What explains such limitations? Why would one be unable to chat, as opposed to write, In Search of Lost Time? In part, because of the mind’s functioning, its condition as an intermittent organ, forever liable to lose the thread or be distracted, generating vital thoughts only between stretches of inactivity or mediocrity, stretches in which we are not really “ourselves”, during which it may be no exaggeration to say that we are not quite all there as we gaze at passing clouds with a vacant, childlike expression. Because the rhythm of a conversation makes no allowance for dead periods, because the presence of others calls for continuous responses, we are left to regret the inanity of what we have said, and the missed opportunity of what we have not.
By contrast, a book provides for a distillation of our sporadic mind, a record of its most vital manifestations, a concentration of inspired moments that might originally have arisen across a multitude of years and been separated by extended stretches of bovine gazes.
Furthermore, conversation allows us little room to revise our original utterances, which ill suits our tendency to not know what we are trying to say until we have had at least one go at saying it, whereas writing accommodates and is largely made up of rewriting, during which original thoughts—bare, inarticulate strands—are enriched or nuanced over time. They may thereby appear on a page according to the logic and aesthetic order they demand, as opposed to suffering the distortion effected by conversation, with its limits on the corrections or additions one can make before enraging even the most patient companion.
Then he dropped a bomb into my brain. “Many narcos are bisexual and they are my specialty, you might say. At a certain point in the night, with all the drinking and the cocaine, another side of them comes out. And they’re risk-takers by nature. They don’t expect to live long and they will try anything. You know how there is an active and passive position in homosexual intercourse? Well, the narcos are always passives. Always, always.”
“How interesting. Why do you think that is?”
“I think it’s the eroticism of the reversal for them. Normally they are the chingón, the one screwing over other people, the hombre muy macho, and it excites them to turn the whole thing around.”
This was an unforeseen facet of Mexican machismo but in general I was growing very tired of it. At first it seemed amusing and outlandish, the way they growled and swaggered and cursed and talked about their testicles and each other’s mothers all the time. Nowhere in the world had I encountered men more fixated on either subject. The bus driver between Creel and Batopilas, I remember, had a separate wife and family at both ends of his route and a withered bull’s scrotum hanging from his rearview mirror, which he would stroke for luck before swinging the bus around the next hairpin curve.
Then it got wearying, the constant crude sexual bantering and self-aggrandizement of the macho, his contempt for women, his bristling pride and enjoyment of violence, his needless cruelty to dogs and horses and livestock.
…Most long journeys have their sour, depressive times and mine arrived with a vengeance in Baborigame. I was tired and run down and my body ached all over from being rattled and jolted. The constant breaking down of the Suburban wasn’t helping but what I really lost tolerance for, as I chauffeured Isidro on his rounds, met his friends, and dodged his enemies, was Mexican machismo. I came to hate it with as much venom as the most strident lesbian feminist. It was the root of the worst evil in Mexico, I decided, the real reason why men killed each other and raped women in such horrifying numbers. Not that those numbers are available. According to Mary Jordan of the Washington Post, fewer than 1 percent of rapes are reported in Mexico, because it is not treated seriously as a crime and because rape victims who do go to the police are usually mocked and blamed for inviting the crime, and are sometimes raped by the police, who get aroused hearing the victim’s story. In the Sierra Madre the practice known as rapato, where a man kidnaps a girl and forces her to marry him, is still commonplace. Raping an underage girl is not against the law in many Mexican states if the rapist marries her.
…”In a world of chingónes…” wrote Octavio Paz, “ruled by violence and suspicion—a world in which no one opens out or surrenders himself—ideas and accomplishment count for little. The only thing of value is manliness, personal strength, a capacity for imposing oneself on others.”
…There speaks the true macho. How dare she sleep with another man before she met me? The man must be humiliated and the woman deserves to die for such an affront to my masculinity.
Machismo came to Mexico from Spain, a Spain that had been under heavy Moorish or Arab influence for seven centuries when Columbus set sail. This is not to say that Native American societies weren’t patriarchal or oppressive toward women, but the men weren’t macho in the Spanish way. Spaniards, like Arabs, believed that women were inferior wanton creatures whose sexuality needed to be strictly controlled and firmly dominated, and that women from other cultures were fair game for rape. Octavio Paz in his analysis of Mexican machismo points to the old Spanish saying, “A woman’s place is in the home, with a broken leg,” and identifies the conquistador as the model for the Mexican macho, the original chingón, the hard isolate killer who raped and seized Indian women and so brought the mestizo Mexican race into being… If you looked at it in this light, disapproving of Mexican machismo was like disapproving of weather or plate tectonics. But I couldn’t help feeling outraged that the punishment for stealing a cow was more serious than the punishment for rape in most of Mexico. I still recoiled at the idea of a raped teenage girl being forced to marry her rapist, like Chana in Babarigame and thousands of others every year. I still thought it was indefensible that so many unfaithful husbands and boyfriends thought women should be beaten or killed for infidelity. It was pointless to make these judgments. It was none of my business. But I couldn’t help making them.
After a 130 thousand years of all human beings living in the south of Africa, some few were pressured by food shortage to head north into Europe. Far from the equatorial sun, the palest of them survived best because only their skin let in enough ultraviolet to make Vitamin D. After a long time of not much, they found that their land held the largest deposits of iron on the planet. This iron made them very powerful. It made for plows, swords, armor, and later, guns. That happened in the past 10 thousand years.Only a few hundred years ago, the pale ones “discovered” the continent they had left ages ago. In Europe they were used to fighting each other for land, metal, money, and workers, and here they found these goods undefended by swords, guns, or horsemen. The people they found had very different markers of culture, such that each seemed uncultured to the other. The pale ones wanted to steal the land, metal, money, and workers and not much was stopping them beyond morality. They got past the morality by using their own pale skin as a marker for quality, which they backed up by lamenting the absence of salad forks on the African continent, and then they stole everything they wanted. They treated the human beings there as animals.
“What’s your favorite color?”
Profound losses leave us paralyzed and mute, unable really to comprehend them, still less to speak coherently about them. Yet, eventually, we do speak — we breathe, we sleep, we eat, we go for walks in the sun, we find ourselves laughing with our friends — we marry again (as I have), to our astonishment — as we lose the white-hot flame of the most intransigent grief, and pass into another, less desperate sort of being.
Fear has promoted knowledge of men more than love has, for fear wants to divine who the other is, what he can do, what he wants: to deceive oneself in this would be disadvantageous and dangerous. On the other hand, love contains a secret impulse to see as much beauty as possible in the other or to elevate him as high as possible: to deceive oneself here would be a joy and an advantage – and so one does so.– Nietzsche
Whether it’s a drug-addled actor or an almost-toppled dictator, some people seem to have an endless capacity for rationalising what they did, no matter how questionable. We might imagine that these people really know that they’re deceiving themselves, and that their words are mere bravado. But Zoe Chance from Harvard Business School thinks otherwise.Using experiments where people could cheat on a test, Chance has found that cheaters not only deceive themselves, but are largely oblivious to their own lies. Their ruse is so potent that they’ll continue to overestimate their abilities in the future, even if they suffer for it. Cheaters continue to prosper in their own heads, even if they fail in reality.She showed that even though people know that they occasionally behave dishonestly, they don’t know that they can convincingly lie to themselves to gloss over these misdeeds. Their scam is so convincing that they don’t know that they’re doing it. As she writes, “Our findings show that people not only fail to judge themselves harshly for unethical behaviour, but can even use the positive results of such behaviour to see themselves as better than ever.”
How about some more Owen Flanagan?
To decide whether the scientific image spells death for free will, we need to know what conception of free will is being discussed. There are two main conceptions of free will. One is the libertarian view, which is relatively new and Western. The other is older and can be found in ancient Greek and Eastern texts (I see it in Confucius, Buddha, Aristotle). The first conception cannot be fused with the scientific image; the latter conception can. So let it return.The view that won’t work is stated by Descartes this way: “[T]he will is so free in its nature, that it can never be constrained….And the whole action of the soul consists in this, that solely because it desires something, it causes a little gland to which it is closely united to move in a way requisite to produce the effect which relates to this desire.”…No one has ever explained how any animal, or any natural being, could possess a part—an extremely important part, “the will”—that is not subject to causal principles but nonetheless produces astounding effects.…We can make peace between the scientific and manifest images in the following way: Accept that (as best we can tell) everything that happens has a set of causes that make it as it is; then proceed to distinguish the voluntary and involuntary, the free and the unfree, in terms of the kinds of causation or causes that distinguish them.Aristotle championed the voluntary-involuntary distinction long before there was a conflict between the Cartesian image of mind and agency and the scientific image. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle drew the involuntary-voluntary distinction this way: “What is involuntary is what is forced or is caused by ignorance. What is voluntary seems to be what has its origins in the agent himself when he knows the particulars that the action consists in.” What Aristotle had in mind was something like this: An action is involuntary if it results from some sort of compulsion against which effort and thinking are impotent, or if the agent in no way knows or grasps what he is doing.Voluntary action involves the agent’s knowing what action he is performing, and acting from reasons and desires that are his own. How is this possible? It is possible if I am conscious and if my consciousness has some causal efficacy. And it does. Mother Nature put me in conscious touch with some of my most salient desires, hopes and expectations. When I see what I want and/or need and judge it to be choiceworthy, I adjust some circuitry (thanks to how I am designed, what I have learned, etc.) to do what gets me what I want. These actions are voluntary. We call actions “voluntary” when we think about means and ends and act in accordance with our thinking (or could have).…[Dewey’s] answer was that the myth of a completely self-initiating ego, an unmoved but self-moving will, was simply a fiction motivated by our ignorance of the causes of human behavior. He saw no need for the notion of a metaphysically unrestrained will or of an independent ego as a prime mover itself unmoved in order to have a robust conception of free agency. For there to be agency, we need the person (or the ego) as a cause, possibly even the proximate cause of what we do. But the person (or the ego) may serve as the proximate cause of action and still himself be part of the causal nexus. Indeed, a person, in virtue of being a natural creature (an animal), must be part of the causal nexus.…Spinoza diagnosed the source of the libertarian illusion this way: “Men believe that they are free, precisely because they are conscious of their volitions and desires; yet concerning the causes that have determined them to desire and will they have not the faintest idea, because they are ignorant of them.”
I haven’t paid much attention to the uprisings in Africa and the Middle East so far, and when I have tried to read about it, I find it difficult to keep my eyes focused on the page instead of rolling around in their sockets, given how many people only want to talk about social media’s supposed role in all this. When I kept seeing the story pop up about the Egyptian guy who named his newborn child “Facebook”, I pretty much threw my hands up in defeat and went back to more interesting things.
Social networking mattered in Egypt, but the root causes of the uprising were scarcity, official corruption and social conflict, none of which fit the cyber-utopian narrative or flatter America’s technological vanity.…The unfortunate propensity to log on to the web and pronounce it a global revolution in the offing is what Morozov dubs “the Google Doctrine”—the overconfident conviction, inherited from the West’s cold war propaganda, that the simple transmission of information beyond the reach of state-sanctioned channels has the power to topple authoritarian regimes. But just as the Eastern bloc’s downfall had far more to do with the internal stresses besieging the dying Soviet order, so does the Google Doctrine paper over a vast nexus of real-world causation in global affairs.…It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies. Quite the contrary: as pioneers in the production of mass propaganda, they love mass media, and maintain an intense interest in later-generation digital technologies such as GPS and Twitter location that permit them to plot the real-time whereabouts of online dissidents. Yet one never encounters these uses of digital technologies in Shirky-style broadsides on cyber-liberation; in them, digital technology by definition unleashes and pools human creativity and generosity, because that’s what we Western progenitors of these technologies like to imagine them doing.…”While many in the West concede that the Internet has not solved and may have only aggravated many negative aspects of political culture,” as is the case with James O’Keefe’s gotcha YouTube videos, “they are the first to proclaim that when it comes to authoritarian states, the Internet enables their citizens to see through the propaganda. Why so many of their own fellow citizens—living in a free country with no controls on freedom of expression—still believe extremely simplistic and misleading narratives when all the facts are just a Google search away is a question that Western observers should be asking more often.”
I shut the book. “Can I borrow this?”She smiled and put her hand on my shoulder—so nice!—and said, “No.”I almost dropped the book. It bobbled between my hands so she grabbed it from me and slipped it back onto the shelf, right where it had been before.“I don’t lend my books out,” she said. “I can’t. They always used to come back, if they came back, with stains or bent pages, or even someone’s little ink stains in the margins! I decided, years ago, that I would never let them out of my sight again. I’m sorry.”Poof, that was it. She left for the kitchen or the front door or the moon. And I stood there for minutes. Actual minutes. Waiting for her to return, laugh, slip the book off the shelf and hand it to me. But she never did. My disappointment burned my face, like shame, but it wasn’t just the rejection. I was also stunned that this person I liked, and respected as a writer, would treat her books this way. As if the objects themselves were, somehow, as valuable as the words and ideas they contained.
Most of the books on your bookshelves might be beautifully designed, and not exactly cheap, but they’re no more divine than a toaster. They are mass-produced items, sold in (occasionally) mass quantities. So what, exactly, makes them so dear?It’s not the book, but the idea of the book. Some man or woman spent weeks or months or years or a lifetime bleeding on the page! Now you hold that essence in your hands! And other melodramatic nonsense. It all strikes me as a pretty Old Testament way of thinking. Treating a book like a pair of stone tablets. A series of commandments, inviolable, handed down by a deity.