What am I up to now?
October 2, 2023
In December, I finished the first semester of grad school, putting me roughly one-fifteenth of the way through. It was about what I expected, though with slightly more measure theory and less optimization. The first half of December was spent studying in various dignified libraries, MCRs, and Grand Halls around Oxford. Eventually I’ll feel the urge to make a ranked list of “the best common rooms to do macro in” or something, but the chairs and ceilings still blur together too much to make any distinction reasonable. For months I’m relegated to Oxford, these monthly updates will blur together similarly.
I spent time in London, DC, and New York this month. I didn’t spend nearly enough time hanging out with my beloved sisters but such is life. On 1 January, I fly to CDMX. If you’ll be in the area, let me know!
Also, I’m planning a 1-2 month Central Asian trip next summer; something like Tajikistan -> Uzbekistan -> Kazakhstan (or vice versa). Recommendations and introductions are welcome!
Here’s a list of the ~140 books I read in 2022, with some mini-reviews in the sidenotes. Borges and Shakespeare appeared most frequently.
In mid-December, I spent six days in bed with the flu and finished six books. Some of these had been sitting on the backburner for a while;Comm Check, a journalistic account of the Columbia disaster, and a new history of YouTube from Mark Bergen. others felt appropriate to the moment — Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms are accessible and misanthropic, perfect for the brain fog and misery of a high fever. I intended to skip the metaphysics — is now the time for an essay “on the antithesis of thing in itself and appearance”? — and only persevered through momentum. The back-to-back zingers “On Suicide” and “On Women” gave me an “oh my god, Jonathan was racist” moment, but it turns out Schopenhauer’s cynicism runs much deeper than that.
My favorite, and the most generally interesting section, were the aphorisms on law and politics. Schopenhauer seems to go philosopher-by-philosopher, attempting to piss off in turn. He quotes Voltaire on monarchy, then argues governments should only allow freedom of the press “upon the strictest prohibition of any kind of anonymity,” which would have sparked an angry pamphlet from Monsieur Arouet. Schopenhauer also deserves credit for introducing me to the Hobbesian side of Spinoza — “Unusquisque tantum juris habet, quantum potentid valet.”A person’s rights are equivalent to his power. Did Spinoza get a chance to read Leviathan? SEP asserts Spinoza read De Cive (which I only know from PolPhil101), but Leviathan seems much more up Spinoza’s alley. The timing is a bit tight, tho, with Baruch’s early death-by-glass.
There were two especially fun arguments, which wrap around in unexpected, Chestertonian ways:
Republics are anti-natural, artificial and derive from reflection : consequently there are also very few of them in the entire history of mankind, namely the little Greek republics and the Roman and Carthaginian re- publics, and these were all made possible by the fact that five- sixths, perhaps even seven-eighths of their population consisted of slaves. The case is similar in the United States of North America: in the year 1840, of a population of 16 millions, three millions were slaves. The duration of the republics of antiquity was, moreover, very brief compared with that of the monarchies. Republics are in general easy to establish but hard to maintain : precisely the opposite is true of monarchies.
If you want Utopian plans, I would say: the only solution to the problem is the despotism of the wise and noble members of a genuine aristocracy, a genuine nobility, achieved by mating the most magnanimous men with the cleverest and most gifted women.
Poverty and slavery are thus only two forms of - one might almost say two words for - the same thing, the essence of which is that a man’s energies are expended for the most part not on his own behalf but on that of others; the outcome being partly that he is overloaded with work, partly that his needs are very inadequately met. … It is therefore a fact that the people is sovereign: but this sovereignty never comes of ageand therefore has to remain under the permanent care of a guardian.
Other fun bits include a potshot at color theory:
On the other hand, in our own day Newton’s absurd theory of colours still holds the field, forty years after the appearance of Goethe’s.
and a personal attack on my love of parentheses and sidenotes:
The guiding principle in the art of composition should be that the human being can think clearly only one thought at a time, so that he should not be asked to think two, not to speak of more than two thoughts at the same time. — But this is what he is being asked to do when parentheses are inserted into sentences which have been broken up to accommodate them, a practice which causes unnecessary and wanton confusion. German writers are the worst offenders in this respect.
Orwell on Christmas and “Why Socialists Don’t Believe In Fun”
In 2021, I read the entirety of George Orwell’s/Eric Arthur Blair’s bibliography. The non-fiction was great, the fiction was good; the best were from “As I Please”, Orwell’s column in The Tribune from 1943 to 1947. Orwell shared his thoughts on everything from how to date online in the 1940s to the demographic transition to cricket to Pascal’s mugging.‘Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the existence of, for instance, Australia. Belief in the next world does not influence conduct as it would if it were genuine. With that endless existence beyond death to look forward to, how trivial our lives here would seem! Most Christians profess to believe in Hell. Yet have you ever met a Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer? Even very devout Christians will make jokes about Hell. They wouldn’t make jokes about leprosy, or R.A.F. pilots with their faces burnt away: the subject is too painful. ‘
On Christmas morning, I came across my old notes on “Why Socialists Don’t Believe In Fun,” published in The Tribune on Christmas 1943. Orwell considers the problem of utopia: “all efforts to describe permanent happiness […] have been failures.” While this is partly the fault of fiction — H.G. Wells and Jonathan Swift’s failures are most salient — Orwell finds fault in politics and religion as well.
Heaven is as great a flop as Utopia, though Hell occupies a respectable place in literature, and has often been described most minutely and convincingly. It is a commonplace that the Christian Heaven, as usually portrayed, would attract nobody. Almost all Christian writers dealing with Heaven either say frankly that it is indescribable or conjure up a vague picture of gold, precious stones, and the endless singing of hymns. […] Many a revivalist minister, many a Jesuit priest (see, for instance, the terrific sermon in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist) has frightened his congregation almost out of their skins with his word-pictures of Hell. But as soon as it comes to Heaven, there is a prompt falling-back on words like ‘ecstasy’ and ‘bliss’, with little attempt to say what they consist in. Perhaps the most vital bit of writing on this subject is the famous passage in which Tertullian explains that one of the chief joys of Heaven is watching the tortures of the damned.‘As for the Muslim Paradise, with its 77 houris per man, all presumably clamouring for attention at the same moment, it is just a nightmare.’
The problem of utopia is so intractable that Orwell, his socialism persisting through his Catalonian adventure, dismisses it as a political goal. Instead, writing in the horrific aftermath of the Blitz:
The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.
Socialist thought has to deal in prediction, but only in broad terms. One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see. At this moment, for instance, the world is at war and wants peace. Yet the world has no experience of peace, and never has had, unless the Noble Savage once existed. The world wants something which it is dimly aware could exist, but cannot accurately define. This Christmas Day, thousands of men will be bleeding to death in the Russian snows, or drowning in icy waters, or blowing one another to pieces on swampy islands of the Pacific; homeless children will be scrabbling for food among the wreckage of German cities. To make that kind of thing impossible is a good objective. But to say in detail what a peaceful world would be like is a different matter.
Monthly Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin wrote “Introducing Myself” as a “a performance piece, performed a couple of times.” While none of these performances are on YouTube, I like to imagine the effect of watching the septuagenarian Le Guin standing up in a bookshop or college auditorium and opening:
I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a , and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter. If we have anything to learn from politicians it’s that details don’t matter. I am a man, and I want you to believe and accept this as a fact, just as I did for many years.
No one can accuse Le Guin of making silly mistakes about gender,My favorite recent weird gender book (also my favorite weird utopia book) is Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota; in an interview, Dr. Palmer said her dream reviewer would have been Ursula Le Guin. and this essay is one of her more truculent and sardonic commentaries. While she is a man, she’s “a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him.”
I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon. I mean, after all, can I inseminate? Can I belong to the Bohemian Club? Can I run General Motors? Theoretically I can, but you know where theory gets us.
There’s also a delightful riff on Hemingway. Highly recommended.
Spotify Wrapped is a challenging time of year. I usually don’t know how to answer the question, “What type of music do you listen to?” But every December, I’m confronted by my revealed preferences; it’s rarely flattering. This year was particularly confusing: in my top five most-listened to songs were Avril Lavigne, Mikhail Glinka, and the great blues guitarist Johnny Winter. My most-played artists were The Beatles and Taylor Swift.
While almost a quarter of the books I read this year were written in languages other than English, anglophone music dominated my listening. Of my 100 most listened to songs, only six had lyrics not in English, and four of those were in Spanish. I’m disappointed in myself — the majority of new (lyrical) music I listen to isn’t in English.Tho the plurality is. Why I do listen to so much linguistically challenging music once, then never again?
The music I listen to on repeat has three purposes: singing in the shower,Country, folk, Jason Mraz, and other genres with accessible ranges. doing math,Latin guitar, hard bop, and Zakir Hussein. and long plane rides.The Steve Miller Band’s ‘Jet Airliner,’ Vivaldi, and Bach. All of these make good showings on my revealed preference list, but
New stuff, no English lyrics allowed
Masikini Naye Mtu (The Poor are Also People), Jamaica Mnanda. Listen here. Fast-paced, political Senegalese music, with two less-traditional remixes.
Szól a Világ, Napfonat. Listen on Spotify. Catchy Hungarian a capella, pretty poppy.
Templo Komodo, Briela Ojeda. Listen on Spotify. Man, I’ve got no idea what this is. But it’s great. The title track and Doña Justicia are return tracks.