The Long View 2009-09-26: Jung in the 21st Century

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

It isn't at all clear that Carl Gustav Jung's reputation survived the publication of his most famous work, Liber Novus, known as the Red Book. Both John Reilly and Tim Powers have made use of his ideas, but the sheer strangeness of the work makes it uninteresting to the prosaic and political twenty-first century.


Jung in the 21st Century

 

When I was in college, I read my way through most of Carl Gustav Jung's Collected Works, in the elaborately illustrated and suitably dark hardcover volumes issued by the Bollingen Foundation. I by no means regard the time spent as wasted; you can get a good education just acquiring the resources to understand a system like Jung's. Neither do I condescend to Jungians with the attitude that Jung's philosophy is just something you outgrow; there are many unfootnoted Jungian notions floating around in my published work. Still, I don't think there was ever a time when I confused Jungianism with enlightenment, much less with salvation (people who knew me 35 years ago may remember otherwise, but if so, their memories are defective).

In any case, the Bollingen Foundation no longer exists. They decided in the 1960s that their work of making Jung's principal works available was complete and they turned the Bollingen Series over to Princeton University Press. Smaller entities have continued to promote Jung's works and ideas, however. Among them is the Philemon Foundation, which is about to strike a publishing coup:

During WWI, Jung commenced an extended self-exploration that he called his "confrontation with the unconscious." During this period, he developed his principal theories of the collective unconscious, the archetypes, psychological types and the process of individuation, and transformed psychotherapy from a practice concerned with the treatment of pathology into a means for reconnection with the soul and the recovery of meaning in life. At the heart of this endeavor was his legendary Red Book, a large, leather bound, illuminated volume that he created between 1914 and 1930, and which contained the nucleus of his later works. While Jung considered the Red Book, or Liber Novus (New Book) to be the central work in his oeuvre, it has remained unpublished...

Unpublished until October of this year, when a carefully produced facsimile edition with a critical (as in "annotated") English translation from the German will appear.

In some ways, the Red Book, as it will be called, sounds a bit like the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which is also a heavily illustrated expression of the “active imagination”:

([I]n English Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream, from Greek hypnos, "sleep", eros, "love", and mache, "fight") is a romance by Francesco Colonna and a famous example of early printing. First published in Venice, 1499, in an elegant page layout, with refined woodcut illustrations in an Early Renaissance style, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili presents a mysterious arcane allegory in which Poliphilo pursues his love Polia through a dreamlike landscape, and is at last reconciled with her by the Fountain of Venus.

(We know that Aldus Manutius published the work, by the way, but there is more than one view about authorship. Samples of the work are available at that link, too.)

Despite the parallels, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili seems to be different in kind from the Red Book. For one thing, the former is a carefully constructed work designed in part to show off the author's Classical erudition. By all accounts, the Red Book is dense with obscure references, too, but only incidentally. The author was deliberately trying not to construct the book, but to let his imagination function without editing. There is also this: the book is fascinating, in the special sense of mesmerizing or bewitching, to Jungians and to people interested in related subjects. That is certainly the impression created by Sara Corbett's long article in the September 20 issue of the New York Times Magazine on the upcoming publication of the Red BookThe Holy Grail of the Unconscious. To some extent, the fascination adheres to the physical book itself, for so many years just an illuminated rumor in a bank vault. The book does have text, however:

The book tells the story of Jung trying to face down his own demons as they emerged from the shadows. The results are humiliating, sometimes unsavory. In it, Jung travels the land of the dead, falls in love with a woman he later realizes is his sister, gets squeezed by a giant serpent and, in one terrifying moment, eats the liver of a little child. ("I swallow with desperate efforts — it is impossible — once again and once again — I almost faint — it is done.") At one point, even the devil criticizes Jung as hateful... ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH the Red Book — after he has traversed a desert, scrambled up mountains, carried God on his back, committed murder, visited hell; and after he has had long and inconclusive talks with his guru, Philemon, a man with bullhorns and a long beard who flaps around on kingfisher wings — Jung is feeling understandably tired and insane. This is when his soul, a female figure who surfaces periodically throughout the book, shows up again. She tells him not to fear madness but to accept it, even to tap into it as a source of creativity. "If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature."... In the Red Book, after Jung's soul urges him to embrace the madness, Jung is still doubtful. Then suddenly, as happens in dreams, his soul turns into "a fat, little professor," who expresses a kind of paternal concern for Jung.

Jung says: "I too believe that I've completely lost myself. Am I really crazy? It"s all terribly confusing."

The professor responds: "Have patience, everything will work out. Anyway, sleep well."

Two items in Jung's box of tricks seem particularly responsible for keeping spiritual seekers interested in the system, for the excellent reason that these items resonate in the seekers' experience. One is that, if you pay attention to your dreams, they really will put on a show for you, though one may question whether the performance reliably follows the depth-psychological script or means quite what the depth-psychologists say. The other attraction is "synchronicity," the phenomenon of the "significant coincidence." Again, if you look for synchronous events, you will surely find them. If you are at all philosophically minded, you will spend many happy hours trying to figure out whether the coincidences are real or just a product of selective attention, or whether that distinction can have any meaning. And look, here is a synchronous event right here, since the very day the New York Times piece appeared (though before I read it or heard rumor of it, I solemnly swear) I posted to my website a long review of Frank McLynn's biography of Marcus Aurelius, which contains this passage:

The author brings some interests to this study that are peculiarly relevant to the period, but that some early 21st-century readers may find as exotic as the gladiatorial games that Marcus found so tedious. The author is keenly interested in depth psychology, particularly of the Jungian variety, which really was prefigured in the medicine of the second century. The famous second-century oneirologist Artemidorus gets several mentions (he is not very obscure, since he influenced both Jung and Freud). For that matter, so does the deified Asclepius, who offered advice in dreams to both physicians and patients; this was a culture in which valetudinarianism seems almost to have been a spiritual discipline.

Robertson Davies, himself a Jungian of the strict observance, attempted in The Cunning Man to describe an internist's medical practice that employed such a model. Regarding the second century, Peter Brown has noted that the Antonine Age enjoyed, or at least experienced, a low-key but personally important spiritual life that involved access to the numinous through dreams; and one might add, through the affect associated with holy places. However, we should remember that, even centuries earlier when pure theory preoccupied the finest minds of the Classical world, the ancients meant by the term "philosophy" something very like what Jungians mean by Jungianism: not just a system of propositions, but a therapeutic regimen with a comprehensive intellectual component.

On the whole, it seems to me that there are two things to remember about Jungianism. The first, which the Jungians themselves urge, is that their system may be good for you but it is not really “medicine.” The second is that Jungianism is not a religion, though it functions as one for many of its adherents. It some respects, it seems to have been designed to make possible a spiritual life without a transcendent dimension. This would be as much a mistake in the twenty-first century as it was in the second.

* * *

Speaking of Jung, Hermann Hesse was a fan, but he seems to have come to the conclusion that Jungianism was a self-referential exercise, a sort of game of symbols. Am I the first person to whom it has occurred that the annual Eranos Conferences in Switzerland, with their gatherings of "psychologists, philosophers, theologians, orientalists, historians of religions, ethnologists, Indologists, Islamists, Egyptologists, mythologists and scientists" (and senior CIA officials, but don't get me started) was the model for the annual Glass Bead Game in Hesse's book of the same title?

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Blink

It is pretty easy to make fun of Malcolm Gladwell, but his star isn't riding as high as it did ten years ago, so I won't pile on at this point. Gladwell did a good job writing books that were really popular, and that is worthy accomplishment.


Blink
The Power of Thinking without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Company, 2005
277 Pages, US$25.95
ISBN 0-316-17232-4

 

This book is about the mechanisms, benefits, and dangers of rapid decision-making. As was the case with the author's previous work, The Tipping Point, marketers may be obliged to read Blink simply to keep abreast of current theoretical confusion. Blink has merits: it is full of entertaining anecdotes about cognitive and perceptual research, not all of them fishy, and we get analyses of some famous marketing failures. Still, any book with a subtitle that explicitly promises to show us “the power of thinking without thinking” also implicitly promises to show us many absurdities, most of them unintentional. In that regard, Blink does not disappoint. What we have here is a failed attempt to synthesize some useful materials that should have been left as separate case studies.

As it is, the trouble starts right away, with the first two anecdotes.

The book's first anecdote concerns the purchase in the 1980s of a kouros, a kind of ancient Greek statue, by the Getty Museum. The scientists who examined the statue said it was genuine, from the fifth century BC. The art experts who were invited to see it (rather late, alas) took one look and guffawed. They were right to do so, since the statue turned out to be almost certainly modern. The second anecdote is about a psychologist who developed a system of close examination of the interaction of married couples; he could predict, with very high accuracy, whether they would still be married in 15 years. Several telltale signs turned out to be important, but the key was the subtle expression of contempt by one or both spouses.

These are two quite different kinds of perception. When an art expert views the whole of a sculpture or a painting and delivers an informed opinion about its date, that is “gestalt” perception, the perception of “pattern.” He perceives a totality that is an emergent property of the details of the piece, but which cannot be reduced to them. The psychologist, in contrast, was trying to set aside all the unimportant information and find the one important detail. That's what doctors do when they make a diagnosis. The book even has a story about the development at a public hospital of an amazingly simple and accurate protocol for evaluating possible heart-attack victims.

The author calls the second-type of perception “thin-slicing,” and notes its usefulness in making fast judgments under pressure. He assumes that this is the same thing the art experts were doing, apparently for no better reason than that, like experienced doctors making diagnoses, they were doing it fast: blink, in other words.

The term “gestalt” does not appear in the text, though there is a large body of psychological research on the matter. Another term that does not appear is “subliminal.” Its place is taken here by terms like “implicit association.” Something very close to the popular image of “subliminal advertising” is represented by the “primer experiment,” which purports to show that the performance of a test-taker can be affected by simply exposing him to certain ideas, or even just a certain vocabulary, before he takes a test. There is an old joke about a college class that trained its instructor to stand at a certain spot in the classroom by simply not answering his questions if he stood anywhere else. The book does not tell that story, but it does regale us with research studies that demonstrate that we can “know” things of which we are not aware. The book proposes that an active but non-Freudian unconscious normally does our thin-slicing for us.

The author is particularly interested in tests that purport to show how biases connected with race and gender can reside in purely verbal associations, quite aside from what the test subjects consciously believe, and even without regard to their personal histories. The author is half Jamaican, so he was astonished to find that his results from those tests were not different from those of white subjects. Some people might pause at that point to question whether the tests show what they are said to show, but skepticism plays no part in this book.

We do get some useful cautionary tales, however. Apparently, not only are people not particularly good at articulating their unconscious perceptions, but real memories may be distorted if you try to articulate them. Thus, if a witness to a crime is asked to describe the perpetrator and later views a lineup of suspects, he will tend to judge the suspects by his description: the memory is effaced by the words. Such a witness might be less reliable than one who views the lineup before being interviewed.

The book also reveals some specifics of the black art of marketing. For instance, there is the phenomenon of “sensation transference.” Among other things, this means that attractive packaging will cause consumers to report that a food product tastes better than they would would if the product were in bland or ugly packaging. Note also that sales for a class of product may decline if the consumer is given too many options. A supermarket aisle that has a wall of different brands of breakfast cereal may overload a shopper. A selection of just five or six types of cereal, in contrast, allows for a rapid choice: again, blink.

One of the stories we get is about “Millennium Challenge,” a war game conducted soon before the Iraq War. I recall rumors about it at the time: the outcome of the first part was that the American fleet was sunk in the Persian Gulf. The game was able to proceed only because the Pentagon directed the players to ignore that outcome and get on with the invasion. Perhaps with reason, the author applies the idea of information overload to what happened to the American side. Certainly the opposition commander's poverty of resources may have clarified his mind. However, his success does not seem to have been of the blink-effect variety: he was not insightful, but sneaky.

Interesting as they are, some of these anecdotes work to cross-purposes.

We hear yet again the hilarious tale of New Coke, that great marketing fiasco of the 1980s, in which the Coca Cola company temporarily replaced its signature product with a sweeter recipe. Blind taste-tests had shown that consumers really did prefer Pepsi to Coke. The problem was that the preference was an artifact of the test: a sip, rather than a whole can, and with no exposure to the product's traditional packaging or to the social settings in which soda is usually consumed. The moral was that thin-slicing requires context.

In contrast, we are told that female players of wind instruments only really got a fair opportunity to play in symphony orchestras after it became common, and sometimes mandatory, for musicians to audition behind a screen, so their gender could not be identified. Before that, music directors had always argued that women were not strong enough to play wind instruments. Indeed, they continued obstinately to argue that, even after a few women wind-instrument players had already joined some noted orchestras. The moral here was that thin-slicing required nothing more than cutting the auditions down to essentials.

This is not the kind of question one can answer a priori, but it seems unlikely that the screen-audition procedure really addresses the issue. It is one thing to play an audition piece; it is another to huff and puff through an evening of Wagner. Now, if the fat lady onstage can do it, maybe the skinny ones in the orchestra pit can do it too, but the audition screen is nothing to the purpose.

There are some things in this book I just don't buy. There is a great deal about the study of facial movements, and the little band of researchers who have allegedly reduced it to a science. If it were really true that you could reliably tell what someone was thinking through the study of microsexpressions, then these physiognomists would be among the master spirits of the age. As it is, they seem to be just people who are very good at describing how known liars lie. Then there is that long commercial the author gives for a world-music performer, who goes by the name of Kenna. The author spends many pages explaining why only the folly of marketers keeps the singer from universal acclaim: Kenna is Coke, fighting a music industry that tests only for Pepsi. Well, maybe, but the point is too speculative to use as an illustration in a theoretical discussion of decision-making.

Much the same, frankly, might be said of the whole book.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Obvious Proof

I think there are better arguments for classical theism than the Argument from Design, but as eminent a philosopher as Antony Flew was eventually convinced by it. Philosophical atheism is a respectable position, but many of atheism's most vocal defenders are not actually espousing that position, but rather a juvenile and reactive atheism that does them no credit. For those individuals, a psychological explanation may have merit.


The Obvious Proof: A Presentation of the Classic Proof of Universal Design
by Gershon Robinson and Mordechai Steinman
CIS Publishers, 1993
$13.95 Hardcover, $10.95 Paper
141 Pages

 

Is there such a thing as an honest atheist? Maybe not, according to Gershon Robinson and Mordechai Steinman (both of whom are writers, the latter with a physics degree). This short book (really an extended essay) does not add much new to the Design debate. What it does do is try to turn the intellectual tables by interpreting atheism as a species of willful irrationality.

The thesis of "The Obvious Proof" is that the scientific evidence for intelligent design in nature is at least as great as the evidence that would normally persuade us that something is artificial. The authors' benchmark for common sense in this matter is the black obelisk buried beneath the surface of the Moon in the film "2001," which audiences around the world immediately intuited to be a product of intelligence. (This argument is set out more briefly at the website The 2001 Principle, where you can also order the book.) The authors present a useful summary of several popular treatments of the Anthropic Principle in cosmology and the extraterrestrial "seeding theory" of the origin of life on Earth. However, the book does not attempt a comprehensive presentation of the Argument from Design. (Among other things, such a presentation would require a discussion of the evidence from chaos and complexity studies that the natural world is in large measure self-organizing.) Rather, the authors assume that Design is such an obvious explanation for order in nature that the reluctance of certain scientists to accept it can have only a psychological explanation.

The explanation that the authors favor is the Gestalt psychology principle of "cognitive dissonance," which causes people to reject empirical information that does not fit into their mental categories. The authors sometimes seem to equate intellectual cognitive dissonance with Freudian repression. (Perhaps the distinction may not be hard and fast. In any case, a more purely Freudian explanation for atheism was developed a few years ago by the psychologist Paul Vitz.) What the authors are talking about here is not a failure of the imagination among scientists, which is what cognitive dissonance normally implies in a scientific context. Rather, they seek to define the reasons for the emotional reluctance found among at least some scientists to accept the theistic implications of empirical research.

The five emotional grounds the authors present for this reluctance are rather intriguing. Three are things you might expect: the desire for complete moral autonomy, outraged intellectual pride faced with the unknowable, and mere intellectual habit. One of the others, however, is the ontological anxiety that might occur should you accept that you are a product of another will. It's an interesting point: a meaningless universe is less threatening than an arbitrary one. The most engaging reason for atheism, though, is almost a kind of shyness. If God exists, then He must have abandoned us, since otherwise He would not be so enigmatic. Do you really want someone to exist who probably does not like you?

"The Obvious Proof" could be taken as a commentary on Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman's commentary on Maimonides' commentary on the beginning of the Decalogue. Maimonides concluded from the words "I am G-d, your Lord, Who took you out of the land of Egypt," that there is an actual duty under Jewish Law to believe in God. Such a commandment is reasonable, according to Rabbi Wasserman, because the existence of God should be obvious even to a boy by the time of his Bar Mitzvah. Those who deny the evidence for God, according to this view, do so because they have intellectual or emotional "investments" in a non-theistic universe.

It is certainly true that some scientists have a psychological ax to grind on the question of the existence of God. (My suspicion is that a disproportionate number of these people write popular science for just this reason.) It is probably also true that the perception of design in nature is a matter of intuitive common sense. However, intuitive common sense, even when it is correct, is not the same thing as a rigorous philosophical proof.

 

End

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The Long View 2005-02-10: Better Nukes; Clinical Evil; God's Country; The Dominoes Fall

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I remain a cautious advocate of nuclear power. I don't have subject matter knowledge about specific reactor designs, but I think we could do it right, if we wanted to. It would sure fix carbon emissions. We just don't want to. I will note that the pebble-bed reactors John mentioned here don't seem to have taken off in the last fifteen years.

This blog post, and the associated book review Halfway Heaven, guided me to read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie. That is a great book, and one I heartily recommend. John's quote sums it up:

Peck is another psychiatrist who eventually came to the conclusion that he could not treat some patients without factoring in a moral dimension. The people whose cases Peck describes were seriously sick and hated their sickness, but they could not get better because in some fundamental sense they had chosen to be that way.

Better Nukes; Clinical Evil; God's Country; The Dominoes Fall

 

As we see from yesterday's headline, DOE Urged to Encourage New Nuclear Power Plants, the United States is about to begin a debate about when it is going to do the obvious thing and nuclearize its power industry. This debate will produce unnecessary delays, most of them created by environmental reactionaries who use the courts to block the disposal of nuclear waste and then argue that the nuclear industry cannot expand until the nuclear-waste disposal issue is unblocked. Eventually the reactors will be built, but history suggests they will be in the NASA tradition of glitchy overdesign, done at the highest possible cost. That is why I was particularly interested to see this headline earlier this week: China to pioneer "pebble bed" N-reactor. There we read:

China is poised to develop the world's first commercially operated "pebble bed" nuclear reactor after a Chinese energy consortium chose a site in the eastern province of Shandong to build a 195MW gas-cooled power plant...China and South Africa have led efforts to develop "pebble bed" reactors, so called because they are fuelled by small graphite spheres the size of billiard balls, with uranium cores. The reactor's proponents say its small core and the dispersal of its fuel among hundreds of thousands of spheres prevents a meltdown.

Maybe the simplest thing would just be to wait five years and then buy the Chinese designs.

* * *

Fans of the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of People of the Lie, will be pleased to know that a diagnosis of Evil is gaining clinical respectability. According to the New York Times:

Still, many career forensic examiners say their work forces them to reflect on the concept of evil, and some acknowledge they can find no other term for certain individuals they have evaluated...In an effort to standardize what makes a crime particularly heinous, a group at New York University has been developing what it calls a depravity scale, which rates the horror of an act by the sum of its grim details...And a prominent personality expert at Columbia University has published a 22-level hierarchy of evil behavior, derived from detailed biographies of more than 500 violent criminals...He is now working on a book urging the profession not to shrink from thinking in terms of evil when appraising certain offenders, even if the E-word cannot be used as part of an official examination or diagnosis.

"We are talking about people who commit breathtaking acts, who do so repeatedly, who know what they're doing, and are doing it in peacetime" under no threat to themselves, said Dr. Michael Stone, the Columbia psychiatrist, who has examined several hundred killers at Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center in New Hampton, N.Y., and others at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, where he consults and teaches. "We know from experience who these people are, and how they behave," and it is time, he said, to give their behavior "the proper appellation."

This could be useful, and it's certainly interesting, but I wonder whether the association of evil with extreme violence may not miss the point. Even in the case of a notorious crime, the most disturbing element may not be the final scene of blood and dismemberment, but the disclosure of the perpetrator's nonviolent thoughts.

Where there is evil, there may be no violence. The scariest people in Dr. Peck's case studies are impeccably polite and thoroughly respectable. He meets them, not as his patients, but as the persons responsible for his patients' misery. Evil usually destroys itself quite quickly, but sometimes it achieves "islands of stability" in the sort of people who spread Hell on Earth without ever raising their voices.

* * *

Meanwhile, that Other Spengler at Asia Times has been reading books again. In his recent review of Michael Wyschogrod's Abraham's Promise, he gets his knickers all in a bundle about the prospect of American theocracy:

Not until I read Michael Wyschogrod's new book Abraham's Promise did it occur to me the long-departed spirit of American Puritanism might once again become flesh. US evangelicals might awaken one morning as a New Israel not merely in metaphor, but self-aware as a New Chosen People in a New Promised Land. The most paranoid imagining about the Christian Right pales beside this prospect. We are talking about the real thing, not a Straussian imitation: a politicized Protestantism in the mold of the 17th-century Separatists. A "Judaizing heresy" made the United States of America possible to begin with, I have argued on other occasions, and Professor Wyschogrod argues a strong case for the evangelicals to Judaize yet again.

I suppose that US evangelicals might awaken one morning as giant cockroaches, but I would not bet on it. Someone who uses "Spengler" as a byline should know that some developments simply cannot occur in a civilization's life after a certain point. Among the things that cannot happen in the United States is the transformation of the political culture to exclusivist, messianic nationalism. There is a strong messianic streak in American culture, of course, but the trajectory of its development is not inward-looking. Quite the opposite: what we are seeing today is the fusion of that cultural insistence with Kantian universalism; or if you prefer, the appearance of a genuinely popular Wilsonianism.

Besides, if America Judaized, what would the dietary laws look like? Mandatory turkey on national holidays, and no French salad dressing, on penalty of deportation to Canada?

* * *

And speaking of American mental problems: with regard to the Bush Administration's Terror War strategy, the ice cracked this week. It's like when the Russians won the Siege of Stalingrad. The war is far from over, but it looks as if we are actually going to win. So, at any rate, one might think from stories like this: U.S., Europe drawing closer together after elections here and in Iraq. James K. Glassman tell us:

Woodrow Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy. Bush wants democracy to make the world safe.

This clearer, more powerful formulation of policy would have been welcome before the Iraq war, but it's better late than never, and it is being treated with respect among Europeans who previously saw U.S. policy as simply naive and cynical...the European Union itself is different, with the accession last year of 10 new countries, mainly from Eastern Europe. Members of the European parliament from such countries recognize the role the United States played in freeing them from Soviet domination. Ronald Reagan is their hero.

Meanwhile, whether because wishful thinking has wings or because great minds think alike, we hear much the same from Australia:

This is a fascinating detail to observe. All of the US's East Asian allies and de facto allies ended up adopting the same or similar positions. Australia, as the most intimate and active US ally in the region, sent troops to the combat phase as well as the peacekeeping phase. The other US allies did not send troops to the combat phase but offered political support to the US and sent troops for peacekeeping...Far from Howard's support of Bush alienating us from Asia, Howard took an absolutely orthodox Asian position, for an ally of the US, on Iraq.

The irony may be that the world will declare George Bush to be All Grand High Emperor-in-Chief just as his party is run out of Washington on a rail because of his fiscal policies. Pretty much the same happened to Ronald Reagan because of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder

John claims in this book review that suicide is not common in Ethiopia, where Sinedu Tadesse was born. At least according to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in Ethiopia is about as high as in the US. On the other hand, it has also been twenty years, and you can see from 2012 to 2015 the global incidence of suicide has been getting worse. So perhaps the last twenty years have not been kind.

What data I can find tells me that the data quality is poor in Ethiopia, as in most of Africa, and is estimated instead of measured. Also, the WHO data is age-adjusted. It also doesn't account for other "deaths of despair" like drug overdoses and cirrhosis of the liver, but so far that seems to be a US problem.

If I were to argue that the world has gotten objectively harder to bear in the last twenty years, who would argue?


Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder
by Melanie Thernstrom
Doubleday, 1997
219 pages, $23.95
ISBN: 0-385-48745-2

"On Earth this desire is often called `love.' In Hell I feign that they recognize it as hunger."

--C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

Sinedu Tadesse was a twenty-year-old junior from Ethiopia. For two years she had roomed with Trang Phuong Ho, a refugee from Vietnam. Both were juniors and pre-med biology majors. The first year together they had gotten along well, the second year not so well, and Trang had told Sinedu that she planned to change roommates in the fall. Early on the morning of May 28, 1995, Sinedu walked into Trang's half of their two-room suite at Harvard's Dunster House and began stabbing Trang with a large knife she had apparently bought for the purpose. Trang had doubled-up that night with another Vietnamese-American woman who had come to help her move as the school term ended. The commotion woke her guest, whose hand was severely injured as she tried to protect Trang. She fled from the room onto the courtyard of the sleeping residence and eventually found someone to call the police. When they arrived, they found Trang's body by Sinedu's bed: she had been stabbed forty-five times, but she had still had enough life in her to try to reach the door. Sinedu was found hanging by a rope (also bought for the occasion) from the sturdy shower-curtain in the old-fashioned bathroom. She had some vital signs when she was cut down, but died soon thereafter. Hers was the third suicide (or fourth, depending on how you count that of a recent graduate) at Harvard in the previous year. Her killing of Trang was the first murder of one Harvard student by another in the four centuries of the school's existence.

"Halfway Heaven" is primarily about who is to blame for this episode. The book began as a piece for "The New Yorker" magazine. The title is an expression Trang's father used to describe how Harvard had seemed to the family. The author, Melanie Thernstrom, is by her own account a Harvard insider. She was graduated from Harvard College in 1987, her parents went there, her father teaches history there, and she herself has taught writing there (as well at other places). Ms. Thernstrom is not just very familiar with Harvard: she once actually rejected Sinedu for a seminar on autobiographical writing because her submission was too boring.

The author is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of her research. Her survey of the diagnosis and treatment of depression and mood disorders is lucid without minimizing the ambiguities that always attend actual clinical practice. She visited Ethiopia and contrived a tactful interview with Sinedu's family, this in a country where the institution of investigative journalism is not native. The chief impediment to her work was neither culture nor technical issues, but the blatant lies and veiled threats visited on her by Harvard University in general and Dunster House in particular. She records all this in great detail, and her shock is apparent. The University's policy was predictably self-defeating: its pretense that there had been no warning that something was radically wrong in Dunster House simply created a mystery that begged to be solved. And indeed, Ms Thernstrom does find the University, or at least its student mental health services, to have been a necessary predicate for what happened that May morning. For the ultimate cause, however, she can only document the possibilities.

The word on Harvard is that, if they let you in, they will take care of you. They will put together a financial aid package, they will tutor you in your weak subjects, they will counsel you if you get the shakes. One way and another, Harvard College (which is of course only a part of a University with ten prestigious graduate schools) manages to achieve an astonishing 98% graduation rate for its 6,000 students. One wonders, in fact, whether Harvard might not be becoming a bit like Tokyo University, which also does a superb job in selecting its student body but is not unduly anxious that the students actually learn anything while they are there. In any case, the magic of the Harvard name has always derived from the opportunity the place affords to make connections with the other very bright people who were selected with you.

Both Sinedu and Trang had come from moderately privileged backgrounds in countries that went Communist in the mid-1970s. Both their fathers had suffered political imprisonment. Trang fled with her father when she was ten and eventually worked her way up through the American public schools. Sinedu's family, despite persecution by the regime (which fell in 1991), contrived to send her first to a Catholic school and then to a school in Addis Ababa intended primarily for the children of diplomats. Like many students who shine locally, they found they were just average at Harvard. Maybe one or both of them would have changed her major, since their "B" averages would not have gotten them into a medical school.

Trang seems to have taken all this in stride. She tutored high school students and was a star in the Vietnamese students association. She acted as ombudsman for her newly-arrived mother and sisters (her parents had separated soon after being reunited in the United States). She had old-fashioned ideas about sex and dating but had several boy-friends. She was also genuinely interested in science, a quality that one might hope to see more often in pre-med students, and she loved lab work. Even allowing for the positive light in which people tend to recall the innocent dead, Trang Phuong Ho seems to have been a competent person who always worked as hard as she could and who rarely missed an opportunity to help others.

Sinedu kept diaries. The spiral-bound notebooks had titles like "My Small Book of Social Rules," "Amazing Improved Events and How I Could Have Solved Them," "Depression" and "Stress." In these, she said she had always been lonely and explained how she had never been able to connect with other people. Though examination of her school records from Ethiopia show her to have had considerable leadership ability, nevertheless she wrote that she suspected the other students had some sixth sense she did not have. (Some of the passages quoted in "Halfway Heaven" sound so much like Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" that you wonder what Sinedu had been reading.) Trang appears in the diaries, mostly in connection with real or imagined gaffes on Sinedu's part. Trang had perhaps taken on the lonely Sinedu as a roommate as another of her good works, and Sinedu was keenly aware that she made asymmetrical demands on Trang for companionship. Still, the only specific person mentioned in the diaries as a possible murder victim is an officer of the African student's association, someone who had considered Sinedu a friend. In the later entries, killing in general, followed by suicide, is mentioned as "the good way," as distinguished from suicide alone, which was the "bad way."

Suicide, incidentally, is not an Ethiopian custom. Sinedu was allowed burial in an Ethiopian Orthodox graveyard only because her family convinced the priest that there was some uncertainty about the circumstances of her death. Neither is there any national tradition of keeping intimate personal journals. The material on Ethiopia in "Halfway Heaven" is fascinating, but this seems to be another situation where culture is bunk.

We know about the content of Sinedu's diaries because they came to light after her death. However, she communicated the same sentiments in other ways. She wrote letters which she posted to people selected at random from the Boston area telephone directory describing her life in pitiable terms and demanding the friendship of the recipients. Some of the people who got these letters forwarded them to the College administration. The Master of Dunster House denies that any of the actual letters were sent to him from the Dean's office (at any rate, he denied this to Ms. Thernstrom, though he seems to have originally said otherwise to the police). Even the Master, however, says he got a "heads-up" letter from the Dean's office.

There were other signs. In her second year with Trang, Sinedu's behavior began to change. Normally meticulously tidy, she began leaving dirty clothes and half-eaten fruit around the suite. She sometimes wept in public. She fought with Trang (by letter) about Trang's decision to move out. In the last weeks, though, she seemed to relax. She sent presents to friends and family. She made dates to see people she had been putting off for months. In her last exam, she got an "A." She also sent an anonymous photograph of herself to the campus newspaper, the "Crimson," with the notation: "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman." The police later fished it out of a dumpster.

Harvard College knew. Sinedu had been seeing a student health service "psychologist," a man with a degree in education, since freshman year. The Dean's office (and possibly the Master) had the message-in-a-bottle letter. They knew that Trang had sought to change roommates as Sinedu's behavior deteriorated. If nothing else, several officials of the school were aware that Sinedu's grades had been falling off. What were they thinking of? Ms. Thernstrom describes her own reaction when Sinedu came to ask that she reconsider her rejection of Sinedu's application to join the autobiographical writing seminar. The student spoke of the suffering her country had experienced in recent years. Ms. Thernstrom gave the plea short shrift. There is a type of Harvard student who acts like the representative of the wretched of the Earth but who later turns out to be royalty. In any case, it probably was true that it was not the poverty of Ethiopia that Sinedu wanted to write about.

Sinedu was clearly sick, and the University was only pretending to help. She got no medication, though she was glaringly depressed (possibly bipolar, possibly schizoidal, maybe even mildly autistic). There are many forms of psychotherapy that are of dubious benefit and vast expense towards which university health plans turn an understandably jaundiced eye. Depression and related conditions, however, are eminently treatable and at reasonable cost. According to Ms. Thernstrom, nearby MIT, famous for its "crazy brilliant" students, is particularly good at handling this kind of thing. Be that as it may, competent medical intervention would certainly have saved Trang's life and probably have saved Sinedu's. You don't even have to go that far. Any of a half-dozen people in Harvard's faux-Oxford administration could probably have prevented the incident just by giving Sinedu her own room.

Still, Harvard is not to blame for what happened in any ultimate sense. As I noted, this book does a good job of surveying the medical parameters of Sinedu's behavior. It is thus somewhat startling to hear to a psychiatrist (from Yale) saying near the end: "If you push psychiatrists far enough, you'll find most of them believe in evil." Sinedu pretty clearly suffered from a mood disorder of the sort for which there is a straightforward neurochemical explanation. However, a dearth of neurotransmitters did not kill Trang, Sinedu did. Her condition was consistent with suicide (and also with curling up into a ball and crying uncontrollably, something she also did a lot of in her last week). The murder, as well as her account of her interior life, really do not lend themselves to clinical analysis.

Reading the excerpts from Sinedu's diaries, I was time and again of M. Scott Peck's book, "The People of the Lie." Peck is another psychiatrist who eventually came to the conclusion that he could not treat some patients without factoring in a moral dimension. The people whose cases Peck describes were seriously sick and hated their sickness, but they could not get better because in some fundamental sense they had chosen to be that way.

We are dealing here with the mystery of personality. The mystery is genuine because it really is irreducible. If you could reduce a personality into a set of instructions, like a computer program, you would not be dealing with a person anymore, but with a machine. This is the only telling argument against solipsism: other people must really exist, because we could not possibly have invented what they do. (It is also, by the way, an argument for the existence of God, since we could not have made up reality as a whole, either.) None of this is to deny that we are also machines, animals, physical objects, suitable subjects of biological and psychological science. However, only pseudoscience purports to account for everything. There is always something else.

Sinedu's diaries are singularly devoid of "evil" content in any conventional sense of the word. The violent language is apparently sparse and mostly directed at herself. If she had any sexual thoughts, she did not commit them to paper. Certainly the widespread rumor that she killed Trang in a fit of jealous lesbian rage is utterly without foundation in the documentation. What was going on in her mind was a step below sexuality. Sinedu equated "connecting" with controlling people. Suicide was the "bad way" because it was an expression of weakness. Murder and suicide was the "good way" because, for once in her life, she would be able to dominate another person with impunity. Sinedu may have been beyond loving Trang when she killed her, but she was still interested in her, she wanted to control her. Sinedu had sometimes written of her life as what was left after a bomb went off. That is a fitting description of what was left after her death.

Ms. Thernstrom notes that, after the murder-suicide, a "mode of discourse" arose on campus by which both girls were spoken of as equally victims. This way of speaking seemed strange to her, but maybe it was the right way after all. Sinedu sought help for over two years to stop what was happening to her. It was only in those last few days, perhaps, that her mind was made up in a way she could no longer change. Terrible events like this tell us nothing about "the state of the culture," or similar gassy notions. They merit our attention precisely because they are perennial. They are, to put it bluntly, about good and evil, and the power of the human will to choose between them.

This article originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Linkfest 2017-03-03

A Cold War era power plant could save us from ourselves

Thorium reactors are an idea that has been around for a long time. We'd try it if we got desperate.

Top professional performance through psychopathy

Being resistant to the feelings of others can be a good thing, or a bad thing. It depends on what end you put yourself towards.

Socialism is bad

When tradinistas say they want socialism, I have a hard time taking them seriously. Mostly, I just don't know what they really mean. Here, Adam Ozimek points to an essay by Matt Bruenig that helps me figure out what they are talking about. I still can't take them seriously.

USA Today has an excerpt of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

I'm very excited about this. Thrawn is one of my favorite characters, and it looks like Timothy Zahn has been able to transfer the core of the character into the new Star Wars storyline.

The Islamic world did liberalize — but then came the First World War

Ed West reminds us the Middle East was having quite a bit of success integrating into the wider world during the first episode of globalization in the 19th century. Then we blew it all up. Makes you sympathetic to Edward Said.

The Amazon Rainforest Was Profoundly Changed by Ancient Humans

When I was a kid, the environmentalist narrative was very much about preserving and restoring pristine habitats unsullied by the hand of man. I'm glad to see this starting to change. I was first introduced to the Terra Preta of the Amazon by the now defunct Anthopogene blog. That blog had a number of fantastic articles on archaeological finds that helped to illustrate just how much the world has changed during human history. 

10 things about human evolution (genetics) you should know

Razib's listicle about genetics.

Danish Companies Seek to Hire, but Everyone’s Already Working

The horrors of actual full employment.

The Politics of Retelling Norse Mythology

The claim to being a modern 'pagan' is probably worse cultural appropriation than an author retelling old stories. I've never met a pagan who wasn't just a Christian heretic.

White self-interest is not the same thing as racism

A look at what counts as racist for whom.

Fascism in the White House?

A splash of cold water in the face of the minor panic that ensued when someone noticed that Steve Bannon knew who Julius Evola was.

What We Know About the 92 Million Americans Who Aren’t in the Labor Force

I love a great graph.

The US Special Forces Major who fought in the SS

Larry Thorne aka Lauri Allan Törni is the kind of guy who couldn't sit out a good war. So he fought in Finland against the Soviets, twice, against the Soviets again in Germany, and then in Vietnam against the Communists.

How Uber used secret Greyball tool to deceive authorities worldwide

I'm impressed. This is how big data works in the movies. And apparently in real life sometimes too.

Is there really a war on cops?

Short answer is no. More complicated answer is that the same advances in medical technology that keep the murder rate down in general keep cops alive too [I'm not saying this adjustment would make the trend line go up BTW], and that hostility to the cops certainly seems like it is on the rise. It would be interesting to make a third graph using cops per capita to adjust for changing employment. I have a hunch the long upward trend in the late nineteenth century was due to increasing use of police forces instead of citizen volunteers. However, that data seems to be hard to find.

The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild Explained

I can't wait for my copy to arrive!

The Long View 2003-07-08: Neo-Hypochondria

John makes an interesting claim here: that psychoanalysis served the same function for mental illness as health resorts serve for hypochondriacs. That makes it seem less stupid than it otherwise might.


Neo-Hypochondria

Yesterday I suffered the torments of the damned, if the damned have Canon printers. It was one of those rare occasions when I had to have a pile of hardcopy postal mail ready for the next morning. However, early in the day I discovered my printer was not printing text, only graphics.

I did all the obvious things. I fiddled with the preferences. I changed the black-ink tank. I reinstalled the printer. Though I despise documentation, I finally went to the Canon issues-page. There I found the polite suggestion that those little BC-21e cartridges, which hold the ink tanks, do just wear out after a while. I could not go to Staples to buy one, however, because I was waiting for UPS to deliver a package. I would have to make the run in the evening.

As I worked on the text I would have to run off that night, I fumed about all the indignities I have suffered in connection with printers and inks over the past 20 years. By and by these recollections reached the occasion when I first bought new ink for my current printer, and the thieving clerk sold me a new BC-21e cartridge along with the ink tanks, without mentioning that it was a separate component.

I checked the stationery closet. There was the spare cartridge. This was at 4:00 PM. The UPS delivery came 20 minutes later.

* * *

In a very elliptical way, this tedious incident gave me new insight into a book I just finished reading, Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis, by Ralph Freedman. (This biography is from 1978, so looking for it online is likely to be a lost cause.) The book was written just after the Counter Culture period, during which Hesse had been popular in America, but little understood. Freedman's purpose was to break the news to Hesse's English-speaking admirers that Hesse was by no means an outsider author. Much of his German reputation, in fact, was based on historical romances and novels about family crises.

I read the biography to find more about Hesse's view on macrohistory; I have even argued that Hesse's last book, The Glass Bead Game, is essentially Spenglerian science fiction. Freedman, however, was little interested in this aspect of his subject's thought. As is a biographer's privilege, he focused on something else that was at least as important for Hesse: his connection with analytical psychology, and especially his ties to Jung.

Hesse was a Hypochondriac of the Strict Observance. He was chronically debilitated all his life by eye-aches and ear-aches, though the trouble seemed to become serious only after those rare occasion when his doctors attempted real treatment. He lived in that "Magic Mountain" world of annual "cures" at the better resorts. Psychoanalysis was a big part of that world. Indeed, it was invented chiefly to treat the neurasthenic disorders that flourished in that cultural context.

Today there is still some psychoanalysis, and I suppose there are still a few neurasthenics. However, people I know rarely obsess about illness, however devoted they may be to "fitness." What they do complain about is tiny technical issues, like me with my little printer-problem. Some people talk about them all the time, asking for advice and sympathy. We get upgrades we have no practical use for: like a trip to the springs at Baden, the exercise just makes us feel better. The popular use of computers gives us another way to express our conviction that something is not quite right.

The conviction is correct; we simply mistake its cause.

* * *

Sometimes things seem too right. The PATH (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) subway station at Exchange Place in Jersey City reopened this month, and I recently had occasion to use it. The station is on the west side of the Hudson River, directly across from the World Trade Center site, to which it is connected by a tunnel. Oddly enough, most of the World Trade Center PATH station survived 911, but Exchange Place had been closed because of water damage in the tunnel. Some reports said the flooding was caused by attempts to fight the fire. In other accounts, the damage was caused by a broken water-main that was part of the fire-suppression system. Since these stories are not incompatible, we may compromise by believing both.

Washington DC and, I gather, London have very deep subway systems, because those cities are built on marshy ground. The bedrock is far below the surface. Manhattan Island, in contrast, is essentially a ridge of granite with some dirt sprinkled on top. This permits its subways to be as shallow as its inhabitants. Exchange Place is different, though. It is right on the riverbank, so the station platform is almost as deep as the tunnel that goes under the river.

The station was renovated in the 1980s, but before that it was a masterpiece of decaying inner-city infrastructure, as mysterious as Moria. Cowards could take a huge, slow, elevator from the surface to the platforms. The more adventurous route was by a dimly lit stairway. The stairs snaked around for no good reason, sometimes giving way to short corridors before diving down again. The platforms themselves were covered in echoing tile and disconcerting silence. The ventilation never quite worked, so the air in the tunnels was usually misty. One summer, when I worked the night shift at a local post office, I took a train home from that station every night at 1:00 AM. It sticks in my memory.

The odd thing about the recent repairs is that not so much as a single tile in the wall looks different from the last major renovation. There is the same grand stairway-and-escalator going directly from platform level to the surface, with the same dismal neon-sculptures set in the ceiling. (Runners like those stairs. Cowards can still take an elevator.) What did the Port Authority find to do down there for 19 months?

A new World Trade Center station opens in November, by the way. The Port Authority tried to think of another name, but decided to keep the old one.

* * *

This is not a joke. On the frontpage of today's New York Times, a story appeared under the byline of Donald G. McNeil, Jr., with the commendably self-explanatory headline: Chill Therapy Is Endorsed for Some Heart Attacks. A little later, there is a quote: "This is very exciting; there are potentially a lot of people who can benefit," said Dr. Terry L. Vanden Hoek..."But it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Probably it's not a joke.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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His Share of Glory Book Review

His Share of Glory:
The Complete Short Science Fiction of C. M. Kornbluth
NESFA Press 1997
$27.00; 670 pages
ISBN 0-915368-60-9

I picked up this volume because I had read the [almost] titular short story "That Share of Glory" in Jerry Pournelle's Imperial Stars: The Stars at War. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked just about every story contained within. I suppose I shouldn't be. Jerry Pournelle remains among my all time favorite writers, and I trust his judgment about other interesting authors.

This book comes in at 670 pages, and it only represents the scfi short fiction of Kornbluth. Not his novels, and not short fiction in any other genre. That is an impressive corpus of writing for a man who only lived to be 34. As Tom Lehrer almost said, by the time Kornbluth was my age he was dead.

Some of Kornbluth's short stories are famous. "That Share of Glory", "The Little Black Bag", and "The Marching Morons" are his best, and best known works. Another in this collection that I especially liked was "Gomez", the tale of an unlikely nuclear physicist who finds and then loses great power. The stories I didn't like as much, I still liked a lot. I even liked the stories the in back, set in a smaller font, that came with a warning that they were early works written quickly to fill space in pulp magazines. You have to be damn good to write stories that way that anyone wants to read 75 years later, and Kornbluth was.

While most of these stories are scifi, there were a couple that reminded me a bit of Lovecraft and Howard: uncanny and disturbing. Judging by their frequency, this wasn't his specialty, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. His speciality seemed to be journalism. Stories like "The Silly Season" and "Make Mine Mars" show marks of Kornbluth's time as a wire-service reporter in Chicago. This is important, since I'm always interested in what makes a given author's work "hard" scifi.

While Kornbluth wrote some space opera featuring technology nigh unto magic, most of the works in this volume focused on reasonable extrapolations from Kornbluth's encyclopedic knowledge. I mean that literally, since Kornbluth acquired his facts by reading an encyclopedia front to back. However, it isn't really the technology that makes this hard scifi. Kornbluth displayed a keen insight into human motivations, combined with a reporter's cynicism for the tawdriness of ordinary life. Sometimes scifi can be rightly castigated for incomplete or wooden characterization. This is not true of Kornbluth; he understood the human condition, and wrote about it with the authority of a jaded confessor.

Kornbluth was taken from us too soon; he might have been a yet more remarkable author had he lived longer. What might have been is a fit subject for another story. In the meanwhile, you just need to read Kornbluth. This is what the golden age of science fiction is all about.

My other book reviews

The Long View: Spymaster The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret Police

Another old review, written when John was reviews editor of Culture Wars magazine. John decided to part ways with Culture Wars, for reasons he explains here. A fascinating look at espionage and the Cold War, overlapping slightly with my own book review on American Spies.


Spymaster: The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret Police
by Leslie Colitt
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company 1995 (November)
304 pp. (Hardcover), $23
ISBN: 0-201-40738-8

Even before the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was liquidated in 1990, it seemed churlish to me to make fun of it. It was obviously such a dismal country that further comment was cruel. Not everybody thought the way I did, however. A friend of mine who visited it on a business trip about 1985 found it hard to keep a straight face. Squired around East Berlin in an official East German car by an official East German official, he and the other Americans guffawed at the dinky little Trabant cars and the appalling architecture. Building facades that were not ghastly concrete slabs were likely to have unrepaired bullet holes in them from the Russian assault in 1945. The group went to a crowded restaurant for lunch, where they were entertained by the spectacle of a drill-sergeant waitress ordering a tableful of her hangdog countrymen to go sit somewhere else so the foreigners could stay together. The highpoint of the trip was the Eastern Block cherry pie that came for desert. The visitors spent many merry minutes noisily demonstrating its amazing impenetrability to eating utensils. The crowd in the restaurant seemed to be able to follow most of this conversation. Their expressions went from morose to suicidal. Surely none of this rudeness was necessary, I told my friend when he got back. When the GDR imploded, I felt no desire to gloat.

Well, I have changed my mind. Few countries, living or dead, have so richly deserved to be razzed as West Germany's evil twin, and many of the reasons can be found in Spymaster, a brief and straightforward account of the East German foreign espionage agency, the Hauptverwaltung fuer Aufklaerung (Central Intelligence Administration, or HVA), and how it interacted with the rest of the GDR's security apparatus. Colitt was long the Berlin correspondent for the Financial Times of London, and for me, at least, one of the merits of this book is that it does not read like a spy novel. However, if you like spy novels, this book gives you all the nuts and bolts you might desire. (I learned far more than I wanted to know about the role played in world history by the lavatories on the interzonal Berlin trains.) The book's central personality is Markus Wolf, the relentlessly elegant head of East German espionage from the early 1950s to the middle 1980s. Wolf was the prototype for "Karla," the archetypical masterspy developed by mystery writer John Le Carre' into one of the demigods of Cold War mythology. Wolf ran a truly formidable service, one that was at least as important for Eastern Block espionage in Europe as the KGB was. Indeed, it is perhaps the measure of his society that its foreign spy agency was the most competent thing about it.

Markus Wolf is invariably portrayed as a romantic figure. Athletic, handsome, cultured, he was the mysterious "Man without a Face" to Western intelligence until the 1980s, when they finally managed to get a photograph of him. Thus, for many years, he was free to travel secretly through much of Europe. He regularly met and charmed his chief moles personally, sometimes spending holidays with them at resorts in neutral countries while engaging them in wide-ranging discussions of politics and culture. He took care to see that lesser agents received birthday greetings and secret medals. For a senior East German official, he had an irregular private life. He was married thrice, not a good idea in a profession where resentful ex-wives are notoriously likely give information to the opposition out of sheer spite. However, the chief irony in the life of the romantic Markus Wolf is that, all his life, he was a "good communist," which is not very different from saying he was a "good Scout."

Wolf was born in 1923 in Weimar Germany. His father, Friedrich, was a playwright of international reputation, a homeopathic healer, and a Communist. The Wolf family fled to the Soviet Union when the Nazis came to power, even though they had a choice of possible havens. Friedrich insisted on listing his nationality in his internal Soviet passport as "German," though he was ethnically Jewish and that category would have made his life easier. His son, who also became a Soviet citizen, followed suit. During the purges, when German Communist exiles in the USSR tended to disappear into the Gulag, Friedrich contrived not only to avoid arrest but to travel to the West in his artistic pursuits, while the family remained in Moscow. Markus became thoroughly Russified; his friends always called him "Mischa." He served mostly in Red Army propaganda units during the war. When the GDR was created in 1949, he was prevailed upon to renounce his Soviet citizenship for the good of the Party so he could serve in the new state's Moscow embassy. In 1951, the Russians decided he was a good candidate to reorganize the primitive East German foreign espionage organization, then known simply as Central Department 4 of the State Security Ministry. He became its head the next year. In 1956, the department became known as the HVA .

Wolf retired just thirty years later at age 63, very young for an important Eastern Bloc figure who was not actually dying. Colitt takes him at his word when Wolf says, in effect, that he had achieved everything he could in his career. However, reasonable people might find it suspicious that he then became a "reform communist," speaking and writing about the Stalinist purges and advocating various incremental reforms in the GDR. He was an early supporter of Gorbachev at a time when the GDR leadership was dead-set against even minor relaxation. For the first time in his life, he was famous. Not that it did him much good. When the Berlin Wall came down, nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. It may be, as he claims, that he was giving vent to years of pent-up liberalism. On the other hand, perhaps he saw before all his colleagues which way the wind was blowing, and imagined that he could be the one to save socialism.

The most fascinating aspect of Spymaster is not the spies, but its description of the society Wolf was trying to save. East Germany may have been the most police-ridden country in human history. It kept long, very long, dossiers on about a quarter of its 16 million people, plus a million more selected foreigners, primarily people in West Germany. Most of this information was collected by ordinary East Germans spying on each other at the behest of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi). Sometimes the arrangement was informal; neighbors agreed to have regular chats about people at work with other neighbors who worked more directly for the state. Many, on the other hand, were paid agents who had signed cooperation agreements with Stasi itself. Bosses and teachers wrote regular, elaborate reports on the opinions and activities of employees and students, who might in turn be writing similar reports on the bosses and teachers. In some cases that became well-publicized after reunification, the husbands of apparently happy marriages spied on their wives, and vice versa. Almost all dissidents "cooperated" with the regime to some degree. This sometimes took the form of actually informing on members of dissident groups. Many intellectuals, however, seem to have genuinely imagined themselves to be negotiating with the regime for eventual liberalization. The Ministry of State Security itself was straight out of Kafka. Its officials took degrees, doctorates, in the applied psychology of mind control and personal intimidation. Somewhere in the former East Germany even today, perhaps, there may be a library of really, really scary doctoral theses.

Because the country pretty much evaporated in the few months after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, it is easy to see most of this crepuscular activity in retrospect as a make-work project. Those dossiers running to hundreds of pages on people who had never actually done anything very interesting, much less subversive, generally served no useful purpose. Even if the files had been computerized, still it would have exceeded the wit of man and his automatons to collate the data. Doubtless the system provided a mechanism, though a grotesquely inefficient one, for finding out what the people really thought. However, since the reaction of the country's leadership to this information was usually to try to make the people think something else, the regime does not seem to have drawn much benefit from this ability. Of course, by making such a large fraction of the people at least slightly guilty of helping the state blackmail and threaten their friends and relatives, it did ensure that few people felt morally secure enough to cast the first stone against the government. A charitable observer, or maybe a former German Marxist adept at reading between the lines, might surmise that this was the real goal of the Stasi system, to make every man his own cop. Or, on the other hand, maybe the system was just as stupid as it looked.

Markus Wolf's HVA stood somewhat apart from the Stasi. Of course, it was part of the Ministry for State Security and Wolf's boss was the thuggish Erich Mielke, the only founding member of the East German state to live through the whole regime into a resentful extreme old age. However, the foreign espionage division that Wolf ran was something of an elite. Its primary missions were the collection of military information of interest to the Warsaw Pact, surveillance of West German political parties, and economic espionage. Mielke in the early years of the regime was skeptical about the need for East Germany to have an elaborate spy-network at all. He had a point. After all, the GDR did not have an independent diplomatic or military policy, so in effect his ministry would simply be spending its own money to do the Russians' work for them. Wolf, however, soon showed such an ability to pull espionage rabbits out of hats that the HVA became one of the chief sources of the ministry's prestige within the government.

Wolf was the great 20th century master of the mole, the long-term agent who lives an apparently normal life in the target country, rising in due course to positions where sensitive information is available for the taking. The discovery in the early 1970s of his most famous mole, Guenter Guillaume, in the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt soon forced Brandt's resignation. Some of his spies were simply paid. For instance, a relatively low-level U.S. Army electronics warfare specialist once sold the HVA what there was to know about American plans for disrupting Warsaw Pact command-and-control in the event of a war in Europe. However, his most important agents tended to be West Germans who served him at least in part for personal reasons, which often included an ideological component. Academics and businessmen provided information to the East because they thought they were "protecting the peace" or, more rarely, "building socialism." An opportunity for spies of this type was provided by the structure of West German political parties. Far more than American parties, they have elaborate central organizations where experts are paid to think deep thoughts about foreign policy and military strategy. Should the party come to power, the party bureaucracy provides the experts for the new government. Wolf placed or cultivated such people while they were still young, and saw his efforts richly rewarded in later years.

And then, of course, there were the secretaries. As Colitt notes, Wolf did not discover the fact that it is usually easier to recruit the secretary of an important person than it is to recruit the bigwig himself. Neither was he the first to make use of "Romeo agents," spies who insinuate themselves into the affections of strategically-placed women and then exploit the relationship to obtain information. However, Wolf used these tactics with such skill and persistence that he seemed at times to be running a male escort service. (To judge from this book, there was a dearth of Mata Haris to balance the Romeos.) One of the recurring themes of the book is the sloppy work done by the West German security agencies throughout the Cold War. They did cursory checks on the staff of officials in sensitive posts, failed to implement even minimal in-office security procedures, and were singularly obtuse in pinpointing the possible source of a leak when they finally realized that one had occurred. Since secretaries, to do their jobs, must have access to the same information their bosses do, the HVA's job was often childishly simple. The culpability of the secretaries themselves varied greatly. They, too, often came to believe that they were helping to keep the peace by letting one Germany know what the other was up to. One particularly gullible woman was led to believe that her Romeo was actually a member of the British Secret Service, and that she was helping the Allies keep track of her own, unreliable government. One point that must be kept in mind about the moral calculus of these people is that nothing very terrible happened to them even when they were caught. Germany provides a maximum sentence of only 10 years for espionage. Typical sentences are for four years, themselves rarely served in full. Since, obviously, their country did not regard what they were doing as the worst of crimes, it is hard to see why the secretaries should have done so.

Did any of this do any real harm? Did it do any good, even from the East German perspective? The question has been of more than academic interest for the spies in the West who found that the end of the long, twilight struggle left them in the revealing glare produced by captured files and vindictive prosecutors. After reunification, the German government undertook to try those who had been involved in espionage for the GDR, even if they had never set foot in West Germany while doing so. Wolf himself was tried and convicted under this policy. However, an appeals court reversed, noting that the courts of the Federal Republic of Germany simply lacked the jurisdiction to try a man who was, in effect, a foreigner living in another country at the time the acts in question were committed. However, there was no lack of people in western Germany, probably well over a thousand, who richly deserved to have something unpleasant happen to them because of their relationship with East German intelligence over the years. One of the factors the courts have to consider in sentencing is the degree of damage the spies did. In the great majority of cases, the damage has been found to be negligible.

The point is not that espionage is an inherently futile enterprise. Wolf's organization found out most of what there was to know about NATO strategy and capabilities, enough, perhaps, to have affected the course of a war. The irony of the Cold War spy era is that, once the East Germans had found out everything there was to know, they still kept looking. The phenomenon was pure institutional inertia. Wolf's moles in the German political parties were happy to send him all the internal memoranda he was willing to pay for. The secretaries provided information on their bosses' private lives that Wolf's own bosses just could not get enough of. Wolf himself knew that this information was essentially junk. It was simply resume-fodder for the controlling agents in the HVA, who naturally tended to tout the value of the information they handled. As Colitt observes, the spy agency came to resemble an old-style Eastern European factory that won awards for the weight of the machinery produced, whether the machinery worked or not. Even information that seemed useful at the time, such as that relating to the latest Western computer technology, often did more harm than good. In practice, the ability to steal new technology discouraged the development of institutions that might have created it locally. Let them take note who think that the CIA should go into the economic warfare business.

As even the Clinton Administration discovered after a few years in office, plain old international power politics is not an obsolete institution. Therefore, neither will espionage be obsolete. Markus Wolf ran for many years the best "human intelligence" spy organization in the world. U.S. intelligence has long concentrated on such things as spy-satellites and electronic eavesdropping, so maybe we have something to learn from his story. Or maybe not. Even if the world is again divided in a geopolitical stand-off between power blocks, still that would not necessarily mean another Cold War (though it could easily mean a hot one). Ideology gave the Cold War a special nightmare affect. The participants secretly feared that history was really against them, or knew that it would bring them final victory despite all setbacks. Good and evil were plotted on a new grid for that conflict. It produced a new kind of novel because the frontiers ran not just across maps, but across individual human hearts. The HVA's successes were due to the fact that its Western moles and agents were of one people with that of the GDR. It is hard to imagine now what configuration of power and hope could divide the world in the same way again. There really is, it seems, such a thing as progress.

This article appeared in the June 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

The Wrong Way to Advocate for Your Cause

Yesterday on NPR I heard a story about a panic in a Charlottesville, VA grocery store caused when a man carried his rifle into the store. I am all for gun rights, but this was just plain foolish. Scaring people doesn't win them to your cause.

This episode is pretty interesting, and NPR did a good job covering it. You can see the urban/rural divide in play, and also the similar but distinct difference between gun folks and everyone else. To a gun lover, a man with a gun is just a man with a gun. If you are paying attention [and you should be], you will take note of the guy but not worry unless he starts acting strange. The presence of a gun is not in and of itself alarming. For the the rest of America, he is already acting strange, and even folks who aren't particularly anti-gun will likely be afraid, because those outside the gun culture can't conceive of a reason why a normal person would want to carry a gun to the grocery store. The only reason someone would have a gun is to do wrong, so the 911 calls start.

I don't know anything about the local politics in Charlottesville, but according to the Washington Post Ablemarle County is a blue island in the middle of a lot of red, much like my own home of Flagstaff. There are a lot of places in Flagstaff I would be reluctant to carry a gun openly, for fear of causing exactly this. On the other hand, there are places in Flagstaff I have openly carried a gun, and no one said anything. Flagstaff is an interesting mix of cowboy and urban liberal.

Ablemarle County 2012 Presidential Results

In twenty-first century America, I wonder whether the open carry movement really has the right idea. Some of the problem is political, but I think the greater part of it is psychological. Most people don't really have it in them to shoot someone else in self-defense. Some firearms instructors make a point of telling this to their clients who have just bought their first gun after a robbery or mugging. They have a good point. Practical self-defense training for the average person focuses on situational awareness, and techniques for running away more effectively. If you aren't prepared to actually shoot someone in self-defense, and accept the personal consequences of doing that, you shouldn't carry a gun. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has written a number of books on this subject.

Inchoately, I think many Americans realize this, and prefer to outsource their protection to the state. However, I still think there is something to the idea of the Second Amendment. It comes down to what it means to be a citizen, and the relationship between you and the state. Gun folks usually call this the difference between a citizen and a subject. A citizen who can be trusted with a deadly weapon is seen very differently from a subject who cannot be so trusted. This is precisely why gun folks get so offended about gun control, because their fellow citizens seem to be saying they cannot be trusted, in fact that they are something less than a full human being.

Conversely, the gun folks have a less than flattering description of their fellow citizens who do not have the personality to effectively defend themselves: sheep. It goes further than this, because much like in the movie Babe, sheep can't tell the difference between a sheepdog and a wolf. However, when a wolf does show up, the first thing the sheep want is protection provided by the sheepdog. This is exactly what happened in Charlottesville, because the response of the grocery store to a man carrying a gun in the store was to hire an armed security guard.

I'm not sure I know how to bridge this psychological and political divide. Cultures can change, so the balance between folks who prefer to outsource violence and do-it-yourselfers can change. However, I'm not sure we really want a society where everyone is mentally prepared for death. Robert Heinlein famously said that "an armed society is a polite society", but I think not everyone who quotes this appreciates what he really meant. The reason an armed society is a polite society is a casual insult can cost you your life. This is reason behind the elaborate hospitality rituals in many Middle Eastern societies. If you want to know what an armed,  polite society looks like, you should look to Afghanistan.

What we really need is for some Americans not to fear their fellow citizens who have a different capacity for violence, but no less virtue thereby. Conversely, some Americans need to stop frightening their fellow citizens who have different natures.

Boys and their toys

Christina Hoff Summers writes in the Atlantic on boys and their toys.

The money quote:

The problem with Egalia and gender-neutral toy catalogs is that boys and girls, on average, do not have identical interests, propensities, or needs. Twenty years ago, Hasbro, a major American toy manufacturing company, tested a playhouse it hoped to market to both boys and girls. It soon emerged that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, kissed them, and played house. The boys catapulted the toy baby carriage from the roof. A Hasbro manager came up with a novel explanation: "Boys and girls are different."

Sexual Economics

Not exactly what it sounds like, sexual economics is Roy Baumeister's term for looking at relations between men and women in terms of supply and demand. I've featured Baumeister's work on this blog before, but I was unaware of this aspect of Baumeister's research until recently. Baumeister published an opinion piece that struck me as surprising at first, but resonated with my own experience of being a father.

Sexual Economics, Culture, Men, and Modern Sexual Trends

Across the late 20th century, ideas about sex came from two main sources. One was evolutionary theory, based on the field of biology. The other was feminist and social constructionist theory, based in the field of political science. Though important insights have come from both sources, there was a growing body of evidence that did not easily fit either of those. We therefore turned to another field to develop a new theory. The field was economics, and we labeled our theory “sexual economics” (Baumeister and Vohs 2004). At first, our theory was constructed to fit what was already known, making it an exercise in hindsight. It is therefore highly revealing to see how the theory has fared in Regnerus and Uecker’s (2011) pioneering studies of the recent, ongoing shifts in sexual behavior in American society.

...

The social trends suggest the continuing influence of a stable fact, namely the strong desire of young men for sexual activity. As the environment has shifted, men have simply adjusted their behavior to find the best means to achieve this same goal. Back in 1960, it was difficult to get sex without getting married or at least engaged, and so men married early. To be sure, this required more than being willing to bend the knee, declare love, and offer a ring. To qualify as marriage material, a man had to have a job or at least a strong prospect of one (such as based on an imminent college degree). The man’s overarching goal of getting sex thus motivated him to become a respectable stakeholder contributing to society. The fact that men became useful members of society as a result of their efforts to obtain sex is not trivial, and it may contain important clues as to the basic relationship between men and culture (see Baumeister 2010). Although this may be considered an unflattering characterization, and it cannot at present be considered a proven fact, we have found no evidence to contradict the basic general principle that men will do whatever is required in order to obtain sex, and perhaps not a great deal more.

...

Giving young men easy access to abundant sexual satisfaction deprives society of one of its ways to motivate them to contribute valuable achievements to the culture.

...

If men don’t need career success to get sex, then what if anything do they need success for? Some research indicates that career motivation really intensifies for men when they become fathers. Indeed, it has long been known that the transition to parenthood has opposite effects by gender. New mothers withdraw from their work and careers; new fathers embrace work and career with enhanced seriousness and motivation (for a review see Baumeister 1991).

Willpower

The Art of Manliness has an article today on how willpower is depleted, part 2 of a 3 part series. I find this post very interesting, because it discusses training your willpower to be stronger, just like you would a muscle. Given the importance of the ability to delay gratification and work hard, this is a subject I've been very interested in of late.

Related items:

Decision Fatigue

Grit

The Benefits of a Failure of Grit

In my article on Grit, I described my personal failing when I discovered that I really didn't have it in me. This was pretty difficult, but in retrospect I can see I needed to take a journey down the road of ashes. What is the road of ashes? It is the intense crisis or test that burns away everything we once thought good. Robert Bly's Iron John uses the crisis of ashes as a metaphor for initiation into manhood, that which literally separates the men from the boys.

In King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Gilette and Moore speak of the need to transcend the immature archetypes of boyhood in order to become a man. The crisis of ashes is a critical event that enables this transformation, because we need to learn to stop relying on things that are good, yet are not good enough any longer.

The "death" of the Hero is the "death" of boyhood, of Boy psychology. And it is the birth of manhood and Man psychology. The "death" of the Hero in the life of a boy (or a man) really means that he has finally encountered his limitations. He has met the enemy, and the enemy is himself. He has met his own dark side, his very unheroic side. He has fought the dragon and been burned by it; he has fought the revolution and drunk the bitter dregs of his own inhumanity....The "death" of the Hero signals a boy's or man's encounter with true humility. It is the end of his heroic consciousness.

As I mentioned before, I am not proud of my behavior during my crisis of ashes. Yet for all of its unpleasantness, it is perhaps one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I am different now. This is one of the reasons King, Warrior, Magician, Lover resonated with me. I had fallen by happenstance into a pattern the book describes.

There is a sense in which we have to die to ourselves in order to be men. Baptism, one of the Christian rites of initiation, is frankly described as a kind of death. This same intuition is widely shared across human cultures.  You need to learn how to rely on providence, and the usual way for this to happen is through suffering. Having suffered, I see the sufferings and failures of others in a different light. In a very real sense, I can get inside what they feel.

I wouldn't wish my experience on anyone, yet at the same time, we all seem to need it.

King, Warrior, Magician, Lover Book Review

by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette

$9.95; 160 pages

Based on a recommendation from the Art of Manliness, I bought King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine from Bookmans. I couldn't find it at my local new bookstores, but you can find it online new or used. Since I bought it used, it took me forever to find the tiny "Men's issues" section. It was only one shelf in a rather large bookstore, but I finally found it tucked underneath the sexual self-help books. It was worth the effort.

The four archetypes show their power from the first. These are not alien ideas forced onto us. Rather, they are us, in a more pure form. The archetypes help us to see what is best in ourselves, as men. The King is the source of order, he is wise and just. The Warrior has boundless energy. He is devoted to a cause greater than himself, and fiercely loyal. The Magician is powerful and crafty, and he has the ability to detach himself from events and see more clearly. The Lover seeks beauty in all its forms, and delights in it. He can break down barriers and empathize with everyone.

This book is valuable for anyone who wants to know what it is to be a man. It is also valuable if you are interested in understanding depictions of masculinity, both positive and negative. I can easily think of people I know, or situations I have found myself in, and immediately see the application of these archetypes of masculinity.

Moore and Gillette are definitely children of their age: the Age of Aquarius. With that in mind, I found the chapter on the Lover the most unbalanced. This is the chapter that is the least burdened with scholarship or historical accuracy. It is also the least aware of the negative side of the archetype. The chapter on the King went into great depth on the bipolar shadow Kings, the Tyrant, and the Weakling. The chapter on the Lover talked about the Addicted Lover and the Impotent Lover, but many of the examples used for the Lover per se were really just as bad as the shadow forms. Given that the Lover is the spirit of the age, it is probably hard to attain critical distance.

I see an interesting parallel between Moore and Gilette's four archetypes and the DiSC model created by William Marston. Each one of the four archetypes has a strong relationship to one of Marston's four mental energies. The King is similar to the Steadfast/Submissive energy. This would have been hard to see, except that the woman who taught me about DiSC mentioned that many Fortune 500 companies have CEOs with S personalities. Under the DiSC system, the Dominant type seems like the natural leader. Driven to succeed, quick to think, quick to work, charismatic. Yet, the D energy can be very harsh and unyielding. This is because it is really like the Warrior.

I think the confusion arises from the name. When we in the Anglosphere think of a King, we think especially of the English kings, men like Richard the Lionhearted or Henry VIII, who had big ideas and big appetites, bundles of energy that got whatever they wanted. However, what we are really talking about here is no mere king, but the Emperor. The Emperor is the still center, the source of order who quells rebellion by the rumor of his imperturbability. Except in the direst of emergencies, the Emperor does not take the field of battle himself.

The Lover is like the Influencer. Always talking, focused on relationships, a great love of life, unconcerned about details.  The Magician is the Conscientious type. Hardworking, knowledgable, focused on facts and results, quiet and reserved.

One needn't look too far to find things that don't match either. The DiSC model attributes empathy especially to the S, while KWML attributes this to the Lover. Nonetheless, the convergence is striking. I am always interested when two separate lines of thought arrive at the same result. I look forward to reading what Brett on the Art of Manliness posts about this book in the future. This is a topic worth revisiting.

My other book reviews

Nice Guys Earn Less

So says CNN. The Magistra sent me this today. Apparently she's trying to tell me something. I'm not really surprised at the results. The article focuses on social interactions, but I think the real effect likely comes not from being a jerk per se, but the willingness and ability to take risks, to provide critical feedback, and the ability to ignore naysayers. Being a jerk is just a side effect of the personality traits that enable these other things.

Steve Hsu had a post that touched on this. Look at Figure 7. The one we are interested in is A, agreeableness.

The Four Archetypes of the Masculine

The Art of Manliness has a series starting that is inspired by the book, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine

I am looking forward to this. Of the two great forefathers of modern psychology, I find Carl Jung more interesting than Sigmund Freud, although both are well-deserving of their fame. Two of my favorite authors, Tim Powers and John Reilly, have integrated Jungian archetypes into their work. The Jungian archtypes themselves are more interesting than modern derivations like the MBTI, which I continue to find uninteresting.

From Masculinity Movies, here is a brief introduction to the masculine archetypes:

The King

The King is the source of order in the kingdom. If he is a wise and just king, the kingdom prospers, people eat well and are safe from harm. In the kingdom of the wise king, laughter rings through the lands, the crops shoot up high, joyful celebrations keep the woods awake, merchants travel with overflowing carts to lively markets. The king is the harmonizing principle, the subjugator of chaos, the uniter of opposites. He is the channel through which the gods communicate, and he channels divine blessings to his people and the lands (to whom he is «wed»). He is selfless, and puts the good of his people above his own needs. When the King grows weak, darkness threatens the borders of the kingdom, the sun disappears from the sky, and the crops wither and die. When the king dies, he knows, he is merely replaced by another in a lineage of divinely blessed kings, which humbles him Remember the saying «The King is dead, long live the King.»

This archetype may be better known as the Fisher King, forever associated with King Arthur. Last Call by Tim Powers is a powerful embodiment of the Fisher King in modern terms, and of course the masterwork is T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Powers based his work on Eliot's, but Last Call is far more accessible.

The Warrior

The warrior is a powerhouse of energy, the source of which is a transpersonal commitment. He is fiercely loyal to his warrior code – which is his honor – and to the king, who mythologically represents his purpose. The warrior is not concerned about his own comfort and security in pursuit of his goal, as his training teaches him to live with death as his constant companion. The domain of the Warrior is the battlefield – be it a battlefield of war, of spirituality, or of moral ethics. The Warrior’s purpose is often to destroy, but the mature warrior destroys only that which is negative and harmful to the world. He is a master tactician, knowing at all times his limitations, and finds creative ways around them. The warrior is not a thinker, he is a doer. Thinking is his enemy, because it inhibits his ability to act swiftly and with force. He trains himself not to think, and becomes a master of his mind, attitudes, and body. The warrior is detached from life, with an almost infinite ability to withstand psychological and physical pain in pursuit of his goal. He is a little «unhuman», always chasing the shadow of the attainment of his next big purpose, always putting emphasis on his mission as opposed to his relationships.

In American society, the warrior is actually an easy archetype to find if you know where to look. All cultures have their military heroes, but in modern America, the military is the one government entity that actually works well.

If you need an example, think Conan the barbarian.

The Magician

The Magician is the wise man, the sage, the knower of secrets. He sees and navigates the inner worlds, he understands the dynamics and energy flows of the outer. He is a master of technology, engineering, mathematics, mysticism, and logic. He reads the stars, navigates the soul, and writes the laws. In the legends, he is the King’s close advisor, who stops the regent’s anger with cool rationality before he acts rashly and channels to him knowledge from hidden sources. The Magician is the thinker, and all knowledge that requires special training is his domain. The Magician has the capacity to detach from events – the chaos of the world – and draw on essential truths and resources deep within him. He thinks clearly in times of crisis, and enables us to take a broader view of things. He governs the observing ego, and is the meditator that reveals the truth of the universe, the shaman who communicates with the ancestors and stars

This is of course Merlin.

The Lover

The lover is finely attuned to the realm of the senses and worships beauty. He is a musician, an artist, and a lover of all things, both inner and outer. He is passionate, and delights in touching and being touched. He wants to always stay connected, and does not recognize boundaries. He wants to experience the world as one ongoing big orgasm of hearts uniting as One. He is the mystic who feels everything as himself, and the source of all intuition. Through his feeling capacity, he is finely attuned to people’s energy, capable of reading them like an open book. His desire for love and connectedness considered, feeling into other people and discovering dark intentions is a painful experience for him. He is opposed to all structures that maintain separateness – of all law and order that keep hearts lonely and isolated. He is, in other words, opposed to all the other archetypes. The Lover is crucial in keeping the other archetypes energized, humane, and in touch with the ultimate purpose of love. The Lover keeps them from sadism.

This is the balancing feminine element.

More on Anticompetitive practices

Last month I had some thoughts about the social utility of monopolies. A friend wrote in to remind me that market dominance and anti-competitive practices are not identical, and that US law prohibits anti-competitive practices. Just so.

I was reading some of the work of Walter Russell Mead, and I was struck by his description of the nostalgic/oppressive golden age of the 1950s.

In the old system, both blue collar and white collar workers hold stable jobs, a professional career civil service administers a growing state, with living standards for all social classes steadily rising while the gaps between the classes remain fairly stable, and with an increasing ‘social dividend’ being paid out in various forms: longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks and so on.  Graduate from high school and you were pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment in a job that gave you a comfortable lower middle class lifestyle; graduate from college and you would be better paid and equally secure.

And just what guaranteed this?

The blue model rested on the post-Second World War industrial and economic system.  The ‘commanding heights’ of American business were controlled by a small number of monopolistic and oligopolistic firms.  AT&T, for example, was the only serious telephone company in the whole country, and both the services it offered and the prices it could charge were tightly regulated by the government.  The Big Three car-makers had a lock on the car market; in the halcyon days of the blue model there was no foreign competition.  A handful of airlines divided up the routes and the market; airlines could not compete by offering lower prices or by opening new routes without special government permission.  Banks, utilities, insurance companies, trucking companies had their rates and, essentially, their profit levels set by federal regulators.

The stable economic structure allowed a stable division of the pie.  Workers (much more heavily unionized then than now) got steady raises and stable jobs.  The government got a stable flow of tax revenues.  Shareholders got reasonably steady dividends.

There were a lot of problems with the old system.  For one thing, it rested in large part on systematic discrimination against women and minorities.  For another, consumers had very little leverage.  If you didn’t like the way the phone company treated you, you were perfectly free to do without phone service.  If you didn’t like badly made Detroit gas guzzlers that fell apart in a few years, you could get a horse.

The old system slowed innovation; AT&T had no interest in making huge investments in new and untested telecommunications technologies.  Rival companies and upstart firms were kept out of the controlled markets by explicit laws and regulations intended to stabilize the position of the leading companies in the system.

The costs and benefits of the public utlity model that allowed these firms to dominate their markets are clear, but the bit that really struck me was in the last paragraph, the claim that AT&T slowed innovation in this period. By way of example, AT&T suppressed an early answering machine invented in the 1930s because they feared a chilling effect caused a fear of recording previously unrecordable conversations, and also a loss of business. The article cites a few other technologies that were suppressed by Bell Labs, only to be invented somewhere else. Yet for all that, I think the transistor was probably a bigger deal than the answering machine, and AT&T wasn't concerned about that one. Overall, AT&T's behavior is broadly consistent with the public utility model posed by Mead and others. AT&T shared things that helped create general prosperity, and suppressed things that AT&T executives thought would threaten AT&T's market dominance. Overall, the result worked pretty well at the time. AT&T probably didn't slow innovation overall, except in certain specific technologies.

Competitive Markets and Rewards

Both Steve Sailer and Half Sigma have posts up today about the competitive landscape in business.

Steve notes that antitrust law used to be a big deal in the US, but its popularity is waning. Does anyone actually care that AT&T and Standard Oil are slowing reassembling themselves? The Senate still takes such things seriously, but public outcry is lacking. So much for the unwashed masses, but what about the commentariat?

Among conservative/libertarian economists, the current thought is that competition should eliminate monopolies absent government interference. I am sure that proponents of this position can marshall impressive arguments about such large companies could easily be outmaneuvered by smaller, hungrier competitors in the marketplace. I don't think I disagree entirely, but I do think there are compelling psychological reasons why we don't like competitive markets, defined by Half Sigma as:

Here is an incomplete list of some of the characteristics of a competitive market:

  • Many buyers
  • Many sellers
  • Market participants are approximately the same size
  • No cooperation (or less politely, no collusion) between the market participants.
  • Equality of bargaining power between buyers and sellers
  • Transparency and equality of information
  • Buyers and sellers act rationally and with the intent of maximizing their own value
  • No product differentiation
  • No barriers to entry

This kind of thing is pretty wearying, both for the consumer and for the businessman. It is hard work to make money in this environment, and it is also hard work to find a unique product for the consumer. Steve Sailer has a good anecdote about what it feels like to work in a competitive market:

The funny thing was that when I got a job with a young company, however, it turned out that competition, from the perspective of owners and employees holding stock options, was awful. It's like Adam Smith said, in a genuinely competitive market, it's hard for a business to make more than the risk-adjusted cost of capital, which is not much fun at all. Why go through the immense amount of hard work to invent a new, better way of doing business if that's all you'll end up with? To make good money, the kind of money the stock market demands you make, you need some kind of quasi-monopolistic edge.

What it comes down to is a truly competitive market sustained indefinitely is just not worth it. Periods of fierce competition seem to be naturally followed by cartelization or monopolization while the victors enjoy their spoils. Depending on how you present it, this can seem pretty bad. Half Sigma repeatedly mentions the idea that in a competitive market, everyone receives the value they create, while in a monopolistic market the winner transfers value from everyone else. This seems unfair, and it probably often is, but I think there is another side to this cycle of competition and consolidation. The old AT&T funded Bell Labs out of its monopolistic profits, producing seven Nobel prizes and many more technological innovations. All that dried up once AT&T was broken up. 

There is some value to society in the activity of business over and above the compensation of the workers. It is valuable to a given worker to be paid for a a fair day's work, but it is also valuable to everyone that worker has a job. A continual tension exists between the necessity of the ordinary people who work in all the jobs that keep the world of business moving along, and the outsize rewards that accrue to the creators and managers of that activity. In a perfectly competitive market, the rewards for being an innovator are much smaller than in a monopolistic market.

The problem is, when fairly apportioned, those rewards aren't worth the effort. I suspect that the slope of perceived effort versus economic output is not flat. Roughly speaking, creating twice as much economic value is more than twice as hard. Unless the reward matches up with the perceived effort, people won't bother, and will turn their efforts to something else. There is an equity concern here; we cannot allow too much value to accrue to the businessman or the innovator, because that will be perceived by the public as unfair. That happened to the robber barons. But if we have strictly fair apportionment of economic rewards, then the economy as a whole will probably do less well. How much less well is probably exaggerated by libertarian types, but it seems clear that there would be less creation and innovation if it paid less well.

Reality Distortion Field

Tim Ferriss has a piece on Bill Clinton's Reality Distortion Field.

Enter Michael Ellsberg

I’ve figured out the secret—or at least, a big secret—of Bill Clinton’s legendary charm and face-to-face persuasion.

“I have a friend who has always despised Bill Clinton,” a person at a cocktail party told me during the time I was writing my book about eye contact. “Yet, somehow my friend found himself at a function that Bill Clinton was attending. And, within the swirl of the crowd, he was introduced to Clinton.”

“In that moment, face-to-face, all of my friend’s personal animosity towards Clinton disappeared, in one instant,” my new acquaintance at the party continued. “As they were shaking hands, Clinton made eye contact with my friend in a way so powerful and intimate, my friend felt as though the two of them were the only people in the room.”

Steve Jobs is famous for having a “Reality Distortion Field” (RDF)—an aura of charisma, confidence, and persuasion, in which people report it almost impossible to avoid surrendering to the man and following his will when interacting face-to-face. Well—love his politics or hate them—Clinton is known for an RDF even stronger than Jobs’.  Perhaps the strongest in the world.

So, what’s the secret to Clinton’s RDF?

While writing my book, I heard some version of the above story about Clinton not once but three times. So, I Googled “Bill Clinton” and “eye contact.” A number of references to Clinton’s eye powers turned up.

A New York Times Magazine profile near the beginning of his presidency referred to his facility for “making eye contact so deep that recipients sometimes seem mesmerized. Tabloid rumors aside, Clinton embodies the parallels between the seductions of politics and the seductions of sex. As one Clinton watcher said recently: ‘It’s not that Clinton seduces women. It’s that he seduces everyone.’”

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I chastised someone on the PhysicsForums yesterday evening for thinking that there are no non-intellectual skills. Bill Clinton's charisma is a good example of this. The advice in that article seems pretty good to me, I'm interested in trying it myself. Being more persuasive is always a good thing to learn.

However, I feel like the article does not do justice to how powerful personal charisma can be. I've never met Bill Clinton, but I do admire the old reprobate's ability to woo voters. I did have a friend once with powerful charisma. He was a total penis, but I still wanted him to like me. Even though I knew exactly what he was like, I couldn't help it. Even when he wasn't around, his influence persisted. Charisma is incredibly powerful.