It Was A Very Good Year — 2019

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The best thing about being a citizen of a republic of letters is that you always feel at home, no matter where your feet are planted on Earth. The books you read hold you in place.

You can always submerge yourself in fascinating stories about what it means to be human. I think we can all relate to that. For about 30 years now I have believed that all good novels are in some way about human destiny–being “prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” Orwell wrote that in the last year of his life.

Orwell is known as the ultimate political thinker. But the funny thing is, politics came in a distant second place for him in the overall scheme of life. Orwell viewed political systems as powerful corruptors of human feeling and believed that you had to perfect a feeling of loyalty among your intimates first, before you could hope to achieve anything in politics. Hear, hear.

Looking back, I spent an unusual amount of time this year enjoying familiar places in the old republic of letters, re-reading just about every major novel that is important to me, revisiting old intimates. I hatched no plan to do this; it just happened.

Of course, I re-read Ninety Eighty-Four, twice. The second time through (this year), I wrote some detailed notes about the first two chapters, analyzing Orwell’s thoughts on privacy and moral decency line-by-line. I live for that sort of thing. Reading Orwell as an adult is  what reading the Bible was for me as a child.

The background reading for my re-look at Nineteen Eighty-Four was Avishai Margalit’s The Decent Society, a philosophical consideration of collective moral responsibility. The whole point of having the institutions that form society, Margalit argues, is to prevent us humiliating our fellow man. In the present moment of assertive stupidity and coarseness and hostility toward the weak, I cannot recommend The Decent Society highly enough.

A great novel reveals the large-scale forms of life that have crept over humanity without our noticing them–the million and one little decisions we humans have made which could have gone this way or that and which in the end add up to unassailable systems. The most important novel to me in the world is The Castle, by Franz Kafka, because it shows how the office has in this manner become a predominant form of social organization. The implements and principles of bureaucracy dictate our routines and tyrannize our lives. I re-read The Castle for about the tenth time, because I am always wondering if we humans are doing the right thing. We should choose the things that tyrannize us carefully, I think.

I also re-read Don Delillo’s Underworld. I consider it the best American novel of the 20th century. Published in 1998, it plots the subconscious trendline of our country as we groped in the dark toward Y2K and the strange future that globalization brought. If you believe, as I do, that 9/11 rather than “changing everything” about America actually caused us to become more who we already were, Delillo’s masterpiece will speak to you. It showed what our anxieties consisted in just before 9/11 pushed us over the edge.

Probably because I regard Underworld as the American Magic Mountain, I also went back and re-read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It is certainly one of the best novels of the 20th century, possibly the best. If Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov is a novel about the existence of God, as is often said, The Magic Mountain is a novel about the existence of philosophical dualisms upon which European intellectual culture is built–mind-body, war-peace, sickness-health, east-west, action-contemplation, and the one that anchored them all for Mann–space-time. Mann writes from a Kantian tradition that says the mind imputes basic dualisms (including space-time) to reality as a necessary entry point to sense-making. Whether the dualisms really exist we may never know. Mann takes you down the rabbit hole of this unknowing, if you care to go.

I re-read much of Nietzsche, prompted by the very stimulating biography of him, I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche, by Sue Prideaux. Although there is no good way to simplify Nietzsche’s ideas, Prideaux does a wonderful job of humanizing him as a writer and making the evolution of his thought accessible to almost anyone. It is the book for getting at Nietzsche if you have ever thought of trying but put it off.

I doubt many Americans know of The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek, which is a pity. Set as World War One opens, Schweik is a drunken, simpleminded wag who subverts every aspect of Europe’s war fever by volunteering vociferously to fight for God and empire. He is too good a soldier. A comic antihero, Schweik is what would happen if Sancho Panza were the main character instead of Don Quixote.

Actually, the eve of World War One was kind of a theme for me this year. I also read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. Musil’s novel is a long (1,000 pages!) meditation on how the elites of Central Europe sleepwalked into the catastrophe of total war. Your grasp of Vienna’s special place in Europe’s intellectual history, from Freud to Klimmt to Wittgenstein, can only be improved if you take in Musil’s slow-moving masterpiece.

The Proud Tower was a revelation, easily one of the best books I read this year. Tuchman has an amazing gift for historical narrative. Exhibit One: she manages to make a 50-page chapter on Richard Strauss un-put-downable, a completely engrossing story of European elites not so much sleepwalking toward war as giddily clamoring for it–fiddling as they prepared to burn Rome, so to speak.

Enticed by what he believed was Nietzsche’s overthrow of conventional morality, in the 1910s Strauss writes operas that lead the Germans first on a “roaming of the gutter,” luxuriating in vices dark and decadent ranging from plain sexual scandal to depictions of sadistic murder and dismemberment. From these lower depths, Strauss rises up and goads das Volk toward a peak of cultural resentment. Strauss composed one over-the-top masterpiece after another at the pinnacle of a century of German cultural achievement, marked by Kant, Beethoven, and Goethe. “What they lacked and hungered for,” Tuchman writes of the Germans, “was the world’s acknowledgment of their mastery.” (This dynamic itself embodied a Hegelian idea, which Tuchman curiously fails to note.) At the lead of this national longing for recognition, Strauss helped drive his countrymen to war, anthemizing their grievances in “an atmosphere of uproar; everything was larger, noisier, more violent than life.” Well, we all know what came next. While Germany certainly did not embody everything that was wrong with the world in 1914, its ills remain a useful focal point for understanding the history of so many of our man-made catastrophes.

Randomly accessed quote on this theme: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history . . . . [S]ome vast shaking of the soul, [the crowd] brings with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day . . . .” (Don Delillo, Underworld)

It was not all Sturm und Drang in 2019, of course. The year had its lighter moments too.

I ended up–I can’t recall how–re-reading The Code of the Woosters, which is certainly the masterpiece of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves novels. But of course, you cannot simply read The Code of the Woosters alone, forming as it does, the middle of a trilogy that is the best run of all the Wooster and Jeeves books. So, of course, I went back and re-read Right Ho, Jeeves and Joy in the Morning. It’s amazing to me how Wodehouse’s comedic writing has held up for more than a century. In a way, it’s sad to think that his humor might pass away, but I suppose it will. I know, for example, that certain lines in Shakespeare are said to be funny, but I have never actually laughed at any of them. Does the same fate await Wodehouse? Do yourself an immensely pleasurable favor and read him while he is till fall-down funny.

Even the new books I read this year had something old about them. Reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, I was reminded why I enjoyed his standout 2001 book The Corrections so much. Franzen is an unreconstructed throwback of a novelist. With hardly any “theory” or attack on literary convention to guide him, Franzen simply delivers thick, savory stories about his contemporary countrymen using plot, theme, and characterization. Dickens would be proud.

The best “new” novel I read this year was A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. It was a delight from start to finish. Lighter than the only other Naipaul novel I’ve read, A Bend in the River, Biswas somehow also manages to be more deeply satisfying than that grim story. It is about a poor man seeking enough money to buy his own house so he can have something like a life. Don’t we all want something like that? I often wonder why the political right has such a paucity of literary forces behind it. Naipaul is a rare literary standard bearer of the right.

Reading Tom Wolfe’s final (2012) novel Back to Blood also felt like a comfortable reminiscence. I came late to Wolfe. The first novel I read by him was his buzzy and engaging A Man in Full, which came out in 1998. Ostensibly about stoicism, wealth, and the new American economy (it really could float on air!), A Man in Full was really about the place where Wolfe set his story–Atlanta. It’s a wonderful portrait; take it in if you have time. A magnificent chronicler of America, Wolfe has always told us exactly where things are happening.

Back to Blood continues this theme, and although Wolfe’s plot is a little formulaic this time, his sociologist’s antennae are still finely tuned. America is fracturing, he observes. Vanishing is the idea that wealth, splashed plentifully and haphazardly across the land would unite us, and, sated, we would become one people under money or God or democracy–or whatever it was we thought we were getting out of this grand experiment. And so, moving the epicenter of the American Dream southward from A Man In Full‘s Atlanta to Miami, Wolfe reports on a great American climbdown. From a people defined by ideals, we are reverting to to a patchwork of tribal identities. Miami’s confection of Cubans, African Americans, Jewish retirees, and Russian nouveau riche occupies center stage in this menagerie. Want to know why every white mayor of a major American city hires a black chief of police if he can? You already know, but read Wolfe anyway. Read him for his final report on America.

I read two rewarding books by famous American malcontents–Pornography, by Andrea Dworkin, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. One word that inevitably comes up when you mention either of these figures is radical. Strictly speaking, this is a fair and appropriate use of the word. Both writers are trying to get at the root (Latin: radix) of a troubling issue.

But of course, radical usually has negative connotations, often meant to disparage someone as extreme, wild-eyed, overwrought or infirm. But when you read Dworkin and Malcolm X, two sharply countervailing qualities come into view. First, it is clear that both writers acquired their “radical” antipathies honestly, not through any liberal act of re-imagining. Dworkin was brutally abused by her husband, who pushed her to be more exhibitionist in her sexuality. She also met many women who had been monstrously coerced into becoming porn “performers.” Dworkin knew whereof she spoke when she unmasked pornography as a not-quite-victimless crime. If the claim strikes you as “radical” (in the scurrilous sense) that pornography is an industry set up and monetized by men for men, to advance a view of men as physically dominant over women and deserving of complacent, adulatory attention, you should probably try to work out what you think pornography really is.

As for the case of Malcolm X, the opening paragraph of his autobiography paints picture of definitive racial violence in, well, primary colors. It is imperishable among American letters for its cold clarity:

When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to stand for my father’s “spreading trouble” among the “good” Negroes of Omaha . . . .

Malcolm X’s father had a troublesome turn of mind, it emerges, because he had never felt quite welcome in white America. Three of his five brothers had been killed by white men, one by lynching. He and a fourth brother would eventually die at the hands of whites too. Born into this world, was it “radical” for Malcolm X to conclude that America had a white problem rather than a black one?

Second, far from sounding undisciplined, the voices of Dworkin and Malcolm X both strike notes of steady erudition and reasonableness. Their prose reflects a calm command of facts and arguments not to be found in a firebrand. Dworkin is extremely well read and would have become an insightful, highly readable writer in whatever field she ended up in had she not become a “radical, militant feminist.” Malcolm X, for his part, literally read his way up from street hustler to Muslim Nation revolutionary, to cold-eyed social critic. His life is a project in learning.

I also read a good many topical books this year, some of which I already reviewed here. Educated, by Tara Westover, was phenomenal, as was Dopesick, a profile of the opioid crisis, by Beth Macy. I thoroughly enjoyed Spying on the South:An Odyssey Across the American Divide. In it, Tony Horwitz (who died tragically just months after finishing the book) retraces the route of Edward Olmsted through the antebellum South, getting to know the people behind populism.

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media and War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century were both excellent analyses of the ever-blurrier distinction between online and offline war. Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation was a frightening reminder that this new war is happening in the hearts and minds of our own people. Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States made the worthy point that jackassery as a political style did not emerge fully formed in 2016–it has a history, much of which played out over the airwaves in the 1980s and -90s.

This seems as good a place as any to mention Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, which was so good I read it twice. In it, Lynskey reminds us that Orwell believed radio was an inherently authoritarian medium, enabling as it did, a single voice to present itself as the consensus of masses. (Orwell had conflicted feelings about working as a broadcaster at the BBC.)

Finally, I read several books about artificial intelligence, anchored by Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom. I read about AI because I want to know what kind of world our machines will create for our children. Technological change is approaching at an inhuman pace, which is precisely what the computer scientists shaping our future are aiming for. They are designing algorithms that will be better at designing algorithms than humans. When this tipping point happens, all of life will change irrevocably. Algorithms, we know not which, will lead us to our destinies.

My immediate response to this prospect is immense sadness. When my father died, he could have possessed (and probably did possess) a roughly accurate picture of how life would unfold for his kids, even decades in the future. In our 70s we might be boarding a new model of Boeing jet or interacting with a new kind of communication device, but the shape and elements of our future lives would still resemble those of his own. He could entrust us to the future because it was tractable.

robot

The AI-driven future that awaits my children, though, defies imagination, and I don’t mean the way a sci-fi movie defies imagination, with photon torpedoes and intergalactic visitors. What I mean is, AI could destroy the supervening forms of social organization we have created here on Earth which have made our lives recognizably human for millennia.

Take work. I will do my best to help my kids prepare for work, possibly even careers or professions. But will there be such things as jobs or professions in a future where AIs will outperform humans in almost all kinds of knowledge work? Machines will be our entrepreneurs; they will set the pace of change and design the technologies that determine our modes of social organization. Name an institution that anchors your imagination in a recognizable past–school, family, clinic, church, sports team. Its existence will soon be up for grabs. We are giving machines the power to re-wire society right now.

Don’t believe me? Do you have a smart home assistant? Does it influence the behavior of your family? If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have purchased it. The Alexa of 2050 will likely anticipate, tailor and deliver whatever neural correlates of essential human acts you and yours used to get from the real world, including sex, exercise, doctors’ visits and so forth.

Call me a wild-eyed radical if you wish, but there is no denying that the transfer of innovative power to machines is precisely what AI specialists are trying to do, and this makes it a real threat. If I went about saying the sky was falling you would be right to call me a nut. But if it turned out there were an entire global industry of physicists doing their damnedest night and day to figure out how to make the sky fall, would you still call me a nut? Their task might sound like madness, but that does not stop them from pursuing it. And pursuing it they are.

But back to work and its place in the future. How many “professions” will my children have to have in such a fast-changing world? I had two, and some people considered that excessive. My kids might go through four or five before they just decide there is no point. Let the machines cope. It’s their world, after all.

The historian Juval Noah Harari looks ahead to this future (in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which I also re-read this year) and says the best things we can teach our children are flexibility and resilience. They will probably live longer than us and certainly will have to adapt to technological change that outpaces anything we have known. It will also reshape the institutions that held our lives in place.

The old republic of letters might prove useful to our children too. As I said, you can feel at home in it no matter where your feet are planted on Earth and–I suppose–no matter how much the Earth is changing around you. Will our children’s ideas of human destiny be at all like ours, which have seemed familiar to us since the Greeks? I hope that they will, but maybe that’s just an old superstitious attachment. Whatever they do, they should write about themselves, the only thing that has kept us sane so far.

 

What If We Stopped Lying to Ourselves About Everything? A Modest Proposal by Nietzsche

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

It’s tricky having Friederich Nietzsche as one of your heroes. His reputation as an unreliable guide precedes him.

Even if you’ve never read the first paragraph of Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, you’ve probably heard enough of the standard innuendo about him to draw your own conclusions and keep your distance.

Among other things, Nietzsche allegedly (or actually):

  • Developed the concept of the Übermensch, or Superman, which Hitler would use as a justification of the Holocaust;
  • Wrote that women were inferior beings who deserved to be whipped;
  • Regarded himself as a prophet whose job was to tell everyone they were mistaken in their most basic beliefs about right and wrong;
  • Went insane on the streets of Turin after watching a horse being abused;
  • Wrote a book attacking Christianity, which he called The Antichrist.

Now here’s something we are always being told about intellectuals: You have to understand their nuances and hidden intentions. You can’t take them at face value.

heronietzsche

Well, we might protest in the case of Nietzsche, if the man so abused the tactics of irony and misdirection that the Nazis could pick up his ideas and run with them, didn’t he sort of overdo it? Wouldn’t we be justified in refusing to entertain his wild and dangerous ideas?

No. At least if you have an intellectually honest bone in your body: no.

Consider this question as an appetizer to a Nietzschean main course: How did the most Christian nation on Earth come to possess and wield the most lethal of all mass-killing weapons and to feel justified in subjugating all the world’s people under the threat of nuclear war? Did we not in this policy become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds? Not much charity, meekness or any other Christian virtue to be espied in that way of going about things.

It is precisely the unmasking power of Nietzsche’s ideas that call for a fair defense. What Nietzsche tried to do in his lifetime was to upend the hypocrisies of religion, morality, and mass culture that commanded the loyalty of the ruling and middle classes. Many of these hypocrisies are, if anything, even more entrenched today than they were in 1888, when Nietzsche wrote his last book.

Nietzsche’s fundamental (and deeply discomfiting) insight about humanity is that, almost anytime we make a claim of metaphysical importance about human nature, it turns out to be a preposterous lie.

Here’s one. Man is endowed by his divine creator with a sense of right and wrong, and it is man’s moral duty to do what is right. Some form of ultimate, cosmic punishment is reserved for wrongdoing–hell, or something like it.

Every civilized society in history has evolved a belief like this one. The details may differ, but the basic outline remains the same. Divine morality forms the cornerstone of an all-prevalent belief system such as an established religion. There are established religions everywhere you look on Earth, always based on a story that is obviously trumped up out of picturesque, childish nonsense.

The resulting idea of divine morality, though, is a serious one. It is a highly useful lie. It has the power to remove us from the state of nature.

In reality, man is an animal, born to gorge, kill and rut. If we manage to rise above this beastly existence–and we sometimes do–it is because we evolve adaptations for cooperation and solidarity that enable what Thomas Hobbes called the more “commodious” life of community. We learn to get along and even thrive, by not murdering, not coveting our neighbor’s ass, and that kind of thing.

Zeus, Yahweh or Krishna had nothing to do with our evolution of the moral code that underwrites social solidarity. We thick-headed Homo Sapiens got there on our own–to our parking lots with painted delineations, our legal contracts, courts of law, and the various deliberative bodies that give rise to such miracles. It’s all far from perfect, but it’s ours.

These pillars of civilization are so important, we have found it useful, possibly even necessary, to invent mythical stories about their divine origin.

Nietzsche had two important thoughts about this situation. One, he believed that by the late 19th century, literate folk were ready to acknowledge the ubiquity of the human hand in all this myth-making. God was dead, as he put it. And two, acknowledging our aloneness in the universe brought with it an enormous burden. We realized we were the unsupervised authors of all of our rules. Laws didn’t fall fully formed from the sky, and they never had.

Stylistically, Nietzsche sometimes didn’t do himself any favors. Instead of writing logical chains of arguments, with overarching ideas and supporting evidence, he often wrote in aphorisms, an invitation to be taken out of context.

Here he is describing a “naturalistic” outlook on human nature in The Genealogy of Morals:

The sick are the great danger of man, not the evil, not the ‘beasts of prey.’ They who are from the outset botched, oppressed, broken those are they, the weakest are they, who most undermine the life beneath the feet of man, who instill the most dangerous venom and skepticism into our trust in life, in man, in ourselves…Here teem the worms of revenge and vindictiveness; here the air reeks of things secret and unmentionable; here is ever spun the net of the most malignant conspiracy – the conspiracy of the sufferers against the sound and the victorious; here is the sight of the victorious hated.

It’s not exactly the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus instructed his followers to care first and foremost for life’s losers. The succor of the poor, the protection of children, and the care of the sick were supposed to be our special missions. Plus, we were obliged to forgive our aggressors seventy times seven times. All very saintly.

Like all philosophers, Nietzsche asks us to take a step back and look at the big picture. If our saintly professions of Christianity, or any other morally serious doctrine, were sincere, they would be evident in our habits, institutions, and attitudes. The structure of our society and the character of our inner lives would be recognizably Christian.

But, despite the prevalence of churches and steeples on our landscape, the claim that we are a Christian nation, or indeed a morally serious one, is a farcical lie.

Our most cherished right is our recourse to use deadly force against all comers. (That’s exactly zero acts of forgiveness for our aggressors.) Try challenging the Second Amendment and the Stand-Your-Ground laws in any of our most Christian states, and you will see the fangs of our meekest and mildest countrymen come out.

Or, consider the fastest growing sport in our fair land, bare-knuckles mixed martial arts. It is almost literally a resurrection of gladiator fights. Millions of us tune in to watch this spectacle, conceived and designed for maximal brutality.

Why do we cleave to our guns? Why do we enjoy spectacles of gore and hostility? They may not be pretty, we admit, but they reflect, in their own ways, a stark belief that is fundamental to our national self-image. Life is a contest, we say. It has real winners and losers. The free market is the unsentimental judge of which side you end up on, and the playing field is utterly fair. If you fight hard, you just might succeed. If you end up, say, not quite able to pay for a medical therapy that would have saved your life, or your child’s life, we say it’s a pity, but in the end you just didn’t make the right “life choices” or extend the necessary effort. It was a fair fight.

If there is anyone we despise in America, it’s the person who thinks they should be protected from this fair fight, who believe an authority should intervene on their behalf, or that special measures should be taken to redress or alleviate the cause of their suffering. Mention “entitlements” to a politician or most people above the poverty line, and you will see this attitude come out in spades. The weak, the lame, the sick, the poor–they are in the first instance the objects of our suspicion. If we give them a dollar today, they’ll be back at our doorstep tomorrow for five. We are such romantics in America! We want the struggle of life to go on in all its terrible beauty, without its rules being bent.

In other words, when we look at the way our society is actually set up–the way in which we have set it up–its is obvious that we believe the words of Nietzsche above about life’s winners and losers. Officially, those words are supposed to horrify us, deeply unchristian as they are. But they are actually true for us, not the mercies and charities of the Bible’s New Testament. The way we live shows us what we believe.

Nietzsche said the horrifying things he said because me meant us to come to grips with the fact that we authored those things. Despite our pretenses of Christianity, we despise the poor, and we fear they will take our money. We trample on the weak and expect them to stay trampled.

We are all alone. Neither gods nor stars dictate our moral laws or the meaning of our lives. But just because no one is watching doesn’t mean we have to be assholes or nihilists. Joan Didion once said, “In order to maintain a semblance of purposeful behavior on this earth you have to believe that things are right or wrong.”

That’s what Nietzsche said too, even if it’s not on the surface of what he wrote. Once you cut away the outlandish myths that used to tell us who we were but which today not even a child can believe in–once you stop lying about everything–you still have to believe in something. You are the author of that something. It had better be good.

 

Life’s a Beach

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I do not dislike the rich.

I dislike the many layers of fraud by which they avoid hard questions about where their wealth comes from.

Here’s one.

How might you come by enough money in America to buy a beautiful beach house? If you are in fact the owner of such a home, you likely believe it is because you competed and won a prize in our economic meritocracy. You hustled, took smart risks, and made more money than the next guy. The marketplace rewarded your performance with the means to buy a house that looks like this:

Beach House

It’s lovely. I’d like one.

The usual story about how to get one of these is a free-market capitalist story. Work hard enough, and you can own one, too.

But that’s not the true story, or at least it leaves out all the crucial details. Like almost every other aspect of being rich in America, the system that advances and safeguards the privileges of the wealthy is not free-market capitalism. The accumulation of ostentatious wealth relies on massive, continuous government intervention in the free market–precisely the kind of thing that heroic capitalists are supposed to despise.

In his short 1945 review of Jack London’s The Iron Heel, George Orwell notes how remarkable it was that in 1907 London correctly prophesied this aspect of capitalist society: contrary to Marx, capitalism would not “collapse of its own contradictions.” Rather, as Orwell read London, “the possessing class would be able to form itself into a vast corporation and even evolve a perverted Socialism . . . to preserve its superior status.”

This is what we have in America, a perverted form of socialism that looks out for the rich. The rich and powerful routinely petition the government (using their “vast corporation” of lobbyists and other influence buyers) to intervene massively in free markets to create conditions favorable to them. And every time this happens (which is basically all the time), all of us, rich, poor and middle class, pick up the bill.

This is the main moral of the story of the 2017 federal tax cut, for example. If you are a billionaire in America, your corporation of influence buyers has succeeded in getting the working class to pay parts of your tax bill that you formerly paid. So praise be to God for that.

But back to that beach house. The thing about it is, it’s not just a pristine prize waiting out there in a free market wilderness for an adventurer to find and claim. It took massive government intervention to prepare the way to it, and it takes continuous government intervention to protect its value.

First, no developer in the world is going to undertake a beach community project based on a rational evaluation of the risks alone. It takes someone with a lot of money to volunteer up front to back such an enterprise. This is where the government comes in. By zoning beach areas for residential construction, governments are signalling they will do whatever it takes to turn houses built in hurricane zones into viable investments. (The Bible, if you’re into it, famously has this to say about such choices.)

Well, wait a minute. Don’t heroic capitalists just spend some of their own money on insurance rates that are calibrated for the risk? No. In 1968 the federal government established the National Flood Insurance Program, funded by loans from the U.S. Treasury. The reason the feds had to get involved is because there were no private capitalists heroic enough to stay in the flood insurance game after several devastating coastal floods in the 1950s and 60s. Insurers simply could not devise a profitable business model that charged homeowners a high enough premium.

The NFIP has never been solvent, and today it is in a tailspin of ever deepening debt. There is no plan to get the NFIP out of the red. So know this: If you buy that beach house, chances are high that your flood insurance will be financed mostly by working people, half of whom cannot afford houses anywhere, let alone on our country’s beautiful beaches. And at least for now, with the present tax scheme in effect, the poor are paying a higher proportion of their “wealth” to do this than you are. The icing on the cake?–They’re paying into a “business” that no capitalist would touch with a 10-foot pole.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered to look into this matter if I hadn’t heard an interview with Gilbert Gaul, the author of The Geography of Risk a couple weeks ago. Gaul basically tells the story of the vast system of government interventions that have evolved to make it possible for our owning class to buy the choicest residential real estate in the country despite the obvious downside that their homes are constantly at risk of being flooded or blown down. Someone’s gotta pay for all that risk.

Much of the government intervention that favors the rich has been devised behind the scenes, so that it appears to be part of an objective, impersonal landscape. This is the first layer of fraud that I believe enables the rich to think of themselves as deserving champions. They say, and possibly even believe, we’re all competing on a level playing field. But this is nowhere close to the truth.

The rich person gazing out over a construction lot on the beach is not coldly taking in objective reality, consisting of risks that must be delicately weighed. He’s basking in a Shangri-La of rules, budgets and institutions that have been trumped up to benefit him and to make his life even easier than his money should make it.

Not all beach-house-friendly government interventions are this insidious, though. They do not all induce moral blindness. Amazingly, some just come knocking at your door in broad daylight and announce their intentions to help.

One of the most scenic places to build beach houses is on what’s called a barrier island, a thin strip of land that is set off the main coast anywhere from a few hundred yards to several miles. The best known barrier islands in America are probably the Outer Banks, stretching 200 miles from the coast of Virginia to North Carolina. They are beautiful and gloriously remote, a national treasure.

Problem is, if you want to build on barrier islands, they’re disappearing. Eventually the Outer Banks (and other barrier islands) will be overtopped by rising sea levels. In the meantime, they’re facing a nearer-term threat, beach erosion. Every year, rain and wind eats away a little more beach. The more this happens, the closer your beach house or hotel comes to extinction.

So here’s an amazing thing. The federal government routinely comes swooping in, bursting with money, to protect you from this natural process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regularly pops up in beach communities to do billions of dollars worth of beach reclamation. Often, they must coach the local mayors through the process of taking the federal money they are offering. I am not making this up. It’s in Gaul’s book, The Geography of Risk. Until I heard the interview with him and then read his book I had no idea voluntary beach reclamation was happening. But it’s actually happening all the time.

Because the Corps of Engineers has private contractors perform the reclamation work, an uninformed observer could be forgiven for not knowing the whole thing is a massive welfare program planned, initiated and funded by the federal government. Yes, of course, the home owners’ taxes help pay for the Corp’s good deeds, but so do the taxes paid by the rest of us, taxi drivers, family farmers, failed literary critics, what have you. Is this fair?

So what am I saying–should we eat the rich? Burn down their beach houses? Of course not. At the end of the day, my philosophy comes more from Ecclesiastes than Marx. I have no idea who actually deserves their wealth, and on what grounds. Anyway, I believe these question pale beside deeper ones about our ultimate extinction, a fate shared by rich and poor alike.

But, such weightier questions aside, I know in the here and now that I despise intellectual fraud. I think the owning class should be much more honest about the gaudily generous ways that the government constantly comes to their aid, and they should stop trying to distract us by pointing out the paltry handouts the poor get and calling them unsustainable. Paying the flood insurance policies for the rich out of an endless pile of Treasury debt is sustainable?

Imagine if the U.S. Corps of Engineers showed up in an inner city with a plan and funds in hand to revitalize its infrastructure–help out the poor for a change? Is that laughable? Yes it is. All I’m asking is that the rich recognize how ridiculous their myth is that they’re winning the game of life on their own merits. Their pretend game of capitalism is in reality what Orwell called a perverted form of socialism.

But the biggest outrage perpetrated by the rich is that they get us to amplify their frauds. They condition us to train our critical instincts on the very same categories of government expenditure they dislike, such as basic services, infrastructure, and welfare for the poor. So check out Gaul’s book. The rich also receive welfare, but they have trained us to call it something else.

 

 

Four Novels by Jesse Ball: Let Us Rebel

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I’m at the age now where all my doctors are younger than I am. I take it with equanimity.

Less so my novelists.

I’m not sure why this is the case. I’ll never be a novelist, so why should it rankle that the professional memorializers of life are younger than I am? I suppose because a good novel is always a meditation on the meaning of life, and I’ve always thought that the more you have to meditate on the better writer you would be. How can the young be better at looking back on something they have less of than I do? It doesn’t seem fair.

But it happens.

Jesse Ball is only 41. He started collecting the experience of life in 1978, when I was already 12. He has, his book flaps say, already written 14 books, many of them to critical acclaim. Until three weeks ago, I had no idea who he was.

Then I read a review of his latest novel, The Divers’ Game. It suggested a drawing together of two themes that have taken up much of my reflection over the last 30 years–moral imagination and chaos.

At its root, my idea of moral imagination is Kantian. I believe that being able to imagine yourself as someone else, or as occupying different circumstances than your present ones (even circumstances that might so far be novel to the human experience), is crucial for moral deliberation. Lack of moral imagination limits your ability to think or act with empathy.

Sometimes moral imagination hits you smack in the face. When three-year old Aylan Kurdi drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, I wondered what it was like to be the Turkish border guard who gathered up the boy’s body. How long did it take him to turn off the images he saw, the feeling he felt of the boy’s weight in his arms? Had it struck him that the boy was dressed for an ordinary day of preschool, or possibly vacation? Tragedies and injustices of this depth make acts of moral imagination relatively easy, or at least accessible.

But our apprehension of moral facts is rarely that cut-and-dried. I also believe the world is radically contingent, which means that things go willy-nilly, turning out any which way, the odd scientific or mathematical law not withstanding. I am no plain Kantian. Our lives are underdetermined by our choices, moral or otherwise. The universe in which I am my present self is as plausible as a universe in which I had millions of dollars, or a wasting disease that cut me down in my youth, or a personality unidentifiable with my “actual” one.

This much contingency potentially upsets the idea that we can make coherent moral choices. If there are no fixed paths for being human, or for leading your individual life, how much value can you invest in moral decision-making? The consequences of your choices are always at risk of being overtaken by events.

Genetic mutations happen randomly, changing us in our physical being. The rich and powerful seize control of “democracies” meant to reflect our will. The Lord causeth the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. That sort of thing. Are we not routinely overpowered by circumstances?

This idea finds its most outlandish expression in Kafka. If you’ve ever wondered what the point of Gregor Samsa waking up one day as a giant beetle in “Metamorphosis” was, it must have had something to do with shock value. Kafka was trying to shock us with the sudden, unnatural occurrence of a process that we consider “natural” because it is happening gradually and insensibly all the time–the changing of the human body from one thing to another. The fact that our bodies have the form they have is, in part, the random outcome of a chaotic interplay of natural processes. Any part of the process could have gone differently–and therefore could go differently in the future.

If our successor species, through some miracle, survives to witness the death of the sun in 5-billion odd years, its members will not resemble us. I repeat: no humans will witness the last sunset. “They” will be something radically different from what we are today. It is extremely doubtful that they will even exhibit a human legacy. We are on that path of metamorphosis right now, changing from one thing over which he had no control, to another, over which we can expect to have just as little control in the end.

The chance that this species will fit the design parameters of our environment is, of course, much, much smaller than the chance that it will die the same death as millions of species before it, of course.

C’est la vie.

The review I read of Jesse Ball three weeks ago was tantalizing because it seemed to draw together these Kantian and Kafkan views of life–the idea that we must, for moral reasons, be able to imagine ourselves and circumstances differently (in order to take others’s perspectives seriously) but that there is no practical limit on how different our selves or our circumstances can be imagined. In other words, to become more moral persons, we must acquire a skill that points ultimately toward moral disorientation.

I ended up reading four of Ball’s novels, all of which explore this interplay of moral imperative and metaphysical chaos.

In The Diver’s Game, Ball asks us to imagine being members of an advanced society that has expressly given up the fiction of human equality. An upper caste subjugates and kills a lower caste. Politics proceeds on the deliberate forgetting of the violence and injustices it took to establish the superiority of the upper caste. And so on.

Divers Game

As a reviewer, there is no way I can put this theme without making it sound too on-the-nose. Is it inspired by the recent decisions of America’s Christian leaders to institutionalize cruelty so that migrants learn to stay away from our borders? It must be. But Ball handles it at greater depth than that. The book is no mere battering of the philistine’s moral outlook. It is an expression of despair at the systematic cruelty we are born into. “We are maintained by a violence so complete, it is like air,” Ball concludes. How can you stop breathing air?

Census is about the outsized power of love in a tragic world. A doctor discovers he has a terminal disease and fears that his grown son, who has Down Syndrome, will have to live on uncared for. He volunteers to spend his last months on the road as a census taker, and takes his son with him. (Ball’s real-life brother, who died at 24, had Down Syndrome.) Father and son travel, Kafka-like, northward through an alphabetized string of villages named only by initials.

Census is an elegiac meditation on the incommensurate power of parental love. Adults bring children into the world–we learn after the fact–to have something large enough to blot out the meaning of our own existence, so that we can say an acceptable goodbye in the end. Ball reminds us that nothing happens on schedule, and we die with things undone, debts unpaid. You can hedge against such randomness, though, by keeping love at the center of your life.

I rarely give direct advice about reading books, but I will make an exception here. If you haven’t read anything by Ball yet, don’t start with How to Set a Fire and Why. As an edgy character study in the precariousness of Millennial life, you might get the impression from Fire that Ball is just an exceptionally good YA writer, ready to break out into grownup novels. Ball’s inhabitation of the teenage heroine, Lucia, is so complete that it sometimes marginalizes the book’s message.

Lucia is a gifted high school student, emotionally scarred by orphanhood. She has a keen enough sense of decency to recognize that it is missing from the very design of the institutions set up to care for her. She seeks to join a secret arson club comprising other disaffected young people who see their plight in anarchist terms only slightly updated from Kropotkin. Lucia writes in a pamphlet:

The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild place we inhabit, surely you agree? Well then, we shall have to try and make some sense of it. . . . Wealth squeezes us. The wealthy squeeze us and squeeze us, until we cannot even help one another, as we would naturally do, as it is in our hearts already to do.

A committed arsonist, Lucia gives a desperate response to this bind we are in. I believe Ball means for us to learn from her example, not that the system must be burned down in reality, but that it deserves no better. Society has been rendered hostile for individual acts of decency.

Of the four novels I read by Ball, Samedi the Deafness was the only one that required any effort to grasp. It is a sort of postmodern detective story, in which you are prepared at any point for a magical device to reveal the whole thing as a dream or illusion.

James Sim witnesses what appears to be a horrific murder in a park one Sunday morning. When he is kidnapped by thugs apparently connected to the murder, he is sure he will be killed too or at least blackmailed. Instead he finds himself kept in a surreal hospital-cum-hotel. The owner, who ordered the murder in the park, is conducting a grand experiment in letting his subjects live out elaborate lies. He also has a plan for the end of the world.

One of the Escher paths out of the maze of Samedi the Deafness leads to the conclusion that the choices people make in the real world are as shabby and deluded as those made by the systematic liars who populate the story. It is an epistemological substrate to Ball’s other critiques of morality: our moral choices are not just indecent in their substance; they issue from a basis of willful delusion. No one, or hardly anyone, is morally serious in Ball’s view.

As bleak as his novels tend to be, they all cast a ray of hope on the hedging power of individual compassion. There is always some way to stay true to the human instinct not to kill or subjugate one’s conspecifics. Our merciful side, though, is the smaller part of our nature, so if we are to stay true to it, we will have to live our lives in rebellion. So be it, then. This is the message I get from Ball’s novels. If decency requires a rebellion against the larger part of our nature, let us rebel.

 

Comforts of Home

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

This has been a year of reading books twice. Why? I suppose because they felt good the first time.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the umpteenth time. And I read Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, twice. It is wonderful.

On New Year’s Day of this year I started reading Sue Prideaux’s beautifully crafted I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche. Now I am reading it again.

Nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood thinkers of all time. People who have never read a thing by him think he is awful because he wrote that God is dead. Then they go on to say, with God out of the way, Nietzsche says we should strive to be supermen, lording it over all the little people who still have faith. Then comes the coup de grace: No wonder Hitler liked Nietzsche. If God is dead and certain people are supermen, of course you end up with supermen machine-gunning people they dislike into pits.

Well, blaming Nietzsche for Nazism is like blaming Lavoisier for causing fires because he discovered the oxygen theory of combustion. You could do it, but you’d be really dumb.

Nietzsche was a conventional, patriotic young man who happened to be very good at Latin and Greek. He could also improvise beautifully on the piano.

Nietzsche’s father and grandfather had both been Lutheran priests, and young Nietzsche intended to follow them into the priesthood. When he was confirmed during high school, Nietzsche experienced a feeling of such intense devotion, he declared to a friend that he was willing to “die for Christ.” His overprotective mother worried that he would take up with a new kind of charismatic Christian making waves in 1860s Germany who went around openly confessing their sins and frankly expounding on their need for forgiveness. They were basically Jesus freaks, if you can imagine that kind of thing in 19th century Germany. The things you read in books, right?

Nietzsche’s break with religion, when it happened, was no mere adolescent rebellion against a naive version of Christian fundamentalism. It grew out of his realization that the Bible was preposterous, and that all the other creation myths, heroic epics, and systems of morals he was learning as a classicist were equally preposterous. They were all stories that humans made up and which insisted on not being read as made up.

When Nietzsche says we are supermen, he is not being arrogant. Quite the opposite. He is asking for a confession of our limits. Humankind, if it is capable of mustering the honesty, must admit it has made up all the cosmologies and codes of law that we think of as being handed down from the sky from God’s hand to ours. “God” was really us all along. It is in that paradoxical sense that we are supermen–we were our own lawgivers. We’ve been writing down our own intuitions for ages and ascribing them to “God.”

With the death of divine authorship comes the duty to think much more carefully. If before you followed a law that required you to be monstrous to other people–massacring them, say, or relegating them to castes of the despicable–now you no longer have divine law as an excuse. Divine law has no objective reality beyond the fears, prejudices, and class interests from which it is conjured.

So grow up, is what Nietzsche says. This is, I think, why so many people dislike him. He is unsettling. And he says plainly that we have grave responsibilities. People don’t like that. They would rather have incense, mystic rites, and the childish doodads of religious tribalism. The purpose of these things is to tell us there is some “mystery” that relieves us of moral responsibility. Well, goodbye to all that, I say. The list of things that strain or compromise our moral responsibility is long enough without adding made-up things to it.

Reading Nietzsche is a way of bucking yourself up.

Looking back at what we have read in certain timespans is, I think, a kind of psychoanalysis. I rarely have a plan of what to read: some unconscious force moves me. So it is instructive to ask: why did I read the books I choose, seemingly at random?

One thing I read twice this year was The Castle, by Kafka. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have also read it many times. I find myself using an awkward phrase about The Castle: I call it the most important novel in the world to me. Not the best. I do not call it the best, because Kafka did not manage to finish it, and there are other novels in its class whose authors did manage to finish. So they get the palm. More about them in a moment.

The Castle is a very Nietzschean novel. It is about self-authorship. It is about two facets of self-authorship really.

One: To lead your own life is thoroughly disorienting. This is because there is no script to follow, where certain well-meaning institutions like school or parents probably tried to teach you there was one. In the early modern frame of mind, you might have thought you could follow a religious path or a nationalist path to who you ought to be. Harking back to ancient time, you might declare with all the confidence of Marcus Aurelius, “I rise to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for?”

(Walt Whitman thought like this. He thought America overflowed with well-defined opportunities that you could see yourself born to fulfill.)

In The Castle, K arrives in a snowy village at night because he has been summoned to be the official land surveyor. He has the full and clear intention to report for duty. He possesses a letter appointing him to the position. But real life takes another direction for K: even though the whole village is made up of nothing but appurtenances of the bureaucracy that appointed him to his position as land surveyor, no one can trace the authority of this appointment back to its source and tell him how to start his job. There is no job for K to do. The Castle bureaucracy buzzes intensely with self-interrogation, but it cannot discover a motive for bringing K here, a rationale for his existence.

Two: If there is no script shape to one’s life, the sheer force of will takes on new priority. This is also very Nietzschean. The only “action” of The Castle is K’s constant, dogged attempt to claim his role as land surveyor. Each way he turns, there appears to be a faint glimmer of hope that someone in the know can tell him what is really happening behind the scenes. Then that person turns out to be as clueless and powerless as K. The system, powerful as it is, lets everyone down.

If you want to extract a simple moral from The Castle, it is this: We are all K. We all must rely primarily on our own will to create the standards by which we will succeed and then try to succeed according to those standards. This is disorienting, because we expect life to have something like a plan imposed from outside. But it doesn’t.

So The Castle tells you that you have very grave responsibilities and no objective scheme for seeing them through.

Good luck!

I also re-read Underworld by Don Delillo. As I wrote here a few days ago, I consider it the greatest American novel. It is, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, and like Kafka’s story in The Castle, a fable of self-creation. I won’t rehash it here; I would probably just go off on a tangent. It is a novel about the way America re-created itself during the Cold War. It relates how Americans used to be outside and together all the time but now we stay in. Delillo thinks the assassination of JFK was pivotal in this evolution. After the Zapruder film–the headsnap and braincase explosion–we started staying inside and discussing disquieting, horrible things. And the news has been like that ever since.

Why are these the books I come back to? Why do they provide the comforts of home?

book coffee
(Image: Rebloggy)

Are they coordinates in a system? I think maybe they are. Coordinates render a place on a map you can come back to.

In 1850 there was a boy born half-Irish half-Greek on a Greek island. Abandoned by his parents at the age of seven, he went to Ireland, then America. He became a newspaperman in Cincinnati, where his specialty was writing lurid accounts of violent crimes. He married a woman recently emancipated from slavery and had to move to New Orleans because that kind of thing did not go down well in Ohio. The marriage ended. He started writing cookbooks. He also translated obscure French literature.

He moved to Martinique for two years and then Japan. There he married anew, into a samurai family, and he translated 14 books of Japanese folktales. They were so good, they became part of the Japanese school curriculum. The point is, the half-Greek was all over the place. You might not know his name, Lafcadio Hearn, (I certainly didn’t before I read about him in the New Yorker), but what an extraordinary life he led.

Hearn’s whole world consisted of language–reading and writing. You couldn’t say he lacked a home. He eventually became a Japanese citizen. But his real home was the written word through which he was constantly re-creating his identity and environment. Oddly, there is no such thing as getting lost under these circumstances, although from the outside, you might appear as lost as all get-out.

I am no creator of worlds (as Hearns clearly was), but I do know the basic shape of mine. The coordinates that make up its boundary are given in Orwell, Nietzsche, Kafka and Delillo. I suppose I read them over and over for the same reason you can look at a map over and over without losing your sense of fascination. There are multitudes of details inside the boundary–so many you can’t keep them straight. But the framework, if it is stable enough, creates a home.

How Don Delillo Saw Everything Coming

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I have written here before about my inadequacy to review Don Delillo’s masterpiece, Underworld. I think it is the greatest American novel there is, but then again, how many American novels have I read–a few hundred?

Plus, every reader is different. No one has the last word on what a great American novel is. Our experience is so fractured. Everyone has their own life.

Maybe Underworld is a farewell to the very idea of the American novel. That could be where its sweet sadness comes from. It is certainly a farewell to the confidence we felt at the end of the so-called American Century, the feeling that we had won the Cold War because we were right, the feeling that everyone else wanted to be like us because why else would they be buying all our products and watching our movies and setting up stock exchanges like ours?

Isn’t that what it was like to be on top of the world at the End of History? Look how neatly the Gulf War went.

Underworld

Delillo published Underworld in 1998. I haven’t looked into it, but I presume he spent most of the 1990s writing it. Although it opens with a scene from 1951, it is very much a novel of the 1990s. It was written from the perspective of having won the whole 20th century as if it were a decathlon and then some sports writer asks Delillo what it all meant.

Underneath our very public history of the Bomb and Elvis and IBM and MLK and so forth, there was a subterranean history worming through America, which, as it turns out, did not predestine us for limitless prosperity and a more perfect union. At the End of History, Delillo had some kind of intimation that the “human veer” as he called it would pull us back into the vortex of chaos and indeterminacy.

Speaking of predestination, Delillo gives the World Trade Center three cameo appearances in Underworld. He did this for his own, very 1990s reasons, of course. He meant those images as a comment on greed and brutalism and, yes, a kind of national strength. But, uncannily, he also gave the Twin Towers an air of indefinable menace. They stood there in mere outline, the incidental subjects of three brief passages in an 800-page book, just waiting for something to happen.

So this is what I am not saying: I am not saying that Delillo foresaw 9/11. But I am saying this: A good prophet is like a quarterback who reads defenses at a glance and seems to know what they will do in detail–gives the appearance of knowing the intention and trajectory of each of the 11 opposing players even though he doesn’t. His ingenious play calling becomes a kind of prophesy.

Delillo writes about American at the end of Its Century with the same unforced mastery as Joe Montana quarterbacking his team down the field with two minutes to play. He executes with such fluidity that he seems to know the exact details of what will happen in advance. I think this is the kind of thing Delillo does in Underworld.

The Twin Towers are just the starkest, most haunting example of Delillo’s preternatural vision. He also sees the meanings of other things at the close of the century–how latent political urges would once again be summoned by the irrational force of crowds: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history,” he wrote. Delillo saw how even the broad, clearly delineated avenues of liberal democracy would trail off into Escher mazes of unthinking and unknowing.

One thing Delillo clearly foresaw was the particular way in which American capitalism would prove Marx right about the immiseration of the masses. Consider the following passage. It takes place in a blasted urban wasteland. A local junk artist, sensing the opportunity to sell anything, anywhere that is swelling in the rise of the dot-com wave, is about to “go global,” at least so he thinks in his fantasies. He has his crew of junkies and burnouts connect an old TV to a dilapidated generator powered by a boy on a bike. It is his link to a globalizing world. Entrepreneur and CEO, he takes the news in:

On the screen an image flicks and jumps. It is a man’s discoid head, a fellow in a white shirt with a blue collar, or blue shirt with white collar–there is a fairly frequent color shift. He is talking about the big board composite while numbers and letters flow in two bands across the bottom of the screen, a blue band and a white band, and the crew sits watching, and the kid on the bike is bent and pedaling, a furious pumping boy, and the names and prices flow in two different directions with active issues blinking.

My note in the margin says this is an image of pointless human misery propelling the capitalist system forward. In Dickens, the hustling boy would have been exploited for a reason, made to work for an industrialist’s profit, maybe blacking bottles, as Dickens himself did as a child. In Delillo, the boy is just pedaling away, and the “industrialist” is positioning himself to make mad money off nothing. He wants to be like the rich people he sees on TV:

He loves the language of buying and selling and the sight of those clustered sets of letters that represent enormous corporate entities with their jets and stretches and tanker fleets. . . . The boy cranks and strains, bouncing on the seat, but the numbers keep flowing across the screen.

This desire for celebrity riches amplifies what we have mastered in the “services” economy of the developed world–the creation of value from nearly nonexistent inputs (data, wealth management, life coaching) that insists nonetheless on the real suffering of underlaborers far down the supply chain. Delillo’s boy on the bike is fictional; the millions of wage slaves producing our toys, t-shirts and doodads not even worth defining are all too real. Pop into a dollar store and admire their wares.

Say what you will of Marx, but he got the Iron Law of Wages exactly right. The working poor can see lives of dignity just beyond reach, but we make damn sure they cannot have them. We remind them ruefully that there are large, impersonal forces to which we are all beholden, rich and poor alike, that say not everyone can win. Keep trying, though!

Delillo was also right about something huge that we didn’t even have a name for in 1998 but we have a very clever name for today–the datafication of everything. He saw that everything that could be encoded as digital information was fated to be so encoded. Our lives would be enmeshed with ubiquitous, undifferentiated information from now on. And, what’s more, he saw that once the data was all arrayed in a system, it would all be maximally interconnectable.

Derrida may have been exaggerating when he wrote that nothing existed outside the text (i.e. there is no real, unmediated world); he was probably trying to be outrageous. Delillo, on the other hand, invites us (if that is the right word) to see ourselves falling into just such a world.

Underworld closes with what feels like a benediction. But is it a benediction? It is basically Delillo’s admission that, with the datafication of everything, it will be increasingly hard in the future to distinguish between the online and offline worlds. The secret history that Delillo traces through Underworld is the one that lay hidden underground between 1951 and 1998–the nuclear test sites, the missile silos, the secret command bunkers, the basements of ordinary suburban houses. Our new secret history will have no location, no place where a writer can trace it and suss out its revelations. Will this future be human?

A nun dies at the end of Underworld. Instead of being in heaven, Delillo has her in cyberspace, probably because her obituary appears online. This is her situation, and, in a way, the situation of everything:

She is not naked exactly but she is open–exposed to every connection you can make on the world wide web.

There is no space or time out here, or in here, or wherever she is. There are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password–world without end, amen.

That was about as close to right as you could be in 1998. One thing Delillo missed or didn’t bother foreseeing was the innocent zeal with which we would datafy ourselves and project our lives into this world without end. Well, Facebook wouldn’t come along until 2004. But Delillo, of course, knew the kinds of things crowds do, how they “bring things to single consciousness,” so I suppose no big deal that he did not forecast the rise of social media. He was right about the underground longings that brought us here. He was right about almost everything.

Machines Like Me

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

So there I was, just reading some improving books by Malcolm X and Andrea Dworkin a few weeks ago, when I was taken by a fit to smarten up on artificial intelligence.

Okay, it wasn’t really a fit. I noticed an essay writing contest about disruptive technology and the future of work. Bada bing, bada bang, as they say, the next thing you know I’m reading mad AI, with doses of nanotech and biotech thrown in.

I’d been intrigued by AI ever since I read Daniel Dennett’s 1984 paper in which he lays out why it will be so monstrously hard to create an artificial general intelligence (AGI), or a thinking machine that has the full human range of cognitive abilities. Dennett called this challenge the “frame problem.” You can train a machine to become massively intelligent at a predefined task, but training it to navigate and understand the fluid, borderless scenarios that make up life is a different matter entirely. Machines can’t frame a situation ex nihilo, which we can do effortlessly. Being an ordinary human is orders of magnitude harder than being a really smart machine.

Here’s the opening paragraph of Dennett’s article, “Cognitive wheels: the frame problem of AI,” which kind of gives you a flavor:

Once upon a time there was a robot, named R1 by its creators. Its only task was to fend for itself. One day its designers arranged for it to learn that its spare battery, its precious energy supply, was locked in a room with a time bomb set to go off soon. R1 located the room, and the key to the door, and formulated a plan to rescue its battery. There was a wagon in the room, and the battery was on the wagon, and R1 hypothesized that a certain action which it called PULLOUT (Wagon, Room, t) would result in the battery being removed from the room. Straightaway it acted, and did succeed in getting the battery out of the room before the bomb went off. Unfortunately, however, the bomb was also on the wagon. R1 knew that the bomb was on the wagon in the room, but didn’t realize that pulling the wagon would bring the bomb out along with the battery. Poor R1 had missed that obvious implication of its planned act.

Ordinary life is beset with looming implications much more complex than the ones R1 has to cope with, but you get the point. Knowing what to attend to and what to ignore in a given scenario comes automatically to people, or at least it seems to.

I pretty much buy Dennett’s arguments to this effect on their technical merits alone. But my experience for the better part of 25 years as an expat trying to survive using foreign languages also helped convince me that Dennett is right. Here’s what occurred to me just looking back at my last 12 years living in Germany.

My German was never great, but here’s a list of business that I could and did conduct auf Deutsch:

– Applying for a loan and buying a house

– Seeking and undergoing major surgery

– Putting three kids into local schools and kindergartens

– Routinely going to city hall to get documents and various administrative clarifications from bureaucrats

– Fending off a collection action from a business that failed to deliver contracted services

– Explaining to dentists the ways I did not wish to be hurt

Never did I accomplish these tasks with high style, but I got them done. But guess what I never did in Germany?–I never made an acquaintanceship that was anything like a friendship. This was not due entirely to my standoffishness. I like having friends and am willing to put a certain amount of effort into it.

Tin-Man

What doomed me was that I was essentially an AI trying to fit into life as led by normal human beings. It was the language. Once I had done something like ask some neighborhood moms if one of my kids could walk to school with their kids’ group, they could sense that my script for that scenario had run its course and they were now dealing with a robot. I was basically like R1 in Dennett’s paper: I had trained myself to get through a handful of narrowly defined tasks like the ones in my bullet list. What I couldn’t do was small talk. I had no feel for the changing frames of ordinary life. I probably gave those moms a mild laugh, which is nice to think.

But back to AI. Dennett’s argument about why it will be so hard to create an AGI is essentially that all the ceteris paribus clauses that simplify our lives (e.g. crossing a street does not directly implicate questions of poetry or particle physics) have to be built up in an AI using raw computational power. And that’s how I had to (try to) get through life speaking German: I was basically a sentence-forming machine trying to generate grammatically permissible strings of words appropriate to the task at hand. I worked hard at it. I could march, sprint or lurch toward one goal at a time but never could I wend my way through normal life. Water under the bridge, though. Who gets to live a normal life?

In the next few weeks I’ll try to write a few things about why AI seems a little more robust today than Dennett made it out to be in 1984. Machines may not achieve general intelligence any time soon, but we have compensated for their deficits over the last 30 years by setting up our lives in ways that give even narrow AIs agency and influence. Even though machines seem not to be capable of replacing us on the basis of brute computational power alone, we are building systems (such as e-commerce, AI-enhanced medicine, etc.) that seem likely to lead to this replacement.