This Nihilistic Debauch


In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut’s second masterpiece, after Slaughterhouse Five, the protagonist, Jonah, leaves on a business trip of two weeks and loans his New York City apartment to Krebbs, a poet acquaintance. Jonah’s act of generosity turns out to be a mistake.

When he returns, his apartment has been defiled, transformed into an object of scatological, Weimaresque performance art. Specifically,

. . . Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.

He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:

“I have a kitchen.
But it is not a complete kitchen.
I will not be truly gay
Until I have a

There was another message, written in lipstick in a feminine hand on the wallpaper over my bed. It said: “No, no, no, said Chicken-licken.”

There was a sign hung around my dead cat’s neck. It said, “Meow.”

Jonah summarizes: his home has been “wrecked by a nihilistic debauch.” This is surely one of Vonnegut’s immortal phrases.

Despite his reputation as an anti-establishment figure, Vonnegut was a man of deeply conventional morals, and he puts the dark hilarity of this episode to work for them. Jonah was a writer, an observer of life’s full panoply. He teetered, as writers do, on the edge of surrendering to nihilism. All writers in one way or another take seriously Dostoevsky’s idea that without God, all is permitted, and that any one human choice, therefore, is “as good as” another.

But the highly inventive wreckage wrought by Jonah’s fellow artist shocks him out of his lassitude. He draws a moral:

[A]fter I saw what Krebbs had done, in particular what he had done to my sweet cat, nihilism was not for me.

Somebody or something did not wish me to be a nihilist. It was Krebbs’s mission, whether he knew it or not, to disenchant me with that philosophy. Well, done, Mr. Krebbs, well done.

I’ll come straight to the point. If the United States is able to recover the main elements of its democracy and reform a workable mode of governance, I believe we will look back some day on the nihilistic debauch that festered in the White House from 2017 and say of it, “Well done, Mr. Trump, well done.” Trump’s demented, malevolent yokelism could prove to be the spur that turns us back toward liberal, informed democracy.

Trump is, by his own design, the star of the uncouth reality show that today stands in for the executive branch of our government. He made himself the wretch he is. This is important to bear in mind as we account for why we like him.

In seeking cheap fame, gaudy wealth and bought-off sex, Trump has visited on himself every affliction that can deform the human person from something wondrous into something slipshod and contemptible. This feels like a crime to me. We have worked so hard to become human. Although we are all born with the normal biological apportionments of greed and lust, Trump has artfully malformed his instincts into a nihilist parody of humanity. His self-aggrandizing, shallowness, ignorance, petulance and blind braggadocio render him a monument to how not to be human.

That Trump’s mind is every bit as deranged as the pageant of onanistic destruction Jonah encounters in his ruined apartment brings me back to a point I try to make regularly–that literature is useful. Vonnegut acquaints us, in the episode of Jonah’s defiled home, with the idea of the nadir, the point from which we can sink no lower. Addicts call it rock bottom. The nadir invites chastened, serious thinking. I hope that’s where we are. If we are to torture children in for-profit prison camps as a matter of national policy, let us learn from our artful cruelty.

U.S. Border Patrol Houses Unaccompanied Minors In Detention Center
In Trump’s for-profit concentration camps, interned children are not allowed to touch one another even if they are family members. This measure is taken “for their own safety.” All mammals need the touch of their fellows, and the Nazis demonstrated in their own concentration camps that human children would suffer and die (more quickly) without human contact. Any sane person brave enough to dwell on this outrage for a moment can reason out the consequences of torturing children in this way, but in case your imagination fails you, here is the testimony of a Holocaust survivor on this point

To be sure, though, our low point does not consist in the horrific void of Trump himself. There will always be unmotivated assholery and even sociopathic malice abroad in the land, and someone will occasionally achieve a Trump-like mastery of it. So it goes. Our real nadir lies in the electrified connection Trump has made with so many of us Americans. He has tapped into a source of power which deserves our analysis.

Had you told Americans of my parents’ generation that an Archie Bunker could rise to become president, they would have scoffed. The whole point of Archie Bunker’s character was to illustrate the cultural and political weakness of the yokel by thoroughly airing its ignorance. Uninformed bigots, the audience was assured, could talk at the television, but the forces of polite society would always ensure their voices never broke out into the real world.

How appropriate that the man who would puncture this illusion would do so as a TV star. Did we not pay attention when Neil Postman warned in 1985, with the publication of Amusing Ourselves to Death, that cheap entertainment was gathering horrible political force? Sadly, it hardly matters now. The internet and especially social media did what TV only threatened to do–they enabled the mass replacement of reality with a collective fantasy.¹ That the triumphant vision happens to be a yokel nationalist fantasy, as opposed to an elitist cosmopolitan one, makes it especially rebarbative to anyone who liked the rules of polite society, but it is too late to go wringing our hands over details now. It was going to be a fantasy of some kind, and that is the point.

Fast forward to 2016, and indeed to 2019. We are now living out the Archie Bunker fantasy, and more. Good citizens with far coarser sentiments and less educating experience than Bunker’s (he at least had been to war) suddenly find themselves within spitting distance of the president’s temperament and intelligence level. This is remarkable, and empowering. The election of a self-made reactionary oaf is a powerful revival of the myth than any American can be president, even those left far outside the halls of power.

Just to get our bearings, consider this: Had the denizens of Ruby Ridge lived to fight another day, they would have found themselves not out in the Idaho cold beholden to some prepper messiah or other obscure high priest of the Second Amendment , but, miraculously, in warm sympathy with our law-and-order, hairspray addict-in-chief, the owner, we are told, of a  golden toilet. Our country truly does contain multitudes, and Trump has succeeded in enlisting and unifying some unlikely bedfellows. This year he has sorely tested the loyalty of allies who could hardly be less like him, farmers, whom he is bankrupting through a trade war. Many stick it out because they like Trump for his toughness–a quality they know well but which he surely fakes.

I have opined at length on the scale of the lies that sustain our unlikely oligarchy and the tawdriness of the mass credulity that protects it. I won’t drone on here on those points. Marx said it better than it has been said since: If you want poor people to drop their illusions, you’ll have to abandon the whole ingeniously exploitative system that requires them to have illusions.

But try to appreciate this: America has achieved something so remarkable that Orwell said in a 1947 essay it had only been imagined in dystopian literature up till then. Namely, we have solidified a system “in which the special political problems of capitalism [have] been solved without bringing liberty, equality or true happiness any nearer.”

Although Orwell is making a vital point in this sentence, he is uncharacteristically abstract. Let me bring him down to earth. If you make less than one million dollars a year, as you file your higher taxes this spring, bear this mind: you are in fact paying off  the oligarchy and helping the rich solve one of the “special political problems” to which Orwell alludes above. To be precise, you are paying your share of taxes plus the taxes that the rich do not wish to pay. They leave you to scrounge for your own schools, sidewalks and healthcare even as you pay for their next financial bailout.

If you pay these bribes with resignation, or perhaps in loving support of our Dear Leader, you are betraying the principle on which we rebelled against Britain. We said then, and some of us still believe, that the ruling class should not force us to pay both our taxes and theirs (and to feel heroic about it). To mix revolutions, we will not just eat cake.

I am pessimistic about the power of policy arguments like this one to dent Trump. As I noted, many farmers still like the president even as he manipulates them into sacrificing income and taking desperate loans to enrich big bankers. Trump’s powers of fabulism and his base’s deep fund of credulity will short circuit any attempt to counter their views with logic. Trump brays, in the face of multitudinous contrary facts, that he is the most accomplished president in modern U.S. history, and we must take seriously the prospect that a non-negligible group of Americans, somewhere out there, believes him. They won’t fire him for being P.T. Barnum; they will hold him closer because he stokes their desire to defy “the system.”

And so I offer as a mere token of my criticism an openly ad hominem attack on Trump. Consider, not Trump’s foolish policy “ideas,” but his uniquely slanderous treatment of the late Senator John McCain, conduct which I believe serves to exile him beyond the pale of polite society. Trump is a president whose mere presence is indigestible to a great swathe of the public. Trump’s self-inflicted parody on the human persona is unwelcome almost everywhere outside his Nürnberg-style rallies.

I am not the only one who believes this. In fact, it was McCain’s daughter Meghan who broke openly with the idea that Trump was to be tolerated among decent folk. After Trump’s daughter and son-in-law appeared uninvited at John McCain’s funeral, Meghan reflected, “I thought that my family had made it clear, or at least I had, that the Trumps are unwelcome around me, and that my father had been sort of very clear about the line between the McCains and the Trumps.”

The line dividing the Trumps from the McCains is the same one that more generally divides the decent from the indecent. It is the line that Vonnegut illustrates with such inventiveness and verve in the apartment passage I quoted above.

I recently watched the Ken Burns film on the Vietnam war, and I saw footage of McCain in Hanoi in 1967. He was freshly wounded from being shot down, and he was being rolled before TV cameras on a gurney into the prison where he would be kept for five years and tortured many times. Caught up in the present moment, I was flooded with revulsion at Trump’s cheap, ongoing contempt for McCain. Can anyone imagine Trump making one-one thousandth the sacrifice McCain made in war, or evincing one iota of McCain’s courage? Trump has built a personal brand that deliberately mocks those values and evades the kind of duty McCain stoically performed.

Consider further the magnanimity and diplomatic wisdom McCain showed in reconciling with his wartime captors and writing legislation to help improve relations with Vietnam in the 1990s. He did so in cooperation with John Kerry, a political opponent, in the service of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. I need hardly remind you that Clinton, a Vietnam war protester, was and remains regarded by some as a draft dodger. McCain’s level of statesmanship in pursuing rapprochement with Vietnam, as pragmatic as it was idealistic, is far beyond the ken of someone like Trump. As recently as February 2019 Trump was still vocalizing scorn for the late McCain.

The dispute between Meghan McCain and Trump is as old as Sophocles’s Antigone, with only slight adjustments. A sister is outraged by an overweening king’s desecration of her (soldier) brother’s body. Although the king has the political power to do as he likes, the aggrieved sister cannot accept his defilement of the honors due a fallen soldier. In a sense, Trump is too pathetic a figure to be entertained as a stand-in for the king in this allegory. But his inability to stop defiling McCain’s memory invites just the kind of Antigone-like protest Meghan McCain has raised. She is making a stand for certain conventional morals, the validity of which our country had accepted for some 240 years before Trump came along.

Trump has made his own bed. His treatment of McCain is just one conspicuous symptom of a comprehensive failure of character so basic it is indistinguishable from his personal brand–what for most people would be called a self. He belongs in those low places of huckster celebrity where he worked out his pact with the yokel mob–in the WWF ring, on the Howard Stern Show, on the Apprentice set, in the Access Hollywood bus. He does not belong with adults in polite society.

My own convictions on this point are, like Vonnegut’s, deeply conventional; Trump is an outlandish creep who thoroughly deserves the exile he has fashioned for himself. I believe we will look back someday on the wasteland of his outrages on truth, honor and decency–a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare landscape to which Trump leeringly invited us–and, like Vonnegut’s Jonah, thank him for jolting us awake.

  1. If you think we are not temperamentally primed for accepting wholesale fantasy as a replacement reality, consider the two most prominent uses of the internet. The first is pornography, which encourages the fantasy of unrestricted sexual access. The second is gambling, which lures the everyman to believe he can join the nouveau riche. Both scams deprive the seeker of what he seeks. This self-defeating fantasy land is what made Trump president.



In Postwar: A history of Europe After 1945, Tony Judt reports on the nice trick that Austria pulled off at the end of World War Two. It went like this:

When the killing stopped and the smoke cleared, Austria sidled up to Europe’s devastated liberal democracies and assumed the pose of a fellow victim. Austrians too had been ravaged by Nazism, the Austrians said. All Europe’s countries should now join together to seek a future of peace, reconstruction and healing. Austria would mill about with the other convalescents, hoping–it must be believed–that its wartime record would go unremarked.

It worked. The world bought it. Austria was let off the hook with a pro forma denazification process. In 1972 the Austrian diplomat Kurt Waldheim, hiding his past as a Nazi intelligence officer, ascended to the office of the world’s leading proponent of peace, the UN Secretary General. Not bad for a man who almost certainly helped send Jews to the camps and possibly ordered the torture and execution of Yugoslavian partisans.

If Austria’s trick were a sports play on YouTube, you would watch it endlessly in playback, squinting to try to see how they pulled it off. The home of Hitler and Mauthausen–one of the first concentration camps, established in 1938–was, as if by magic, rehabilitated into an ordinary European country with nothing special to confess.

In point of fact, the Austrians had been virulent Nazis during the war. In a book review, the New York Times summarizes some of Judt’s key observations in this vein:

In a country of under seven million inhabitants, there were still more than 500,000 registered Nazis in Austria at the end of the war. Austrians were greatly overrepresented in the SS and among concentration-camp staff. Tellingly, over 38 percent of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra were Nazis, compared with just 7 percent of the Berlin Philharmonic.

To be fair, the whitewashing of Austria’s wartime history was a mutual fantasy–there were two parties doing that tango. The victorious Allies needed the people of (occupied) former Axis countries to feel they were being sincerely welcomed back into the community of nations, and so a certain amount of amnesia was indulged in, blatant as it was. Acts of forgetting, as the novelist Milan Kundera reminds us, are an essential part of making ourselves into who we are, and–unlike their German cousins–Austrians were simply handed an unlimited prescription of lotus flowers to help do the job.¹ They had a lot to forget; the Allies just let them get on with it.

In a wonderful side note to this history, Judt remarks on the the striking success between the 1950s and 70s of German-language Heimatfilme (“homeland films”). These were saccharine movies of innocent family dramas set in bucolic German or Austrian landscapes, stories utterly bereft of politics or war. In a grandiose, deliberate act of forgetting, the Heimatfilme reached back to memories unpoisoned by recent history. Germans (and Austrians) loved them, and critics from Allied countries for the most part felt no need to prick Germanophile audiences’ consciences over them.

But I digress. Today’s topic is only tangentially related to these painful ironies of history. Today’s talk focuses on how Austria, a small, landlocked country made mostly impassable by mountains, managed to punch miraculously above its cultural weight throughout the whole course of the 20th century. It put a stamp as big as all of Europe on the world’s main events. In 2016, the staid Economist assessed Austria’s historical impact in these fulsome terms:

Imperial Viennese society could not survive. But the ideas and art brought forth during the fecund period of Viennese history from the late 1880s to the 1920s endured—from Loos’s modernist architecture to Gustav Klimt’s symbolist canvasses, from Schoenberg’s atonal music and Mahler’s Sturm und Drang to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Those Viennese who escaped Nazism went on to sustain the West during the cold war, and to restore the traditions of empiricism and liberal democracy.

Austria has always had a knack for outdoing itself. It’s hard not to admire certain of its outsized accomplishments, many of which you might think of erroneously as German. Mozart, for example, was justly celebrated as a hero of Germanic genius, but he was a son of Salzburg. It turns out there are many other, lesser noticed such vagaries.

I first took note of them in the early 2000s when The Economist profiled Red Bull and Swarovski. At the time, these firms had recently emerged from their humble status as “small or medium enterprises,” or SMEs, to conquer world markets and become giants. Probably not many people even know they’re Austrian companies, but they have come to define the products they make and sell. Red Bull didn’t just win the global battle of energy drinks; it created the whole contest. Swarovski is stylish, affordable crystal, to the tune of $3.3 billion annually.

When I first saw a can of Red Bull in Germany in 1991, it was a specialty drink stocked only in gas stations. You would grab a can to fight fatigue and improve your concentration on the Autobahn. Given the Germans’ passion for driving, I thought of Red Bull as an essentially German product.

Back then you couldn’t buy Red Bull in a bar or even a grocery store. Today, I witness, just in my cubicle and the one next to mine, the consumption of at least a dozen energy drinks a day–all produced or inspired by Red Bull. This scenario is played out daily in several million other work sites around the world. I don’t know how many cans are consumed on average by desk workers like me (which seem to make up its steadiest market), but Red Bull reports it sold just over 6 billion units in 2017, earning revenues of $7.4 billion. The energy drink industry as a whole, which I reiterate was pioneered by Red Bull, earned $21 billion in 2017. It is like Red Bull created an industry that figured out how to sell air. Another nice trick.

Speaking of things invisibly familiar, Germans might be aware of a local variation on the Red Bull “effect.” Austrian grocery stores quietly dominate the market in Germany, and to such an extent that Germans themselves may not even know it. Indeed when you want to say “supermarket” in German, you can practically substitute any of a handful of brand names–Aldi, Lidl, Rewe, Penny or Spar–Austrian all. I’ve lived in Germany for 15 years, and I probably sent half my grocery money to Austria.

There is obviously nothing improper about this, but I think, to put the shoe on another foot, it would give Americans a certain unease to discover that all our major supermarkets were, say, Canadian. Like it or not, brands are a part of national identity. McDonalds, Starbucks and (God help us) Walmart help make us who we are. Germans must feel that the Austrian companies that bring them their daily provender and thus nourish millions of Germany’s 75 million bodies, have confiscated a small part of their identity.

Such accomplishments as these, though, are merely the most pedestrian indicators of the towering cultural contributions that Austrians have made to the present course of history. It turns out that the same country that produced such clever business managers also turned out much larger geniuses who shaped the way we perceive reality and the human place in it. A country with half the population of Guatemala gave the world intellectual giants on whose shoulders our thinkers (and doers) stand today.

This cultural refulgence began to break out and twinkle through the darkness even before the 20th century.

  • In 1846 the Vienna physician Ignaz Semmelweiss discovered the germ theory of disease. Before Semmelweiss, doctors held the same ignorant, superstitious beliefs as the benighted masses about what causes people to get sick. It is nearly impossible to grasp the full impact of Semmelweiss’s discovery; it still informs everything we know (and learn) about communicable diseases. Semmelweiss’s work is why everyone, especially doctors, are encouraged to wash their hands as an act of preventive medicine. Like having Purell dispensers everywhere? Thank Semmelweiss. Even more to the point, the public vaccination campaigns that have eradicated several childhood diseases would not have been possible without Semmelweiss’s foundational insight into microbes and disease.
  • Just two decades after Semmelweiss, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel worked out the first accurate theories of genetic heritability, using his famous pea plants. His work is the basis for everything we know about genes today. Although I am skeptical of the much-hyped prospects for genetics to make humans immortal, it may succeed in extending our lifespan by decades or freeing yet-born children from horrible, debilitating diseases. Whatever it does for humanity, we owe it to Mendel, busying himself in his Austrian monastery.
  • And then there’s Sigmund Freud, the turn-of-the-century Vienna intellectual. Say what you will of his more scurrilous ideas about our dreams or our mothers, the foundations of Freud’s psychoanlytic theory of personality remain intact. Anyone working today in any kind of functional psychology assumes the truth of what Freud proposed in his earliest writings–that formative mental processes happen unconsciously. We are not just who we say or believe we are; we are the outcome of opaque mental computations over which we have limited control or even insight.
  • A handful of Austrians worked in the spooky intellectual penumbra of science, a place where you might say angels fear to tread. One was Kurt Gödel, a mathematician who proved what is known as the Incompleteness Theorem, the deeply counterintuitive idea that there exist more (true) mathematical facts than can be proven true. Although I suppose only theoretical mathematicians can fully appreciate Gödel’s thinking, even a layman may be quietly awed by the scope of Gödel’s idea–that the human mind cannot lay full claim to supervening mathematical dimension of reality, the domain of unchanging logic and basic physical laws. Gödel put us all in the humble position of Hamlet’s Horatio, proving, not just rhapsodizing, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. (On his way to be naturalized as U.S. citizens in 1948, Gödel intimated to his friend and witness Albert Einstein, that he [Gödel] had detected a logical loophole in the U.S. Constitution that would enable the country to become a dictatorship. Einstein advised Gödel to sit on his discovery long enough to swear his oath of allegiance, which he did.)
  • The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein also drew a kind of boundary around humankind’s ability to conceive of reality. The world, he said–meaning all of reality–is the sum total of coherent sentences expressing facts. Poetry and other voodoo be damned, list all the well-formed facts there are and you have defined the limits of what we can know and therefore of what exists. Wittgenstein’s radical idea may not be provable as a theorem, but it gave birth to several predominant schools of thought in philosophy and the social sciences in the 20th century. His revolution is known as the “linguistic turn,” and it conjectures that the particulars of human language shape and constrain humans’ ability to know anything at all. If you want to know who started all the postmodern kerfuffle about nothing being real if it can’t be “represented” in some kind of system of symbols, you may look, ruefully perhaps, to Wittgenstein.
  • Three deeply influential Austrian thinkers must be mentioned in the same breath. The economist Friedrich Hayek was a Nobel Prize winner who enunciated the clearest, most comprehensive defense of classic economic liberalism in the history of his field. His compatriot Ludwig von Mises solidified the foundation of microeconomics as a form of rational choice theory. If, as an American, you think we owe the free-market ideology on which our economy is based to Milton Friedman, Allen Greenspan, or some other Chicago ideologue (still less to the vulgar claptrap of Ayn Rand), we do not. Those economists owe the sum of their ideas to Hayek and von Mises. The Austrians were the first economists to say, if you want the state out of the individual’s way, you must start by allowing the markets to function in the freest way possible. For good or for ill, these are the fathers of the Reagan-Thatcher deregulation wave that conquered the world in the 1980s and remains with us today.
  • Hayek’s and von Mises’s counterpart in political philosophy was Karl Popper, author of the justly famous The Open Society and Its Enemies. Perched as he was in central Europe, and having witnessed Nazi fascism and Warsaw Pact communism, the well-informed Popper became an implacable foe of the corporate state. He argued with passion and principle that citizens must be left alone to speak their minds and form their own interest-based associations if they are to enjoy real freedom. If you get the heebie jeebies at the idea that governments should have ministries of religion or ministries of “sports and youth,” for example, but cannot quite articulate your revulsion, you will find a champion in Popper. He is the main expositor of the ideas that passed through the crucible of World War Two and the Cold War to be christened as liberal democratic values.

I make no attempt to explain Austria’s high cultural batting average here, only admire it. Still, they say location is everything, and there must be something to the notion that Austria took in all of Eurasia’s intersecting cultural influences because of where it sits. It then wove them all together. I have only touched on the surface of them here.

On the three or four occasions I’ve found myself in the Innsbruck Main Train Station, I’ve felt I was somehow at the gritty and unprepossessing heart of Europe. It’s a place where you can still feel the old confluence of Germanic, Latin, Jewish and Slavic cultures. In 1993, I heard Bosnian spoken there by people carrying bundles and suitcases. In 2016 I heard Arabic and I guess Swahili by people carrying just bundles. People are always on the move. Lots of them pass through Austria; some stay and think.

The Innsbrook Main Train Station (image:

Looking back, I feel like those moments at the Innsbruck station found me at the heart of the world as I know it. Somehow Austria, despite asking for no such fame, opened up onto the rest of the world. If I should ever go crazy and run off to die at a train station like Tolstoy did, I hope I make my way back to Innsbruck, where you can still sense genius being formed by accident.

  1. This is of course an oversimplification. Many young postwar Germans believed their parents’ generation had been shamefully exempted from having to face up to their past. They thought the Allies’ hasty rehabilitation of Germany allowed too many fascist undercurrents of German society to survive, allowing the “new” German bourgeoisie avoid the moral self examination that was required of them. The Red Army Faction was just one, extreme, example of this larger protest movement. It is worth noting, however, that Austria was not wracked by such collective soul searching after the war, likely because the Allies imposed a less stringent denazification process there.

A Modest Proposal: Let’s Double the Pay of Teachers


As they used to say in the 1960s, dig this:

A Homo sapiens pops out of its mother. Its cognitive endowment is the same as its ancestors’ was 500,000 years ago. It is neurologically wired and muscularly evolved for a hard, short life of hunting, foraging, and animal procreation. It will eat grubs and like them.

If, through chance and luck, it lives long, it may achieve the pinnacle of abstract thought–contemplating the terrors of its environment and forming superstitions to account for them. If it is a genius, it might daub muddy ochre and limonite on cave walls to record its terrors, joys and superstitions.

This is still us. Every child born on this day in 2019 will emerge with the same mental inheritance as the grub eater and cave painter.

But our cultural endowment is almost too vast to circumscribe–the things our caveman brains have discovered and invented. We’ve gone to the moon, split the atom, and read, and wept over, Middlemarch.

What distinguishes us, miracles that we are, from our ancient forebears? When we pop out of our mothers today, we are expected, with our caveman brains, to learn to read and write a language by the age of six, and within a few years after that, to use that language to catch ourselves up on all the artifacts that humans have come up with since the stone age–from the wheel to the International Monetary Fund.

Here is an interesting thought experiment. Neuroscientists say that if you magically transported a new human from 500,000 years ago to today, that human would, without a hitch, become just like us. Grown up and invited to dinner, they would not root around your backyard looking for grubs. They would be just like your other guests, scrolling through their phones, talking aimlessly about craft beer and their jobs as cyber-security specialists. They might be slightly harrier. That’s all.

If you know anything of the life sciences, you may not be impressed by this vignette. Of course we’re still the same as we’ve always been. Our physiology hasn’t changed, and physiology is everything.

But you have to admit: the learning curve required to bring the caveman brain up to the capacity of today’s digital native is almost unimaginably steep. The cultural endowment with which our teachers must acquaint us is of mind-boggling size and dynamism. A full set of Encylopedia Brittanica offers a mere peek into the whole thing.

So here is another thought experiment, which I came up with myself. I didn’t need neuroscience. Imagine you gave the rough outline of human history as I’ve indicated it to a curious Martian. You manage to get it across to him that over the years our tribes have organized themselves to have professions, and it is actually the responsibility of one of these professions to teach all the caveman babies how to anticipate everything they will do in life, and to understand everything that will be done to them. Furthermore, this job must be accomplished in as little as five years.

The Martian stops you at this point. I don’t know if Martians are effusive by nature, but this one effuses that these miracle workers who teach the caveman babies must be, by a wide margin, the most valued people on Earth. You’ve told the Martian enough about medicine, agriculture the internet and so forth that he grasps clearly that none of it would be possible without the caveman baby teachers. They literally enable everything good that happens in the world outside basic biological functions. They are humanity’s saviors and guardians of its highest wisdom.

“Meh,” you must respond. This thought experiment is true-to-life, and you must do your best to depict life on Earth as it really is. (For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick to America, the corner of Earth you know best.)

“Meh,” as you were saying. “They’re about average.”

In the United States, the median salary of an elementary school teacher is $57,160. In Missouri, where I come from, it is $53,390. You work your way up from a median starting salary of roughly $32,000.

Garbage collectors, we learn, make about $43,000 a year; forklift operators about the same. Workers in car factories earn $37,000 on average. Attorneys make approximately $119,000, cartographers almost $62,000. If you join a circus, you can expect to make as much as $70,000, as little as $40,000. I guess it depends on what you do.

I do not mean to imply that any of these jobs are more or less noble than the others, but if you are looking for a monetary sign that we value teachers on anything like the surprised Martian scale, you will not find it. A teacher is valued about as much as the next guy.

How does this happen?

I think teachers do their jobs for the pay they get for the same reason soldiers do their jobs for the pay they get. Because it is intrinsically heroic. They take on romantic, deadly serious mission that is fundamental to humanity’s struggle for worth, meaning and progress. As generals know, you can’t pay people enough to go get themselves killed in battle, but you can easily get them to go on appealing adventures that happen to include the risk of violent death. If the adventure is good enough, people will do it.

I wish this were not true of the soldier’s profession, because I despise war. But it is true nonetheless. I know too many reflective, intelligent soldiers to believe they are just violent people who want to go off to battle and kill others. They are doing an unimaginably hard job which, tragically, humanity requires of them.


Delete the word tragically from that sentence, and it applies without qualification to teachers. Teachers also do an unimaginably hard job that humanity requires of them. And because they try to make us humans the best we can be, their profession is a thing of exquisite beauty.

The Bible (Phil. 4:8) exhorts us, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” One can truly say of teachers–unlike soldiers, their counterparts in heroism–that the things they do merit the unabashed, Whitmanesque homily of this verse. Without teachers, especially our first ones, none of us would have the slightest chance of discovering the true, the honest, the just, the pure, or the things that are lovely or of good report.

It is shameful how little we pay teachers. We should pay them twice as much as they get, and this still would not be enough. A federal fund should be established to match the salaries their states pay them. Let’s put a monetary value on the size of the information gap teachers helps us close in three or four years. We go from cave man to digital native in that time.

I need not make this scheme any more practicable than this rough outline indicates, because it will never happen. The “perfect” forces of our labor market will keep the pay of a teacher just north of a forklift operator’s and just south of a map maker’s. Plus teachers know that theirs is the best adventure on Earth. They will keep doing it because it is like digging a well that brings water to the thirsty. Can you offer pay for such miracles? You can, but the miracle itself is its own reward.


Getting to the Heart of “The Man Without Qualities” by Robert Musil


I believe literature should be useful. Let it be grand, beautiful, moving, sublime, or transformative if it can be, but I think the best literature should give also us some idea of how to do things better. Furthermore, I believe it is the job of literary critics to explain literature’s usefulness.

Take Kurt Vonnegut. Everything he wrote served to promote two moral ideas that he believed had a special home in America–(1) that everyone is equal and (2) no one should starve. It wasn’t that he thought the rest of the world was unworthy of these principles; he just thought we Americans should get our own house in order before we went poking our nose into other people’s lives. We had written a large check to ourselves, which still needed cashing. Vonnegut’s art was well and truly propaganda, just as Orwell believed all art to be.

Vonnegut wore his heart on his sleeve, so even an amateur critic like me could easily get his message. I read Vonnegut with the same open heart with which I used to read the Gospels. His novels ring out with a clear, compelling formula for a decent life that no one can miss. Let him who has ears hear.

And what did Vonnegut have to say about living? This: You should treat your fellow mammals kindly, attend to the balance of good and bad chemicals in your bodies, and take time to notice when you are happy. Much of the wrong that we do, such as massacres, could be avoided by following these rules of thumb.

Anyone who reads Vonnegut’s novels can feel these principles come exquisitely to life on the page, presenting new possibilities for living. It’s useful literature. Often Vonnegut conks you over the head with his ideas, which makes them easy to notice. So even if literature was never your thing, go read Vonnegut today. It will be as good for you as brisk exercise, and you’l feel the effects immediately.

Today I’d like to try a much harder case, Robert Musil’s unfinished, 1,000-page novel The Man Without Qualities, a book whose “action” is made up mostly of ruminations and polite dialogue. Musil doesn’t conk you over the head with anything. I’m spending about three hours a day reading his slow-moving behemoth, and I feel like someone other than myself should get something out of it.

If you Google The Man Without Qualities, you’ll see it proposed here and there that it is a great “novel of ideas” and one of the most “important” novels of the 20th century. Is this just hype? Trivial book chat? I hope not, but who knows.

Although reading Musil is not particularly tough sledding–his voice is far from Joycean–I can see why he is not widely read these days. He works structurally. A big part of his message in The Man Without Qualities is that Europeans had by the early 20th century meandered so far away from meaningful ideas they were, in their listlessness, creating a dangerous political vacuum in the heart of Europe’s governing class. They didn’t know what to want. The once-bracing intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment had talked itself out.

The elites were coming up palpably empty on ideas for good governance in 1913. What would the masses seize on to fill the void? We know. One of Musil’s characters comes rather sharply to the point. Surveying the blank tableau of 1913 European political thought, he remarks that “God, for reasons still unknown to us, seems to be leading us into an era of physical culture.”

That’s a terrifying prophecy. Society’s spirit of constructively and critically testing ideas was giving way to the brute assertion of will, thought Musil. Attitude was everything. You can’t get much more physical than humans shoveling other humans into pits for not being Aryans, which is what Europe would come to in three short decades.


If you think today’s Europeans, after all they’ve been through, are incapable of such reactionary wholesale murder, think again. The news from Russia this week tells us that goons are killing homosexuals in a state-sanctioned “gay purge.” The pestilence of homicidal hatred is merely sleeping in our breasts, as Camus warned in The Plague. It never leaves us entirely.

Gripping stuff, man’s latent tendency to evil, but Musil exerts more art in depicting it than today’s reader is prepared for, I think. He builds tension structurally, by letting his characters wander pointlessly through the myriad dead-end ideas floating around Vienna in 1913. One character thinks stamp collecting is an underappreciated avenue to world peace. Another works out statistically that people on the street feel subconsciously happier the closer the ratio of straight strokes to whole words on street signs approached two and a half to one. Ws and Ms were better than Os and Cs. The ratios worked out better.

A European reader in, say, the 1950s, would have read this arcana with a great intimation of suspense, knowing that  Musil’s characters were sleepwalking toward apocalypse. The Viennese sensed, possibly through Freud, that society was feeling its way forward in the dark, but to what they did not know. Then came the two worst disasters in the history of mankind, one right after another. They would obliterate the life of the mind for a whole generation of Europeans.

The 21st-century American reader could be forgiven for missing all this. By halfway through The Man Without Qualities, she might just be wondering how many tinkling discussions of political esoterica in grand Hapsburg parlors she must digest before a plot or some kind of auctorial assertion takes hold. Where was Musil’s point? Or was it a book without qualities? Novelists sometimes make jokes like that.

If you bear with him, though, Musil makes some sturdy points very much worthy of our attention today. Although I have no idea whether he intended to do this, Musil develops a handful of increasingly challenging themes, one on top of and wrapped around another. If you can grasp on the most tractable one, you can unspool the heart of his message, I believe.

The first theme is specialization. One of the things Ulrich, Musil’s titular character, observes is that people in the professional classes know increasingly more and more about smaller and smaller domains of life. Ask them about their specialty and they can expound on it ad nausem, in fine detail. Ask them how it fits into human life as a whole, though, and they are lost at sea.

What we notice today in, say, network engineers–a specialist’s opaque knowledge of their trade, and the identity they derive from it–was just budding in Musil’s day. How far will it go? The extrapolations look dizzying. They may come to mirror Moore’s Law: labor specialization may end up climbing in lockstep with the increase of computing power. It is a fair guess that by the time you and I are old, professionals will specialize to such a great extent, they will not be able to understand anything of what their fellows and compatriots spend their lives doing. Humans will be increasingly alienated from one another, just from doing our jobs.

The reason our labor must become ever more specialized, Musil observes, is because of the advance of science into everyday life. In the 20th century science would climb to a position of uncontested cultural supremacy. The atom bomb and the moon landing alone must quiet anyone who would doubt the objective power and appeal of science. Ulrich grapples with an attitude spurred by this appeal, scientism. Scientism is roughly the idea that science should take the lead in all human enterprises given the reliability of its methods and the impact of its discoveries. I am sort attracted to this idea myself. Guesses, intuitions and articles of faith just don’t stand up to science when it comes to discovering important truths about the world and knitting them together into theories.

Incidentally, one of the earliest proponents of scientism was the turn-of-the century Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, a contemporary of Musil’s. I keep waiting for Wittgenstein to make a cameo appearance in The Man Without Qualities, but he hasn’t shown up yet. In his first book, the imposingly named Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argued that everything that could be said about the world in natural languages like English or German could be said more precisely in a pristine logical language of pure symbols.

Fair enough, logicians had believed something like this since the Middle Ages. But what made Wittgenstein revolutionary was his follow up to this idea. Once you have, in theory, written out all such formulations, you have given a full and exhaustive description of the world. The world is made up of its constituent facts–sentences, really–not by the physical things that purportedly make the sentences true or false. Despite the objective nature of reality, man was at the center of the universe. His unique ability to designate facts through the use of language put him there.

It also meant the world depended for its sense primarily on structures and dynamics endogenous to the human mind, not “objective” entities that exhibited an unassailable primeval order. Furthermore, our ability to categorize and understand the world’s parts was radically dependent on a socially-mediated process–language.

You were still welcome to use any linguistic expressions that did’t appear in the master fact list (Wittgenstein would come to say later), but you must live with the acknowledgement that they are only poor cousins of hard facts. They could be poorly expressed facts that can be translated into pristine ones, or they might be mere nonsense.

Wittgenstein makes these claims with shocking brevity. In fact it takes him less space to lay out the main part of his argument than it took me to frame it. Here is literally what he said on the first page of the Tractatus:

1 The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

1.2 The world divides into facts.

1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.

With these deductions Wittgenstein set off several chain reactions in philosophy that echoed down the entire 20th century. One of them was reductivism, a corollary of scientism, which says that our narrative explanations of the world as we “know” it are just illusory stand-ins for more basic structures and dynamics which only science can discover. You say you see a table, for instance, but what you really “see” is an array of atoms that in no way resembles a table. It is mostly made up of mind-bogglingly vast amounts of empty space. (Read the first half of Bertrand Russell’s Nobel Prize-winning The Problems of Philosophy for an astoundingly clear presentation of this tension.)

Reductivism is a theme that is laced throughout The Man Without Qualities. Characters note with rueful resignation how scientific authorities are replacing people’s stores of long-held, vague beliefs with harder, more precise, more mundane facts. And it’s a disquietingly democratic trend, affecting common folk and aristocrats alike. Everyone is having their facts changed, and with them, underlying assumptions and supervening attitudes.

It was only 70 years before the action opens in The Man Without Qualities that the Vienna obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the germ theory of disease. Before, people thought, for example, that colds were literally caused by the cold. Semmelweiss hypothesized that many diseases were caused instead by microbes, and he pressed this idea on his skeptical colleagues. Initial results indicated Semmelweiss was right. Doctors grudgingly had to acknowledge that the danger of infection posed by the germs on their unwashed hands required them to do something no gentlemen had ever been obliged to do before in highly stratified Hapsburg life–wash up before attending to their social inferiors. They did so (eventually), and lots of new social inferiors started surviving birth. Things are always changing.

People tend to dislike reductivist theories, powerful as they are, because they often explain away meaningful experiences that we find appealing or profound, like falling in love. Such things, says the reductivist mind, are the mere surface phenomena of chemical reactions, which are themselves the outcomes of even more basic physical events. The physics is real, “falling in love” just a story we superimpose on it. In one scene of The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich ruefully reminds himself that the appealing smile of a passing pretty girl is “really” just a certain distribution of adipose tissue in the face and neck.

In another place Ulrich muses that a human is “the meeting ground for inexorably interlocking natural processes.” I think this is a wonderful line. It admits that we are beasts ruled by natural laws but hints that you still never know what we will do next. Or have done to us.

Even at the core of our existence, where the most human thing of all–conscious subjectivity–seems to ground our experience, Musil entertains the idea that we are just atoms in the void. “If you escape into the darkest recesses of your being,” he intones, “where the uncontrolled impulses live, those sticky animal depths that save us from evaporating under the glare of reason, what do you find? Stimuli and strings of reflexes, entrenched habits and skills, reiteration, fixation, imprints, series, monotony!” Freud was writing his first books as Musil composed The Man Without Qualities, and those books enumerated the algorithms Musil had in mind. Algorithms–they were as invisible as Semmelweiss’s germs.

Reductivism indeed threatens to take the magic out of life, but for Musil its real challenge  to the human experience is epistemological: it might prove our worldview entirely wrong. The gulf between scientific facts and our seemingly reliable intuitions means we could go our whole lives being wholly mistaken about what kind of thing the world is and what kind of things we humans are. Think The Matrix, but without a controlling intelligence behind it or the ability to take a red pill and see it for what it is. It is all just an indeterminate non-story constructed of elements that might only exist as fabrications of our mind. We’ll never know.

Here we approach the core theme of The Man Without Qualities, the hidden message to which all the other ones point. It is the doctrine of radical contingency. This is the idea that time and chance, not gods, cosmic laws or fixed stars, determine the shape of our lives. History just happens. It has no end point or origin story.

The thing to bear in mind about radical contingency: it says the world, including your experience of it, might have gone any which way. It just happened to go the way it did, and you never know how it’s going to go tomorrow. Radical contingency exposes what Camus called our blind faith in the existence of the near future, our animal expectations of continuity and stability.

In a way Musil is fashioning a bookend to a set of ideas opened up by Nietzsche in 1882 when he observed in The Gay Science that God was dead. Europeans had, according to Nietzsche, proven robustly they were done with God. Their rationalized, violent, selfish, materialistic lives and their institutionalization of antichristian values at all levels of society proved God’s death beyond a reasonable doubt. Laplace told Napoleon peremptorily that physics had no need of the God hypothesis, and Napoleon recognized a military victory when he saw one.

(American evangelicals, apparently not content with the murder of God, have taken to desecrating his body. They now act on a unified set of imperatives diametrically opposed to the actual doctrines of Christianity. Most now believe their God wants them to be rich, powerful, well-armed, in thrall to a military empire, and utterly without sympathy for their neighbors. So be it. Many people want those things, but it is a gaudily shameful thing to call such desires Christian.)

What Europeans weren’t prepared for, though, was that without God, life, the universe and everything were no longer the subjects of a meaningful story. There was no longer any preordained point to life. Man, as Nietzsche expounded in several of his books, made it all up as he went along and cleverly called it “eternal truth.” And the “truths” he made up, Freud would point out, conformed precisely to the wishes one would expect of a fearful child–that she would be loved, instructed, guarded, and protected from death. Angels and devils would contend for her very soul.

In his long book, Musil explores many various ways of rephrasing the idea of contingency, which is a big, unwieldy idea. One is open-endedness. This is the admission that we have no idea which way life will go or how things will turn out. Some of us will gain a sense or purpose or closure before we die; some of us will not. Open-endedness holds out an immense promise of achievement or fulfillment for some people who see a great blank canvas. But it also says life can come to nothing, or something pretty close to it. Ask the sick, the poor, the refugee, anyone cast off by society.

Another, closely related aspect of contingency is that it removes the narrative sense from life. Rather than thinking of our lives as having a plot, we must instead admit life consists of a set of possibly random waypoints leading nowhere in particular. This was the idea I think Gore Vidal had in mind when he chose the title of his memoir Point to Point Navigation. His book would simply describe where he had gone, leaving it up to the reader to determine what the course meant, if anything. Kurt Vonnegut puts our post-narrative situation thus: “I tell you, we are on this earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” Whereas Europeans used to try to locate themselves somewhere in the story line of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, now they just look for any story at all, knowledgeable that there they be none on offer.

Musil felt this free-floating uncertainty as a threat to the integrity of the human person, a kind of existential anxiety. Perched as Europeans were on the cusp of World War One, the precariousness of their self knowledge was taking on the proportions of a Zeitgeist. Science, even with its undeniable progress, failed to translate into a vision of human life that would replace God or other sources of narrative meaning. Humanity was dissipating its best ideas, and the elite were leading the way.

Musil has Ulrich observe:

Just think what’s happening today: As soon as some leading thinker comes up with an idea it is immediately pulled apart by the sympathies and antipathies generated: first its admirers rip large chunks out of it to suit themselves, wrenching their masters’ minds out of shape the way a fox savages his kill, and then his opponents destroy the weak links so that soon there’s nothing left but a stock of aphorisms from which friend and foe alike help themselves at will. The result is a general ambiguity. There’s no Yes without a No dangling from it.

Again, Musil provides an insight that is at least as relevant to our day as it was to his own. He was only worried about ambient ambiguity, the uncertainty that comes simply from not knowing if one has a purchase on the complexities of the real world. It can happen to anyone.

Today’s ambiguity is manufactured. We brought it on ourselves. We are not just at war with the natural uncertainty posed by the vast, unknowable cosmos, but with individual people who diddle with (what used to be) our subjective experience of it. In thrall to fantasy and magic, we lead these con men on. Zuckerberg and Co. have developed incalculably more ingenious ways than Mother Nature to invigilate themselves into the thoughts, perceptions and subconscious processes that make us who we are. But because their machinations affirm and flatter us, we surrender. We have escaped the gravitational pull of factuality.

It didn’t start with social media. We also empowered TV-age elites to bamboozle us like this. Although there is no logical starting point to the drama, our acceptance of Bill Clinton’s messianic advocacy of free trade is as good a reference point as any. With religious faith, he told America’s working class they would be better off allowing their corporate masters to offshore all their jobs to Mexico and Sri Lanka. Let the gears of a free market churn, he said, and we would all grow fat and rich. Well, say what you like of Clinton, but anyone who can persuade working people they’ll benefit by giving up their jobs possesses an admirably demonic power of mastering others’ minds.

(For a trenchant analysis of Americans’ promiscuous credulity, see Kurt Anderson’s Atlantic Monthly cover article of December 2017, “How America Lost Its Mind.”

Clinton’s economic liberalism was just one outstanding instance of the many fancy ideas to which the ruling class would callously subject the working class from the 1990s onward. In her 2008 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein profiled the sadistic arrogance of the economists and business leaders who increasingly saw themselves as entitled to immiserate the working class en masse for its own good, by running experiments that deprived people of their livelihoods. Hang tight, they said, and let laissez faire do its magic. In the meantime, remember: No pain, no gain.

What we face today is an increasingly intelligible populist response to the inhumanity of such ideas. And it’s no wonder that the people most alienated in this farce are the most reactionary. Like Musil’s Viennese middle class in 1913, and, like the good German citizens of Nürnberg in 1933, they’re fed up with the fecklessness of the ideas their betters have imposed on them. In fact they are so angry at the overweening elite, they despise ideas themselves. They want something tangible instead, a response to uncertainty that will make sense in their bones.

When Apollo, the god of order, loses his grip on humans, Dionysus, the god of chaos and debauchery steps up and seizes their souls. Offer the masses free markets, representative democracy, theories of human solidarity, whatever fine ideas you have, and this will be the sneering, murderous attitude they take up in response when they’ve had enough: “So far as could be gathered, theirs was not so much a philosophical stance as, rather, the craving of young bones and muscles to move freely, to leap and dance, unhampered by criticism.”

The Importance of Good Manners: More Thoughts on Robert Musil


I’m about a quarter of the way through Robert Musil’s 1,000-page novel The Man Without Qualities.

Here’s the mise-en-scène: In 1913 a committee of grandees in Vienna is planning a jubilee to honor the 70th anniversary of Franz Josef’s rule as the Austro-Hungarian emperor.

The idea is that Franz Josef has achieved such prosperity and stability for his empire, his ideas deserve to be promoted as Europe’s best hope for perpetual peace. The jubilee is to take place in 1918. Of course we the readers know Europe will be a smoldering ruin by then, devastated by precisely the kind of nationalism Franz Josef personified.

All of The Man Without Qualities‘s dark comedy stems from this setup, pregnant with irony. As a parallel, imagine a novel about a group of American idealists who convene in 1960 to spread peace in Southeast Asia through the self-evident appeal of American democracy. Even a thousand-page book might be too short to convey all the ways that project would go wrong.

So we read even the smallest detail in The Man Without Qualities with a sense of foreboding. Everything the main characters do will go wrong on a massive scale. It is with this feeling of having one’s finger on a hair trigger that we read, for example, Musil’s discussions of anti-antisemitism in Europe. The denigration of Jewry as a scheming, international cartel of financial interests picks up speed, Musil indicates, in a spate of ordinary bad manners.

Through the experiences of two of the novel’s Jewish characters, we learn that Europeans’ attitudes towards Jews were balanced on a precipice at the turn of the century. In 1894 the tension of Europe’s Jewish question took on a very public profile with the Dreyfus Affair.

Musil suggests that at least some enlightened Europeans used the Dreyfus Affair to signal their own liberalism. To the upper bourgeoisie of many leading countries, including France and Germany, the idea was dawning that anyone professing republican ideals could be welcomed as their fellows and equals. States were formed of citizens, not tribesmen, they believed. One of Musil’s characters, a Germanic Austrian woman, marries a Jewish man in part out of loyalty to this idea.

She doesn’t think much of it when her husband starts to be increasingly subjected to petty insults. We the readers, though, know that the ill manners of Europe’s Blut und Boden nationalists were the rattling pebbles that signaled a coming earthquake. At one point in Europe’s civilized history, Musil reminds us, the generation who would deport their Jewish neighbors and even fire the ovens were just plain folks voicing age-old suspicion of outsiders.

Robert Musil (image: BBC)

If you want to get a chilling sense of this development, read the first volume of Victor Klemperer’s landmark memoir I Will Bear Witness: 1933 – 1941. In it, Klemperer describes the rising tide of “ordinary” antisemitism in Germany before World War Two.

As a diary, Klemperer’s depiction of creeping Nazi racism is written without the clarity of hindsight. He just writes down the small outrages and alienations as they happen, with no idea of where they are leading. So, if you are inclined to dismiss something like Musil’s novel as just a hoity toity work of art that retells European history the way the author wishes it to be seen, Klemperer’s book provides an undeniable record of real events that bolster Musil the artist. What started out as petty insults and vague conspiracy theories about Jews hardened over a decade into a political program for their extermination as a people. Klemperer writes it all down.

I am not the only person who thinks it is a good idea for us to mind our manners. The excuses we make for racial slurs today might indicate an organized program to normalize the denigration of outsiders just a few years from now. In 2015 the historian Timothy Snyder published a reconsideration of the Holocaust whose subtitle said it all–Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

In 2019 it seems unbelievable that civilized people should have to study the Holocaust as a warning. Isn’t Never Again just a fixed star in our political firmament now?

We can hope so, but a safer bet is that we should accept that we must work for enlightenment. We cannot rest on the idea that we’ve achieved liberal democracy for all time. If you believe otherwise, maybe you should read Musil’s depictions of the Austrians who fervently believed in 1913 they were on the cusp of solidifying world peace. Or, if you prefer real life to dark comedy, you should read Victor Klemperer’s record of the petty insults he received from “ordinary” Germans venting “ordinary” grievances. It’s all written down, and it all looked so normal at the time.

First Thoughts on Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”


Prophesying about the downfall of civilization is like shooting fish in a barrel. Just pick your target, guess at its downward course, and take a shot. If you miss, hey, you’ll still hit something. There’s just so much going on.

I offer this thought as a damper on my own enthusiasm for social prophecy. I am all the time reading things in books from 50, 100, or even 200 years ago and seeing the roots of modern day ills in them. My favorite book last year, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra, was entirely about this theme.

Still, get a load of this.

It’s from my reading this morning: Robert Musil is setting the stage for his sprawling 20th century novel, The Man Without Qualities. He is describing everyday life in an increasingly automated, motorized, bureaucratized Vienna of 1913. Amid the combustion-engine hubbub, he grapples with questions of how the human mind fits in to modern society. What are people like these days?

For Musil, science was imposing comprehensive technological changes on human life, and, just to keep up, humans had to acquire a certain level of specialized knowledge. For thousands of years, only eggheads or religious crazies had bothered to ask themselves questions about the meaning of life, but now, the disorientation brought about by mass technological change meant we all had to crack open the user’s manual or risk being lost in the backwash of history.

Very suddenly, humans were up to their necks in change, and the only reasonable guess they could make about the future was that more was on the way. Musil wondered where it was all headed. Here’s a glimpse into his Vienna of 1913, which is shocking in its prescience:

Questions and answers synchronize like meshing gears; everyone has only certain fixed tasks to do; professions are located in special areas and organized by group; meals are taken on the run. . . . Tension and relaxation, activity and love, are precisely timed and weighed on the basis of exhaustive laboratory studies. . . . In a community coursed through by energies every road leads to a worthwhile goal, provided one doesn’t hesitate or reflect too long.

To which I say: Oh my God.

Just read that first clause again. Questions and answers synchronize like meshing gears. Tell me it does not evoke every Google search you have done in the last five years. Before you finish typing your question, Google is literally synchronizing it with potential answers. This is the way we live now. Our minds are anticipated by the machines we’ve created.

Yes, I realize Google is not a real person dictating to us how to think; it is a virtual amalgam of persons reflecting the form we have given to millions of our thoughts in Google, but don’t you think all that virtual cognitive assistance will feed back into us and shape the way we perceive the world? I’m thinking of how the forms our thought processes might come to influence substance.

Turn-of-the-century Vienna (image: The Paris Review)

Think about this, for example. All you have to do today to answer a factual question is to have access to the internet. If you can talk, you can simply pose your question to Siri, or some other digital savant, and an answer will be returned. Given the pace of machine learning, don’t you think your children–okay, maybe your grandchildren–will be able to address complex, multifaceted research questions in the same way? What would they do in college then? Access to data is displacing the need to understand.

Will our kids have richer lives for starting their inquiries with a machine-enabled cognitive edge? It’s very possible. Will they have lives whose humanity is recognizable to us? I’m not sure.

In fact, when I think ahead to my kids’s adulthood and how they might try to relate their future experience to me, all I can anticipate is a bunch of opaque digital gobbledygook. They will tell me about their day, and I will stand there like Laura Ingalls Wilder if you had you told her about a particle accelerator. I’ll be as far removed from my kids’ everyday experience of multiply-networked, data-driven life forms (or whatever) as Laura was from, say, airliners. You might as well put a starched calico bonnet on my head as a monument to my mute incomprehension.

Which brings me back to Musil’s passage above. He also has some very telling things to say about specialization. I will refrain for the moment from expatiating on the ways in which Marx was right about this topic: the more we specialize, the greater our capacity to alienate one another, even when not on the job.

Much more interesting is Musil’s point that even deeply personal life experiences (“tension and relaxation, activity and love”) can be subordinated to impersonal, scientifically-derived approaches to utility optimization. Put in terms we now understand very well, we mediate the pursuit of happiness–our life’s animating project– through big data.

There may be nothing wrong with this. Data about others can be an excellent corrective on our own inability to reason our way to happiness. Want to know your chances of say, coupling successfully with a smoker even though you’re a non? Look at ten cases. Want to know even better? Look at a thousand. Today you can do it.

But we can also ask, where is it all taking us? If technology is leading us to replace the poetry of life with algorithms, will our lives be recognizably human in 50 or 100 years?

And take a look for a second at a line in the passage that seems to be a throw-away: “[M]eals are taken on the run.” Musil certainly predicted our fast food nation, but what of it? How does his observation hang together with his other, apparently deeper prophecies about modern life? My personal conviction is that the demise of organized mealtimes has gone hand in hand with a concomitant rise in technological diversions and everyday alienation of others, even those we purportedly love the most. If you have ever just let your kids drift off into screenworld rather than joining the family dinner table (as I occasionally have done), you have, in my opinion, landed smack dab in the middle of what was just beginning to horrify Musil about modern life in 1913.

On balance, we have no way of knowing the full import of what technology will do to society, or the human experience of life on Earth. That’s part of the fun, I suppose. I am glad my kids have all their shots, and may have better cancer treatments and so forth by the time they’re old. It would be inhumane–in fact, inhuman–to deny those very real boons of technology. But I am also melancholy about the fact that I might someday squint very hard to recognizes what is human in their lives and not be able to see it.

It Was a Very Good Year?


It has become a habit of mine to look back at the end of each year and recall some of the best books I’ve read or simply reminisce about big events.

Thanks to advances in cognitive psychology, we now know that any kind of retrospective like this is a rigged game. Most humans, when we look back and evaluate certain kinds of experience over time, run an algorithm that Daniel Kahnemann calls the peak-end effect.

Here’s the peak-end effect. When we want to rate an experience qualitatively over time, we give undue weight to two data points–the peak, or most intense, experience of the series, and the last one. We don’t do what would seem to be intuitive–add the data points up and average them or simply compare them. Our judgment is locked as if by gravity onto the high point and the end point.

The experiment that brought this effect to light showed that subjects who were given the choice to repeat either (a) painful experience or (b) a slightly more painful experience that eased up at the end chose the latter. They chose more pain and–it is worth emphasizing the obvious–they thought they were making a good choice. It’s a classic case of humans being less than rational, proof that our thinking machines are made of meat, not silicon.

In his wonderful book Homo Deus, Noah Yuvel Harari makes a very big deal of the peak-end effect. For Harari, it proves that the human self is not a reliable narrator and, therefore, does not exist in the usual sense. Contrary to Freud (and common sense), there is no me at the center of me. It’s all just a tangle of algorithms made scattershot by the thousand and one evolutionary pressures that shaped our brains over the eons.

Maybe Harari is right. I’m not sure I’m ready to follow him all the way to his conclusion. It’s disorienting enough to admit that we lack the logical machinery to make good sense of our own inner life. I’m not sure I will join him in declaring the end of the self in toto. But if  you are intrigued by the idea that we need super-human discipline to retrieve anything like an accurate memory of our lives up to this point, you might find pleasure in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It is a catalogue of the defects that riddle human memory and a consideration of what they mean for our identity.

By the way, if you are a grad student in cognitive psychology and you’ve happened upon my blog, here is a free tip, for which you may thank me later. Just start reading In Search of Lost Time (especially Book One, Swann’s Way) and see if you don’t come up with three ideas for papers or experiments.

Proust was a highly disciplined phenomenologist, an expert observer of mental states. He didn’t just reflect flaccidly on what his thoughts, perceptions and memories felt like; he extrapolated from their detailed form how they had come to be produced and have their particular character. How, for example, could one memory automatically awaken a certain set of others while letting others lie dormant? (We now know some of the answers, which have to do with “lexical proximity,” but that’s a whole nother topic.) Proust’s keen inner eye anticipated many of the problems that Kahnemann and others would stake out in 20th-century cognitive psychology.

To a great extent, we can’t eradicate our biases. They’re too deeply entrenched by our evolutionary history. The cool, logical habits of mind that would make you a clever statistical reasoner today–say, an accurate appreciation of base rates, for example–would have made you dead 500,000 years ago. False positives kept us alive. Indeed our ancestors survived thanks to a glut of fearful, self-centered, short-term “reasoning” patterns that we still have with us today.

Like the peak-end effect. Women would have just stopped having babies had they been able to look back as statisticians and sum up the pain of pregnancy and childbirth. Luckily for Homo sapiens, though, the end effect of holding a baby in their arms skewed their memories and kept them in the reproduction game. (Among other things, of course.)

So we are stuck with our biased algorithms. We can strategize to correct for them, but usually only in very crude ways.

Today I will correct for my own peak-end effect in the crudest way possible, by indulging it openly and admitting error up front. Instead of trying to go around the peak-end effect, I will go into its breach.

I will always wonder whether 2018 was a good year. The peak data point was actually a nadir. We had to leave our home of 12 years, a place that had become exceptionally comfortable for everyone in my family. I’ve already recorded much of the grief at this loss, and there is no need to re-hash it or expand on it today. Let it rest.

But it’s true what sappy bourgeoisie time-servers like myself say: home is wherever your loved ones are. Even as I said an elegiac goodbye to our old home, I made a note of where the real meaning in my life comes from–from the people I live with, and for. We are all together and healthy in our new home, and that is, of course, everything that matters.

And what of my project to read America? I have already reported, it went off the rails. Instead of reading the many topics I laid out for myself at the start of the year, I read only a few, mostly in the form of novels. Typical. The best novels I read were The Grapes of Wrath, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral trilogy, and almost everything by Sinclair Lewis. John Updike’s Rabbit series was a prurient pleasure. I despise Updike’s message but can’t stop reading his clamorous stories of American delusionaries and halfwits.

I ended the year with an orgy of Kurt Vonnegut, re-reading Sirens of Titan, Player Piano, Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Deadeye Dick, and, just this morning, Mother Night. This last one features American Neonazis who believe they are really good American patriots. Hi ho, as Vonnegut might have said, if he were alive today.

(Image: Mashable)

I’m tempted to say that Vonnegut is the greatest American novelist there is, but I know he’s not. That’s just the “end” part of my peak-end effect speaking. Vonnegut’s range is too limited, and his message too political. He believes, as I do, that cruelty is the worst thing people can do. But America is a big country, and there are decent people whom Vonnegut will never reach with that message–people who believe that injustice or dishonor or getting bored are the worst things we can do. They also deserve artists who will speak to them.

As for me and my house, we will follow Kurt Vonnegut. He invites us to say, “Goddammit, children, you’ve got to be kind.” And I had the privilege this year to read that message in the hundred wry, inimitable, ingenious ways that Vonnegut gives it voice. So, in the end, it was a very good year.