Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Symposium – Plato

Why I.m Reading Plato.s Symposium

It.s part of the research for the last chapter of the book I.m writing, Paying Melpomene’s Price. Have you ever noticed that the genres are like wolves–or other predatory animals–out in the wild? I mean, very territorial, quite aware of where everyone is, and like to squabble if they get near one another. That was one of the things from Kingsolver.s Prodigal Summer that stuck with me. A very enjoyable read even if the characters I most associated with were constantly getting the better had of them by the characters I least associated with. But back to The Symposium by Plato. This should be a good read because it.s written by a philosopher and it stars not only a tragedian (Agathon), a comedian (Aristophanes), a philosopher (Socrates), and Alcibiades (a type of person that you find in histories). And of course, its all written by Plato, who bans citizens from performing comedy in the Laws (too degrading) and bans tragedy outright in The Republic (too easily overwhelms reason). So I.m reading Plato.s Symposium in the hopes of seeing something of a quarrel between philosophy, history, comedy, and tragedy (or between Socrates/Plato, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, and Agathon).

What is a Symposium?

It.s a drinking party. But this one is of course special. First, the guests are hung over from the day before (a holiday on which the host, Agathon, had one first prize for his tragedy at the City Dionysia). So less drinking. Boo. They also send away the flute-girl. Boo. But they decide that each of diners should compose a paean in honour of Love. Yay! They go around the couches left to right composing a speech to praise and define Love. We get to hear stories of how Socrates is schooled by Diotima. Yay! It.s refreshing to see Socrates schooled once in awhile, and by a woman philosopher! The comic poet Aristophanes comes up with a crazy creation myth explaining attraction. Yay! In the old day, humans had four arms, four legs, and two outward turned faces. There were three sexes: man-man, man-woman, and woman-woman. They were exceedingly powerful and their means of locomotion was by cartwheeling around on all eight of their limbs. Because Zeus was worried they would attack the gods, he cut them in half. Though cut in half, we are always seeking our other half. What a creative theory! If all philosophy were as colourful as this, I would certainly read more!

The Quarrel

There.s no smoking gun in The Symposium where philosophy ‘puts down’ the other genres. I mean, it.s not like Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy where tragedy is definitely getting the short end of the straw. Sure Aristophanes has the hiccups and Alcibiades is rather dissolute. But hey, it.s a drinking party. Socrates comes off better than the others, but it.s no slam dunk. So I.ll keep looking elsewhere for examples of the quarrel between philosophy, history, comedy, and tragedy. Assiduous readers with ideas are encouraged to help out!

But All is Not a Loss

Something came to mind while reading The Symposium that really should have occurred to me a long time ago. You know Plato.s criticism of art in Book X of The Republic, right? There he says there are three crafts for each thing that is used: the one that uses it, the one that makes it, and the one that imitates it. Take a flute. Somewhere out there is the perfect flute: the ‘blueprint’ of all flutes. But it.s like the perfect circle: you can.t attain it. But the flute player, being an expert in flutes, has an inkling of how the flute should work. He is closest to the perfect flute. He instructs the flute-maker, who, in turn, is an expert on flutes from his craft but not quite as expert as the flute player (since he doesn.t play). But if an artist were to paint an ‘imitation’ of a flute, it is a copy of a copy of a copy of the ideal flute. So that.s why Plato doesn.t like the arts: mimetic and imperfect copies.

Now go back to The Symposium. According to the characters, how the events got recorded is this: Aristodemos was present at the symposium in March 416 BC. He tells the story to Apollodorus, who in turn tells it to an unnamed friend fifteen years after the party. So the story that we get in The Symposium is a copy of a copy of a copy, thrice removed from the ‘actual’ event! And then parts of the dialogue are also recollections of other dialogues. For example, Diotima isn.t actually present. Socrates is recollecting things that she said. So The Symposium is really a prime example of the things which Plato doesn.t like about the arts!

Is this Plato.s humour speaking out? If he.s so concerned about the fraudulence of dramatic or painted arts because mimetic, then what about his own dialogues such as The Symposium, which is also purposefully mimetic, a he said that Bob said that Joe said that 15 years ago Diotima said… Why should I trust this ‘mimetic’ account if the author says elsewhere that copies are to be avoided at all costs?

I.m surprised that the question never occurred to me before. But this is a question for those doing Urania.s work (the Muse of philosophy). And, until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and while I like to consider Urania.s work, I am Doing Melpomene’s Work first and foremost.

The War of Art – Pressfield

Writer.s block. Ever get that? Even if not a writer, had it if had a great idea that.s been hard to follow up. The last couple of days, writer.s block has hit me. Here.s the scoop: writing the last chapter of a book on tragic art theory, Paying Melpomene’s Price. There.s a section on the quarrel between four genres: tragedy, comedy, philosophy, and history. They each hold a different worldview. Philosophy is reason based. Tragedy and comedy are emotion based. And history features the active life of statesmen rather than the contemplative life of the arts. In philosophy, Plato bans tragedy from his Republic. In comedy, Socrates gets burned alive in Aristophanes’ Clouds (and it.s considered to be rip roaring funny!). In tragedy, Marlowe.s Faust declares philosophy to be odious. And so on. But finding examples from historiography which disparages the other genres is harder. The last couple of days, been reading Tacitus, Machiavelli, Livy, and others trying to find references. I haven.t been writing. debated whether I should just keep writing and leave that section blank. Or stop and do the proper research to go step-by-step. But it could take a loooooooong time to go through the history books in the bookcase: Spengler, Ammianus Marcellinus, Livy, Herodotus, etc.,

Pressfield to the Rescue

Chatting with talented graphic designer and Etsy proprietor EA a few weeks ago, I had asked how she had been able to get all her enterprises to where they are now. She said that the hardest thing was to take action on an idea. I had to agree and saw similar obstacles in my own life. Then she said, ‘There.s a book I.ll lend you, give it a shot!’. The book was The Art of War: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. As MT had recently been reading Sun Tzu.s The Art of War in preparation for business negotiations (‘always negotiate from a position of power’ and other such fine advice), the Pressfield title–obviously a play on Sun Tzu–intrigued me. ‘The book is really short, you can read it in a sitting’, added EA. Well, I.m in! Nice cover design. The flower growing out of the harsh concrete slab gives readers an idea of what the book will recommend:

The War of Art Cover Illustration

The War of Art Cover Illustration

Favourite Quotes from The War of Art

Resistance Only Opposes in One Direction: Resistance obstructs movement only from lower sphere to a higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually. So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing…relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.

Resistance with a capital ‘R’ is Pressfield.s public enemy number one. It.s the force that holds people back from writing novels, finishing paintings, starting charities (or businesses), getting in shape, or running a marathon. Each of the sections ( far too short to be called chapters) focusses on an element of the Resistance and how to overcome it. Pressfield.s thoughts on how Resistance only opposes in one direction left its mark on me because its so true yet so full of mystery. If a telemarketer were debating whether to quit telemarketing and work with the Mother Teresa foundation, Resistance would rear its head. But not the other way around. Is it part of human nature to come up with excuses to do things not happy doing? Strange.

Professionals and Amateurs: Aspiring artists defeated by Resistance share one trait. They all think like amateurs. They have not yet turned pro. The moment an artist turns pro is an epochal as the birth of his first child. With one stroke, everything changes. I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after. To be clear: When I say professional, I don’t mean doctors and lawyers, those of ‘the professions’. I mean the Professional as an ideal. The professional in contrast to the amateur. Consider the differences. The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation. The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week. The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to love’. The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his ‘real’ vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. That’s what I mean when I say turning pro. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.

Assiduous reader LH was wondering in a prior post if left my job. Blogging, after all, requires a bit of time and it would be interesting to see how one could hold down a full time job, commute 2-1/2 hours, and still have the energy left to write for a couple of hours. He.s right: put a career in the construction industry as an estimator/project manager with Bayside Mechanical behind me to pursue work on writing Paying Melpomene’s Price full time. The blog reading, Doing Melpomene’s Work is meant to be a journal of the writing of the book. This segues into a most interesting topic that will tie back into Pressfield.s quote above.

During the Bayside years, whenever the question came up in conversation, ‘What do you do?’, I could always say, ‘Project Manager’. I experimented for awhile with saying, ‘As little as possible’ but for the most part in the scripted social exchange, you give your occupation and your interlocutor does the same. Since left Bayside, it.s gotten a little trickier. I see myself as writing full-time and also do some odds and ends in my condo building: sweeping, vacuuming, and helping people out. I also manage an investment portfolio. So I.m a writer (which is not revenue generating), janitor (which is very part time), and a rentier. How do I answer the question, ‘What do you do?’? (wow, I like that double question mark, groovy).

I didn.t really feel like introducing myself as a janitor or a building manager, since the work was so part time that it couldn.t really be considered a position. It.s more like helping out. To call myself a rentier is just bad in today.s ‘Occupy Wall Street’ milieu. come a long way from 18th century novels like Bronte.s Jane Eyre or Mann.s Magic Mountain or Balzac.s Father Goriot (or even the sitcom Cheers) where the main characters never work and never explain really why they don.t work. That was just the way things were. It was just right. But no longer today. So I was saying I retired. But I feel like that didn.t really cut it either. No one ever said so much, but I felt some people were resentful. I was too young to retire. I hadn.t ‘paid my dues’ so to speak. A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with an old work colleague, GF. We were chatting about the transition and I mentioned some of the things I.m putting to words on this post. I said, ‘I think some people resent it’. He said, ‘I know not showing off or anything, but sometimes it can come across that way’. Well, GF.s one of the most straight up and good guys, so if he says it I trust him. So no more, ‘I retired’. But that still leaves the question: how to answer people asking, ‘What do you do?’?

Back to Pressfield.s quote. I.m going to say from now on that I.m a writer. gone pro. I.m playing for keeps. And when people ask, ‘Who.s going to read your book’, I.m going to say, ‘Everyone’. Before I used to say, ‘Well, probably no one because who.s really interested in tragic art theory?’. But that.s gotta stop. If I don.t believe in it, who will? I.m writing the book because it.s the most important thing in the whole world. I can say that because I truly believe: tragedy is the art that allows us to value human life, to understand the greatness of its worth. It.s my job to get the message out. Boy I.m glad Pressfield set me straight!

Fear: Resistance feeds on fear. We experience Resistance as fear. But fear of what? Fear of the consequences of following our heart. Fear of bankruptcy, fear of poverty, fear of insolvency. Fear of grovelling when we try to make it on our own, and of grovelling when we give up and come crawling back to where we started. Fear of being selfish, of being rotten wives or disloyal husbands; fear of failing to support our families, of sacrificing their dreams for ours. Fear of betraying our race, our ‘hood, our homies. Fear of failure. Fear of being ridiculous. Fear of throwing away the education, the training, the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, that we ourselves have worked our butts off for. Fear of launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there; fear of passing some point of no return, beyond which we cannot recant, cannot reverse, cannot rescind, but must live with this cocked-up choice for the rest of our lives. Fear of madness. Fear of insanity. Fear of death. These are serious fears. But they’re not the real fear. Not the Master Fear, the Mother of all Fears that’s so close to us that even when we verbalize it we don’t believe it. Fear That We Will Succeed.

Wow, did that hit a nerve with you? Pressfield nailed it on the head with that one. felt and have been destroyed by a lot of those fears: dangerous images flashed into my mind reading the passage. But the last line is true as well. The fear of success. Perhaps the fear of success is that if we do succeed, what.s next?

It.s been a long post, thanks for reading it through. Pressfield.s The Art of War is a thought provoking book. Coming full circle back to the original problem of writer.s block: I had been thinking of reading more and writing less in my book since I had gotten ‘stuck’. But now I know that that.s just the Resistance talking. I.m going to press on. When the solution occurs, I.ll fill that gap in at that time. Thanks for the tip, Pressfield!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong, and in Doing Melpomene’s Work, I.m also winning the fight against the Resistance. You can too!

Patronage & The Arts

As the commission ‘The Dead Man’s Hand’ nears completion, it seems a good opportunity to blog about patronage and the arts. It.s a vitally important question for art aficionados and artists: what sort of culture produces what sort of art? Or is there a system that produces the best and most exquisite art? If so, then this is something that can be aimed for.

‘Patron’ is an unappreciated term these days. Perhaps it.s associated with ‘patronizing’, which is definitely pejorative: images of a patron standing over the artist.s shoulder giving pointers. When drafting the contract for the commission, the standard language between the parties in online sample contracts is that of ‘Artist’ and ‘Collector’. In the contract for ‘The Dead Man’s Hand’, I changed it to ‘Artist’ and ‘Patron’. I like the patronage system. Why? Well, the cover of Paying Melpomene’s Price didn.t absolutely have to have artwork. Lots of books have text in a sort of a captivating design. That works too. But I had the idea of the dead man’s hand poker combination as being a visual analogue to the idea of the unexpected (which is one of the focus points of the argument). So an illustration was a way for the book to advertise itself among the sea of all the other books. That was one reason. The other was that the commission was an interesting way to connect with the community. Patronage is community based. It is different than mercantile art (I am not using this term in a pejorative fashion) which sells finished art at a fixed price.

In the process of making the commission happen, I had a chance to go out to galleries and art schools, talk with art collectives, talk to artists, and see what sort of art people are making. People would talk about how their galleries functioned and teachers would talk about their techniques. Once the project started, I had a chance to go out and talk to various locales where the photography could be staged: restaurants, lounges, theatres, coffee shops, and so on. I had to sharpen my pitch (instead of ‘Can I do a photo shoot?’ it quickly became, ‘Can I book a party and oh, by the way, we will be doing some camera work’.). In the process of finding models for the photo shoot I connected with friends I hadn.t talked with in too long. And then, it.s been a fantastic experience watching the artist in her studio bringing the concept to life. Old friendships reacquainted, new friendships made, and people coming together for the sake of art. That is what I mean by saying patronage is community based. Mercantile art (finished art for sale at a fixed price) meets the needs of the artist for income and perfect self-expression but at the expense of losing something of roots in the local community.

Patronage in the Past

Patronage is a tried and true system that leads to great art. Beethoven wrote pieces for Count Rasumovsky (the three Rasumovksy quartets) and Waldstein (piano sonata). Haydn wrote and performed for Prince Esterhazy and would summer at his cottage along with other symphony members (the ‘Farewell Symphony’ was written as a protest to an extended stay: players left one by one until only one instrument was left playing; the Prince got the message and let the players go back home to their families). Pope Julius II ‘patronized’ a young Raphael, who produced in their partnership ‘The School of Athens’ among many other works. Michelangelo also was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel under his watch. Durer likewise was busy doing altarpieces at this time. In the theatre world, Corneille could count on the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu. Racine wasn.t initially so lucky: he would dedicate his plays to would be patrons but it wasn.t until after he dramatic career was over that he found a patron.

How Art is Created Today

Art seems to be mostly mercantile these days. Art aficionados can go online or to galleries where finished works are for sale. Painters, for example, can work in solitude and produce enough to hold bi-annual shows. Growing up, my friend MC.s dad was an artist. He.d spend his days painting and also had a home based picture framing business on the side. Twice a year he.d have shows. Since he had won a bunch of awards, it.d be a who.s who of business owners at his exhibits. There would be a little price sticker on each piece and pieces which had won awards at juried competitions would fetch five or six times more.

If you don.t have enough pieces to have your own show, then the trick is to get your stuff displayed in a gallery. From what the gallery owners are saying, this is a tough sell: they get lots and lots of artists coming in showing them their portfolios. A lot of good artists get turned away.

The other way artists can make a living is to apply for grants. I don.t have much knowledge here but basically there are various government organizations who award funds to promising looking applications. Could be music, writing, performative arts, plastic arts, or painting.

Patronage is still around but the patrons have changed. Patrons are always changing. In the heyday in Italy, it was first powerful local families (i.e. Medici), then the popes, then the foreigners. Today corporations are probably the best patrons. Like the Medici family or the popes, they are the ones today with the deep pockets.

How art is created today is quite different than the patronage system of old. In the patronage system of old, if you wrote a string quartet for a patron, it was expected that the patron would perhaps play a part himself. If you did a painting for a patron, he would give you tips on the subject, size, location, theme, and so on because it would probably be part of his family altar. Today, if you are doing mercantile or grant art, the artist is also the audience. There is no mediating force between ‘something that works in the real world’ (i.e. the patron.s suggestions) and the artist.s ‘inspiration’. And with the corporate patronage of today, there is a mediating force but it.s some corporate entity, not a real person. So it.s not quite the same.

So, part of the decline in art–if there is a decline in art, future generations will pass judgement on that–is due to changes in the patronage system. That.s what argued for a long time.

But perhaps it.s time for a change of opinions. The old patronage system that I like so much undoubtedly created a lot of masterpieces (my favourites). But it.s not coming back. A large part of its raison d’être was to create religious works: altarpieces and other objects of devotion. Faith and art were intertwined. An economist, when asked what the economy of the Middle Ages was, replied that it was based on building cathedrals and singing hymns of praise to God. He wasn.t far off. In such an economy, there would be lots of opportunities for paintings of the Madonna and altarpieces. The world has become secular since then. A large part of the raison d’être of the old patronage system was to show off (i.e. ‘look, my altarpiece is bigger than your altarpiece’). Today, we can buy the Porsche GT3. Or the house on the water.s edge. Or the shinier Rolex. Everyone knows Porsche = made it. Even if you don.t play that game and equate Porsche with douchebag, you know the meaning behind the prancing horse. If you got a sculpture from a famous sculptor, not everyone would know its worth. So there are easier ways to show off than by purchasing art. So right of the bat modernity takes away two of the pillars upon which patronage stands.

The Future of Art without Patronage

It.s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. But since been blogging and looking around at other sites, noticed that a lot of them are really beautifully designed. Art is on the move. But as technology and modernity evolve, so does the idea of art. The Renaissance or the Romantic idea of what art should be is giving way. Art is going electric. Cinematography, graphic design, and maybe even coding: these are the forms art takes today and tomorrow. This is what a Beethoven or a Michelangelo would be working on if they were alive today. They would be too busy making art to lament the death of art.

Patronless though I am, I am still Edwin Wong and, as always, Doing Melpomene’s Work!

PS come to think of it, instead of writing a book for dramatists, perhaps I should do what Michael Tierno has done and write something like Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters!

The Art of Footnotes

Options Writing Footnotes

To all you book writers out there: have you given thought to how you would like your footnotes or citations to appear? For example, you can incorporate footnotes into the text like this:

Plato says that there is an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy (Pl. Resp. 607c). In fact, he bans the performance of tragedy in his ideal state…

Or, you can give the citation a footnote with a superscript numeral which refers to a citation at the bottom of the page:

Plato says that there is an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.¹ In fact, he bans the performance of tragedy in his ideal state…

I guess this way is less intrusive for readers?–if they don.t want to break the flow of reading the argument, they don.t have to. Even less intrusive are endnotes. They look the same as the footnote except the citation is found at the end of the work. Hence the name. You might think endnotes even less intrusive than footnotes. In a way, right. To me, however, books with endnotes necessitate keeping two bookmarks: one to mark where I.m reading and one to mark the corresponding location of all the endnotes in the back. If I don.t have both bookmarks (often the case), I find it quite distressing to be awkwardly flipping around for citations at the back of the book since, say it.s note 10. Well, every chapter has a note 10 so then you have to also find out which chapter you happen to be on. Some endnote systems get around this by placing a reference at the top of the page (something like ‘Notes from pages 353-372′) but then I think, ‘Why not just use footnotes?’.

Next are considerations of the abbreviations. In the first example at the top of the page, it could have read (PlResp. X: 607c) because it.s from book ten. If you don.t like roman numerals I suppose it could look like (Pl. Resp. 10: 607c). But if your readership is inclined to say, ‘What is Resp?’, you might be inclined to use some more space so that it becomes (Plato, Republic 607c). The abbreviation is confusing: Resp. is short not for Republic but respublica.

Then there are even more considerations. Some people will do footnotes for short citations (author, work, page number) but use endnotes for longer citations (controversial stuff that needs to be addressed but is not directly part of the argument).

Brief History of Footnotes (Nietzsche contra Wilamowitz)

There is an art to footnotes. After all, how citations are done changes the appearance of the page. It is part of the aesthetics of your piece. In an academic work, no footnotes give the impression that the writing is inspired (e.g. Nietzsche). Lay readers might find this satisfactory. But academic readers will want to know who your sources or ‘authorities’ are. Lots of footnotes gives the air of authority. Especially if your secondary sources are in different languages and are from bygone eras. So if writing on Sophocles’ Oedipus rex and you quote Vernant (in French) and Rohde (19th century German scholar), you can throw off the impression of having great authority. But it.s sort of showing off as well: it could look pretentious. Speaking of pretentious, you can also quote yourself (this is like rock bands who wear their own t-shirts on tour). But hey, when you can quote yourself, you know made it!

One of my favourite scholarly articles is ‘Fussnoten: Das Fundament der Wissenschaft‘ by Stephen Nimis. No, it.s not in German. Entirely in English. The title is German because it.s the story of how the Germans shaped the use of footnotes in academic writing in the late 19th century. It was a battle between Nietzsche (whom we all know) and Wilamowitz (who is a famous guy no one knows). Professor Laurel Bowman had recommended it as a good read. And boy was it ever! Part satire and part history, it is a self-reflective look at the art of writing footnotes. If you have 15 minutes, it.s an incredibly entertaining read: click on the link above. Nietzsche and Wilamowitz were the top young philologists of there generation (like star athletes today). Nietzsche disdained the use of footnotes. Wilamowitz meticulously cited everything. In fact, if someone says ‘Wilamowitz footnote’ in describing your footnotes, it.s a sign of praise even today. Well, Nietzsche considered his writing inspired. He writes things like ‘Homer and Archilochus are two sides of the same coin from which poetry sprang’. I mean, how do you footnote that?!? Wilamowitz wrote these long and scientific footnotes. They got into a big fight. They dragged the biggest names in German scholarship into the fight with them. Even the musician Wagner joined the fray. Nietzsche eventually left (or was forced out of the establishment) because of the fight. He went on to bigger things. Wilamowitz led a very successful career as a classicist. After all the name calling, they all regretted the episode: Wilamowitz had been satirized as Wila-mops (mopish) and Nietzsche.s Zukunftsphilologie (philology of the future) had become Afterphilologie (philology of the ass) and all sorts of other pleasantries.

Anyway, after reading the Stephen Nimis article and learning of the art of writing footnotes, my writing started looking like this:

Footnotes Galore!

Footnotes Galore!

Look at that–the footnotes take up half the page! I.m particularly fond of footnote 23 which took a very long time to put together. Weeks of work and close reading. I almost went blind.  By the way, for those of you interested in fate, free will, and the problem of divine foreknowledge (how much is it decent for God to know in advance and can he change the outcome?), here.s a link to the entire article.

Choosing the Right Style of Citation

Why do I bring up the question of footnotes? I.m writing the last chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price. It.s occurred to me now that the book works. I mean, that it.s possible. Better than possible. It represents a new contribution. This project of writing a philosophy of tragedy or a theory of tragedy has occupied me the better part of 20 years. There were false starts that took up years of effort that led nowhere: a theory based on the consolation of tragedy (it is not to you alone that this grief comes…). Then another on the different worldview of Aeschylus (go in alone), Sophocles (trust the gods), and Euripides (you get by with a little help from your friends).

When first starting work on Paying Melpomene’s Price (the working title back then was actually Wildness Waiting in Tragedy) I hadn.t kept track of citations at all. If it got published (a big If), it would appear without footnotes. But that.s not very helpful to readers. My thinking now is that that is sort of an unhappy way to write. A writer should be thankful to readers. And being thankful means making the writing easy and pleasant for readers to follow.  A book can be profound yet still a delight to read. Think of Austin.s How To Do Things With Words. It.s heavy duty theory but a delight with its examples of ‘The cat is on the mat’ (descriptive utterance) and ‘ fired!’ (performative utterance).

One thing self-publishing books have been recommending is to look at similar types of books to see what they do. You want your book to look like its peers. I decided to do a small sample. It seems books written in the last 20 years liked to use endnotes. Footnotes in the text would refer to the endnotes in the back of the book which were grouped according to chapter. Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence (2003), Nicole Louraux’ The Mourning Voice (2002), Peter Szondi’s An Essay on the Tragic (2002), Rush Rehm’s Radical Theatre (2003), and James Porter’s Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (2000) use this arrangement. Some older titles use this arrangement, such as Richmond Hathorn’s Tragedy Myth & Mystery (1962) which is a collection of previously published essays.

Some (but not all) books which are collections of essays like to use footnotes in the text and print the notes at the end of each chapter. Examples include Richard Palmer.s Tragedy and Tragic Theory (1992) and Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics ed. Amelie Rorty (1992).

There is a distinct predilection for mid-century titles to print the footnotes at the bottom of the page. No flipping pages necessary! Titles of this ilk include George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy (1961), Oscar Mandel’s A Definition of Tragedy (1961), Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy (1969), and Herbert Weisinger’s Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (1953).

Classic texts, or primary sources such as Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (which started out as a secondary source but is now considered an original creative work in its own right) are mixed. The 1993 Whiteside Penguin translation has collects the notes in the end. A 1968 Hollingdale Penguin Translation of Twilight of the Idols / The Anti-Christ by Nietzsche prints the footnotes at the bottom of the page. In addition, footnotes proceed by special characters such as §, ±, or *, instead of numbers. Fun reading. There are some ‘popular’ (but very informative) books such as Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters that have no footnotes at all.

What to Do?

Which style is best? I guess it depends what trying to do. If I were doing a purely academic work, I.d have to go with the modern style of placing everything into endnotes. But Paying Melpomene’s Price isn.t just an academic title anymore. I.m too far away from the academy. It.s something else, a labour of love. A book inside of me that had to be written for its own sake. My favourite books to read conform to the mid-century footnote format: footnotes printed on the bottom of the page. I think that.s what I.m going to do. And the other thing: no more long elaborate footnotes! The sort of thing I.m arguing (tragedy as a high stakes game of death) shouldn.t really super involved notes. Either the reader grasps the idea intuitively (in which case not too many citations are necessary) or not going to like it (too broad, too general, not a new contribution) and not amount of footnoting is going to convince them.

Footnotes on the bottom of each page seem to keep things more honest too: it.s visible, not swept under the carpet to the back of the book. part of the aesthetic of the printed page. I think my style of writing changes according to the style of footnote (or endnote) used. With MLA style citing, I.d have less quotes. The brackets just look ugly. With endnotes, I.d treat them like a dumping place for stray thoughts–who know if anyone will actually flip to the back to read them? Footnotes on page bottoms have all the advantages. giving people credit for ideas. You know readers will see them. Readers will feel flipping pages faster (since pages are shorter by the space the footnote uses). Readers won.t have to swear and curse when they lose their spot looking up citations. It.s a win-win.

Thanks for working that through with me, assiduous readers! Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work, a little here and a little there until the work is done.

Dead Man’s Hand – The Artist’s Studio

Paid a visit yesterday to assiduous artist SB at her studio. She.s flying back to Brazil next week so that means that the Dead Man’s Hand cover illustration is going to be done real soon! Not only can she paint, she.s also a damn fine cook! Also there to enjoy her Melanzane alla parmiggiana (fried eggplants layered with meat and tomato sauce, basil, cheese, and on top a crust made with eggs and more cheese) was cameraman extraordinaire MR (who took care of photo shoot duties at the Cenote Lounge) and their significant others, R and M. It was fun to watch the artist showing off her creation and listening to everyone.s feedback.

Dead Man’s Hand Status

The last blog on the status of the cover illustration was last week. At that stage, all the individual sketches had been approved as well as the global layout for where everyone was going to be situated. Actually, the gambler on the left didn.t quite fit. He had originally been cast as the ‘cool gambler but as the picture progressed, it seemed better if all the characters exhibited a degree of surprise to maintain the unity of the theme (i.e. the unexpected). Since all the models sitting in that position had been playing the ‘cool’ role, this means that we had to find an unsuspecting model from the internet to fill the role on a last second basis. Also (since some of us are cigar aficionados) the decision was made to place an ashtray by the dead man’s hand poker combination to draw attention to it with a wispy trail of smoke.

In chronological sequence, here.s how things shaped up in the last week.

Dead Man's Hand - Outline

Dead Man’s Hand – Outline

The Photoshop image was printed out in a line format (outline mode) onto a full scale reproduction. From there, SB placed it on top of the watercolour paper with a carbon sheet in between and traced it out. Eagle-eyed readers might be able to see the outline of the characters on the carbon sheet:

Dead Man's Hand - Carbon

Dead Man’s Hand – Carbon

And really assiduous readers will be able to tell that some stuff moved around after the carbon transfer as well!–the table, Lucy (the husky), and the door have all moved to the left. Compare it with the photos below. This was done to increase the sense of perceived space and line up the poker hand I.m holding with the door.

Here.s the finished outline on the watercolour paper:

Dead Man's Hand - Outline

Dead Man’s Hand – Outline

Next comes colour!–

Dead Man's Hand - Colour

Dead Man’s Hand – Colour

What comes after that? If you said ‘more colour’ you win!–

Dead Man's Hand - More Colour

Dead Man’s Hand – More Colour

This pretty much is where the drawing was as of yesterday. Have you ever wondered how an artist.s studio looks while working away?

SB.s Studio

SB.s Studio

When I got there, she had some incense lit at her workstation. Light is natural from the south facing window. It.s hard to see from the photographs, but the painting is a good size and the size looks impressive in person. You can get an idea of the size from the scale of the chair or the coffee cup, but it doesn.t do justice to actually seeing it.

Here.s the artist.s apparatus:



What.s next, you ask? The eyes aren.t put on yet. This gives the characters that timeless look of Grecian statues, which is sort of cool as well, though!

I hoped enjoyed what is probably the second (or maybe third)  to last blog on the Dead Man’s Hand cover illustration (things always go on longer than anticipated: I used to be an estimator for a construction firm in a past life). Meeting up for a celebratory dinner at my place next Sunday to wish SB and R a safe trip to Brazil and to wrap the project up. Thanks for tuning in, I hope enjoyed seeing the painting coming together as much as I have!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I should get cracking at Doing Melpomene’s Work if the cover illustration is almost complete!

The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Boethius Cover Art Controversy

As far as Penguin covers go, the reproduction from the cover illustration of a thirteenth-century edition of Boethius’ Consolation in the Philosophical Library of New York has to be one of the most confusing:

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration B&W

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration B&W

This is from the groovy 1969 edition translated by Watts. Okay, I can see Lady Philosophy. But what.s up with Boethius? I can see his hands, he.s holding in the left hand a manuscript and a quill in the right, but something weird is going on with his head. done something to give the image a sense of depth, but it obscures all the details. Trying to read the letters is impossible. Maybe you need 3D glasses to make things out? In a later 1986 reprint, someone made the right call:

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration Line

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration Line

Ah!–so Boethius has his head at a weird angle! I wonder if these old school illustrations with the words written in banners is a precursor to comic book art. And it.s nice to see someone has sewn back together Lady Philosophy.s dress: in the Consolation it had been torn to tatters from all the different philosophical schools each tearing off a square of the ‘true’ philosophy.

Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Tragedy

So started reading philosophical works since I.m writing the last chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price. In the rest of the book, tragedy.s been defined by what it is: structure, audience reception, typology, and so on. In the last chapter I want to do something different. I want to define tragedy by what it is not. It is not history. It is not comedy. And it is not philosophy. One thing noticed reading all these genres is that they are not very fond of one another. Take Boethius’ Consolation. It starts off with Boethius communing with the Muses of tragedy. He is sad because he has been imprisoned on trumped up charges. They are lamenting together. In comes Lady Philosophy. She calls the tragic Muses harlots (yes, she uses those terms: scaenicae meretriculae!) and tells them to scram. She then proceeds to comfort Boethius with the ‘proper’ consolation of philosophy. But if you look in a work of tragedy, philosophy doesn.t come out looking so well: for example Faust calls philosophy ‘odious and obscure’. The ancient quarrel between the genres of philosophy, tragedy, history, and comedy suggest that tragedy can be defined by the generic boundaries that separated each of these disciplines. In the case of Boethius, how Boethius understood philosophy was that it was based on logic and reason. Defined negatively, the logic and reason of philosophy is not the lamenting of tragedy. So that is what I mean by defining something by what it is not. More on this in a later post as I gather up my thoughts.

Etymology of Tragedy (translating Boethius)

But for now, an interesting thing has come up while reading Boethius. Here.s Watts translation of a passage:

But even if you do not know the stories of the foreign philosophers, how Anaxagoras was banished from Athens, how Socrates was put to death by poisoning, and how Zeno was tortured, you do know of Romans like Canius, Seneca and Soranus, whose memory is still fresh and celebrated. The sole cause of their tragic sufferings was their obvious and complete contempt of the pursuits of immoral men which my teaching had instilled in them.

I was interested to see where the word tragic came from. Here.s the Latin:

quodsi nec Anaxagorae fugam nec Socratis uenenum nec Zenonis tormenta, quoniam sunt peregrina, nouisti, at Canios, at Senecas, at Soranos, quorum nec peruetusta nec incelebris memoria est, scire potuisti. quos nihil aliud in cladem detraxit nisi quod nostris moribus instituti studiis improborum dissimillimi uidebantur.

Interesting! Although Latin has the word for words for tragedy (tragoedia, tragicus, and tragoedus) the term Boethius uses is clades which Watts translates into tragedy.

Strange. So I looked up other things in the ancient world that could be understood to be tragedies in the lay sense of the term. The Fire of Rome (the one Nero reputedly started which raged uncontrolled for a week). Or Hannibal.s victories at Lake Trasimene or Cannae (which gave him control of pretty much the whole of Italy). Suetonius and Livy refer to these events as clades as well. They are not tragicus or ‘like a tragoedia’.


Both the Latin and the English terms go back to ancient Greek of course. So there.s where I turned next. What things would we consider to be ‘tragic’ to them? Perhaps the Sicilian Expedition (which put a permanent end to Athens’ hegemony) or The Battle of Salamis (from a Persian standpoint). Again, Aeschylus and Plutarch do not call these events tragoidia but rather sumphora.

So it would appear that the modern sense of the word ‘tragedy’ as in ‘the AIDS tragedy’ or ‘the Challenger tragedy’ or ‘the Chernobyl tragedy’ is completely modern. The ancients had a term for ‘tragedy’ but it could only refer to the art form of tragedy, never to tragedy in terms of a disaster or heartbreaking loss.

Did you know that?–well now you do!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and these are the things that fascinate me on my journey of Doing Melpomene’s Work.

The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad

How many assiduous readers have read Homer.s Iliad? If you have, you might remember Achilles and his peculiar fates: if he continues the fight at Troy, he will die an untimely death yet live on in song forevermore. But if he returns home, he will live to a ripe old age but his fame will be forgotten. He chooses to fight the good fight. But what sort of choice is this if it.s fated? And really, if he takes off, we wouldn.t have the story of the Iliad–surely that.s not allowed! That.s not the only peculiar instance of fate and free will in the Iliad. Readers with good memories will also recall Zeus’ predicament when Sarpedon.s fated moment to die arrives: does he save his son or can he circumvent fate? Like a wily politician, Zeus sidesteps the issue: he pulls out his golden scales. Sarpedon.s lot sinks. So he dies. But hey, it.s not Zeus’ fault–the scales did it! Zeus says that he could have averted his son.s death. But really, could he have?

These, and other scenes where fate and free will come to head lead to two questions. First: how fixed is fate? And second: how free is free will in the Iliad? I examine these questions in the piece The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad, published by Antichthon in 2002. Ultimately, the conflict between fate and free will is likened to a chess endgame. The article is in PDF form so downloaded a plugin called ‘PDF Embedder’ so that it can be embedded into the post. Scroll down, it should be visible. Second option is to click on ‘’ below and see if the PDF downloads. Then you can just read it in your PDF viewer instead of the Mickey Mouse viewer built into the blog. It seems WordPress doesn.t like to play nice with embedded PDFs all the time, so if still having hard time viewing, send me an email and I.ll attach the PDF in the happy reply.

Special bonus: for those of you who like to play chess, check out the the last page. There.s an endgame scenario that can be played out illustrating the harmony between fixed fate and free will using an actual chess endgame mapped onto Hector.s last stand with Achilles! Here.s a sneak preview of the endgame scenario, full instructions and blow-by-blow commentary in the article:

Endgame Iliad

Endgame Iliad

Publishing this article was an extremely positive experience, as the editor of Antichthon at the time, Harold Tarrant, happened to be a chess aficionado!


Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I am, as always, Doing Melpomene’s Work. Happy reading and may the fates be with you!

Consilience – Wilson

Consilience is a major work by a major author. It just might be the best book read in the last decade, or, maybe even two decades. It.s one of those books that, even if you disagree (many will), you have to admire Wilson for his daring and the passion with which he lays out the groundwork of consilience.

Consilience Cover

Consilience Cover

What is Consilience?

I had originally thought it was a Latin word from con + sileo meaning ‘a silencing together’. But this made no sense. It.s actually from con + salio ‘a jumping together’. Consalio doesn.t appear in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, so it must be a made up word. And that.s strange how the ‘a’ in ‘salio’ becomes an ‘i’. At any rate, consilience is a ‘jumping together’ and from the subtitle ‘The Unity of Knowledge’ it would appear that Wilson is talking about how knowledge converges into a unity through a jump.

The jump is metaphorically the leap of faith that a reductionist approach works. He is humble enough to mention that all bets are off if he is wrong. His thesis is that ethics and religion can be reduced into art; art can be reduced into the social sciences, the social sciences can be reduced into the hard sciences; finally, everything will be expressed in the terms of physics and pure math. He calls this the Ionian enchantment. It is the dream of Thales of Miletus, who thought that water was the basis of all things. Einstein was also ‘Ionian’ in his thought, who thought to find a Grand Unified Theory of physics.

Wison.s background is that of a biologist. His original claim to fame is the study of ant pheromones: in the 1950s he devised an experiment to test his hypothesis that ants communicate through chemical secretions. He might have even been the first to have come up with the idea of pheromones. I wouldn.t put it past him. It is to his credit that in his discussions on pheromones he does not draw undue attention to himself. In the 1980s he came up with the theory of gene-culture coevolution.

I.m sure Consilience will piss off a lot of humanities people. How could the claim that art can be reduced into biology not? Although that.s not his point–that science is superior to art–it can come across like that. He.s arguing for interdisciplinary work, but not with science and the humanities on an equal footing: his approach is built from the sciences up. Science to him is like figured bass in baroque music: it anchors and provides foundation.

But he makes some good points which are too good to ignore. Here.s an example of a ‘consilient’ interpretation of snakes. There.s a lot of people who have an aversion to snakes. Snakes populate myth (i.e. snake in Garden of Eden). Snakes are part of many shamanistic South American rituals. There are a disproportionate amount of dreams featuring snakes (why not elephants or deer?). So far so good? It should be: up to this point things are well documented. So there is something going on between us and the snakes. But what? Well, if you ask Freud you will get one explanation. If you ask the anthropologists you will get another. Their explanations are wrong. Their explanations are wrong because they used too much intuition and not enough analytical science. In Consilience, Wilson argues that our fascination with snakes is genetically based. It is a ‘memory’ encoded in our genes from our descent from the Old World primates. Old World primates and chimpanzees actually have an instinctive fear of poisonous snakes. It is not learned. They make either a chattering sound or a Wah! sound when they see a poisonous snake. This in turn calls their friends to gather around and they carefully watch the snake until it leaves the territory. Our fascination with snakes, then, is part of human nature. His theory is based on hard science: evolution. Take that Freud!

To Wilson, everything–ethics, art, music making–can be reduced into biology which can in turn be reduced into chemistry, physics, and math. He argues with passion, because if he is wrong, then the deconstructionists, postmodernism, Derrida, and de Man are right. And gosh darn it, they can.t be right because they are bad people and they are wrong! Wilson is for hierarchy, order, and meaning. There can be meaning. His adversaries will fight for the opposite. The fight for meaning, order, and hierarchy is the good fight. I tend to agree.

Wilson reminds me a lot of Plato. Plato didn.t think too highly of art. Art distracted one from philosophy, which was emotionless and rational. But Plato would have made a damn fine artist. He is constantly using images and metaphors to explain his philosophy: think of the image of the cave or think of his image of love as two horses guiding a chariot. Even his Socrates is sort of a fictional character. Plato.s philosophy is cold and rational. But the way he gets there is full of art and warmth. While Wilson is not an art denigrator to quite the extent that Plato is, he takes the side of science. What do you expect?–he is a scientist! But he explains things in the terms of myth and art. He uses the image of the Minotaur.s labyrinth to explain consilience. He calls it Ariadne.s thread. In his labyrinth, there are dangerous minotaurs wandering around (I wouldn.t be surprised if they took the form of de Man or Derrida…). Near the entrance to the labyrinth is math. Physics is further in, but still close. Deeper yet in the cave are biology and chemistry. You get the idea. Next are social sciences and then art and ethics are really deep in the cave. If you get lost there, you are minotaur dinner! But what will save the adventurer is Ariadne.s thread. Ariadne.s thread is the faith that it all is rooted in the sciences. And it will guide you into the deepest parts of the cave and you will still be able to find your way out.

Wilson is a damn fine writer too. He writes memorable lines like:

The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science.

Even if you don.t agree, don.t you think it.s a beautiful phrase? Oh, have a heart!

He ends Consilience with a look ahead. The problems of the future: ethics of modifying human DNA, dwindling biodiversity (remember, he.s a biologist), too many people and not enough resources. I can.t help but wonder if there.s a certain sadness or tragedy behind achieving consilience: the closer we get, the more resources are expended. This might not be Wilson.s point, will have to reread. It.s a lot to take in in one go.

I will be buying Consilience and rereading it. That should tell you how much enjoyed it. His chapters on art actually were the most illuminating. I thought they would be weaker since he.s a scientist but he is truly widely read. He.s got lots of other books as well, On Human Nature is supposed to be a classic.

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work by reading books outside my comfort zone. That was the best advice I got from a certain professor: ‘If you want to get anywhere, read outside your field’.

Cards in Art

Assiduous artist SB is now transferring the Dead Man’s Hand cover illustration onto the watercolour paper. Boy it sure looks good!–

Dead Man's Hand Photoshop Final

Dead Man’s Hand Photoshop Final

I like the sense of space. Not too busy. The chips dropping out of the left gambler.s right hand herald the arrival of an unexpected guest. The cards arranged in the dead man’s hand occupy the focal point. That we dared to go with a full contemporary setting impresses me. So often, it seems that the urge to go with period dress from some other time seems like the right thing to do. But I think as a piece of art ages, part of its appeal will lie in how it captures how the people in the time it was created appeared and dressed, the furniture that they used, the types of venues they would frequent.

I think that.s one of the difficulties in doing crucifixion or religious scenes today. So many masters in the Renaissance tried their hand at them that sort of crystallized how these scenes should look in our minds: Jesus and his cohorts dress in Renaissance clothing and sport Renaissance hairdos and fashions. It is like trying to write a play in blank verse today. It.s almost impossible since the influence of Shakespeare is so strong that you.d end up just doing a poor imitation of the Bard. That.s what I like about the 20th century Canadian painter William Kurelek: he has the audacity to clothe the characters in his religious settings in modern garb. Here.s his Who is She that Cometh Forth as the Morning Riseth? And it works. The religious feeling is perhaps even amplified because the characters and architecture appear contemporary. They feel closer:

Detail from Kurelek Who is She that Cometh Forth as the Morning Riseth?

Detail from Kurelek Who is She that Cometh Forth as the Morning Riseth?

I thought I.d share a special treat with diligent readers today. In the book Poker Wit and Wisdom by Jerome and Dickson, there.s a top 10 list of playing cards in high art. To get an idea of what.s being accomplishing with the Dead Man’s Hand, it.s useful to take a look at how past masters have depicted cards.

First up is Raftsmen Playing Cards by George Caleb Bingham (1847):

Raftsmen Playing Cards

Raftsmen Playing Cards

Are they sitting on a pier or a large raft?–can.t see the feet of the fellow on the left. How attention is drawn to the cards is that they occupy the horizontal centre of the painting, 1/3 up from the bottom. The islands in the distance provide a natural frame to draw attention to the card players. A more honest game than some of the ones coming up.

Number two is Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice (The Cheats) by Valentin de Boulogne (1620-1622):

Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice

Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice

This painting captures the psychology of the gamblers well. Notice how mesmerized they are by the impenetrable uncertainty in the dice and the cards.

Here.s number three. The Cardsharps by Caravaggio (1596):



Hey what do you know?–one can look naive and expectant but be cheating at the same time! And the other players should be focussed less on the uncertainty in their hand to focus more on the stray hand of the cheater! Incidentally, the philosopher Ian Hacking used this painting to grace the cover of The Emergence of Probability.

Number four is actually a whole bunch: the House of Cards series by Jean-Simeon Chardin (1736-1737):

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

The delicateness of the models and the fact that they are building a houses of cards–the most unstable of structures–is what defines this series. There is no ominous sense in these pictures but the instabilities of the models and their buildings would suggest otherwise. It would be a fun experiment to see what sort of effect could be generated by making a house of cards with the dead man’s hand.

Number five is none other than Guardroom with Soldiers Playing Cards by Jacob Duck (1620-1660):

Guardroom with Soldiers Playing Cards

Guardroom with Soldiers Playing Cards

What better way to stay awake for a long watch! The stillness of the watch is amplified by the sparseness of the setting and the dull colour tones.

Number six is Glass of Beer and Playing Cards by Juan Gris (1913):

Glass of Beer and Playing Cards

Glass of Beer and Playing Cards

I think I see a card with some clubs on it and a rather frothy looking beer. Oh wait, there.s a card with some hearts too. Not sure what to make of it, but the orange tiles are a warm and inviting colour. More information please!

Onto number seven. Here we have Scene in a Gaming House from A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth (1732-1734):

A Rake's Progress

A Rake’s Progress

What a busy den of iniquity! But maybe the rake is doing well?–he looks like he.s having a He-Man moment, you know the one when he pulls out his sword and says: ‘By the power of Greyskull!’.

Number eight is The Card Players by Pieter de Hooch (1663-1665):

The Card Players

The Card Players

It looks like the cards are a prelude for a different sort of a game! Do you think de Hooch should have used a different colour for the skirt for the lady by the window?–her skirt melds into the drapes/table/wall leaving her legless!

Number nine is A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants by Hendrick Sorgh (1644):

A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants

A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants

I like how the relaxed looking duck looks almost anthropomorphic. Lots of opportunities for painters to capture human psychology in these card portraits: here there is self-loathing, mischievous delight, and the winner going in for the spoils. What.s that that she.s won?–a jug of milk?

And number ten is also called The Card Players, but this time by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1893):

The Card Players

The Card Players

Everything looks very soft from the array of couches to the cushion/table between them to their flowing robes. I wonder what the preoccupation with red is in this era? Maybe a reaction to all the dull colours in the paintings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

There you have it, ten + one masterpieces! Ten established paintings and one emerging masterpiece. One thing is interesting: a lot of paintings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this time, Pascal, Cardano, Tartaglia, and others were laying the basis for the science of probability using dice and card games. The fascination with risk and chance on the human mind seem to be an especial focus for paintings from that era.

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and risk, uncertainty, and cards are the tools for Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man – Perkins

How did I come across this most controversial book by Perkins? It all started when world travelling MT got back from a well deserved vacation at Dubai. At Dubai are the seven wonders of the new world: skyscrapers that literally scrape the sky, artificial islands shaped like palm trees, Ferrari dealerships on every corner just like 7-11s in Waikiki. I said, ‘Of course, it must be the oil revenue’. The reply was surprising: ‘Well, no, they don.t actually have oil there’. It turns out some of the Emirates are oil rich, but not all of them. Dubai is not. But for some reason, their infrastructure–that is to say roads, schools, hospitals–is in tip-top shape. They are also a tax free zone. So the question became: if they have no oil and are tax free, how do they get all this money to do all these things? I mean, over here, we have tons of natural resources and there.s all sorts of taxes but the average person on the street complains about the infrastructure and there.s certainly no Burj Khalifa punctuating the Victoria (or Vancouver) skyline. How did Dubai do so well? We couldn.t figure it out. But it was a most interesting question.

Flash forward a few weeks. I.d been asking people. No one seemed to know. One evening, I was on the rooftop talking to Z and her friend A. I recounted to them the words you read in the last paragraph. ‘Ah’, said A, ‘the reason they can do it is because of how supranational agencies controlled by the US such as the World Bank and the IMF funnel money into their economy. What the US gets in return is that US corporations are allowed unlimited access to the local economies’. He was quite sure of this and followed up with, ‘ got to read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins’. Now, it seemed rather odd that the World Bank and the IMF would be lending Dubai money since their mandate is to provide last ditch support to failing economies (i.e. Eastern Europe when communism fell in the 1990s, Western Europe after WWII, and so on). Dubai seems to be doing too well to be getting a ‘rebuilding’ loan. But hey, there are stranger things! And here.s what else: TW also had a copy sitting on his bookshelf (it.s funny how things pop up all over the place after someone mentions it). His verdict: he read it a long time ago but was a good read.

They had a copy in the library. Here.s how it looks:

Perkins, Confession of an Economic Hit Man

Perkins, Confession of an Economic Hit Man

I should start by saying my own confession: I didn.t finish it. There is something very wrong with the frame of reference from which the book is written. First, let me provide an example of what I mean by ‘frame of reference’ and then I will give some examples from Perkins’ book.

Frame of Reference

In the 2004 comedy Team America: World Police, the good guys are infiltrating the terrorist organization. You know, to gather intelligence. So they go undercover and in disguise to the restaurant the terrorists frequent. They say, ‘Who can I talk with to join the terrorists?’. The bar goes silent: that was not the right thing to say. While we call them terrorists, the terrorists do not call one another terrorists: they consider themselves freedom fighters; they are doing some kind of service for their communities. The joke is that the team America secret agents are too stupid to figure that out: they can only see things from their frame of reference. If they were more clever, they would have asked something along the lines of, ‘How can I join the movement?’, or something along those lines. That frames of reference can be turned into a joke in a comedy suggests that most people understand what they are: otherwise it wouldn.t be funny.

Perkins’ Frame of Reference

So when young Perkins gets out of university and starts hunting for a job, he gets hired on by an international consulting firm to falsify economic projections. That.s how the evil corporations sell infrastructure projects to unwitting third-world countries: they inflate growth projections to create a perceived need for infrastructure (but don.t countries employ their own statistics bureaus to estimate growth?). Since Perkins doesn.t know a lot about how to do economic projections, the corporation sends him to the Boston public library for three months to do research (really, a company would do this with a new hire?). They also assign their new hire an attractive study partner to accompany him at the library every day and seduce him (wow, you don.t say?). So his marriage gets wrecked in the process. But here.s where it gets strange: his study partner/mistress tells him her job is to transform Perkins into ‘an economic hit man’ or EMH.

This is the part that I just couldn.t believe. There.s lots wrong with the book, but this is what caused me to put it down. It.s a problem with the frame of reference. Let.s say companies do a lot of bad things, I give you that. But they don.t look at it as bad things from their point of view. Take everyone.s favourite example today: oil companies. The word on the street is that poisoning the environment. But if looking to work for an oil company or an oil company executive, you don.t look at it that way: ‘powering the future’ or something like that. They don.t hire new interns and tell them their job is to be ‘environmental hit men’ whose job it is to poison the world! But this is the corporate structure according to Perkins: evil for evil.s sake. To do pure evil is actually quite hard. Just think of all the novels read in the last ten years: how many have characters that just delight in doing evil, who are motivelessly malign?

It.s the same thing with bribes in Perkins corporatocracy. People give him bribes all the time to falsify economic projections. Now, I.m not saying that bribes don.t happen–they happen all the time. But never seen it happen quite so transparently. In Confessions of an Economic Hit Man they go down something like this:

Evil Director/Boss/CEO: Perkins I will give you a bribe to falsify the report so we can suck the money out of this unsuspecting Latin American third world country. I am asking because I am an evil capitalist CEO and that.s how evil corporations function.

Perkins: I.m new to this but since this is how you say evil corporations function, sure, I.ll take your money.

Even when Microsoft was taking over the world in the 1990s, they didn.t frame their growth in terms of a maniacal drive to enslave the world: they framed it in terms of coming up with a better spreadsheet, coming up with productivity tools to help businesses thrive, and so on. In Perkins corporatocracy, he and his associates’ frame of reference is pure evil. It.s like a cartoon where Cobra commander or the Decepticons’ one and only goal is to destroy the good guys. While that may be convincing in a cartoon for kids, this is the real world! Sure there are bribes and other nefarious going-ons, but they are never that transparent! Wollstonecraft hits the nail on the head with this quote:

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, which is the good he seeks.

What comes to mind is Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcasts in the 1930s. When it aired, some people actually thought the aliens were attacking. We now laugh at how gullible people were back then. It couldn.t happen to us moderns, who are so much more sophisticated. But to me, Perkins’ Confession of an Economic Hit Man is just as unbelievable. And people take that book to be an accurate representation of how the IMF, World Bank, and international consulting firms work. I am beginning to understand people.s distaste for capitalism: from the point of view of Confession it is very bad. But does Confession speak the truth?

IMF Interest Rates

So I decided to do some research. There.s a lot of backlash on the exorbitant interest rates supranational agencies such as the IMF inflict on distressed countries. But never heard anyone divulge the actual figures. Greece is an example of a country getting bailed out by the IMF today. How much interest are they paying on IMF loans?

According to this September 2013 article from the German magazine Der Spiegel, Greece is paying 0.7% on the first 80 billion bailout package and 2% on the second 145 billion bailout package. Presumably, Greece is using the proceeds from the bailout packages to pay pensions and public servants and to generally keep their economy afloat. Going to the Bloomberg site tracking ten year Greek bonds, if Greece had secured the money by issuing its own bonds in September 2013, they would have paid 10% at market rates.

What would you have done if you were Greece? Accept loans at 0.7% and 2% from the IMF with conditions (i.e. austerity) or raise the funds by going to the market at 10% (but no strings attached)? It.s not an easy choice, is it?

But Doing Melpomene’s Work is always an easy choice and until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and that.s what I.ll be up to.