Thursday 27 May 2021

Book review: Time Regained

1622107725525-2348365e-9cfd-420a-981e-9bb26defe574_ The triumphal finale! But beware, it is shorter than you think, because it contains a hefty index of characters, index of real people, and other stuff. Fun fact: my copy is the hardback edition, which by some oddity Mother gave me, and I put it aside to buy vols one to five in paperback. I read it, oh, a decade or more ago; and now I'm re-reading the series in some order or another. Since there is very little plot, the order doesn't much matter.

Most of the "action" takes places in the few minutes that Marcel spends in the library of the Guermantes new house, awaiting the end of the concert so he can join the merry throng. But he manages to spin this out to inordinate and almost unbelievable length; perhaps he was Ayn Rand's model.

Aside: the famous "madeline" incident in vol one is famous, but hardly anyone knows about the "paving slab" or the "noise of the spoon" incidents in this volume, for the obvious reason that almost no-one reads this far.

Quote: Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated - the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived - is literature, and life thus defined is in a sense all the time immanent in ordinary men no less than in the artist. This is the kind of thing you say if you're a writer I suppose but it is of course ridiculously snobbish and not true; instead, it is a symptom of the hyper-refined Marcel disappearing up his own arse.

Quote: When I recapitulated the disappointments of my life as a lived life, disappointments which made me believe that its reality must reside elsewhere than in action, what I was doing was not merely to link different disappointments together in a purely fortuitous manner and in following the circumstances of my personal existence. I saw clearly that the disappointment of travel and the disappointment of love were not different disappointments at all but the varied aspects which are assumed, according to the particular circumstances which bring it into play, by our inherent powerlessness to realise ourselves in material enjoyment or in effective action. I sent M this for it's "Buddhist" context.

And now I have finished. Some of it is slog, but there remains enough that is glorious to merit the slog. From near the end: Unable to do without Odette, always installed by her fireside in the same armchair, whence age and gout made it difficult for him to rise, M. de Guermantes permitted her to receive friends who were only too pleased to be presented to the Duke, to defer to him in conversation, to listen while he talked about the society of an earlier era, about the Marquise de Villeparisis and the Duc de Chartres. At moments, beneath the gaze of the old masters assembled by Swann in a typical "collector's" arrangement which enhanced the unfashionable and "period" character of the scene, with this Restoration Duke and this Second Empire courtesan swathed in one of the wraps which he liked, the lady in pink would interrupt him with a sprightly sally: he would stop dead and fix her with a ferocious glance. Perhaps he had come to see that she too, like the Duchess, sometimes made stupid remarks; perhaps, suffering from an old man's delusion, he imagined that it was an ill-timed witticism of Mme de Guermantes that had checked his flow of reminiscence, imagined that he was still in his own house, like a wild beast in chains who for a brief second thinks that it is still free in the deserts of Africa. And brusquely raising his head, with his little round yellow eyes which them selves had the glitter of the eyes of a wild animal, he fastened upon her one of those looks which sometimes in Mme de Guermantes's drawing-room, when the Duchess talked too much, had made me tremble. So for a moment the Duke glared at the audacious lady in pink. But she, unflinching, held him in her gaze, and after a few seconds which seemed interminable to the spectators, the old tame lion recollecting that he was not free, with the Duchess beside him, in that Sahara which one entered by stepping over a doormat on a landing, but in Mme de Forcheville's domain, in his cage in the Zoological Gardens, he allowed his head, with its still thick and flowing mane of which it would have been hard to say whether it was yellow or white, to slump back between his shoulders and continued his story. He seemed not to have understood what Mme de Forchevillé was trying to say, and indeed there was seldom any very profound meaning in her remarks. He did not forbid her to have friends to dinner with him, but, following a habit derived from his former love-affairs which was hardly likely to surprise Odette, who had been used to the same thing with Swann, and which to me seemed touching because it recalled to me my life with Albertine, he insisted that these guests should take their leave early so that he might be the last to say good-night to her. Needless to say, the moment he was out of the house she went off to meet other people. But of this the Duke had no suspicion or perhaps preferred her to think that he had no suspicion. The sight of old men grows dim as their hearing grows less acute, their insight too becomes clouded and even their vigilance is relaxed by fatigue, and at a certain age, inevitably, Jupiter himself is transformed into a character in one of Molière's plays, and not even into the Olympian lover of Alcmène but into a ludicrous Géronte. It must be added that Odette was unfaithful to M. de Guer mantes in the same fashion that she looked after him, that is to say without charm and without dignity. She was common place in this role as she had been in all her others. Not that life had not frequently given her good parts; it had, but she had not known how to play them.


Book review: Madame Swann at Home

Friday 21 May 2021

Book review: The Languages of Pao

1621600860579-a93f66f3-7a05-4fd7-91cd-f76aaf4041ed_ The Languages of Pao is Jack Vance; the story is probably based off the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis but don't worry, it doesn't get in the way too much. I re-read it recently, because the concept of "Emeritus" came up again; I left some additional quotes there.

Stripped of that element it is a quasi-usual Vance potboiler, which is to say, better than most people's best efforts. Briefly, towards the end, there is a hint of recognition of the philosopher-king problem; perhaps even with a neat inversion of it. Or maybe I only see my own obsessions.

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Book review: What Makes You Not a Buddhist

1621443869808-c6483181-59b7-499b-9117-523ccbb1a416_ By Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse "one of the most creative and innovative young Tibetan Buddhist lamas teaching today" and so on.  Goodreads gives it nearly four stars.

M is becoming Buddhist4, and occasionally we discuss it, and invariably disagree, and sometimes she attempts to explain it, and we usually get stuck, with her saying "well I didn't explain that very well" and so she suggested I read this, presumably on the grounds that someone had written it well. Alas, it is deeply flawed.

Let me prove that: "Many of the stars that we romantically gaze at in the night sky are already long gone; we are enjoying the rays from stars that expired a million light-years ago". This is wrong. Can you see why? Well, first off he's made the Kessel-run-in-12-parsecs error: a light-year is a measure of distance, not time. Second, all the stars we see are in the Milky Way and the most distant visible is ~10 kly (see here for a discussion of exactly how far away the most distant visible one is; quibbling, a supernovae could be further but there are no current supernovae; and that wouldn't fit many). So, this is a science-y kinda "fact" thrown in to... impress the yokels? Demonstrate that he understands cosmology? Subtly undermine everything he says? I don't know. So, the book hasn't had any editing by anyone with any science knowledge. He also claims that a "small step" like "just saying no to plastic bags" would significantly help global warning; this is of course nonsense.

There is some shitty politics in there: he admires Che, he admires Mao and hates capitalism1, he says "For example, to the extent that global warming and poverty are products of insatiable capitalistic conditions, these misfortunes can be reversed" and all of that is stupid. Arguably, stupid but irrelevant to his point. In which case, why not omit it? But it does call his judgement, and/or his wisdom, into question.

Fairly early on he is frustrated that people think that Buddha is the "God" of Buddhism; and he reminds us that big B was but a man. Fine. But then it would be nice if it wasn't the case that every single concept introduced is introduced by an episode in the life of big B. Why not, even just as an intellectual exercise, as a discipline, to force you to think, just leave him out entirely?

One is a Buddhist if he or she accepts the following four truths

Ah, good. To the point. And they are2:

1. All compounded things are impermanent.
2. All emotions are pain.
3. All things have no inherent existence.
4. Nirvana is beyond concepts.

Unfortunately 1 is vague as to what a "thing" is; for example, the proton is compound but it is not known if it decays; if it does, its half life is greater than 1034 years. Suppose it does not decay at all. Is this a problem? It is hard to see why it would be; we'd just redefine what we mean by "things". Buddhism is essentially about people, not about the physical structure of the universe; so let us say by "things" we mean "macroscopic things of human experience" or somesuch. In which case the word "compound" becomes irrelevant, which is ugly. Later on, he expands "thing" to include "concepts" at which point I can go ha-ha-gotcha: "All compounded things are impermanent" is itself a concept, and therefore is itself impermanent, and so - one must presume - at some point it will no longer be true. But that kind of thinking comes in with set theory, and I don't think he'd be very good at set theory.

Point 2 comes close to the heart of my problem with big B: like the Christian church's prohibition on suicide, it seems to come from another age when life was really rather unpleasant and peons suffered one literal or metaphorical blow after another. But it doesn't describe our life. Many emotions are pleasant. A little later he expands this a little, to "If you cannot accept that all emotions are pain, if you believe that actually some emotions are purely pleasurable". This is confused: he seems to think that if something isn't pure-pleasure, it must be pain. That isn't true. Elsewhere we have "Fear and anxiety are the dominant psychological states of the human mind". Has he just lead a really unhappy life for some sad reason? How did this get past his editor, or are all Buddhists unhappy? Perhaps Buddhists don't have emotions. Or they can cope with pain. Who knows. [Update: there's a "postscript on translation" which kinda whiffles on this, by saying effectively "oh the word I've used here is 'emotions' but maybe I meant something else". FFS. But, at least it provides some hint that someone read the thing and thought "'old on, this isn't right". So there is some hope for them.]

Point 3 is also I think confused. Re-written as something like "not everyone will view the same events in the same way"; or "we experience the real world through our senses"; or somesuch, it could be made true. Later he expands it to "all phenomena are illusory and empty, [all] things do [not] exist inherently", so there's no doubt he is taking the hard line here. I think he's wrong. There is an objective reality.

4. Meh. Means nothing to me.

At the end of it, though, I am left to wonder if Buddhism is, or regards itself as, anything more than a self-help system. Unlike - let us say - Christianity it makes no supernatural claims (I think; I'm leaving out any belief in reincarnation which isn't on the list of 4, and M gives me to understand is somewhat controversial from the inside). What claims does it make? Realising that things are impermanent, and that wasting your life in striving after impossible pleasures is the road to pain?

Let's look at the chapters about those four points.

1. Impermanence

Well, this is point 1. Buddha, we are told, came to the astonishing realisation that everything is impermanent. Possibly back then everyone was too stupid to have noticed this, but nowadays he gets zero points for the bleedin' obvious. Ridiculously, the book tries to pretend this is novel by noticing that people are sad when a loved one "passes away". WTF? He's also badly confused by noticing that people would like to live longer, and appears to confuse this with people wanting to live forever. Come to that, he confuses impermanence with not-immorality: impermanence of itself does not prohibit immortality. There is a lot of muddy thinking in this chapter.

"Fearlessness is generated when you can appreciate uncertainty..." - well, no. If I'm walking across a glacier unroped and aware that there are crevasses, the uncertainty over each footstep does not remove fear, and nor would I want it to. Fear is useful. He means something else; that you can live with uncertainty. But this is no great insight.

2. Emotion and pain

There seems to be more error and confusion here, too. Perhaps he isn't too good at sticking to his topic? This is a chapter about emotion, nominally, but we get inevitably these conveniences [elevators, laptop computers, recharge able batteries, electric dishwashers, toasters] provide an equal measure of headache. Which reads to me more like live-a-simple-life-and-renounce-things; which is different. Never mind. His idea is wrong, obviously: we think that dishwashers provide a net benefit, or we wouldn't have them. He seems curiously unsubtle; not understanding the idea of balances; that things can have good and bad elements, and that just because a thing has some bad elements, that doesn't make it bad overall.

But wait, there's more wrong than that. Consider: If you examine emotions as Siddhartha did, if you try to identify their origin, you will find that they are rooted in misunderstanding and thus fundamentally flawed. All emotions are basically a form of prejudice; within each emotion there is always an element of judgment. Why is my happiness at seeing a flower a form of prejudice, rooted in misunderstanding? If he has a point here, it isn't at all clear what it is.

He continues and we come, sort of, to "our minds can be confused by illusions". For example: a torch that is spun around at a certain speed appears as a circle of fire. At the circus, innocent children, and even some adults, find the spectacle entertaining and enchanting. Very young children don't separate the hand from the fire from the torch. They think that what they see is real; the optical illusion of the ring carries them away. However long it lasts, even if for just a moment, they are completely and deeply convinced. Yeeessss... very good. But: so what? Well: Siddhartha could now see his own physical body as essenceless. To him the fire ring and the body have the same nature. But this is an error. The fire-ring is a trick-of-perception, in the way that constellations are: they depend on your viewpoint. The stars we see as "close" in a constellation, aren't. Unlike, say, a globular cluster, which really is a close group of stars. Similarly, the body "really is" a thing: a constructed thing, if you like, but a real thing, in a way that the ring of fire isn't. I think his misunderstanding here is core and important: it would be interesting to know if it is just his, or if all Buddhists make the same mistake.

As to the self: Siddhartha realized that there is no independent entity that qualifies as the self to be found anywhere, either inside or outside the body. Like the optical illusion of a fire ring, the self is illusory. This too is wrong: there is no independent entity, indeed, but that doesn't mean there is no self.

At around this point I gave up, so I can't tell you anything about the last two chapters. In my defence, I was discussing this with M as we went along, and she mostly agree with me that the bits that seemed wrong, were wrong, so there didn't seem much point.

3. Update: Everything is emptiness

It's a slow day at work, I decided to push on to chapter 3. I have had an enlightenment: he - and possibly Buddhism as a whole - has a Trump-like indifference to consistency and/or truth. He will happily say things that aren't true, presumably - granting him good intent - with the idea of drawing you towards some other concept. This is annoying, and lazy of him; it is not the case that he needs to keep lying; he just can't be bothered to express himself clearly; probably, because whenever he discusses this with others of his ilk they all nod and say "oh that was so wise"; and he has the terrible example of previous writing to guide him. But really, he should drop the drivel about Milarepa's yak horn.

The closest he comes to saying what he means is when we depend on external substantiation, eventually we are disappointed. Things are not as they seem: they are impermanent and they are not entirely within our control. And this is reasonable: we are happier if we do not lean to heavily on external reality, especially if we don't lean on our illusions about external reality (not quite right, but it's a nice quote: thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it). This is very much as per The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, though I doubt either read the other; that isn't necessary, as the idea isn't a difficult one.

Coming back to the level of the yak horn, he discusses flying, in dreams and when awake. You can fly in dreams, but you can't (except using Evil Modern capitalist Tech) in the real world3. Somehow, though, he fails to see the obvious lesson from this: the real world is indeed real; you can tell this because it is bound by real rules that constrain you, unlike the dream world.

karma: at one point it is stated that this is simply a law of negative cause-and-effect. Moments later, he talks of generating negative karma. This uses are incompatible. See my comments on indifference, above.

4. Update: Nirvana

This appears to be aimed at people who believe an an "afterlife": rebirth, reincarnation, heaven, whatever you care to call it.

The parable of the wine glass: when you buy a glass, it is clean. It may get dirty. You can wash it. But the fingerprints were not part of the glass. similarly, if we get angry we feel impure and defiled, but these emotions are not part of our "true nature". This is a false analogy: there is a genuine structure to the wineglass and the fingerprints are merely laid on the surface. But there is no surface to our "true nature"; our emotions are genuinely part of it, not separable from it; they cannot be wiped away. He seems to think of us as a sort of inner or "true nature" with a cloud of emotions and reacting-to-the-world on top of it. Sort of like the id / ego stuff. That seems simplistic: chopping up, for the purpose of analysis, something more complex and more tightly bound.


1. You don't believe me, do you? Well: Imagine how the world would be if capitalism had never existed and every nation and individual truly lived Mao Tse-tung's pragmatic communist philosophy: we would be perfectly happy with no shopping malls, no posh cars, no Starbucks, no competition, no large gap between the poor and the rich, health care for all-and bicycles would be more valuable than Humvees. M, in a desperate attempt to defend this nonsense, tried "he is being provocative"; but that I think is a defence of tired, lazy writing. See-also Is Bruno Latour a useless ponce? featuring the assertion is either true but banal, or else surprising but manifestly false.

2. "Thou shalt remember that guns, bitches, and bling were never part of the four elements, and never will be" from Thou Shalt Always Kill.

3. later on (chapter 4, p 97) there are sly more-than hints that big B could fly, but they don't talk about it much, cos that stuff was just a sideline. This is for-the-rubes drivel though; if he believes it, he's a fool; if he doesn't, he's a liar.

4. Her (brief, not very public) blog is here.

Wednesday 5 May 2021

Book review: H G Wells anthology

Containing The War of the Worlds as well as The First Men in the Moon and When the Sleeper Awakes, and some other shorter pieces but not The Time Machine.

They aren't great. His style is rather dull; the men-in-the-moon I found interminable; and the holes in his proposed tech are so gaping as to be not worth poking. Perhaps unfairly, the ideas don't seem very interesting; he has through no fault of his own been overtaken by both events and other authors. The frame-stories of Victorian gentlemen become tedious after a while.

When the Sleeper Awakes is perhaps the best, after WotW. Man falls asleep for 203 years and when he wakes up compound interest and blah has implausibly made him the nominal ruler of the world; but really of course he isn't; he frees himself from the White Council, and then from Ostrog, and then dies before the cycle can continue another round. It is a lot better than it could be but still... not very good.

The Time Machine

TTM isn't in the book, but I read it after on Kindle, since Gutenberg has it. I remember it from childhood as a film, quite a good one. The book though has all the flaws of the other works. So, the Time Traveller returns - to a dinner party, of course - and tells his tale. And says "well I don't suppose you believe me". And no-one says "well if you really do have a time machine, go forward a week and tell me the result of the 2:30 at Epsom" or how stocks are going to change. No-one says "go into the past and tell me...". So, clearly, no-one does believe him. And in some way it seems even Wells doesn't believe himself; he can't be bothered to invent whatever excuses people are now used to making for why you can't do that; or perhaps, it being a new idea, he didn't think the obvious excuses would work. Come to that, his excuses for why "time travel" renders the traveller invisible and (he doesn't even provide an excuse for this latter) invulnerable don't wash. Really, the story isn't about time travel, that is just necessary to get his narrator in place, it is about future-earth: how humans and the planet might evolve over long periods of time. Similarly, his traveller is pathetically badly prepared for the trip; and makes no attempt to retrieve anything from the future or find anything out.

Monday 3 May 2021

Our fate moves invisibly! A mystery

Via TF, quoting Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides  by Anne Carson:

Come here, let me share a bit of wisdom with you. Have you given much thought to our mortal condition? Probably not. Why would you? Well, listen. All mortals owe a debt to death. There's no one alive who can say if he will be tomorrow. Our fate moves invisibly! A mystery. No one can teach it, no one can grasp it. Accept this! Cheer up! Have a drink! But don't forget Aphrodite--that's one sweet goddess. You can let the rest go. Am I making sense? I think so. How about a drink. Put on a garland. I'm sure the happy splash of wine will cure your mood. We're all mortal you know. Think mortal. Because my theory is, there's no such thing as life, it's just catastrophe.

TF doesn't say so, but that turns out to be from Alcestis. Here's another version:

Know the nature of human life? Don't think you do. You couldn't. Listen to me. All mortals must die. Isn't one who knows if he'll be alive to-morrow morning. Who knows where Fortune will lead? Nobody can teach it. Nobody learn it by rules. So, rejoice in what you hear, and learn from me! Count each day as it comes as Life-and leave the rest to Fortune. Above all, honour the Love Goddess, sweetest of all the Gods to mortal men, a kindly goddess! Put all the rest aside. Trust in what I say, if you think I speak truth-as I believe. Get rid of this gloom, rise superior to Fortune. Crown yourself with flowers and drink with me, won't you? I know the regular clink of the wine-cup will row you from darkness and gloom to another haven. Mortals should think mortal thoughts. To all solemn and frowning men, life I say is not life, but a disaster.

The context of this is strange: Herakles, newly a guest of Admetus, is drunk and speaking reprovingly to a sad-faced servant; the servant is sad because Alcestis, Admetus's wife, has recently died, a fact that Admetus has concealed from Herakles in order not to drive him away, which would, Admetus belives, reflect badly on the honour and hospitality of his house. To make it even weirder, Alcestis has died in place of Admetus, in a bargain brokered by Apollo; and Pheres, Admetus's father, has just had a bitter argument with Admetus over who should have died (anyone could have, but only Alcestis volunteered).

To continue with the play... Admetus, though overcome with grief, neglects the obvious: that she is dying for him; and he doesn't have to accept her sacrifice. The Chorus appears to subtly mock him; interspersed with his cries of grief, we get such as "Courage! You are not the first to lose... A wife; Different men Fate crushes with different blows" and "Grief has fallen upon you In the midst of a happy life Untouched by misfortune. But your life and your spirit are safe. She is dead, She has left your love. Is this so new? Ere now many men Death has severed from wives." Ah, but then he does get the obvious: Those who hate me will say: 'See how he lives in shame, the man who dared not die, the coward who gave his wife to Hades in his stead! Is that a man? He hates his parents, yet he himself refused to die!'

It all ends happily though. Herakles, appraised by the sad-faced servant of the truth, resolves to defeat Death and restore Alcestis; this he does - Admetus, seeing her back, wisely asks Beware! May it not be some phantom from the Underworld? aware of the Wife of Ushers Well and similar; but it is her entire.