to organize several dozen of their fellow beings into unified action.  But human beings are able to create large scale “imaged orders” (religions, myths, royalty, commerce, etc.) that allow millions of Sapiens to behave in an orchestrated fashion.

“Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination.  This web allows humans alone to organize crusades, socialist revolutions and human rights movements.” (page 150)  This intersubjective dimension to Sapiens is plastic in that it is literally applicable to every aspect of human communication and culture.  Critically and fundamentally for Harari, with the discovery of writing the intersubjective dimension became functionalized as algorithmic. 

“Writing has thus enabled humans to organize entire societies on an algorithmic fashion.  We encountered the term ‘algorithm’ when we tried to understand what emotions are and how brains function, and defined it as a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions.  In illiterate societies people make all calculations and decisions in their heads.  In literate societies people are organized into networks, so that each person is only a small step in a huge algorithm, and it is the algorithm as a whole that makes the important decisions.  This is the essence of bureaucracy.” (page 160)

But, also: “Writing thus facilitated the appearance of powerful fictional entities that organized millions of people and reshaped the reality of rivers, swamps and crocodiles.  Simultaneously, writing also made it easier for humans to believe in the existence of the fictional entities, because it habituated people to experiencing reality through the mediation of abstract symbols.” (page 163)

Sapiens became more adept story tellers which allowed for more complex forms of imagination than the oral tradition alone.  Writing made our imagined forces and entities seem more real to us, more endearing and powerful.  “Fiction isn’t bad.  It is vital.  Without commonly accepted stories about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function.” (page 177, my emphasis)  Harari’s profound understanding of the necessity of intersubjective imagination in human evolution the greatest insight I read in any of his books to date.  I plan to blog more about the importance of this in the future.

This intersubjectivity has some strange bedfellows.  There is an obvious and natural animosity between science and religion, for example.  Science emerged out of religious institutions and, even though science finds many core religious beliefs to be exactly what they are – imagined – religion is still necessary.  “Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders.  Even universities and laboratories need religious backing.  Religion provides the ethical justification for scientific research, and in exchange gets to influence the scientific agenda and uses scientific discoveries.  Hence you cannot understand the history of science without taking religious beliefs into account.” (page 198)

This is but one aspect of the dynamic between intersubjective forces.  Another is the emergence of “new religions” like capitalism and consumerism.  Capitalism is a primary force driving away famine, plague, war, while achieving an unprecedented global growth in wealth across the spectrum of humanity.  Economic inequality is a concern, but the fact is a wider range of people possess more money and are above the poverty line today than ever before.

With science making new religions possible Sapiens have entered a Humanist Revolution.  Traditional religious power is weakening and the power of the new religions is rising.  Money, algorithms, growth and progress are our new gods.  Though human life is itself essentially meaningless in the universe, this does not mean that we are forced to exist in a nihilistic, materialistic void.  There is a strong basis for an enlightened and ethical humanism.

“We aren’t born with a ready-made conscience.  As we pass through life we hurt people and people hurt us, we act compassionately, and others show compassion to us.  If we pay attention, our moral sensitivity sharpens, and these experiences become a source of valuable ethical knowledge about what is good, what is right and who I really am….Humanism thus sees life as a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment by means of experiences.  The highest aim of the humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a wide variety of intellectual, emotional, and physical experiences.” (page 240)  

Harari divides humanism into three categories.  The first is liberalism, which believes that each human is a unique person with a distinct human voice and deserves full liberty to express their self.  The second is socialist humanism, arguing that the experience of the human group or collective is more important than individual liberties.  The third is evolutionary humanism which emphasizes natural selection; that humans are genetically unequal and where unequal parts interact the strongest will tend to survive.

Liberalism was initially in favor until, for much of the last century, socialism in the form of fascism and communism made a serious bid for power among Sapiens.  The emergence of recent technology and science has given us unprecedented powers over natural selection.  Millions of babies are born (and grow up to reproduce their genetics) that would have died just 100 years ago, for example.  With that, liberalism has made a comeback and now is once again the primary force of humanism.  The significance of this cannot be overstated.

“The triumphant liberal ideals are now pushing humankind to reach for immortality, bliss and divinity.  Egged on by the allegedly infallible wishes of customers and voters, scientists and engineers devote more and more energies to these liberal projects.  Yet what the scientists are discovering and the engineers are developing may unwittingly expose both the inherent flaws of the liberal world view and the blindness of customers and voters.  When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.” (page 278)

The fact is Harari believes that the great advances of science and technology and democracy and capitalism might be creating imagine forces over which Sapiens have no control.  MRI technology proves that our brains reveal what our conscious reactions will be before we are aware of them.  This “pre-conscious” self is our experiential self.  We largely have no control over a lot of how we interpret our experiences.  We can be easily manipulated by commercial advertising and political messaging, for example. Moreover, being expert story tellers, our liberalism has reinforced a narrative sense of self that we have invented which pretends we have more conscious control over ourselves than we actually possess.

The result is a mixture of the narrative self and the experiential self.  “The narrating self uses our experiences as important (but not exclusive) raw materials for its stories.  These stories, in turn, shape what the experiencing self actually feels.” (page 306)  So, in manner of speaking, we have random and indirect control over ourselves.  “We see that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money.  Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and day dreams we’ve savored, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going.  This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself.” (page 306)

This is our present situation as invented forces of technology and engineering influence us.  Harari believes we are on the verge of another evolutionary shift, the natural consequence of the Anthropocene and the Humanist Revolution.  Ironically, as humans control more about the Earth they might be about to lose control of the very forces shaping our planet.  Basically, this is because the algorithms that intersubjectively emerged long ago with the invention of writing are now taking on their own evolution, with humans as optional accessories rather than masters.

“In fact, as time goes by it becomes easier and easier to replace humans with computer algorithms, not merely because algorithms are getting smarter, but also because humans are professionalizing….over the last few thousand years we humans have been specializing.  A taxi driver or a cardiologist specializes in a much narrower niche than a hunter-gatherer, which makes it easier to replace them with AI.  As I have repeatedly stressed, AI is nowhere near human-like experience.  But 99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs.” (page 326)

In next few decades, AI algorithms will simply make most of present human employment obsolete, being able to do it faster, better, and more intelligently.  This is not the same as human consciousness, but that difference might not matter.  It might be that in the future intelligence is valued more than conscious experience.  And that will create a very different world indeed.  One where the narrating self, intersubjectivity and imagined categories are transcended.  

Harari does not despair about the possible emergence of a “useless” class of virtually all of humanity, with enormous wealth and power held by elite humans who own the algorithms.  By nature the basic needs of the useless class will have to be met in order for the algorithms, and those who own them, to peacefully evolve.  A more difficult question is what will the useless class do with their lives?  Liberalism, as we know it, will become irrelevant in a world where individuals are generally unnecessary.  Algorithms like Google and Facebook are in the unintended process of supplanting our narrating self.

“Unlike the narrating self that controls us today, Google will not make decisions based upon cooked-up stories…Google will actually remember every step we took and every hand we shook.  Many of us would be happy to transfer much of our decision-making processes into the hands of such a system, or at least consult with it whenever we face important choices.” (page 342)

“The new technologies of the twenty-first century may thus reverse the humanist revolution, stripping humans of their authority, and empowering non-human algorithms instead.  If you are horrified by this direction, don’t blame the computer geeks.  The responsibility actually lies with the biologists.  It is crucial to realize that this entire trend is fueled more by biological insights than by computer science.  It is the life science that concluded that organisms are algorithms.” (page 349)  To a large degree, the “great decoupling” of consciousness and intelligence is a logical step in evolution.

“The great human projects of the twentieth century – overcoming famine, plague, and war – aimed to safeguard a universal norm of abundance, health and peace for everyone without exception.  The new projects of the twenty-first century – gaining immortality, bliss and divinity – also hope to serve the whole of humankind.  However, because these projects aim at surpassing rather than safeguarding the norm, they may well result in the creation of a new superhuman caste that will abandon its liberal roots and treat normal humans no better than nineteenth-century Europeans treated Africans.” (page 355)

But the algorithms are not in control yet.  Therefore, two new religions are emerging out of capitalism and liberal humanism – data religion and techno-humanism.  As to the later, we are already using (and will continue to use) technology and science to “upgrade” Sapiens “…in order to create Homo deus - a much superior human model.  Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against to most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms.” (page 357)  Harari believes, however, that this will ultimately, fundamentally change what it means to be human.  Our narrating self disappears into an experience driven by artificial intelligence and biotechnology and robotics and nanotechnology.  Subsequently, the narrating self is transformed into the algorithmic self, which will (ironically perhaps) be more closely allied with our experiencing self (algorithms work on biological facts not fictitious stories) while simultaneously opening up the possibilities for new forms of experience.

The result of these new forms of experience could emerge as a “data religion” – a belief that the universe is best viewed as a diverse amalgamation of data flows.  Further, Sapiens are not presently equipped to process the immense amount of data we can potentially experience today.  Our narrative stories are no longer capable of transforming everything happening to us into knowledge and wisdom.  Instead, we are quite clearly confused and anxious.   But the twin fields of computer science and biology promise “a world-shattering cataclysm that may completely transform the very nature of life.” (page 373) 

Dataism isn’t limited to idle prophecies.  Like every religion, its practical commandments.  First and foremost a Dataist ought to maximize data flow by connecting to more and more media, and producing and consuming more and more information.  Like other successful religions, Dataism is also missionary.  Its second commandment is to link everything to the system, including heretics who don’t want to be plugged in.” (page 387)

Harari hastens to point out that the Dataist is not necessarily anti-human.  “It has nothing against human experiences.  It just doesn’t think they are intrinsically valuable.” (page 393)  Then comes what might well be the most important line in the book: “Dataism adopts a strictly functional approach to humanity; appraising the value of human experiences according to their function in data processing mechanisms.” (page 394, my emphasis)  This transformation from a narrating self to a algorithmic self is functional in nature, our humanity becomes fully a function of pure intelligence rather than of freely created and narrated consciousness.  

“Dataism thereby threatens to do to Homo sapiens what Homo sapiens has done to all other mammals.  Over the course of history humans created a global network and evaluated everything according to its function within the network.  For thousands of years this inflated human pride and prejudices.” (page 400) Harari merely points out that there are clear forces transforming us today.  In fact, nothing seems more powerful about humanity than our development of algorithms.

Which is a springboard to what Harari admits is a “possibility”, not intended to be a “prophecy.”  Our future is likely to turn out differently than even Harari envisions.  But he is right about all this rapid change, and the functionalization of intersubjectvity and the separate paths of technologies converging upon a possible Homo deus.  Just because it will likely turn out differently does not preclude the fact that Harari has written a bold and insightful and accessible assessment of how things might play out between us and biotechnology and artificial intelligence, between our traditional narrating self and the evolution of algorithms.  At the very least, he points out that these are fundamentally important imagined forces impacting our near-future in the Anthropocene.