Mating in Captivity

Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

By Esther Perel

God, I hated this book.

I shouldn’t even have read it. I don’t like self-help books, and I don’t like books written by therapists, and I don’t like people who use the word ‘erotic’ – this obviously wasn’t the book for me.

But my mother gave it to me (which is worrisome in of itself, and I am not going to unpack it here) and asked me what I thought, and it’s just a short little book and I figured: eh, how bad can it be?  Just blow through it, tell Mom what’s what, move on.

Mating in CaptivityI was right about one thing: it is short.  But since it was excruciating to read, it didn’t feel short.  And since (as I have mentioned before) I have a rule about finishing books once I’ve started them, I couldn’t move on once I’d begun, and so I became sort of mired in ‘Mating in Captivity‘, (captive to it, if you will) thrashing and miserable and unable to get free.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that ‘Mating in Captivity‘ isn’t about sex – it’s about intimacy.  This is a book about relationships, about how to maintain a sexual connection in the context of a long-term relationship.  But it isn’t exactly a self-help book.  It’s more a series of case studies: different couples, the way in which their sex life is guttering, the advice that she gave that couple, why she gave it.  How she understands the problem, why she believes that problem arises.

Now, I really hate talking about intimacy.  Not sex – I love talking about sex.  But talking about intimacy makes me uncomfortable.  And, yes, I am aware that makes me a poor audience for this book (or perhaps the perfect audience, hard to say).  And, yes, I went in skeptical – I did not have an open mind.  I tried, but when I know that intimacy is going to be the subject, people talking about feelings and connecting and closeness, then I just cringe away instinctively.

Esther Perel.jpg
This is the image of Esther Perel from her book jacket, and, you have to admit, she looks super cool.

Let’s start with the positive: ‘Mating in Captivity‘ is probably not a bad book.  And Perel is probably a great therapist.  She comes across as wise, and gentle, unjudgmental but also unfoolish.  She managed to write an entire book about sex and intimacy without once making me wonder what her own sex life is like, and that’s a serious accomplishment.  In fact, that’s a major therapeutic credential, and I’m honestly impressed.

I’ll also say this: she is open-minded about decisions, mistakes, and lifestyle choices which other therapists would pathologize, and I’ll bet that makes her a more effective counselor for struggling couples.

The book is clear and well-organized.  The argument is lucid and evenly applied.  I’ve never read any book in this genre at all, so I can’t say whether the thinking is totally novel, but I can say it is not conventional, and it’s probably often useful.

But I hated it.  I hated it a lot.

First of all, I hated the narrative voice.  Perel adopts a tone which is confidential and sexy: part cool aunt, part girlfriend, part romance novelist.  I feel almost bad dinging her for this, because I think I know why she’s doing it: one of the projects of her book is to remind people that sex is supposed to be fun, and so she tries to inject that fun into her language.  But you can’t force fun.  Maybe it works well in person, but on the page, you sound like you’re trying too hard.  Her writing bristles with flirtatious little locutions:

“luscious sexual life” (p. 24)

“with whom he lay in a languorous paradise” (p. 28)

“get their groove back” (p. 142)

“feeling free to express the bawdiness of his lust with her” (p. 116)

Language like this feels self-conscious to me; it makes me wince.  When I feel as though she’s trying to spice up her prose like this, I pull away from the argument.  Forget intimacy – this kind of language makes me want to avoid sex.

But, if we’re being completely honest, the more fundamental problem is that I don’t buy into the project of this book.  I don’t really understand, having read it, what it was meant to accomplish.  Was it supposed to help couples who are having problems like these?  Are you supposed to identify a couple whose problems resemble your own, and then take the advice given to them?  Are you meant to sort of wallow in the general, intimate atmosphere of the book, picking up good tips for relationship hygiene?  Was it meant to get a conversation going, encourage people to think about their own relationships a little bit more?

I don’t think intimacy works this way.  It’s not that I’m a therapy-skeptic, not at all.  On the contrary, I believe that therapy, including couples therapy, can really help people.  I’m just not convinced that reading about other peoples‘ couples therapy is as helpful.  And so this books starts to feel like Perel just…musing about relationships, laying out her general ideas about how intimate couples should and do work.

And, while she is a licensed and practicing couples therapist, I’m not sure why I’m reading that book.  While I agree with her basic values, and each chapter is coherent, I don’t feel like I really know anything now that I didn’t know before.  She is not presenting a unified theory of intimacy, and she is discussing the problems of a very narrow slice of the population.  This is a book about the normal marital depressions that affect the affluent, via specific case studies of people who are often quite obnoxious, and I wouldn’t have read that book if I had known what it was.

I really want to give Perel credit where she is due it: despite the fact that I think most of her advice is generic, on some things she is unusually open-minded, and these chapters are the most interesting.  Her stance on infidelity, which is pretty radically unjudgmental, is the best example of this, and, because she isn’t spending time blaming anyone for adultery or adulterous urges, she manages to write about those things with genuine wisdom and humanity.  And the things she says about them are interesting; I have not read them before, and I have not thought about them that way before.

The State of Affairs.jpg(It’s also worth noting: I was apparently not the only person who thought that Perel was at her best when writing about infidelity.  Someone at Harper must have agreed with me, because her next book, which I have not read, is called ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity‘.  I would actually, despite my aversive reaction to ‘Mating in Captivity‘, be kind of interested to read this book, which is probably the best recommendation that I can give Perel).

I think that my conclusion is this: given that the subject matter makes me want to jump out of my own skin, and that I don’t really endorse the project, it would have been a mistake for me to expect to enjoy this book.  The best that Perel was going to get out of me was a grudging respect, and this she did get.  Probably a great read for anyone who likes reading about relational difficulties, but for the intimacy-avoidant among us, ‘Mating in Captivity‘ should be avoided.

The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michelle Alexander

There are some books so good, so coherent and persuasive, and so morally urgent, that I don’t really feel comfortable reviewing them.  They speak better for themselves than I ever could, and I am tempted, in these cases, to simply quote them at length, to put their most powerful passages forward verbatim and stand next to them, with humility.

The New Jim CrowThe New Jim Crow‘ is that kind of book.  There is absolutely nothing I can write about this book that will be more effective, or affecting, than something like this:

‘…it is nearly impossible to imagine anything remotely similar to mass incarceration happening to young white men.  Can we envision a system that would enforce drug laws almost exclusively among young white men and largely ignore drug crime among young black men?  Can we imagine large majorities of young white men being rounded up for minor drug offenses, placed under the control of the criminal justice system, labeled felons, and then subjected to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion?  Can we imagine this happening while most black men landed decent jobs or trotted off to college?  No, we cannot.  If such a thing occurred, “it would occasion a most profound reflection about what had gone wrong, not only with THEM, but with US.”  It would never be dismissed with the thought that white men were simply reaping what they have sown.’ (p. 205)

Or this:

‘The profile [the drug-courier profile used by law enforcement during drug sweeps] can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants”, acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on.’ (p. 71)

Or this:

‘Examples of preconviction service fees imposed throughout the United States today include jail book-in fees levied at the time of arrest, jail per diems assessed to cover the cost of pre-trial detention, public defender application fees charged when someone applies for court-appointed counsel, and the bail investigation fee imposed when the court determines the likelihood of the accused appearing at trial.  Postconviction fees include pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and fees levied on convicted persons placed in a residential or work-release program.  Upon release, even more fees may attach, including parole or probation service fees…Failure to pay may warrant additional community control sanctions or a modification in the offender’s sentence.’ (p. 155)

Or this:

‘This means, for example, that a woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car.  Because the “car” was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself committed no crime…Courts have not been forgiving of women in these circumstances, frequently concluding that “the nature and circumstances of the marital relationship may give rise to an inference of knowledge by the spouse claiming innocent ownership.” (p. 82)

Or this:

“More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.’ (p. 180)

I could go on all day – my copy of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ bristles with sticky notes. These passages give some small sense of the overall effect of this book: one of slow, suffocating injustice, a smothering and pervasive evil, the feeling that you are standing at the foot of a sheer and dizzying cliff, unclimbable and inescapable.  It is vertiginous and overwhelming.

It is difficult to recommend books which you know are going to be unpleasant for people to read.  It’s pedantic; you are essentially saying, ‘You ought to read this.  This is information that you do not possess and need to.  It’s won’t be fun, but it will be good for you.’  You are an adult telling another adult to eat their vegetables – it’s patronizing, and so I try not to do it very often.

And, in truth, there are very few books which I feel that all adults ought to read, as a moral matter.  I suppose that I don’t even think that all adults ought to read ‘The New Jim Crow‘, but I definitely think that all American adults ought to.  And I am confident that not a single one of them will ‘enjoy’ reading it; nevertheless, I believe that it contains information which it is morally and civically urgent that voting American adults possess.

The basic thesis of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ is: that the War on Drugs in the United States of America is a system of racial oppression, conceived and understood as such by its architects, that it is enforced in a highly discriminatory fashion against racial minorities, and has had the effect of creating and maintaining a racial underclass in this country.

Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander

Alexander’s logic is presented beautifully.  Her language is clear and unadorned.  Her argument is well-structured and well-sourced.  It is neither understated nor exaggerated.  She marshals an enormous amount of supporting information.  She is meticulous, and since every stage of her reasoning is credible, she is therefore wholly persuasive.  Her verdicts feel inescapable.

All of which make this book hard to read.  Her conclusion, the reality she describes, is catastrophic: painful and enraging and grim.  But what I most deeply want to communicate is that it is painful because it is true.  I believe her.  Her argument is sound; her evidence is crushing.

There are a lot of reasons why you might not want to read this book.  You might not want to sift through a lot of terrible evidence in order to reach a devastating truth.  You might reject her argument out of hand, might not wish to subject yourself to more liberal, America-hating, race-baiting, special pleading.  You might just want to read some beach fiction instead.  To these objections, I will say this:

lifetime-likelihood-of-imprisonment-by-race.png
From sentencingproject.org

We do not have the right to excuse ourselves from true information simply because it is unpleasant to consume.  And we certainly don’t have the right to avoid evidence because we do not wish it to be true.  I think we have an obligation to see the world as it is, even if it does not flatter us, or accord with our world view.  And we have no right to reject arguments we have not heard.  You may disagree with Alexander at the end of her book, but you may not disagree with her before, not with any integrity.

That’s why I read this book.  ‘The New Jim Crow‘ doesn’t show me a version of my country that I like, but that doesn’t make it a bad book, and it certainly doesn’t make it wrong.  And it wasn’t fun, but it was magnificent, and it was important, and I think it was true.  And that is all the justification it needs.

And The Band Played On

Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

By Randy Shilts

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Sometimes, it’s tough to belly up to a big, heavy history book.

You know the kind of book I mean: a magisterial, dense tome dealing, in depth, with some somber human chapter.  Hundreds of pages on a topic about which serious adults always seem to know more than you.

You feel that you should read them, the way that you should eat well and exercise, but every time you contemplate actually cracking them open, you think, ‘Yikes, I’m not going to laugh once during this,’, and so go and watch another episode of ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ instead.

And The Band Played OnAnd the Band Played On‘ has been weighing on my conscience for a year or so now, squatting on my ‘To Read’ shelf and glowering at me.  Every time I reach for a novel, it’s red-letter title gleams at me, as though it were asking, ‘Do you really need to read another Graham Greene novel?  Don’t you care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic?’

Well, I do care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic, and I’ve run out of Graham Greene novels, and so I finally buckled down and read ‘And the Band Played On‘.

First of all, let me say that ‘And the Band Played On‘ is not what I thought it was going to be.  It is not a dry, magisterial history; rather, it’s part narrative history, part journalism, part advocacy.  It does endeavor to tell the story of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (and a little in Western Europe), but it does not pretend to objectivity.  It has a viewpoint, and it is forthright in assigning blame and giving praise.

Shilts.jpg
Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1980s and, as the epidemic developed, he became one of the first reporters in the country to cover AIDS as a full-time beat.  San Francisco did not have the largest absolute number of AIDS cases in the United States (New York City did), but it did have the largest and most civically powerful gay male population, and the largest number of cases per capita.  Shilts was therefore witness at one of the population centers hardest hit, and most responsive, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and he manages to imbue his book with the sense of creeping dread and unnameable fear that he himself must have felt.

It’s not a book for the faint of heart, or for the easily outraged.  If Shilts is to be believed*, then the unfolding of the AIDS crisis in America was a clusterfuck of every kind of human recalcitrance, incompetence, and malevolence.  Racism, classism, homophobia, cowardice, complacence, narcissism, over-weaning ambition, and bureaucratic inertia all combined to slow realization of, and effective reaction to, the crisis.  And many, many people died because of it.

That is the most difficult part of ‘And the Band Played On‘: most of the characters to whom you are introduced, the real people for whom you root and to whom you become attached, perish.  They die, slowly, and in agony, and there is nothing you can do to help them.  You, from your vantage of thirty years on, know exactly what’s killing them, but there is no way to alert the people around them, to persuade them to abandon their biases and their prejudice and to see what’s really happening.  It’s heart-breaking, because so few of the obstacles in the way of an effective response to the AIDS crisis in the United States were, in hindsight, legitimate.  Most stemmed from human bungling, callousness or, worse, evil.  And this powerless on your part to alter the past makes the reading of this book claustrophobic, and very upsetting.

This is not a book which will leave you with good feelings about your fellow man.  Of course, it’s not a chapter in our history which was going to leave you feeling good about your fellow man, and you probably knew that going in; I certainly didn’t expect this to be a fun read.  Nevertheless, there are details in here which are so dismal, petty and caustic to the soul, that they will stay with me for the rest of my life.  This, for example:

‘Haitian Americans suffered multiple indignities in the two cities where they were most concentrated, Miami and New York.  Just trying on a pair of shoes in Florida sometimes became a traumatic experience, because salespeople declined to let anyone who looked Haitian near any merchandise.’ (p. 322)

Or this:

‘The guide to British aristocracy, Burke’s Peerage, announced that, in an effort to preserve ‘the purity of the human race,’ it would not list any family in which any member was known to have AIDS. (p. 565)

Or this:

‘Two AIDS sufferers were scheduled to be part of an ‘A.M. San Francisco’ segment whose goal was to ‘demystify’ AIDS and calm the fears.  However, the two patients couldn’t appear on the show because studio technicians refused to mike them.  Then, cameraman said they would not shoot the show if they had to walk onto the same sound stage as the two gay men.  The two patients instead talked through a telephone in a separate room.’
(p. 321)

Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer, an early and controversial AIDS activist, features prominently in the text.  He was one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and is the author of, among other things, ‘The Normal Heart’.  As of writing, he is still alive.

But just because something is emotionally difficult to read isn’t an excuse for avoiding it.  It’s important to know about our national moral failures as well as our glorious successes.  And I would argue that, if you’re determined to learn about the AIDS crisis, or about modern epidemics in general, this is a good book to read.

There are arid portions – there is a lot of policy building, lots of CDC budgets, which will alienate non-wonks – but, for the most part, Shilts has made this subject matter as riveting as possible.  The focus is almost entirely on individuals, which, while distressing, will help you stay focused.  It is exhaustive; there is an astonishing amount of information in this book – the amount of reporting work Shilts must have done boggles the mind.  In that sense alone, it really is a colossal achievement.

But though it has a clear point of view, I think that the best compliment that I can give this book is this: I did not even suspect until I looked him up when I finished – it didn’t even occur to me to ask the question – that Randy Shilts was a gay man.  He refused to be tested for the AIDS virus until he had completed this book, fearing that a positive diagnosis would compromise his objectivity.  He tested positive in March, 1987.

Randy Shilts died of AIDS complications in 1994.  He was 42.

*I don’t mean to imply personal disbelief; I mention it only because I am aware that there has been some controversy surrounding the book.  As I understand it (and my understanding is superficial at best), the controversy involves Shilts’ treatment of Gaetan Dugas, a gay man who came to known, in part because of Shilts’ work, as Patient Zero of the AIDS epidemic.  Genetic studies conducted nearly 30 years after his death exonerated Dugas.

I Wear The Black Hat

Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)

By Chuck Klosterman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Some books are written just for you.

You know what I mean, right?  Something similar happens between people.  There are miracles of chemistry: you meet someone, and both of you experience an instant and reciprocated affinity.  It is as though you were both designed with the other in mind, all the pieces match up.

The same thing can happen with books.  There are books out there, like people, which are just perfect for you.  They were written because there are other people like you, who think like you and care about the other things you care about, and now you’ve found each other and it’s going to be fun.  Maybe moving, maybe life-changing, but definitely fun.

Klosterman
Chuck Klosterman

When I learned that Chuck Klosterman, the morbid, mordant culture critic, had written a book about villainy, I knew without reading it that I loved it.  I’ve always liked Klosterman – he’s dark, and funny, and broadly interested in how the world works, how all the pieces of culture fit together, what they mean synthetically.

And I love villainy.  I love villains, bad guys, wickedness and evil – I’ve been interested in them all my life.  In my experience, this is either something you get or you don’t: some people orient towards heroes, some towards villains.  We two sides will not understand each other; I cannot explain why I think that villainy is more interesting, and more important, than goodness.  I only know that it is.

I Wear the Black HatI Wear the Black Hat‘ is Chuck Klosterman’s loose meditation on villains in culture, on what makes someone seem villainous, on what makes some villains likable and some not, on the factors which inform villainy: context, intention, success (the full title is ‘I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)‘).  It is arranged into short chapters, essays really, which do not share content but which share structure and orientation.  It’s a quick read, and an easy one, but it’s also a fucking blast.

Klosterman has a lot to recommend him: as I mentioned, he’s funny, but he’s also brave, probably honest, and has a viewpoint which is recognizably his own.  He has a real knack for persuasively connecting things which you had not thought to connect, and the facility of his comparisons does not leave you with the impression (which it might easily have done) that he has not thought deeply about them.  Take, for example, his essay ‘Crime and Punishment (Or the Lack Thereof)’, which begins thus:

‘It’s unfair to write this, but I’m going to do it anyway: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O. J. Simpson have a lot in common.  We don’t normally lump them together, because certain key contrasts are tricky – for example, one man is a Muslim intellectual and the other more or less decapitated his ex-wife.  This is more than a significant detail.’ (p. 191)

The essay which follows this (and I challenge anyone even vaguely curious about American culture to read that opening and then walk away from the rest of the essay) contains two of the more interesting points about O. J. Simpson that I’ve ever read:

    1. That if, in fact, O. J. were innocent (which Klosterman emphatically does not believe he was) than his post-acquittal public life was the only reasonable and honorable path open to him (up to the publication of ‘If I Did It’, that is).
    2. That “over time, the public will grow to accept almost any terrible act committed by a celebrity; everything eventually becomes interesting to those who aren’t personally involved.  But Simpson does not allow for uninvolvement.  He exceeds the acceptable level of self-directed notoriety and changes the polarity of the event; by writing this book [‘If I Did It’], he makes it seem like the worst part of Brown and Goldman’s murder was what happened to him” (p. 204)

That kind of lucid and yet strange analysis is exactly what characterizes Klosterman’s writing, but here it meets subject matter which sorely needs it.

People rarely examine villainy merely to understand it.  Klosterman isn’t interested in condemning the subjects of his essays (who include Kim Dotcom, LeBron James, Andrew Dice Clay, Batman, and Hitler); when he feels that they deserve condemnation, he merely states that they have got it.  He’s not moralizing; he’s interested in figuring out why we react to different people the way that we do.   He even manages to provide a definition of villainy which is pithy, novel, and servicable:

‘In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.’ (p. 14)

That’s Klosterman at his best: short, thought-provoking, and quotable.  I don’t always agree with his little epigrams, but I can’t ever dismiss them, and sometimes they hit me upside the head with their novelty and insight.  Take my single favorite quote from the book (from his entire ouvre, probably):

‘Love is significantly less crazy than lust.  Love is a mildly irrational combination of complex feelings; lust is a totally irrational experience that ignores complexity on purpose.’ (p. 128) (This is from the essay on Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the movie Basic Instinct, Ted Bundy, and Wilt Chamberlain.  Really.).

For my money, there is more wisdom in that little line than in all of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, whether it is correct or not.  And the kicker is, I can’t tell: I’ve been thinking about it for days, and I don’t know whether or not I agree.

That’s the great joy of reading Chuck Klosterman: you get to see the whole world sparkle with a totally new perspective, one only slightly askew from your own but which nevertheless makes an enormous difference.  That’s what good culture critics do, really – they show you the same old objects stripped of their familiarity.  And ‘I Wear the Black Hat‘ is good cultural criticism: it will show you the same old villains, but with a whole new sparkle.

Sapiens

A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Why is it that only men write books like this?

It’s never a great idea to deal in generalizations, and I’m sure that there are exceptions, but women usually don’t (to their credit, I think), write books like this one, making global, grandiose claims about the human condition.  A woman might write a book examining, say, the thickness of weft threads of linens woven under the late Egyptian Pharaohs; down the hall, her male colleague will write a book about why humans strive, or some such garbage.

I have just read one of those male-authored garbage books.Sapiens

It’s my own fault, really: I had plenty of warning that it was going to be.  I was informed about what sort of book it was not only by the author, Dr. Harari, himself (the subtitle is, after all, ‘A Brief History of Humankind‘), but by its many adoring readers: ‘Sapiens‘ (and Harari’s next book, the nauseatingly titled ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow‘) have become the latest favorite texts of exactly the sort of male, Silicon Valley hardos who eat up these kinds of superficial, explain-all Theories of Everything.

OK, but, let’s at least try to be fair: a book should never be discounted simply because it has terrible fans.  There are nice things to be said about ‘Sapiens‘, including:

  1. Harari is not a bad writer.  He does tend to the overly-colloquial at times, which makes him sound a little like your dorky history teacher trying to connect with you (‘Finally, people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs.  The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first…Voila! Mary had a little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go‘ (p. 92).  It makes you cringe).  But this is a venal sin, and, in general, his arguments are lucid and succinct.
  2. He covers an astonishing amount of material, even if he does it, by necessity, cursorily.  And he is excellent at choosing supporting examples; he draws from an enormous range of historical anecdote, and deploys his anecdotes interestingly and well.
  3. A few of his many, many arguments are thought-provoking and unusual in today’s academic atmosphere.  For example, he makes a pretty spirited case for the idea that bigger, more consolidated governments (i.e. more Federal), and empires in general, are better at promoting peace and prosperity for more people over historical time.  In a time of increasing Balkanization and more focus on local self-determination, it is worth reading an intelligent, measured defense of this idea.
Harari
Yuval Noah Harari is a Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

However, these good points do not add up to a successful venture.  The trouble with any project of this kind is that, since the scope is so wide, the conclusions must be glib.  In fact, even when Harari makes perfect sense, you are left with the disconcerting sense that he is making too much sense, that he has dispensed with something complicated and important too quickly and out of hand.  It makes him seem tricky, like he’s rushing through his argument so you don’t notice its holes.  Like he’s selling snake oil, and not waiting around for you to discover that it doesn’t work.

Here is an example:

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural.  But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural.  Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.  A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.  No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesize, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.” (p. 147)

At first read, that paragraph makes perfect sense; more, it seems like rather a good point, doesn’t it?

It isn’t; it’s shallow and pat.  His argument hinges on a deliberately obtuse reading of the word ‘unnatural’.  Harari is insisting that ‘unnatural’ means ‘impossible in nature’, when clearly it means no such thing.  In fact, humans now do things all the time which are ‘impossible in nature’ (to see how disingenuous he is on this point, just substitute ‘faster than the speed of light’ above with ‘faster than the speed of sound’, another ‘impossible’ thing which we now do regularly).  Some formerly ‘impossible’ things have become taboo (genetically engineering children which glow in the dark: totally possible, taboo); some have not (supersonic travel).

More than that, when people indict a behavior as ‘unnatural’, they clearly do not mean that it is impossible – they mean that it isn’t in accordance with the goals of biology (usually stable sexual reproduction) as they understand them.  That may be a stupid standard (I think it is), but deliberately misunderstanding ‘unnatural’ to mean ‘not possible’ so that nothing that can be done can be ‘unnatural’ is equally stupid.  This is a complicated problem of morals and language; it should not be done away with in one paragraph.

FullSizeRender 3.jpg
This is what I’m talking about: a diagram of resource flow during the scientific revolution, with only three nodes (p. 250).

There are many problems like this, places where something thorny and nuanced is dispatched too quickly.  And, to be fair to him, Harari might well answer that that was intentional, that he simply could not cover what he needed to cover and do everything justice.  He would probably be right.  If you’re trying to get from Homo erectus to cyborgs, you can’t stop and smell every rose.

But I question the very project: did we need this book?  I came away with the impression that Dr. Harari is a good thinker; did we really need him to survey human history for us?  Is human history the sort of topic best understood in survey form?  Might his mind have been better tasked with answering one of the many interesting questions that he poses in more depth and, frankly, with more integrity?  Isn’t it almost always better to acknowledge complexity than to gloss over it?  I think so.

Perhaps the best way to put it is this: I do not regret reading ‘Sapiens‘, and I might even recommend it to other readers of certain tastes.  But you’re going to have to put a gun to my head to get me to read ‘Homo Deus‘.

In the Land of Invented Languages

Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius

By Arika Okrent

I have always had a weakness for books like this, books which provide a wealth of specific information on topics so esoteric you did not even know you were ignorant of them.  My love of this sort of non-fiction has lead down very strange paths, and I now know more than I ever thought I would about rats and Scrabble and poison* and a host of other subjects for which I have no need of expertise.  Despite the uselessness of this information to me, I’ve never regretted reading one of these arcane texts.

In the Land of Invented LanguagesI knew that I wanted to read ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ as soon as I knew it existed.  I first encountered it in a New Yorker piece on Ithkuil; I bought it immediately, and socked it away on my ‘To Read’ shelf like a little treat I was saving for later, something thoroughly fun to read after I had waded through some dense history or mind-dumbing bit of classical literature.  Earlier this month, after I had quite virtuously re-read, and been re-disappointed by, ‘The Aeneid’, I decided it was time for a reward.

Arika Okrent is a linguist, and ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ is exactly what you would expect: her exploration of all the languages which people have designed, created from scratch, invented.  She begins with John Wilkins, who created his Philosophical Language in the 1660s, and ends with Klingon, which she herself attempts to learn.

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Arika Okrent, from TheWeek

Okrent’s great gift is that, despite being a linguist herself, she understands that her subject is just as much the language inventors as the languages themselves, and, probably because she loves language so much, she genuinely sympathizes with the impulse that drives these souls on their quixotic task.  This sympathy does not, however, mean that her readers are deprived of any gratifying stories of their oddness, their bad behavior, or their self-defeats.

And there are many of these.  The main takeaway of ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ seems to be this: language inventors are not a relaxed group of highly normal people.  In fact, the urge to prosthelytize a new language seems to arise in individuals (men, almost exclusively) who, having discovered some profound flaw in the world, are willing to subject themselves and the people around them to enormous hassle in order to correct it.  Sometimes, the flaw is real, but sometimes they are the only ones who perceive it; it makes no difference.  More idiosyncratic still, these men have decided that this global flaw is best addressed through a complete overhaul of language.

But the men themselves are totally bananas; even if you didn’t care at all about language, this book would be fun to read just as a catalog of weirdos:

We learn, for example, about Paulin Gaugin, who created Monopanglosse, and was “well-known in Paris for, among other things, proposing that the French help out the famine-struck Algerians by donating their own bodies for food (or just and or leg, if one preferred not to die for the cause” (p. 12)

And about C.K. Ogden, the creator of Basic English, who “believed that much of the world’s troubles could be traced to the negative effects of what he called ‘Word Magic,’ the illusion that a thing exists “out there,” just because we have a word for it.  When we are under the spell of Word Magic, we fail to see that “sin” is a moral fiction, “ideas” are “psychological fictions,” “rights” are “legal fictions,” and “cause” is “a physical fiction.” (He also feels compelled to pick on “swing” by pointing out that it is a “saxophonic fiction.”)” (p. 139)

And about Count Alfred Korzybski, who wrote ‘Science and Sanity’, and who founded a “Institute of General Semantics, where he promoted techniques for overcoming the thinking errors caused by language – beware of the verb “to be” (“Is-ness is insanity,” he liked to say)”. (p. 201)

Language, my own and others, is something that I love.  I see it as the paramount human achievement, bar none, and I take great delight in the idiosyncrasies of individual languages, in the things that they reveal about the people who speak them and the way those people interact with the world.  I don’t see language as a distorter, a pernicious tool, but many (most?) of the figures in this book did.  It was so interesting to inhabit that idea, to think about the language which has shaped my mind and my life as limiting and malevolent, rather than as what it has been for me: the medium through which I experience the world and the vehicle for my best self.

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The Klinzhai Klingon alphabet (because, yes, there are multiple ones).

And, of course, it made me want to make a new language.  How could it not?  So much of the project is the blending of your favorite elements of your language and others, a sort of linguistic cherry-picking – how could anyone resist that project?  Of course, it also persuaded me of the fruitlessness of the task, and the enormity, but this book has had me going around in circles in my mind about what I would want in my language, what I wouldn’t, things I need to express but can’t, things I wish I could express more easily.

My favorite part of the whole book had to do with this problem: the easy expression of things normally unexpressed.  Láadan is a language constructed in the early 1980s by a woman named Suzette Haden Elgin.  It was designed to be a “woman’s language”, to express easily the world from a woman’s point of view.  It contains some words which are obvious to the point of obnoxiousness, as though they came from a mean cartoon about first-wave feminism (“radiidin: non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help”), but also words which are sublime and lovely, like bala: “anger with reason, with someone to blame, which is futile”, and aazh: “love for one sexually desired at one time, but not now” (p. 245).

Those words make me doubt my premise: I have never believed that language limits my thinking, but those are feelings which I have had, but have not had the word for, and so did not understand coherently.  Now, I will.  That language will have changed how I think.  It’s rare that books are fun to read and good for you; this book was both.

*Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan; Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, by Stefan Fatsis; Molecules of Murder: Criminal Molecules and Classic Cases, by John Emsley.