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.

Evidence of Things Unseen


Since our dear old country is already descended into rank tribalism, I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense to go ahead and take sides. I’ve been tacitly taking sides for years now, so I might as well put certain cards on the table.

As usual, I begin with a true confession. I have stacked the deck in my favor by claiming the high ground from the outset. By training and inclination, I am a philosopher, and if you break that word up into its ancient Greek parts, it means “lover of wisdom.” So I’ve got that going for me.

Now some people emphasize the poetic, emotive aspect of this term, inherent in the word love. It suggests a romantic picture of us philosophers as always in a swoon.

The man I first learned philosophy from, though, parsed the meaning of philosopher differently. He emphasized that love was essentially a desirous reaching out toward an object and only incidentally a way of feeling. He said what was crucial to being a philosopher was motivation–the unyielding search for wisdom, regardless of whatever emotional response the quest elicited. Whether you worked yourself into a high, operatic dudgeon over the meaning of life or kept your mind laser-focused on the dispassionate logical analysis of the meanings of words, what distinguished the philosopher was her commitment to keep doggedly seeking truth. Wisdom might never be achieved, but a true philosopher kept chasing after it. It was a duty.

The philosopher’s foil was the sophist, the person who thought she already possessed wisdom. There was no need to go on a lifelong quest for it, according to the sophist; wisdom was readily available to the clever. The sophist’s measure of wisdom was the ability to argue both sides of a thesis with equal conviction. The business applications of this skill were pretty sweet in ancient Athens. A good sophist could win a lawsuit or keep a rich young man out of military service, for example, which could earn high wages. Today the best sophists make excellent trial lawyers, wealth managers, politicians, ad men and so forth.

It has always been easy to disparage us philosophers. The thing that seems to get under most other folk’s skin about us is our bland acceptance of human incompleteness. We acknowledge that humans will never know everything there is to know, and that we will never perfect even our most cherished institutions–family, state, law, what have you–because they all depend on knowledge. Philosophers also fail, for what it is worth, to believe that humans will graduate to a magical kingdom after death in which all this missing information will be provided (or made otiose by an eternal spectacle of bugling and praise-singing and bedding of virgins and sadistic voyeurism).

But on we trudge: we stick to our quest nonetheless, and this makes us look quixotic, a literary term for pathetic. The novelist Milan Kundera called the trudging frame of mind the Long March. From Europe’s angry young men of 1848 to the American civil rights movement to Occupy Wall Street, reformers have a thing about manning the barricades and getting out to march for some higher ideal. It’s an attitude that can too easily become a pose, and that’s what Kundera scorned about it. He makes great fun of latte liberalism in the last part of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. To be sure, Kundera felt the allure of the Long March himself at various times in his life. He had grown up behind the Iron Curtain and thought humans were capable of pursuing better lives than the ones designed for them by the Soviets.

The American writer James Baldwin referred to the trudging frame of mind as the quest to “achieve our country.” He believed that if humans could appreciate their mutual vulnerabilities as living things and their common destiny as dead things, they could  form a union aimed at reducing cruelty and humiliation for the short while we are here. The irony was, Baldwin was born into a country that thought it already was this place but really was far from it.

Baldwin thought we Americans weren’t even headed in the right direction to achieve our country, despite the pious claptrap preached to us in history and civics class about being a city on a hill. He thought we were still holding on to the old country, which was based on willful ignorance of our immense, proven capacity for cruelty. Our democratic city on the hill had been founded by violent, intrepid marauders, armed to the teeth, tended by slaves, and willing to break any promises whatsoever to gain more land, power or wealth. These vices were typical for European “discoverers,” but Baldwin thought it was a little rich to base the conception of our country on believing the opposite. Our “memories” of how uniformly great and noble our forbears were were pure hogwash.

Kurt Vonnegut retells our founding story as a kind of corrective that Baldwin would have cheered, I believe. It is brief:

The teachers told the children that [1492] was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them. . . .

Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.

The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black.

Color was everything.

Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which is a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched the seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away.

The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.

(from Breakfast of Champions)

Well, whether or not you take as bleak a view as Baldwin about how far we’ve come since the days of the sea pirates, if you are a philosopher, you believe, as he did, that we are still chasing wisdom, still trudging after the object of our hunt. We are making only the tiniest of incremental gains in knowledge; we are not on the cusp of achieving our country, not even close. But it’s still worth pressing forward. This is the core truth that keeps the Long March alive.

(By the way, another old professor of mine thinks philosophy has come about as far as it can in the quest for the kind of socially useful knowledge that actuates the Long March. Science, not philosophy, has produced so many of our species’ recent incremental gains in knowledge, it is now time to recognize that scientists have displaced philosophers as the leaders of the Long March. My professor talks about this idea in his latest book, as philosophers do.)

So today we have two tribes. One tribe thinks we Americans have already achieved our country, and what the country most needs is protecting from bloodsuckers, degenerates, terrorists, and other kinds of bad hombres trying to get across our borders. We are just fine as we are, and we don’t want the diseases such people would bring into our country. Or their ideas or work habits.

I leave it to nobler, more magnanimous allies to come up with a polite name for this tribe. For me, it is the Reactionary Mob.

The Reactionary Mob finds people like me demoralizing because we appear unable to shut up about what a rotten place America is. Love it or leave it, they tend to say. Indeed the president they love tried to make the oozing of patriotic affection a literal requirement for immigrating here when he said anyone coming to America needed to profess a deep love for our country. As recently as the 2000-aughts, conservatives and other fans of small-government would have heckled this move as nakedly totalitarian. Who but Orwell’s Big Brother would try to manage the private content of the people’s hearts and minds? Times change though. Many conservatives also seem to like Trump’s big-government idea of having a storm trooper strike force, another acquisition from the Big Brother rummage sale.

But from my tribe’s point of view, America is not really a rotten place at all. In fact it is a wonderful place. We believe it can rise to the beautiful ideals that its highest heroes have preached–the words of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King Jr., and, yes, James Baldwin. America just has not achieved itself yet. It is still on a quest for better ideas, better institutions, and an ever more perfect union. It won’t get there by willful blindness, but only if it keeps its eyes wide open, even to the painful truth of its past.

Which brings me back to those cards I said I would lay on the table. As the tribal dividing lines deepen, it occurs to me there is a crucial test for determining which tribe you belong to. It’s a kind of Jeff Foxworthy device: “You might be a progressive [or insert whatever else here] if you believe in the existence of . . . .”

No one actually needs this test, of course; everyone already knows which tribe they belong to. But a suggestive distinction has been knocking around in my mind for several months now, and it might be useful to get it out.

The idea crystallized for me last night as I read that some folks these days enjoy offending my tribe by modifying the machinery of their cars to produce more, or at least more visible, exhaust. Expel a poof of black smoke, goes the thinking, and “own the libtards.”

So this is the idea that had been buzzing in my bonnet even before I read this: America’s tribes can be distinguished by the kinds of invisible entities in which they believe and invest power. The Reactionary Mob tends to believe that carbon atoms and its derivative molecules, for one thing, either don’t exist or are so irrelevant as to be ignored. The deliberate pluming of car exhaust is meant to ridicule people who believe otherwise.

Well, since it is the mob that has suggested this kind of identity marker, let us compare.

My tribe tends to believe in several kinds of invisible entities. Some are so small they can’t be seen, like the individual potassium nitrate molecules that Kurt Vonnegut’s sea pirates mixed into gun powder.

Or, to take up the exhaust-pluming example, we believe quite strongly in the existence and power of carbon particulates. Our species expels them from our machines, and they choke up the atmosphere, locking in gases–other invisible things–that warm up the planet.

The methane molecule is another invisibly small thing in which we believe. Scientists discovered last year that polar-region permafrost is melting at an unprecedented rate, releasing lots more methane into the atmosphere than current global-warming models include. Which means faster global warming.

The mob, which disbelieves in global warming (and sometimes the invisible mechanisms that account for it), tends to believe in a divine cosmic plan that will protect human life, come what may. There is no need to go looking for atoms, molecules or other voodoo, they say, because almighty God has created the universe in such a way that it cannot be harmed by puny, fallen man.

And if that doesn’t work for you, you may help yourself to a fatalistic myth about the foreordained end of the world. If we are ruining our planet, it is not due to reversible human foolishness but rather the irreversible will of God. He is using ecological disaster to end the world in the way he has always foreseen.


There is also a cheery religious diversion from the apocalypse–the grinning idiocy of preachers like Joel Osteen who say there is a benevolent, God-given reason for everything that happens in one’s life. If you embrace this deeply narcissistic idea, you will achieve happiness and prosperity, despite whatever horrors might bring the world to an end. It has certainly worked for Osteen, who is fabulously wealthy. The approaching Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear not to disturb him at all on his yacht.

Instead of an ethereal, eternal soul, progressives tend to believe in humanized algorithms. Anything with a large enough brain has some combination of thoughts, feelings and perceptions, which influence our actions. Humans have some of the biggest brains around, which grew and developed by an evolutionary process that played out over millions of years. Increasingly, we are discovering that our mental algorithms are largely a product of adaptive pressures. Much of what we think, perceive and feel is attuned to help us survive in the animal kingdom–or, better, was attuned to help our forebears survive for millions of years. The deeply encrusted patterns we’ve inherited are not always optimal for peace or other kinds of conviviality, which presents challenges in a world that has only enjoyed civilization for the last few evolutionary seconds.

We humans are also filled with microbes, invisible things that–surprise!–help form systems that are very much us. Our guts are filled with friendly bacteria which, among other things, carry out the optimal functioning of our gastroenterological systems. Get rid of them, and you are not you anymore, or at least you are not the you you think of as yourself. Imagine that. In the days of Descartes, many learned people thought we had a soul inside us that actually had physical weight. Nope. Turns out what we really have is about two or three pounds of useful microbes.

We also depend famously on genes–and their four constituent amino acids, which we all learned in the seventh grade–for making us who we are. This week I heard a story on the radio about a group of doctors who try to diagnose rare, uncategorized diseases. Two of their patients were young brothers in California who were normal except for lacking the capacity for muscular development. All they could do was lie in bed.

They passed the time playing video games and of course talking to each other and their parents, who loved them very much, but they knew they would die young. Human brains and other key organs develop in concert with musculature, and the boys’ systems would collapse after a few years because they could not move their muscles enough to produce key developmental inputs. How did they receive this slow-moving death sentence, an unbearable agony which their parents must share with them every moment of every day? One of the amino acids in their genes was out of sequence.

Now I won’t be so philistine as to suggest that religious people cannot believe in genes and other scientific facts. Francis Collins, one of the world’s leading geneticists, is a Christian. But Collins also believes we are beasts, fantastic products of evolution. It must be very complicated for him.

But if you ask the Mob, the grinning idiots of the Olsteen camp, they’ll say the two boys’ condition was brought about by a personal choice made by a loving God. God gave them a gift whose benevolence is so mysterious that most of us just can’t discern it and actually see it as something horrible. I think it is profane and evil to encourage people to believe this kind of thing. Let them believe in reality instead. Both fantasy and reality will eventually deliver us unwelcome messages, but at least the latter will not turn us into ghouls.

Like my old professor who wrote about science recently, I am all talked out about philosophy. I wanted to add the Invisible Hand and the Laffer Curve as two more magical items on the Mob’s list of invisible wonders, but I think you get the point by now.

Review of “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward


First, an admission. I’m addicted to Bob Woodward’s big, thick books about current affairs. You can buy most of them for a penny online. Sure, you have to pay three or four bucks for shipping, but I enjoy the small delusion of thinking I’m only paying one U.S. cent. So much history, almost for free.

I’m aware of Woodward’s limitations. As Christopher Hitchens once said, Woodward often functions as a mere stenographer to the rich and powerful. They speak, he writes, the dutiful court historian.

Joan Didion went even farther, castigating Woodward for being morally autistic. He simply couldn’t apprehend the monstrousness of pernicious acts so long as they were being related to him by a powerful man sitting agreeably for an interview. Woodward just wrote them all down, fact after deplorable fact. You must read Didion’s (in)famous 1996 review of Woodward here, in the New York Review of Books. I took my own measure of Woodward’s deferential side in my review of Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987. (It may very well be the only Kurt Vonnegut-inspired review of a Bob Woodward book on the internet. Go ahead–treat yourself!)

But I still like Woodward immensely, if “like” is the right word. There is manifest value in having a technically competent journalist abroad in the land with a wide interest in our society, in-depth knowledge of Beltway politics, and excellent access to powerful figures. What Woodward ends up writing in his big, thick books is the fabled first draft of history that we entrust to journalists. An English-reading Martian newly arrived, wishing to get a grip on who we are, could profitably begin with a dozen or so of Woodward’s books.

But still, I was disappointed with Woodward’s 2010 book Obama’s Wars. This is partly because I was prepared to be disappointed. I actually read the book in order to be disappointed. This will take a moment to explain. Barrack Obama is a political hero of mine, and I wanted to understand how I could continue to admire him despite two despicable decisions he made as president.

Obamas Wars
(Image: Amazon)

First, he saved the rich and powerful of Wall Street with the bank bailout of 2009. With no trace of shame, Obama arranged for the poor and middle class to pay off the wealthy so they could continue doing their jobs of, well, being wealthy. This move was, and remains, morally profane. Don’t get me started.

Obama also gave in to the allure of killing that tests all war-time presidents. Here was a man who campaigned on a promise to reverse war-time powers engineered by George W. Bush that he believed violated due process–primarily GTMO and the Patriot Act. We cannot fight a just war, Obama the candidate argued, if we claim tyrannical powers like the authority to spy on Americans without a court order or imprison whomever we please on a no-man’s land bereft of law.

But presented with the opportunity to step up drone strikes on suspected terrorists around the globe, Obama conveniently forgot the legal distinctions that had so fired his conscience as a candidate. His drone force targeted several Americans for assassination, and he even boasted he had gotten “pretty good at killing people.” The same man who earlier could not countenance the wiretapping of U.S. citizens without a court order somehow found it acceptable to kill them with rockets. In this way Obama well and truly earned Cornel West’s condemnation as a loyal servant of the neoliberal power order he pretended to defy.

Clearly politics is a bizarre game. Obama did these horrible things, but I still regarded him on the whole as a decent man who tried to govern through reason. I still do.

All presidents fail, and a surprising number of them fail at exactly the thing they say they will do for the country. Reagan ran on the promise to shrink government, reduce the budget, and eliminate the deficit. Ask any Reaganite, and they will say these were pillars of his presidency. Yet he immediately and dramatically did the opposite of all three of them. His admirers, though, recall him fondly for the principles he espoused and probably still advocate them.

So I cracked open Obama’s Wars already aware of the large-scale hypocrisy that I guess we all show when it comes to our political heroes. We like who we like. I suppose I will always love Obama for his ability to preach noble principles of law and governance to us, the heirs of a slave country founded in blood and human bondage. Even his worst decisions as president can’t dim the brilliance and magnanimity he embodied for me. At his best, Obama offered–yes–hope that we will someday, in James Baldwin’s words, achieve our country.

But back to Woodward. His book about Obama is limited in all the usual ways, and it showcases one glaring flaw to boot.

Obama’s foreign policy was all about context. He thought Bush Junior had skewed our entire international agenda to Iraq, the alleged epicenter of the Islamic terrorism we were fighting around the world. Obama thought this view was wrong in two ways, one obvious, one subtle.

First, Iraq was not the epicenter of Islamic terrorism that our global war was supposedly designed to combat. If that war had an epicenter, it was still in Afghanistan. We had misspent trillions of dollars, thrown away thousands of American lives, amped up new terrorist groups, empowered Iran, alienated old allies, and drastically worsened the security of the entire Middle East, all for the wrong war. Our war-fighting focus needed to be on Afghanistan.

Second, as becomes clear in Obama’s Wars, Obama believed, unlike Bush, that America was not existentially threatened by Islamic terrorism. The sooner we reset our global strategy to reflect this assumption, he thought, the sooner we would restore our power and credibility. This is the deepest insight Woodward pries out of Obama. Some of the thinking behind it appears on page 363. Woodward reports:

During my Oval Office interview with the president, Obama volunteered some extended thoughts about terrorism: “I said very early on, as a senator, and continued to believe as a presidential candidate and now as president, that we can absorb a terrorist attack.”

I was surprised.

“We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever, that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient.”

This is possibly the most important thing Obama believes about America, because it means we should still try to be a country of peace. Woodward, though, does exactly nothing with this revelation.

The entirety of Obama’s Wars is about the narrow process carried out by the national security apparatus of shifting military effort back to Afghanistan. It’s riveting Belway drama, but it barely touches on Obama’s dramatic expansion of drone warfare, our seminal involvement in Yemen’s civil war, or the quiet but drastic increase of direct action by Special Operations forces around the world. It gives no account of Obama’s (mostly failed) effort to close GTMO–a cornerstone campaign promise–or his high-level public diplomacy in the Muslim world to salvage America’s image as a freedom-loving democracy that defends human rights.

All of Obama’s war-fighting decisions were shaped by these issues, but Woodward ignores them. He also fails entirely to consider Obama’s “Asian pivot.” The pivot was a broad package of foreign policy initiatives aimed at improving trade with Asia and taking some of the oxygen out of the global war on terrorism. It was conceived as much to show what America was not doing as what it was doing on the global stage. A huge part of what Obama wanted to accomplish with the pivot was to demonstrate that America had moved on from 9/11 and that we cared more for cultivating trans-pacific ties in trade, culture, and technology than in stoking the old tribalisms of the Middle East.

Woodward’s big, thick book, in other words, should have been 300 pages longer than it was. Had he taken the time to put Obama’s thinking into strategic context–and to consider all of the president’s wars, not just the ones in Afghanistan and the Beltway–the job might have stretched out another year. Then Woodward could have written a proper ending to his book, namely in May 2011, when U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. But instead of coming to an end, Woodward just stops writing, something teachers have been telling me since the seventh grade not to do.

Luckily, though, all we have to do is wait for his next big, thick book.


The Way We Live Now


A Review of Come With Me, by Helen Schulman

Helen Schulman’s new novel, Come With Me, is set in contemporary Silicon Valley. It engagingly portrays the ways high tech wizardry increasingly shapes our lives.

Reflect for a moment on our habits and routines. We are always switched on, working or at least available for work. Our attention is chronically divided by personal devices. Our choices of products or dating partners are framed for us by artificial intelligence. Our language is determined by the tropes of text messaging and Twitter. Our personal histories are uploaded into the cloud, along with everything else, available for streaming in broadband. In fact, we are not full members of a community these days unless our life is thoroughly mediated by technology.

And yet we go on being human underneath it all. Although we are possibly crippled by our brave new way of living, we may be unable to choose any other way at this point. The digitization of human life may turn out to be a bell that cannot be unrung.

Come with Me

Indeed this balance between the contingency and irrevocability of human life is the main theme of Come With Me. It is a story of how we drift or wander into lightly-made choices and then live out dramas whose storylines are determined by the cumulative, swirling consequences of those choices. Life starts out as an unreflective lark and then, to steal a line from Orhan Pamuk, we awake to find we have been living other people’s dreams. How did we get here?

Come With Me tells a story of how one family got there. The heroine, Amy, is a 40-ish public relations specialist recently employed by Donny, the boy-genius son of a friend. Like everyone else in Silicon Valley, Donny is working on a way to enhance then monetize some aspect of the human experience. His idea is a kind of virtual time machine that will let people go back and explore virtual versions of their lives, constructed out of the digital traces they constantly leave in the cloud.

Amy’s husband, Dan, is a former print journalist, now an out-of-work schlub on the verge of a midlife crisis. Their 16-year old son Jack is a California dude, easy going but Stanford-bound and therefore probably on the cusp of achieving some kind of tech genius himself. It’s the way of things in the Valley.

Jack’s eight-year-old brothers, Thing One and Thing Two, are not-so-identical twins. Yin and yang, they are object lessons in the heartbreaking, multitudinous ways childhoods can go wrong when smart, ambitious parents let digital technology do the babysitting so they can stay immersed in the adult world, writing code, having affairs, and that sort of thing.

In fact everyone in Come With Me is a Type, a persona that might well have been synthesized from trenchant magazine articles about the digital world’s transformation of real life. One of the characters, Jack’s best friend Kevin, literally is such a concoction, a profile cribbed from a 2015 Atlantic Monthly cover article about teen suicides in Silicon Valley.

Schulman’s weakness in selling her characters, though, is balanced by the excellence of her storytelling and the timeliness of her themes.

The plot of Come With Me hinges on three pivotal days in the life of Amy’s family. On the first day, Amy is introduced to Donny’s business idea, a digital interface with the cloud that lets the user explore alternate multiverses–ways her life might have turned out differently than it did with even the slightest adjustments to her choices and circumstances.

Amy is shaken to discover that she has deep misgivings about the way life really has turned out, misgivings she didn’t know were there. In a lightning flash of existential uncertainty, she comes to hate Donny for dangling before her all the what-ifs of past boyfriends and an abortion that need not have happened; visions of core happiness guarded by random strangers, ruined by intimates and the drubbing of endless domestic responsibilities. Life, she realizes, would be better left as an undisturbed, irrevocable fact. Or maybe not. She can’t tell.

The reason she can’t tell is because she doesn’t know exactly what is happening with her husband, Dan. But what is happening comes into full view on day two of the story. Dan, who has, for two decades, been a kind of colorless but faithful backstop against passion and drama–the ideal father, in some ways–reveals himself to be a defeated man in need of new sources of meaning. As usual for men of a certain age, “new sources of meaning” actually mean a new piece of ass.

The owner of the ass in question is Maryam, who used to be a man. Interesting twist, that: anything is possible in our virtual-real world. A journalist, Maryam believes in causes. She persuades Dan to come with her to Japan to cover the neglected aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Dan spends money he and Amy don’t have to travel there, sleeps with Maryam, and botches his cover story so badly that Amy can see from 2,000 miles away what Dan is doing, the scale of the disaster he has wrought. This happens on the same day Thing One is expelled from school for (successfully) gambling on Magic the Gathering and Jack’s best friend Kevin kills himself. Amy deals, but then reaches the end of her tether.

“She screamed [into Dan’s voice mail]: ‘I know you’re there! You’re texting me, you stupid asshole! Coward!!! Pick up the fucking phone!'”

Day three is the day of Kevin’s funeral. Dan returns from Japan. All the virtual strands of the plot come home to Silicon Valley to root themselves in the real lives of the characters. The reader is made to behold some durable truths about humans, which survive even the most thorough digitization of our lives. I won’t spoil these, except to say that Schulman seems to believe the way we live now complicates Tolstoy’s observation that happy families are all happy in the same way, unhappy families unhappy in myriad different ways. Many families may actually split the difference these days, given our new tools for achieving self awareness.

Come With Me is a novel about our Zeitgeist, similar in scope and ambition to Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 The Corrections, and it is almost as good. It is very much a novel of right now. It tries to make us see how our lives are caught inside the tumbler of contemporary history, and there is simply no way of predicting the shape they will have when they come out.

And we impose this uncertainty on ourselves. We choose it, up to a point, just by allowing our lives to be mediated 24/7 by digital technology. In placing a bet that technology will continue to improve human life–something it has done for the last 5,000-odd years–the only return we can be assured of is the increasingly radical uncertainty of the next moment in history. We have no idea whether Moore’s Law will accelerate the profits of improved knowledge or the disorientation of enhanced fantasy and plain old error.

Early in Come With Me Schulman observes that Philip Roth, like the generation of he-man novelists he belonged to, tried to write in a way that would cheat death. She got Roth completely wrong. “The meaning of life is that it ends,” he wrote, and believed.

But the story and the themes of Come With Me get Roth exactly right where it counts–on the elusiveness of knowing what humans are up to. Try as you might to understand those who shape your life; try as you might to understand even yourself, and you will hit a bottom layer of guesses–incomplete, misdirected attempts at answers. This is how Roth put it in The Human Stain:

There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.

The part of Come With Me that should give us pause is this: Donny created the what-if machine because he wanted to help people comprehend their lives as they actually happened. He thought if he could let them view all their past roads untraveled he might heighten their interest in, maybe even deepen their understanding of, their present predicament. But all those roads untaken also opened up onto unknowable terrain and unpredictable consequences. There was nothing firm about them. All Donny really did was to multiply the ways in which “there is no bottom to what is not known,” as Roth put it.

The way we live now means we will not just carry on making ordinary mistakes about ourselves, but we will actually use technology to create new ways of being wrong. So that should be fun.