Friday, March 25, 2022

Losing the plot


In Adam’s school, some enterprising publisher has given away a bunch of new kid’s books and the teacher has assigned the task of reviewing them to the kids. To help the kids figure out what “review” means, they have a helpful sheet that asks questions about the plot, the pictures, and even what the parents think of the book – clever, that one.

These are all fictional books. The question about the plot is: in a few sentences, describe the story  in the book – Resume l’histoire dans quelques lignes. The story – here  l’histoire – is, I take it, a proxy for plot. In the very convenient Dictionary of Untranslateables, the section on plot is under the entry “erzaehlen”.  The entry, like all of the entries, goes muchly into the etymology and philology of key words, and sorts out the diegesis from narration:

“If diegesis is the recounted world as it appears in a fiction, narration is the universe in which one recounts, that is, the set of acts and narrative procedures that give rise to and govern this fictive universe. This distinction, analytic in nature, requires that we do not confuse the different instances and levels of a narrative fiction…”

This quietly imposes a set theoretical imprint on the analysis of composition, and is handy, although, as the entry emphasizes, language dependent – and dependent on the historical epoch. The Greeks, the standard philological reference, have many words related to telling a story, but lack the set theoretical bias: “In addition, récit is one of the possible translations of a certain number of Greek words, in particular muthos [μῦθος], which, when distinguished from logos [λόγος] ( rational language ), can also be rendered in French by mythe; when distinguished from ergon [ἔϱγον] ( act ), by parole; when distinguished from diêgêsis [διήγησις] ( simple narration ), by récit dialogué; when distinguished from êthos [ἦθος] ( character ), by fable; when distinguished from historia [ἱστοϱία] ( narrativeof facts ), by fiction.”

Now that we have made things clear as mud, these are, in effect, the concepts set in motion when you ask a child – or anybody else – to give in shortened form an account of a story. Myself, I had to do this often when I wrote small reviews for Publishers Weekly (the rule was make the review between 260 and 300 words, as I remember it – with 300 being discouraged. In that space we were supposed to give an account of the muthos, the logos, the diegesis, the ethos, and tell the reader if it was thumbs up or down). I had difficulty with all those elements, partly because it is hard to cover all the twists and turns in most novels or short story collections, partly because thumbs up or down doesn’t really cut it – I could dislike a book that I thought was good, for instance.

In 1980, Penelope Fitzgerald, who knew more about writing for a living than most people, wrote an essay, “Following the plot” for the London Review of Books. It is a fascinating essay, beginning with a recit about her trip to Mexico – a trip that has puzzled her biographers (Lucy Scholes wrote a nice piece about this for Granta: At the end of this fascinating digression (etymologically, a stepping away from the path – which is precisely not “following”), Fitzgerald reflects on the reason that she did not use this material for a story: “I take it that the novel proceeds from truth and re-creates truth, but my story, even at this stage, gives me the impression of turning fiction into fiction. Is it the legacy, or the silver, or the Latin American background, testing ground of so many 20th-century writers? I know that in any case I could never make it respectable (by which I mean probable) enough to be believed as a novel. Reality has proved treacherous. ‘Unfortunate are the adventures which are never narrated.’

Reality, here, has quietly parted company with belief, respectability and the probable. Who is the believer here who turns atheist at this potential novel?

Fitzgerald, who fell through the class system like a stone, and bounced back because she was not a stone, knew very well that what is probable for one set is improbable for another – for instance, the set that actually lives and writes in Mexico, as opposed to London. The treacherousness of reality cannot be sieved out of the novel, but it can be domesticated.

The last paragraph of Fitzgerald’s essay is, I believe, a brilliant piece of English prose that wraps up the problem of the plot in terms of family class and money – which is always what it is about.

“In the novel’s domain, plots were the earliest and the poorest relations to arrive. For the last two hundred years there have been repeated attempts to get them to leave, or, at least, to confine themselves to satire, fantasy and dream. Picaresque novels, however, both Old and new, are a kind of gesture towards them, acknowledging that although you can easily spend your whole life wandering about, you can’t do so in a book without recurrent coincidences and, after all, a return. And the readers of books like plots. That, too, is worth consideration.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The placebo routine

 In his book, Bad Medicine, David Wootton makes an interesting remark about the symbolism of the stethoscope. It was invented in 1816 by René Laennec out of a problem in gender politics: the norm for female patients of the all male doctor fraternity was to be examined with their clothes on. Thus, the doctor could not lay his head against the chest of the patient and listen to the sound of what was going on inside. Laennec was concerned with phthisis, a nosological category that has now been subsumed as tuberculosis. The stethoscope was a true advance: doctors became much better at diagnosing phthisis. But therein lies the historical burden of Wootton’s book:

“Phthisis no longer exists as a disease: we now call it tuberculosis because we think of it as an infectious
disease caused by a specific micro-organism. The same sounds in  a stethoscope that would once have led to a diagnosis of phthisis now leads to tests to confirm tuberculosis. But there is an important difference between our diagnosis of tuberculosis and Laennec’s diagnosis of phthisis: we can cure tuberculosis (most of the time), while his patients died of phthisis––he died of it himself. Until 1865 (when
Lister introduced antiseptic surgery) virtually all medical progress was of this sort. It enabled doctors to get better and better at prognosis, at predicting who would die, but it made no difference at all to
therapeutics. It was a progress in science but not in technology.”     
The gap between the ability to diagnose and the ability to cure, or even to understand the cause of a disease, or its etiology, is easy to forget. I often edit articles about medicine, or public health, in the pre-twentieth century period. Some of these articles concern the medical culture of native peoples. And even with the best anti-colonialist will in the world, often the authors simply assume that there is a contrast between a rational and curative Western medicine and a ritualistic and non-curative folk medicine. In fact, folk medicine was medicine up into the twentieth century, and often continues to be today. Western medicine as therapy was largely either fraudulent or depended on the placebo effect. The latter is a real effect, of course.
But the fact that there was no progress––far too little to have any systematic impact on life expectancy––and the fact that medical intervention did more harm than good, does not mean that doctors
did not cure patients. Modern studies of the placebo effect show that it is a mistake to think that there are some therapies that are effective and others which though ineffective work on those who respond
to the placebo effect. Even effective medicine works partly by mobilizing the body’s own resources, by invoking the placebo effect: one estimate is that a third of the good done by modern medicine is
attributable to the placebo effect.
When patients believe that a therapy will work, their belief is capable of rendering it surprisingly efficacious; when doctors believe a therapy will work their confidence is consistently transferred
to the patient. There are all sorts of studies that show this in practice. Thus if a new and better drug comes out, the drug it replaces begins to perform consistently less well in tests, merely
because doctors have lost confidence in it.”
Ah, transference! Surely this is a fact about human nature that goes beyond pharmacopeia.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

sacrificing the baby for the sculpture: on a modern theme


In his 1910 tome, The Individual and Human Existence, Josef Popper-Lynkeus asks a question:

“If for example we were in Paris in the Louvre and a great fire broke out while the gallery was full of visitors, who would we try to save? The art collection or the people, to the very last one of them? It would not occur to the firemen or the volunteer helpers to save the pictures by Raphael, Leonardo, the Venus de Milo and other such irreplaceable artworks before all the human existences were secured. And if someone tried to do otherwise, he would be greeted with universal condemnation and even punishment.”

Josef Popper’s way of stating the problem of the value of art in terms of the value of people is part of a tradition in modernism, bringing together the “irreplaceable” art work and the irreplaceable human individual. This tradition exists in some uneasy relationship with the justification of war, or the sacrifice of irreplaceable human existences to the protection of the state – or the ideals of the state, such as freedom.

Popper, unlike his nephew, Karl Popper, is not a much quoted man anymore. He was an engineer and an inventor as much as a philosopher and ideologue, and his book has a certain engineer’s way of looking at problems in terms of affordances – how to design a gimmick to achieve a certain objective or function within an overarching structure or machine. And for an engineer, Popper’s thesis produces an interesting social design. Not art, not anything is equal to the value of an individual human life. If that part is the most intrinsically important thing in the social machine, how should the machine be designed to make sure that the part is protected?

His question, in a different form – substituting medieval Italy for the Louvre -  was answered by Harold Nicholson, who, in 1944, said he was prepared to sacrifice his own self – to be shot against a wall – to save a Giotto fresco. Perhaps the British upper class, coming from a line of very cold blooded collectors, have made the calculation. Bertrand Russell once said that if he were given the choice between saving a Ming Vase and a Chinese man (I am not sure what the ethnicity has to do with this, except I am pretty sure what the ethnicity has to do with this), he did not know what he would do.

Nicholson’s statement of the case has entered into the literature on the protection of cultural heritage, an aspect of international law that, like so much other elements in the architecture, arose from the Nuremberg Trials. Alfred Rosenberg was hung for, among other things, looting cultural treasures – “irreplaceable” objects of art. The Allied armies, as historians have noted in an aside, showed a rather spotty adherence themselves to irreplaceable cultural treasures In the casuistic literature of international law, questions are posed like: say the Chartres cathedral was occupied by a hostile force taking potshots at the American army. Would the American army be within its rights to call in a strike and obliterate the thing?  Popper would no doubt not have approved of the whole attitude of these questions, in which individual lives are divided up in value according to sides, after which you get to using your own cultural heritage, ie bombs, bombers, drones and the lot.  The notion that one would never sacrifice a human life for an art object must have seemed a bit archaic to Popper himself in the decade after he posed his question, for, as is well known, between 1914 and 1918 twenty million people were sacrificed to make sure the Austrians didn’t invade the territory of the Serbians after a crown prince was assassinated in Sarajevo.  After World War II, where the free peoples of the world and their counterparts, the nasty totalitarian communists, had agreed to raise the stakes to nuclear annihilation, it would seem that the problem of who to sacrifice at the Louvre, or on a trolley track, should take back seat to the question of why our systems were based, literally, on sacrificing everybody. The latter is a problem that is still unsorted out, hence the voices in D.C. calling for a nuclear exchange who are also bitching that gas has gone up by 50 cents a gallon. The apocalypse will be trivial.

Another way of asking the question is: if the Athenians and the Spartans had had forty thousand nuclear bombs between them, should they have let go to defend their various principles, and would we, looking back, decide nothing in human history was as important as their dispute?

But this is an unprofitable discussion, since the people who control the bombs will do what they do. Don’t we all gag at gnats and swallow camels, to quote the savior? And the value of an art piece has always posed a certain conundrum. In 1910, Popper could depend on his readers thinking that art works are invaluable, meaning unexchangeable – being unique -  in some idealistic sense. Now, our sense of the artmarket has long trumped our sense of art. If Russell was asked if he’d save 85 million dollars – the price of a Van Gogh, say – or a baby, it would make for an easier answer, philosophically, even if every bank robbery movie tells you that some people’s answer would be unphilosophical, and those people draw an audience. However, even if the price put on the art work destroys, or at least erodes, the idea of the irreplaceability of the art work, so that the higher the price, the higher the triviality – there are still those – even me I’d say – who believe in that woozy superiority and irreplaceability of the Louvre’s treasures. I leave the artmarket and its monkey shines behind,  since the one thing we know about those prices is that they are not paid by expert art lovers, but by sad sack billionaires. The Bill Gates, the Elon Musk – they have the trustworthy art judgment of your average clerk in the adult video place. Or I should say, their judgment will probably be below the clerk’s. No, the human scale that counts here is still, I’d like to say, the scale Popper started out with.

The motif of the value of the artwork versus that of the human being, though dented by the general discredit that accompanies trading the sacred aura of the artwork for a price tag, is still a topic … among those, mostly, who care about art. In my favourite of John Banville’s novels, The Book of Evidence, the narrator does kill a person for a painting. Freddie Montgomery steals the painting for a gang that has his wife more or less hostage. But the killing – of a servant girl with a hammer – is not a matter of sacrificing a person for a Vermeer.  Rather, it is the final event in a life that has spun out of control – Montgomery’s – and his crime is an ethical carelessness that extends to all parts of his life. I read that novel at a time when I was feeling that I had been living a life of extreme ethical negligence in the deepest sense, and it hit me hard. One of the paradoxes of selfishness is that it blinds the self, since the self, in us social monkeys, is rooted from the beginning in others. To disconnect is to float in another medium, one that dissolves the self in its selfishness. The bloat is fatal.

Perhaps Banville inherits his plot not from Beckett, the model he often holds up, but from Yeats, whose lifelong pondering of the sacrifice of life for the work keeps coming back again and again, especially in the late poems. Life, for Yeats, is a fire of long duration in the Louvre, threatening to destroy everything, as it destroyed Byzantium, and his solution is to harness that fire to the work – but it is a solution he could never be happy with.


The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Musings on the bunny

First, there was the dread. An invasion loomed on the horizon. We were absolutely disarmed, and went grimly to our fate. Or at least we figured it was our turn to keep the bunny.
In Adam’s class, there is a class pet, a bunny named Bonnie. Each weekend, it is the privilege of some volunteer to keep the little cuniculus domesticus, meaning find a place for its cage, feed it, let it hop out and cause whatever unimaginable chaos in our neat little apartment.
So Friday we were given our orders and paraphernalia: a bunny carrying case, a cage, and a bag with oats or roughage of some kind, snacks – pellets – and litter. And we set course bravely for home. The bunny was upon us. It was not for us to underrate the gravity of the task which lay before us or the temerity of the ordeal, to which we hoped not be found unequal.
Basically we hoped that we would not be the parents to kill the bunny.
We are not, much to Adam’s disappointment, a pet keeping household. It is not that I have any problem with pets, as long as they are the pets of others. I, in fact, just dogsat for a diabetic dog for two weeks, giving her shots, so I like to think I have some cred in the “keeping mammals” department. But the only pet rabbits I have known were fierce, huge things in hutches that ferociously gobbled up their carrots and stared at their guards with POW glares.
So, we got Bonnie home, and put her cage down in Adam’s room. I had previously laid down paper all over the room, and once the cage was down, we unleashed the beast.
Bonnie, it turned out, was smaller than the average cat, and softer then one, and more docile than one. It was a very respectful guest, not at all the menace we had imagined. She immediately captured Adam’s heart, even as, in classic bunny fashion, she hopped around the room, leaving a trail of rabbit pellets behind her.
The weekend passed quite pleasantly. I don’t know what Bonnie wrote about it on her Instagram – doesn’t everybody have an Instagram nowadays? And surely Bonnie is a bunny influencer. But from my end, the bunny neither darted out onto the terrace and jumped to her death – our crazy fear before we picked her up – nor did she bite us or gnaw some electric cord to bits or any of that. She liked carrots – I had laid in a stock – but Adam kept me from giving her too much, invoking the holy authority of the Internet, which said that carrots had mucho sugars which could cause a little five to ten pound critter problems in the long run. The long run, I said to Adam. She’s here for a weekend, I said. As Keynes once said, in the long run we are all dead.
Adam, however, is not a child to be bullied by Keynes.
This morning, we brought her back. The kids crowded round, and we had our moment of minor celebrity. The last I saw of Bonnies carrying case, it was being taken off Adam by an adult.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...