Category Archives: Reading List – Books

Review of THINKING, FAST AND SLOW – Daniel Kahneman

2011, Anchor, 499 pages

I predict time will be unkind to psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking, important, and misguided book. Having heard so many positive reviews of Thinking, Fast and Slow, I had expected to enjoy reading it. But it turns out I am quite allergic this book. Not since reviewing Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values has a book frustrated me to this degree. Do you remember doing math quizzes in grade school? Sometimes you would have some diabolical teacher that would put trick questions on the exams. Invariably, you would get some of these wrong. Then, when reviewing the error, at first you would wonder whether the marker was incorrect. Then, looking closer, you would see that it was a trick question, designed to fool. In many cases, you could have done the math. But you were fooled by a diabolical question designed to trip up your brain in the heat of the moment. Well, Kahneman’s book is filled up with trick questions him and fellow accomplice Amos Tversky dreamt up over the years. He presents leading questions that point you towards the incorrect answer. When you get the answer wrong, then he tells you your brain is not reacting rationally.

That the brain is irrational is an argument I accept. E. O. Wilson makes that claim in On Human Nature, a most excellent book. But the way Kahneman demonstrates the fallibility of the brain I absolutely disagree with in the same way as I disagreed with math teachers who set snares for students with trick questions. Who likes being fooled?

Less is More

Take this example that asks volunteers to price out two dinnerware sets. Set A has:

8 plates, good condition
8 soup bowls, good condition
8 desert plates, good condition
8 cups (6 in good condition and 2 broken)
8 saucers (1 in good condition and 7 broken)

Set B has:

8 plates, good condition
8 soup bowls, good condition
8 desert plates, good condition

When participants could see both sets, they valued, on average, Set A at $32 and Set B at $30. When participants were only shown one set–either Set A or Set B–they priced Set A, on average at $33 and Set B at $23. Kahneman (and Christopher Hsee, who came up with this experiment) call this the less is more effect, and, to them, it shows how the brain fails to handle probability. Their explanation is that, when participants could see both sets, they could see that Set A contains more good condition pieces than Set B. Therefore, they made the correct call and valued Set A at $32 and Set B at $30. However, when participants could only see one set, they would determine the price of the set by what the average price of the pieces. The set with intact pieces, therefore nets $33 while the set with the broken pieces nets $23, because the average value of the dishes, some of which are broken, is perceived to be lower.

To Kahneman and Hsee, the less is more effect illustrates the fallibility of the brain: if the eight cups and saucers (which include 7 pieces that are in good condition) are removed from Set A, Set A becomes worth more. To me, however, if I were shown Set A only, I would have also valued it at around $23 and if I were shown Set B only, I would have also valued it at around $33, and not because my brain is fallible (which it is), but because if I am shown in isolation a set of dinnerware with broken pieces, it makes me doubt the quality of the intact pieces! If, however, I can examine both sets, I can quickly see what the researchers are asking, which, to me, is: how much extra would I pay for 6 cups and 1 saucer. So, to me, this is not a case of the less is more effect, but rather the effect of the purchaser having less confidence in the quality of Set A because, out of 40 pieces, 9 are broken! This to me is a rather rational way of looking at Set A.

The Linda Problem

Imagine you are told this description of Linda:

Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

After hearing the description, you are then asked:

Which alternative is more likely?
a) Linda is a bank teller, or
b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement

When asked this question, 90% of undergraduates chose “b,” although by the laws of probability, it is more likely that Linda is a bank teller rather than a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement. The reason for this is that there are more bank tellers than bank tellers who are also feminists. Kahneman takes this as conclusive evidence of “of the role of heuristics in judgment and of their incompatibility with logic. I have a problem with this.

I get that there must be more bank tellers than bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement: bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement are a subset of the total number of bank tellers, which must be greater. But if, in the description of Linda, you tell me that she is “deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice,” I am–if I were a participant in this study–going to try to cooperate with the questioners in anticipating what answer they want me to give. In this case, I would, even though I know that there are more bank tellers than feminist bank tellers, answer “a.” That I answered “a” is not, to me, conclusive evidence that my heuristics are incompatible with logic, as Kahneman argues. I was merely trying to be “helpful” by anticipating how the questioner wanted me to respond. And I was right: the questioner was trying to get me to say, “a.” Only, the questioner was not on my side and was deliberately trying to deceive me. No fair.

As Kahneman himself writes, without the questioner’s diabolical deception, participants could get this question right. Take this question:

Which alternative is more probable?
a) Mark has hair
b) Mark has blond hair

Participants have no problem getting the answer right. The answer is “a.” What I find insulting about the Linda Problem is that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The participant is trying to be helpful, not knowing the diabolical intentions of the questioner. And when the questioner deceives the participant, the questioner takes this to be proof of an impaired logical system in the brain. This adds insult to injury.

Consider also this scenario. Let’s say I am the questioner and that I am twenty-five pounds overweight. I go up to the questioner and ask: “Do you think I should lose some weight?” Let’s say the participant says: “You look great. No need for diet.” Would a smarty-pants psychologist look at this answer as proof that there is something wrong with the participant’s eyesight? I think, if the psychologist thought along the lines of Kahneman, the psychologist would say say yes, clearly there is an issue with the participant’s eyesight. But what I would say is that the participant is trying to be a nice person by anticipating the socially correct answer. There is something rational about saying the socially correct rather than the objectively correct answer as well, and I think Kahneman gives this point less consideration than I would have had.

The Hot Hand in Sports

On basketball, Kahneman debunks the idea of the hot hand:

Some years later, Amos and his students Tom Gilovich and Robert Vallone caused a stir with their study of misperceptions of randomness in basketball. The “fact” that players occasionally acquire a hot hand is generally accepted by players, coaches, and fans. The inference is irresistible: a player sinks three or four baskets in a row and you cannot help forming the causal judgment that this player is now hot, with a temporarily increased propensity to score. Players on both teams adapt to this judgment–teammates are more likely to pass to the hot scorer and the defense is more likely to double-team. Analysis of thousands of sequences of shots led to a disappointing conclusion: there is no such thing as a hot hand in professional basketball.

Kahneman explains the fallacy of the hot hand by a belief in what he calls the “law of small numbers,” the error that ascribes the law of large numbers to small numbers as well.” What that means is that three or four shots is too small a sampling size to demonstrate the presence of the hot hand.

Famed Boston Celtics coach, when he heard of the study, said: “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I could care less.” I agree with him. Suppose you are coach of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. You are down two points with ten seconds on the clock. Michael Jordan has been on fire. Or at least he seems like he has the hot hand, having sunk his last five shots (some of which are high-percentage dunks). Dennis Rodman, on the other hand, is ice cold, having bricked his last five shots. Let’s say, to make this though experiment work, that Jordan and Rodman have the same field goal percentage. Who would you pass the ball to? Maybe “Team Psychology” would pass the ball to Rodman: he does not have the cold hand because such a thing does not exist. But the real-world team would pass the ball to Jordan. I think any coach who does not want to be fired or have the players revolt would pass the ball to Jordan. As they say, in theory there is nothing different between theory and practise, but in practise, there is.

Again, I understand what Kahneman is saying about small sample sizes. Small sample sizes can lead you awry. But what I have to say is this: in the absence of further data or more samples, you have to go with the data you have. That is the real world. In sports, you don’t have the luxury of looking at the player’s ten next shots to see if the player really has a hot hand. If the player seems to have a hot hand, you go with it.

Another objection I have to Kahneman’s debunking of the hot hand is that basketball players do, in real life, increase their field goal percentage. In his fourth year in the NBA, Shawne Williams, a player for the New York Knicks improved his 3-point field goal shooting percentage from 6 percent to 51 percent. If you knew him as a 6 percent shooter, and he hit three or four three-pointers in a row, and you dismissed his hot hand, well, you would be wrong: his field goal shooting percentage did actually move up from 6 percent to 51 percent! That year, he will seem to have had the hot hand and that hot hand is, statistically, real! As players hire shooting coaches and sports psychologists and move their shooting percentages higher, their hot hand will have been a real phenomenon. I don’t see how Kahneman and his friends could argue from a probabilistic and mathematical basis that sometimes players improve and, in the process of improvement, will have the hot hand.

Regression to the Mean

Air force cadets who do well one day will generally do worse the next day and cadets who do poorly one day will generally do better the next day. It is the same with golfers, claims Kahneman. This phenomenon is called the reversion or regression to the mean. Good performances will be balanced by poor performances so that, in the long term, the average is maintained.

Kahneman extends the phenomenon of the regression to the mean to companies: a business which did poorly last year, he claims, because of the regression to the mean, can be expected to do better the next year by the action of probability. Now, this idea can be tested in the stock market. There is a strategy called the “Dogs of the Dow” that works by arbitraging the regression to the mean. Each year, an investor buys the ten “dogs” or poorest performers in the thirty stock Dow Jones Industrials Index. At the beginning of each year, the investor sells the previous dogs and buys the dogs from the previous calendar year. If, as Kahneman claims, businesses obey the regression to the mean, by buying the poor performers, an investor should be able to do better than a buy-and-hold investor who holds all the stocks in the index.

This is not the case. With dividends reinvested, the twenty-year return in 2020 of the Dogs of the Dow strategy has returned 10.8%. Buying and holding all the Dow stocks for the same twenty year period would have also returned 10.8%. If Kahneman is correct about the regression to the mean, one would expect the Dogs of the Dow strategy to have produced a return in excess of 10.8%. It did not. There may be momentum effects at play where winners continue, despite probability, in producing outsized returns and losers, despite probability, produce diminished returns.

The regression to the mean is a real phenomenon. That I don’t doubt. But if Kahneman says it applies to businesses, it must be investable in real life. If it isn’t, then it’s just a fancy sounding term. You know, Kahneman might be right, that businesses revert to the mean. But he talks as though he is sure of the phenomenon without giving a real-world proof. Take the entire Japanese stock market, the Nikkei 225. It had a bad year in 1990. A very bad year. If I had listened to Kahneman, I would have backed up the truck to buy Japanese stocks in 1991. Now, almost thirty years later, the Nikkei is still below its 1991 levels. Regression to the mean?

Regression to the mean may be real, but not as easy as Kahneman puts it. There is a certain momentum in businesses and countries that defy regression to the mean for years, decades, and centuries. It strikes me that regression to the man works if you are looking backwards at the data. Say, after a century, you already know what the average is. You already have the data. Of course regression to the mean will work. But if you are looking forwards and do not have the data already, things change, trends emerge, industries fail: for example, when digital photography came into style, a company like Kodak is not going to revert to the mean! It will go bankrupt.

Prospect Theory

Prospect Theory is Kahneman’s feather in the cap. He won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory looks at how behaviour changes under the psychological loads of loss or gain. For example:

-In mixed gambles, where both a gain and a loss are possible, loss aversion causes extremely risk-averse choices.
-In bad choices, where a sure loss is compared to a larger loss that is merely probable, diminishing sensitivity causes risk seeking.

Prospect Theory explains why people buy insurance (even though it is an irrational practise that is money losing, in aggregate and in the long run), why people buy lottery tickets, why people pay lawyers too much to settle instead of fight it out in court (the large “structured settlements” industry), and the psychology that drove a con man like Bernie Madoff to seek more and more risk to avoid loss. To draw its conclusions, Kahneman would ask test participants questions such as:

Problem 1: Which do you choose?
Get $900 for sure OR 90% chance to get $1,000

Problem 2: Which do you choose?
Lose $900 for sure OR 90% chance to lose $1,000

His questions are designed to “tell us about the limits of human rationality. For one thing, it helps us see the logical consistency of Human preferences for what it is–a hopeless mirage.” I agree with Kahneman that human rationality is severely limited. Even free will, in my view, could be an illusion. E. O. Wilson, in a series of books including On Human Nature, has laid out an argument that convinces me of the limitations of the mind, which, Wilson argues, is a product of evolution conditioned to Stone Age rather than Space Age environments. Kahneman’s arguments fail to persuade me because his arguments presuppose that, should the participant confront the question in real life the participant would react in the same way as the participant answered the question, which, in the experiment, the participant knows is not real, is only a question in a study. That is a big jump that has been demonstrated conclusively to be false. There are, for example, ongoing litigations involving the “Know Your Client” (KYC) form that investment banks use. Financial advisors gauge their clients’ appetite or aversion to risk by asking them questions such as the ones Kahneman asks the participants in his studies. As it turns out, some clients said, on paper, that they had great appetite for risk. But when loss happened, they found that, in real life, this was not true. So they sued. Others said, on paper, that they had little risk tolerance. When, however, in real life, they saw how they missed the boat on outsized investment returns, they found out that they actually have a propensity for risk. And they sued. The Achilles’ heel of Prospect Theory is that Kahneman asks participants questions on paper and draws far-reaching conclusions on the assumption that this transfers over to real life. People do not behave the same way in real life as they do on paper. You cannot ask people paper questions and construct a real-world theory from their paper responses. No, no, no!

His method, in my eyes, would be like an anthropologist who polls different tribes. So, instead of observing what a tribe actually does, this anthropologist would give the tribespeople a poll. For example, the anthropologist would ask:

Problem 1: One year, your crop yield goes down 25% Would you:
a) attack the neighbouring tribe or
b) increase hunting activities

Then, if the participants answer “a,” this anthropologist would conclude that “the tribe is aggressive” or some other far reaching conclusion. But if the participants answer “b,” the anthropologist would conclude that the tribe is pacifist. This would be ludicrous. But this seems to be what Prospect Theory is based upon.

As they say, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practise but in practise, there is.

Government Spending

During the year that we spent working together in Vancouver, Richard Thaler, Jack Knetsch, and I were drawn into a study of fairness in economic transactions, partly because we were interested in the topic but also because we had an opportunity as well as an obligation to make up a new questionnaire every week. The Canadian government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans had a program for unemployed professionals in Toronto, who were paid to administer telephone surveys. The large team of interviewers worked every night and new questions were constantly needed to keep operations going. Though Jack Knetsch, we agreed to generate a questionnaire every week, in four color-labeled versions. We could ask about anything; the only constraint was that the questionnaire should include at least one mention of fish, to make it pertinent to the mission of the department. This went on for many months, and we treated ourselves to an orgy of data collection.

That Kahneman mentions this I find disturbing. From what I gather, times are tough. There are many unemployed. So then the Canadian government hires three top-gun economists (because purse strings must be tight), two of which are American (because Canadian economists do not need the work) to conduct surveys which are meaningless to the participants, the government, and Canadian citizens. The government, however, markets this program as being relevant to Canada’s fishing industry: after all, each question must involve the mention of a fish. Of course, after the brilliant economists get the data they want for their pet experiments, they publish this in a book and throw the Canadian government under the bus: the survey, they say, really helped them and had nothing to do with fisheries and oceans. They had gamed the taxpayer money for their own benefit. This so smacks of elitism. It also strikes me as being deeply ironic: the study they were working on was “fairness in economic transactions.” Yikes.

That he printed this makes me wonder if he understands the real world. He talks of Davos, the party place of the billionaires. He goes through his book like some hero-psychologist, looking at everyone else’s blind spots. He talk about how he mentions one story at Davos, and someone overhearing says “it was worth the whole trip to Davos just to hear that,” and that this person who said this “was a major CEO.” Wow. It would have been good if someone in another book had said that about Kahneman. But for him to say this about himself in his own book?

Spider-sense Tingles “Danger”

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book I had wanted very much to like. I had hoped to learn more about mental biases that would have been of use in the new book I’m writing on a theory of comedy. The more I read Thinking, Fast and Slow, however, the more my spider-sense was tingling “danger.” I voiced my disapproval of the book to friends and to my book club. People said: “You don’t like the book because you probably weren’t smart enough to answer his questions.” Other people said: “But he has won a Nobel Prize. Who are you to disagree?” It makes me laugh a little bit that people will say that I am irrational while themselves using ad hominem attacks, the rationality of which itself is doubtful.

I remember a story about two other Nobel Prize winners, also, like Kahneman, in the economics category. In 1997, Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton won the Nobel Prize in Economics. A few years prior, they had started up one of the largest hedge funds in the world, Long-Term Capital Management. While they were winning the Nobel Prize, a journalist looked into the workings of their hedge fund. He called them out for being overleveraged: with 4 billion in their own and investors’ capital, they had borrowed in excess of 120 billion. The journalist called them out for “picking up pennies in front of a bulldozer.” Scholes and Merton shot back: “Who are you to question us, lowly journalist? We are Nobel Prize winners.” A year later, Long-Term Capital Management collapsed, taking the global economic system itself to the brink of collapse. How the mighty are fallen.

Kahneman comes across as the hero-psychologist pointing out others’ errors. But I wonder if he ever looked at the beam in his own eyes? I did a quick search on Google for the robustness of psychological experiments, the sort that are published in respected peer-reviewed journals. I found that less than half of such studies can be replicated. What sort of “science” is this? It’s like if you had a theory of gravitation that was published in a leading journal such as Science that predicted the moon would be at this place on this time. You “proved” it once and published it. But no one else can replicate it. And your theory is still accepted as canon, not to be questioned? I wonder, down the road, how robust many of Kahneman’s findings will be. Time will tell.

2015 Reproducibility Project study finds only 39 out of 100 psychology experiments able to be replicated, even after extensive consultation with original authors:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/science/many-social-science-findings-not-as-strong-as-claimed-study-says.html

2018 Reproducibility Project study finds that only 14 out of 28 classic psychology experiments are able to be replicated, even under ideal condition:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07474-y

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – Erich Maria Remarque

1928, 2013, Random House, translated by A. W. Wheen, 222 pages

One of the duties of Nobel Prize winners is to write a Nobel Lecture. When singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel in literature, he was on the road, on the “Never Ending Tour,” as he calls it. Musician and friend Patti Smith accepted the prize on his behalf in Stockholm where she also and sang his “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” It was not until June 2017 that Dylan had a chance to record his Nobel Lecture in a LA Studio accompanied by a piano in the distance. The recording is available on YouTube.

In his lecture, he talks about his songs and their relation to literature. He specifically brings up three pieces of literature: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Homer’s Odyssey, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I’ve read Moby Dick and the Odyssey. I had heard of All Quiet on the Western Front, but had never read it. Dylan’s endorsement piqued my curiosity. There is so much to read, however, and sometimes decades pass before books on the reading list get attended to. A few months ago, however, it was my turn for book club suggestions. I presented three choices, one of which was All Quiet on the Western Front. Book club went for Remarque’s book. Now was my chance to read it. I’m glad I did.

Remarque’s book stands out for its directness. A bunch of kids are in a war where the world they love is getting blown apart. The strange thing, to them, is that they are doing the blowing up. Now, in between things and people getting blown up, you see human nature at work. Officers may abuse soldiers in training, but on the front lines, the jungle rules. The soldiers and officers who have the most miserable jobs in civilian life are the most power hungry in military life. Childhood friend Kemmerich is dying: who will get his boots? The poplar trees and the butterflies are always beautiful, especially when viewed from the trenches. Nature seems to keep going without any sense of loss from all the mounting casualties in the trenches. War is very body oriented: the dead make gurgling sounds, soldiers learn to go to the washroom together, bombs blow body parts everywhere. In today’s saccharine world, this book stands out. The veil of hope has been lifted. While reading this book, I thought I could understand, for a moment, why a soldier would want leave to end so that he could go back to the front, go into the trenches, and dive on that grenade to save his friends. The book gives you flashes of another way of living, flashes of how adaptable the will is. It is eye opening. Remarque himself fought in WWI and spent a year in a military hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds.

Dylan mentions All Quiet on the Western Front because it has influenced his writing, and the writings of others. He finds a link between the world of Remarque’s novel and some of the songs of Charlie Poole (1892-1931), one of which has this refrain:

I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too.
Oh you ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talking to me.
I may be crazy and all that, but I got good sense you see.
You ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talkin’ to me.
Killin’ with a gun don’t sound like fun.
You ain’t talkin’ to me.

On the novel itself, Dylan has this to say. To him, All Quiet on the Western Front has worked his way into many of his songs because:

All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.

To Dylan, it was not so much the message of All Quiet on the Western Front–he doesn’t believe that literature, or his songs, for that matter have a “message”–but the vernacular and the language that appeals to him. In other words, Remarque has put together the story and the words in a convincing way. It sounds good. And because it sounds, good, it has influenced Dylan and made its way into his songs.

Dylan concludes that art is alive. Books were meant to be read. Plays were meant to be seen. His songs were meant to be heard. Though good books, plays, and songs sound good, they don’t mean anything, not in the sense that a psychoanalytic or structuralist critic would have them mean. There is a rift between the naive power of the artist and the analytic power of the interpreter. The artist is not looking for meaning, the interpreter is. The artist, to Dylan, hears, reads, and sees artistic stimuli everywhere. Without knowing why, the artist incorporates these stimuli into art, not for the sake of meaning, but for the sake that it has a good jingle, is a good story, provokes a memorable impression. Like Plato’s investigation of art (through his character Socrates), artists find it hard to explain their works because, in great art, there’s nothing to explain.

While there’s nothing to explain, there is something to experience in art. Art tells a story that impacts us in powerful ways. How All Quiet on the Western Front impacted Dylan was that it made him never again want to pick up another war novel. And he hasn’t. Art must be experienced, otherwise it loses its vigour. Art studied and analyzed isn’t real art anymore, according to Dylan. It’s like that violin that sits in a glass case in a museum. Sad. Or, in another analogy that comes to mind, art interpreted rather than experienced is like a martial arts form that is no longer used for combat. Tai Chi used to be a system of self-defence. But nowadays, it’s an exercise or meditation. It cannot be used for self-defence anymore because it has separated from its roots. Theatre read or lyrics spoken outside of the bars, concert halls, and live venues becomes to audiences what Tai Chi has become to its practitioners: form divorced from practise. To Dylan, that would be a shame.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of ON HUMAN NATURE – Edward O. Wilson

1978, 2004 (with new preface), Harvard University Press, 282 pages

This book fills me with awe. Reading it gives me the sense that everything is possible, not just in science, but in my own field of dramatic literary theory. All that it takes for success is an idea, the conviction to pursue the idea, and the daring to continue when the world misinterprets and turns against you. In the 1950s, Wilson discovered how the social insects communicate with one another with (through pheromones or smell). In the 1970s, Wilson took what he had learned from insect behaviour, and applied it to vertebrate animals, including humans. Behaviour, he argued, is genetically determined. He created a new field called sociobiology, sometimes known as evolutionary psychology. For this endeavour, he was called out in many quarters. In the 1990s, he attempted to unite science with the humanities through the concept of consilience. In 2021, he is 91 years old and still active. His life and work inspire me. He has the fire.

On Human Nature inspired two book chapters that are coming out later this year. Wilson’s work on tribalism directly informed my essay: “Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes: A Patriot’s View of Patriotism.” Wilson’s work also indirectly influenced another essay: “Tragedy, Comedy, and Chance in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.” In this second essay, it was Wilson’s beautiful image of anastomosing paths and forks that inspired me. Wilson is as much a scientist as he is an artist. He writes with beauty.

Wilson’s book has also solved a long-standing mystery. I’ve been a fan of Nietzsche for a long time. One of the core ideas in his thinking is the “will to power.” To Nietzsche, the will to power is an unconscious drive that seeks to survive, and not only survive, but to assert control and dominion in the process of surviving. It is a life force. The feeling of strength. The fuse of life. In this post, I described it as a form of “appetite.” Jaspers, in his book-length critique of Nietzsche, threw me a sidewinder, however. Jaspers said that Nietzsche knew that he could not prove the will to power, and consequently abandoned his attempts to make it the centrepiece of a philosophical doctrine. Nietzsche had hypothesized that the will to power was the base human drive. Like other base human drives driving the other human drives, he could not demonstrate its existence. I was perplexed. After reading Wilson, I understood why: to demonstrate the will to power, Nietzsche needed a theory of sociobiology, a theory that said that human behaviours originated from something material such as the genes. The will to power, as a human behaviour, can, in the centuries to come, be demonstrated or falsified by science. It exists as a genetic imperative, or does not.

This insight filled me with tremendous awe. Even in my middle age, there are so many rudimentary ideas on things I have been thinking about my whole life I am only beginning to grasp. Amazing. This feeling of wonder and awe is what makes it all worthwhile.

Preface, 2004

On Human Nature offers a naturalistic view of human nature to compete with two views prevalent in the 1970s. The first competing view was from religion, which saw human nature as a creation of God, to be understood through the words of the prophets. The second competing view was from the behaviorists, who saw the mind as a blank slate to be molded by culture. Culture in turn is the learned response to environment. Wilson creates the field of sociobiology–also called evolutionary psychology–to test the hypothesis that the brain is biological in origin and structured by evolution through natural selection.

If Wilson is correct, human nature, instinct, and social behaviour have a biological basis grounded on thousands of millennia of evolution. Genetics and evolutionary theory, rather than learning, can explain behaviour:

In spite of the phylogenetic remoteness of vertebrates and insects and the basic distinction between their respective personal and impersonal systems of communication, these two groups of animals have evolved social behaviors that are similar in degree of complexity and convergent in many important details.

Sociobiology looks at how human behaviour is related to the social behaviours of all known social organisms, from bacteria and coelenterates through insects and vertebrates.

Preface

The point of this book is to demonstrate, writes Wilson, that the same principles that govern social insects can govern vertebrate animals. One theory can govern animal behaviour from termite colonies to troops of rhesus monkeys and human beings.

Chapter 1: Dilemma

To philosopher David Hume, the question of how the mind works, why it works one way and not another, and, from these considerations, the question of man’s ultimate nature is the question of questions. If mind is a biological device, then it is the process of natural selection that drives us to select religious or esthetic choices. Our ultimate nature is to promote the survival of our genes. First dilemma is that our biological nature directs our goals, dreams, and ambitions. Religions and secular religions such as Marxism are enabling mechanisms for survival. They are a legislated escape from the consequences of human nature but are energized by the will to self-aggrandizement. Result of the first dilemma: once we solve the problems of our age, then what? Ennui follows.

Second dilemma is that our ethical premises are based on innate censors and motivators in our brain. Morality evolved as an instinct. Philosophers make definitive statements without this evolutionary perspective: this is a mistake. Science can encroach on the humanities. Take John Rawls and A Theory of Justice. He understands that the liberties of equal citizenship are settled. The function of the state is to ensure the equal distribution of resources. Then look at Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He begins as well by asserting human liberties. But then he suggests a meritocracy: the function of the state is minimal, only to enforce law and order. Unequal distribution is alright. Who is right? Without an understanding of the biological basis of human nature, it is hard to decide. Philosophy must be combined with biology.

Each discipline is antidiscipline to another discipline. Chemistry is antidiscipline to biology. Chemists view that biology must be reducible to the laws of chemistry while biologists view their investigations as too complex to be reduced to an atomic viewpoint. In the struggle for supremacy between discipline and antidiscipline, scientific materialism progresses.

The scientific viewpoint is not completely reductionist, however. In more complex interactions, emergent phenomena take place that cannot be explained by the underlying antidiscipline. Take haplodiploidy. In haplodiploidy, females choose the sex of the offspring. Because of this selection process, the insects which engage in haplodiploidy–wasps, bees, and ants–evolved the emergent phenomenon of complex social structures. Science, therefore, is not a danger to the humanities, but another tool to be used by the humanities in grappling with the question of human nature.

Chapter 2: Heredity

To develop and justify ways to structure human life, philosophers and social scientists have conducted thought experiments to see how man behaved without the trappings of culture. Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have all developed social models based on their mental reconstructions of hunter-gatherer life. Their models are mistaken because they did not take science into account.

Take incest taboos, for example. Anthropologists have built theories that find incest taboos exist because, without them, the integrity of the family unit would be broken. Other anthropologists, following Claude Lévi-Strauss, find that incest taboos facilitate the exchange of women between social groups. Sociobiology, grounded on science, finds that incest taboos exist because it is a behaviour bred into the genes of human behaviour. Incest produces inferior offspring. Humans who did not have the incest taboo were less successful at passing on their genes as humans who did have the incest taboo. That the incest taboo is an inherited behaviour can be seen in the kibbutz arrangement of living: despite a lack of pressure from parents, children who have grown up together up to the age of six will not marry one another.

Sociobiology is defined by Wilson as a meeting between ethology, psychology, and biology. It considers behaviour to be encoded into the genes. As a result, humans, in the building of culture, are not unique. We are much like colony forming invertebrates (e.g. coral, bryozoans), social insects (termites, wasps, bees, ants), and social fish, birds, and mammals. Sociobiologists look at humanity as through a telescope and consider behaviour to arise from the interaction between genes and the environment. Human behaviour is shaped by natural selection and is not unique. It is no longer possible to say only human behaviour is symbolic behaviour; chimpanzees can also use symbolic language.

While proponents of culture argue that, for the last 5000 years (since the rise of civilization), culture rather than genetics has determined human behaviour, Wilson points out culture can only bend biology so far. Things would go badly quickly, for example, if culture prescribed that humans lived like apes or ants. Humans, for example, have the following characteristics that are irrevocable: “Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, etc.,” while ants exhibit the following behaviours: “Age-grading, antennal rites, body licking, calendar, cannibalism, caste determination, caste laws, colony-foundation rules, communal nurseries, etc.,” Wilson’s bottom line is that culture moves between the parameters set by genetics. Culture can prescribe unhuman behaviour, but it will be short lived. Biology is destiny.

Chapter 3: Development

In the debunked theory of humorism, human nature is seen as the outcome of the balance between the four humours of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. In sociobiology, human nature is seen as the outcome of the balance between more than 250 thousand pairs of genes. Genetic determinism is the new phrase of sociobiology.

Geneticist Conrad H. Waddington has an image of how genes develop into behavior. Each human trait, whether mental or physical, is like a boulder rolling down from the highlands to the sea. On the way down are many anastomosing channels that fork. Genes make some of the channels deeper, others narrower. Some channels are available, others are not. The final outcome of where the boulder or ball lands is only statistically predictable.

We like to think of human learning as infinite. Biology, however, tells us that our learning potential is programmed by the structure of the brain: we are allowed to learn some things, but not other things. An example: when a chick is given an electric shock on the beak and shown a flash of light, the chick will avoid the flash of light in the future. When a chick, however, is given an electric shock on the beak and hears a clicking sound at the same time, the chick will not avoid the clicking sound in the future. This same chick, if given an electric shock on the foot and a clicking sound, will avoid the clicking sound in the future. But, if given an electric shock on the foot and a flash of light, will not avoid the flash of light in the future. The chick’s brain tells the chick: learn the things that you can see that affect your head and the things that you can hear that affect your feet. Humans are more advanced than chicks, but our ability is not limitless.

Chapter 4: Emergence

Free will may be delusion. A honeybee, in a life of 50 days, thinks it has free will by learning the time of day, the location of the hive, the location of up to five fields, and the odour of its nestmates. But in doing all these things, it is only carrying out its genetic imperative. The human brain, even though “an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern,” can only do what it has been programmed to do. In future years, the paradox of freedom and free will will be solved as an empirical problem by biologists and physicists.

Wilson uses the failure of slavery to demonstrate the triumph of human biology. In insect societies–such as the red Polyergus ants–slavery is a permanent fixture. Humans, however, resist slavery so that slave societies always come to an end. Unlike the ants, humans lack a biological basis for slavery. Slavery is imposed on human beings as part of culture. Culture, however, can only overcome biology for so long before biology reasserts itself.

Further evidence of a biological basis for culture can be seen in the rise of the different civilizations: Rome, Sumer, Mesoamerica, etc., All civilizations follow a template of development from ad hoc ritual, and local group autonomy through to craft specialization and elite endogamy to codified law and taxation. Wilson suggests the template of development is due to culture and civilization refining biology through a process of an intense hypertrophy biologically meaningful institutions of hunter-gatherer bands.

Chapter 5: Aggression

This is the first of four chapters looking at a human behaviour through a sociobiological lens. Wilson finds that theoreticians who find that culture–and not the genes–is to blame for aggression are mistaken. By looking at human beings through the principles of animal ecology, a form of studies usually reserved for lower animals, it appears that the best way to human aggression as a mix of chemicals preexisting in the human mind that, mixed with the appropriate spark, will burn. This sociobiological view of aggression differs from other models of aggression such as the “drive-discharge” model of Freud and Lorenz or the “learned anger” model of blank-slate behaviourists.

Just because a trait fails to develop in a specific environment does not mean the trait is not intrinsic to a species. In other words, that a handful of tribes are pacifist does not mean that human beings are not innately aggressive. The right environmental trigger must be present to activate human aggression, which can take many forms. Wilson uses the simpler example of the rattlesnake to demonstrate different types of rattlesnake aggression that only occur when triggered by the environment. Rattlesnakes, when going after prey, will bite them and kill them. But when male rattlesnakes compete with one another over a female, they will wrestle, but not bite one another, even though their venom would be lethal. At other times, when the rattlesnake may be in danger, it will take on a different form of aggression by moving its head to the centre of the coil in striking position, and shaking its rattle. Then again, when a rattlesnake encounters a king snake or another predator that specializes in killing snakes, the rattlesnake will coil, cover its head, and bat the intruder with one of its coils. Human beings are the same, writes Wilson. They will become aggressive when confronted with the appropriate situation.

Wilson goes on to examine a particular aspect of human aggression associated with territorial behaviour. He finds that, if humans inhabit an arid land where game and plant food are poor, society will remain nomadic. No bands or villages form. No concept of land ownership develops. Territorial aggression is absent. The Western Shoshoni living in the Great Basin is an example of this. In contrast, however, the Owens Valley Paiute occupied a fertile land full of game and plant food. Here, the territory is worth defending, and the people living here organized into villages and bands. Social and religious sanctions rose up to justify territorial aggression.

Wilson finds that, although the genes encode aggression, the conscious mind never experiences the raw biological process. In territorial aggression, for example, the conscious mind does not process interference competition, density dependence, or human and animal demography. The raw biological process, however, manifests itself through the creation of social and religious customs which justify the raw biological drive of aggression.

Chapter 6: Sex

This is the second of four chapters looking at a human behaviour through a sociobiological lens.  Why has sex evolved if it can be made private, direct, safe, energetically cheap, and selfish? Nature’s point of sex, argues Wilson, is to create diversity and a division of labour. Diversity is achieved through sex because each offspring only shares half of the genes of each of the creating organisms. Division of labour is achieved when one of the sexes specializes in producing sperm and the other the egg. Wilson speculates that, from this primal division of labour, secondary traits emerged such as sexual bonding and family stability which gave homo sapiens a Darwinian advantage. Secondary or tertiary divisions of labour may be seen in both modern societies and living hunter-gatherer societies. As typical, Wilson emphasizes the biological and evolutionary differences in sex over cultural differences: in sociobiological theory, culture may only move between the imperatives laid down by biology.

Wilson cites evidence of genetic differences in male and female behaviour in contemporary society while admitting that such differences (though he believes unlikely) may be cultural. His strongest argument is the evidence from the accidental birth of hormone-induced hermaphrodites in the 1950s. In the 1950s, women were often given progestins, a substance that mimics male hormones, to prevent miscarriage. The hermaphrodites born to some of these women are genetically female with female internal sex organs. These hermaphrodites were also raised in the normal manner that girls were raised. Subsequent studies of these progestin-altered girls reveal that they often displayed dissatisfaction with being assigned a female role and preferred toy guns to dolls. Wilson takes this as the best evidence he can find that male and female behaviour have a biological rather than a cultural origin.

Wilson finds that human beings are connoisseurs of sexual pleasure not for the sake of reproduction, but for the sake of bonding. Bonding, to Wilson, is a trait that gives humans an evolutionary leg up. Natural-law theory and the church, which see sex as strictly a tool of procreation, is incorrect. To argue that sex is for the sake of bonding, Wilson presents a “kin-selection” hypothesis to explain homosexuality in the context of sociobiology. He postulates that the behaviour of homosexuality has a biological basis as it is practised by insects to mammals, with 4 percent of men identifying as exclusively homosexual and 13 percent of men being predominantly homosexual for a portion of their lives. Homosexuality, argues Wilson, is a type of bonding that favours the surrounding kin. Homosexuals expend their energies supporting their kin group. Shamans, seers, artists, and similar have been observed to perform this role. Kin groups, therefore, with homosexual individuals had an evolutionary advantage over kin groups without homosexual specialists. Wilson notes that this kin-selection hypothesis is quite radical.

Chapter 7: Altruism

Altruism or compassion is Wilson’s third chapter on the sociobiological basis of human emotions. Robins, chimpanzees, and other animals display the behaviour of altruism that is the glue of society. Only insects, however, will perform heroic feats of altruistic suicide that is often performed by soldiers in war. While the form and content of human altruism is largely determined by culture, the underlying emotion is evolved through genes. Wilson proposes two types of altruism: “hard-core” altruism which is irrational, directed towards the kin group, and expects nothing in return and “soft-core” altruism which is calculating, expects a return, and, ultimately, selfish.

In honey bees and termites, hard-core altruism prevails. But, if hard-core altruism were to prevail in human societies, civilization could not develop: people would favour kin and tribe to too large a degree. Hard-core altruism is inimical to larger society. For social harmony and homeostasis, soft-core altruism is required. Wilson argues that the closest we can come to a controlled experiment on where human altruism lies on the spectrum between hard- and soft-core is by observing immigrating ethnic groups under stress. Studies of Chinese and Jewish immigrations suggest that: 1) when historical circumstances bring race, class, and ethnic membership into conflict, the individual manoeuvres to achieve the least amount of conflict, 2) during these conflicts, an individual considers his own interests over others, and 3) kin, racial, or ethnic interests may prevail temporarily, but in the long run it is socioeconomic interests that dictate action.

The behaviour of altruism, concludes Wilson, though linked to morality and inscribed into moral codes, is a genetic phenomenon. Though culture can prescribe higher ethical values, culture is on the long rein of biology. Altruism, at bottom, is part of a circuitous process created by evolution to keep genetic material intact and to pass genetic material on to new generations. “Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function,” says Wilson as he ends the chapter.

Chapter 8: Religion

Religion is Wilson’s fourth chapter on the sociological basis of human behaviours. Religion to Wilson is an ineradicable part of human behaviour. Even though religion loses out in its confrontations with the enlightenment and scientific materialism, it offers a hope in immortality and an everlasting kingdom that nothing else can offer. From at least 60,000 years ago to the first Neanderthal burial rites, humans have created in the order of 100,000 different religions.

That religion is a sociobiological phenomenon may be seen in Nietzsche’s quote that people would rather believe in the void than be void of purpose. Groups predisposed to religious belief may have a better chance of survival as religion is the process whereby an individual is persuaded to subordinate self for group interest. Religious ceremonies such as the potlatch are conspicuous displays in which leaders can advertise wealth and mobilize kin groups.

Humans today are still ruled by myth. The three primary myths in conflict in this day and age, writes Wilson are: traditional religion, scientific materialism, and Marxism. Although Marxism sees itself as a branch of scientific materialism, sociobiology would disagree. The Marxist perception of history as a class struggle whereby lightly governed workers would control the means of production is supposed to be based on a subtle understanding of the pure economic process. It is incorrect. It is based on a mistaken view of human nature. Wilson declares that Marxism is sociobiology without the biology. Although Marxism was founded to combat ignorance and superstition, in denying the biological basis of human nature and asserting too much credit to culture, Marxism is itself, in the end, a form of superstition. Wilson finds that, on account of this, traditional religion will outlast Marxism.

Chapter 9: Hope

Biology, neurobiology, and sociobiology are the antidisciplines to the social sciences. The failure of social sciences great models (Marxism, rationalist economics, etc.,) is because they had an insufficient knowledge of human nature. The way to understand human nature is through biology. The great myth of scientific materialism is evolution and the pinnacle of evolution is the human brain.

Human values must be understood through their phylogenetic development through evolution.  What we may value as our highest ideals may not be the ideals of other organisms: ants, for example, would view individual freedom as a great evil.

Since behaviour is based in genetics, with the unlocking of genetics, it will be possible one day to change human nature itself. We will be able to become more or less smart, more or less caring, more or less artistic, more or less selfish. So far, natural evolution keeps human nature in a homeostasis. Soon we can evolve our own human natures. Will we continue to build space age cultures from stone age behavious? Or will we give ourselves new space age behaviours to suit space age society? These are all the worthwhile questions to ask.

Book Blurb

In his new preface, E. O. Wilson reflects on how he came to write this book, how The Insect Societies led him to write Sociobiology, and how the political and religious uproar that engulfed that book persuaded him to write another book that would better explain the relevance of biology to the understanding of human behavior.

Author Blurb

Edward O. Wilson is Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard University. In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (one of which he shares with Bert Hölldobler), Wilson has won many scientific awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of many books, including Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus.

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity – Karl Jaspers

1936, English translation 1965, Johns Hopkins UP, trans. Charles F. Wallraff and Frederick J. Schmitz, 509 pages
Originally published as Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens

Reading this book is a serious undertaking. It’s a book about a philosopher (Nietzsche) by a philosopher (Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism). It is well-researched, covering Nietzsche’s published materials, unpublished fragments, and letters. In this work, Jaspers reveals the ties between Nietzsche the man and Nietzsche the philosopher. From Nietzsche’s correspondences with musician Peter Gast, theologian Franz Overbeck, classicist Erwin Rohde, his mother, his sister, and others, Jaspers paints a portrait of a lonely individual, somewhat timid, a social misfit, yet extraordinarily polite, and, above all, one bound by the consuming idea of his task: the revaluation of all values.

To Jaspers, Nietzsche’s solitude was a function of the importance Nietzsche attributed to his task of revaluing values, and how his contemporaries could not come along with him: for them, to succeed in the world, they had to also subscribe to morality, Christianity, the idea of Germany, marriage, political correctness, having the right friends, and holding the right views–even if all these notions were based on false values. Some could watch Nietzsche railing against these false values. But it was painful watching him destroy his career. Even though some could watch, no one could come with him. He had to go it alone. Perhaps his friends who watched from a distance were right. When Nietzsche collapsed in 1889, he was nobody and many of his friends were important somebodies. As Jaspers recounts, Nietzsche was self-publishing his books. There were no readers. He was admitted to the Basel asylum as a civilian, denied access to any special treatment or services. The tables have turned now, as many of the somebodies of Nietzsche’s time are only today remembered in their connection with Nietzsche.

In the revaluation of all values, Nietzsche turns the world on its head, much like how Christianity turned the Roman world and values on its head with its “first shall be the last and the last shall be the first” credo. In place of the soul, Nietzsche gives us the will to power. In place of God, Nietzsche gives us the superman. And in place of metaphysics, Nietzsche gives us the eternal recurrence. The will to power is the will to live dangerously, the will that yes “Yes.” The eternal recurrence is the sense of déjà vu, except with a much more badass name. And the superman is the individual who, with the highest form of the will to power, can say yes and affirm all of existence, both its best moments and its darkest. The superman is the individual with an appetite for life. Here I wrote a piece in an honest jest of Freddie Mercury as a modern-day superman.

Jasper’s book, lovingly written, but not to the point of worship–for example, while extolling Nietzsche’s breathtaking insights, singles him out for the crudity of his logical forms and method–is easier to read than Nietzsche himself. But it can be a tough slog for lay readers. The nice thing, however, is that Jaspers quotes so much of Nietzsche that it is a pleasure to read. Nietzsche–as Nietzsche himself described–is, along with Heinrich Heine, the best of the German stylists. His turns of phrases–whether one understands them or not–are beautiful to read. Take for example this turn of words where he talks about his process of overcoming: “Shake me together with all the tears and all the misery of mankind, and I must always rise to the top, like oil on water.” His images are powerful because they are full of action. What is more, his images and aphorisms are fascinating because they’re the sort of things I wish that I could write but know I can’t. There’s something uncanny in how he sees the world. Like how he describes his favourite philosopher (the pre-Socratic Heraclitus), there is, too, in Nietzsche, “a gap in his nature.”

For All His Power, Nietzsche Could Not Foresee His Own Demise

In 1881, while walking through the forest by Lake Silvaplana, the idea of the eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche. In 1883, the idea of the superman and the will to power dawned on him, and he recorded the discovery in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1888, he was overjoyed, feeling the task of merging these three concepts into a grand unified philosophy close at hand. By merging metaphysics with mysticism, he would overcome nihilism. God is dead; long live the superman. But there was a problem: Nietzsche realized the eternal recurrence may be indefensible and the will to power unprovable. To put the plug in nihilism, he would have to demonstrate the mechanism through which the eternal recurrence recurred and establish why nature would will to power.

Jaspers recounts some of Nietzsche’s joyous letters of 1888, that great year, but not great in the sense that Nietzsche foresaw. Nietzsche felt himself close to that secret of the grand unification. Glimpses of the solution were coming to him. Soon, he would grasp the whole:

But the decisive symptom of the new condition is a euphoria which appears only occasionally in the course of the year but is constant during the last months. This tone is softly heard first in letters to Seydlitz (Febr. 12, ’88): “The days here come along with an impudent beauty; there never was a more perfect winter.” To Gast he writes (Sept. 27, ’88): “Marvelous clarity, autumnal colors, an exquisite feeling of well-being on all things.” Later on: “I am now the most grateful person in the world–of an autumnal mood in every good sense of the word: this is my great harvest time. Everything is easy for me, everything turns out well for me.” “I am now of the absolute conviction that all has turned out well, from the very beginning; all is one and has one purpose” (to Gast, Dec. 22, ’88).

For all his powers of insight, little did he know, he would come to harvest his sorrows. Less than two weeks after his December 22nd letter to Gast, he would collapse into an insanity from which he would never emerge, dying of pneumonia twelve years later.

It fills me with wonder, how faraway so close he was. And I wonder how many of us too will be struck down, faraway so close to fulfilling our task.

What Nietzsche Can Do for You

There’s so much to read these days. Why should you read Nietzsche, or, for that matter, read Jaspers reading Nietzsche? Like no other writer, Nietzsche inspires. One of the best things about Jaspers’ book are the glimpses of how Nietzsche’s contemporaries saw him through their correspondences. From the letters and correspondences, you can see how Nietzsche inspires even the greatest minds. In Nietzsche, they see the traveler, going it alone, ascending the most dangerous peaks. In that moment, how could they not be filled with awe and wonder? Here, for example, is Erwin Rohde, one of the preeminent classicists (or Altphilologen as they are called in Germany) of the nineteenth century, and author of Psyche (still in print today) writing to Nietzsche. They became acquainted while studying under Friedrich Ritschl, one of the gods of philology:

“To me it seems at times like a defection that I am unable to join you in fishing for pearls in those ocean depths and must instead amuse myself and take a childish delight in gudgeons and other philological vermin” (Dec. 22, ’71). “And so I feel again as I always did when I was together with you: for a while I am elevated into a higher rank, as though I were spiritually ennobled” (Dec. 22, ’79).

When one reads Nietzsche, one is filled with the radiance of life and possibility. Perhaps it is because Nietzsche was constantly striving to rise out of the pit of nihilism that one descends into once God is dead that he charges his writing with an infectious purpose and drive that touches all his readers. It was the case with me. Nietzsche was that distant star that I have followed for so long. If you are looking for your calling, read Nietzsche. Your destiny will beckon. Whether you can follow is another question.

I first encountered Nietzsche in my early teens through his book: The Birth of Tragedy. In that book, he said things like: “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world can be eternally justified.” Imagine the effect of this on a teen who was used to reading Hardy Boys novels and watching He-Man cartoons. Nietzsche, compared with everyone else, spoke with such immortal purpose. I was hooked. I decided that I too, would write a theory of tragedy, which, after reading Nietzsche, seemed the highest of all human endeavours.

To prepare myself for the task, I enrolled in Greek and Roman Studies: Nietzsche, before the classicists threw him out and the philosophers welcomed him, had started out as a classicist. At UVic I studied under Laurel Bowman, and at Brown, under Charles Fornara and David Konstan. Because Nietzsche was also published in a peer-reviewed journal as an undergraduate, I thought I would do the same, and wrote an article on fate and free will in Homer’s Iliad. Then, later, after two failed attempts, I succeeded in combining probability theory with literary theory and produced a new theory of tragedy based on risk as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Finally, to take my theory from page to stage, I inaugurated the world’s largest playwriting competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year.

All this from a spark that shot off the embers of Nietzsche’s thought. It has been a whole life of inspiration. I promise you too, that you will be inspired if you read Nietzsche. Is that a good enough reason to pick up Nietzsche over some other writer?

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Author Blurb

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), a founder of existentialism, studied law and medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and received his M.D. degree in 1909. He taught psychiatry and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, and philosophy at the University of Switzerland. His books include General Psychopathology, also available in paperback from Johns Hopkins.

Book Blurb

Nietzsche claimed to be a philosopher of the future, but he was appropriated as a philosopher of Nazism. His work inspired a long study by Martin Heidegger and essays by a host of lesser disciples attached to the Third Reich. In 1935, however, Karl Jaspers set out to “marshall against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man they had proclaimed as their own philosopher.” The year after Nietzsche was published, Jaspers was discharged from his professorship at Heidelberg University by order of the Nazi leadership. Unlike the ideologues, Jaspers does not selectively cite Nietzsche’s work to reinforce already held opinions. Instead, he presents Nietzsche as a complex, wide-ranging philosopher–extraordinary not only because he foresaw all the monstrosities of the twentieth century but also because he saw through them.

Review of THE ILIAD OR THE POEM OF FORCE – Simone Weil

pages 182-215 in Simone Weil: An Anthology, trans. Mary McCarthy, ed. Sian Miles, Penguin, 2005

The Classics

In the Greek and Roman studies, I had two loves: Homer’s Iliad and tragedy, particularly those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. I admired the Iliad for Homer’s look of distance. He tells the story of a great war. Each of the combatants realizes the war is a zero-sum game ending in death, yet they persevere. The point?–to exchange the commodity of honour on the battlefield by killing, or being killed. The purpose of such a life?–to become immortal, become an object of song for future generations of singers to sing. The funny thing is by dying they succeeded.  I admired Aeschylus and Sophocles’ tragedies for a similar reason. Though their protagonists suffer terribly, they understand suffering to be a natural part of existence. There was never a need to explain suffering away. We are not gods. Therefore, we suffer, and terribly. Attempts to justify suffering and evil seemed to me contrived. In Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, I found a beguiling theodicy: suffering and misery transform mortals into immortals. We are not remembered for our happiness.

In my student days up to the present day, I would read all the secondary material on epic and tragedy. In later years, I would be fortunate enough to add to the material myself: a new theory of tragedy based on risk and an article on fate and free will in epic. From time to time–not often, but often enough–the footnotes and bibliographies in this secondary material would mention an essay with a most curious name: L’Iliade ou le poème de la force (The Iliad or The Poem of Force). At the time, I never sought it out to read, but the name haunted me. What did Simone Weil mean by ‘poem of force’? So intriguing…

The idea of force fascinates me, and many others. Nietzsche turned force into a fundamental drive behind all other drives in his will to power. Bob Dylan devoted an album–Love and Theft–to examining force and power. Rush did the same in their album Power Windows. Last month, I ran into another article mentioning Weil’s The Iliad or The Poem of Force. It was time. I ordered a copy of a Penguin anthology of her works. I’m glad I did.

When Writing about Force, One Must Have Force

One of my complaints in the classics was that I’d read or hear so many people without force talking about some the most forceful personalities the world has known. I remember one time there was a presentation on Caesar. It was delivered in this monotone and uninterested voice, completely devoid of passion. I remember wondering why someone would study and research Caesar who was so devoid of the spirit of Caesar. The eye sees the sun because it has in it that spark that is the sun’s fire. How can one see Caesar who doesn’t have in their eye the gleam of fire lighting up Caesar’s eye? Reading Weil, there was no danger of this. From the first sentence, force permeates her essay. Her concentration of power is amazing. To read Weil is to be in the presence of greatness. Consider her opening paragraph:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as a historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.

In a tripartite construction (hero…subject…centre), the first sentence boldly announces force is the protagonist in the Iliad. It is not Achilles. It is not war. It is not rage. It is force. There is no buildup to this discovery. It is stated point-blank in one sentence, and the opening sentence. The second sentence, in another tripartite structure, provides examples of force. The language is direct and ornate at the same time. Then the third sentence slips into the passive voice, a construction frowned upon by writing experts who prefer the active voice, the voice of doing rather than being done to. In the third sentence the human spirit is ‘shown to be modified’. But here too, there is a reason. The passive voice shows the overpowering force of force over the human spirit, which, in the passive construction, is being held in thrall. The passive construction highlights the helplessness of the human agent in the face of force. Brilliant. Then the concluding couplet: ‘For those dreamers…’ and ‘For others, who powers of recognition are more acute…’. In the closing couplet, Weil makes it plain that she is aware that there is another way to look at the work, an opposing reading. She also makes it clear, in most forceful language, where she stands. Force, for those with the eyes to see, is the eternal mover upon which a philosophy of history can be built. She died, I think, too young to fulfil her destiny. Who has the greatness to take her up where she left off? Do such people still exist today?

Her power blew me away. On my first reading of The Iliad or the Poem of Force, I had been working on a paper. Reading her essay made me throw my paper out and start anew. It was embarrassing how she could say in hundreds of characters what I needed hundreds of words to make clear. It is seldom that I encounter such a powerhouse. The last encounter I had with greatness of the highest level was five years ago reading Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience.

Force is Simplicity

Though the essay is short, Weil picks her examples for maximum effect. Her familiarity with the Iliad comes through in how effortlessly she comes up with the perfect example to describe each of the faces of force. To Weil, a religious-anarchist thinker, force is the motivating power shaping history. She once told Trotsky once that he was mistaken. It was not class struggle, but force that would decide the future. I’m also reading Karl Jasper’s critique of Nietzsche right now, and I can’t help but wonder if Weil was familiar with Nietzsche’s will to power. For Nietzsche, the will to power was the underlying drive. For Weil, however, force is something that comes and goes. It is with us one moment, and gone the next:

Still more poignant–so painful is the contrast–is the sudden evocation, as quickly rubbed out, of another world: the faraway, precarious, touching world of peace, of the family, the world in which each man counts more than anything else to those about him:

“She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace
To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing
A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle.
Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths,
Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles’ arm.”

Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.

Weil accomplishes so much with so little. So too Homer. Andromache pour Hector a bath. We don’t know what’s going through her mind. Then the narrator interjects: Hector’s already dead. The effect is not unlike something Dylan pulled off more recently in ‘Cross the Green Mountain:

A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.

Both poets step back and let the readers weigh the human impact of death. Weil’s genius is in her short turn of phrase ‘then as now’. It is a poignant reminder that she is critiquing a poem of war during a time of war–the first year of the Second World War. When the world gives you force, it is a good time to examine force.

Why We Read the Greats

Weil doesn’t make for the easiest reading. So why read Weil? It’s worth it reading the greats because they can give you insight into unrelated problems you’re working on that you can’t think through. The greats have a different perspective. Whether you agree or not, to follow along their argument, your mind is working on a different pitch, sometimes just trying to keep up and other times contorting itself to unravel the strange intellectual knots. As the mind goes through these motions, sometimes it can catch a glimpse of something else that it’s been working on from this new angle, and from this new angle, find a breakthrough.

One of my interests has been the relation between fate and chance. In a paradoxical way, they seemed to me to be two sides of the same coin. Fate is chance with the benefit of hindsight (thank you AB for that catchy turn of phrase). I’ve been writing about how chance and fate are intertwined in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I hadn’t, however, figured out how chance and fate in the Iliad was intertwined. I had a feeling it might be, because, to me, chance and fate is invariably linked in tragedy, and, the Iliad, although classified as epic, is also understood by some–including Plato–to be the prototypical tragedy. But, the Iliad thus far had defeated my attempts to unify the two forces of chance and fate. They just seemed too far apart. In the Iliad it was like how Weil described: force is the ruling power, and determinate force could allow no room for chance to function. Even in Patroclus’ funeral games, where several of the contestants slip, the slip is shown not to be accidental (e.g. by chance) but is, to those in the know, caused by the gods.

While I was reading Weil, part of my brain must have been thinking about chance and fate. But her writing was making me think hard, and when she quoted this passage, the answer came to me:

Even to Achilles the moment comes; he too must shake and stammer with fear, though it is a river that has this effect on him, not a man. But, with the exception of Achilles, every man in the Iliad tastes a moment of defeat in battle. Victory is less a matter of valour than of blind destiny, which is symbolized in the poem by Zeus’s golden scales:

“Then Zeus the father took his golden scales,
In them he put the two fates of death that cuts down all men,
One for the Trojans, tamers of horses, one for the bronze-sheathed Greeks.
He seized the scales by the middle; it was the fatal day of Greece that sank.”

By its very blindness, destiny establishes a kind of justice.

In a flash it came to me: Zeus may have rolled dice to determine the fates of the Greeks and the Trojans. Chance and fate in the Iliad are intertwined as well. Even though I’ve known the passage with Zeus and his scales for a long time, I needed to read Weil to think it through. It must have been her words bringing together “blindness” and “destiny.” It’s moments like this that make reading the greats worthwhile.

The Loveliest of Mirrors

The Iliad is a poem of force. Force makes all those who fall under its dominion things. But the Iliad is beautiful because, in the process of becoming a thing, the people of the Iliad remember friendships, think of moms and dads faraway, and contemplate what life that could have been. Despite the go-fever of war, every so often, they recover the soul. There is a spattering of these precious moments, moments where the war-machine Achilles and Priam, the king of kings, come together to cry, Achilles for the father whose son he has slain and Priam for his son who Achilles has slain. And that, to Weil, is what makes the Iliad that poem the poems among.

In Weil’s own time, factories and war too would sap the soul and turn people into things. But Weil too in her own time would see souls, for an instant, break free of force. And in these moments, she would see again Andromache drawing a bath for Hector, already dead. And in these moments, I am sure, she was drawn back to all that is the Iliad, the loveliest of mirrors. We are the creatures of force, yet, in that great moment, for an instant, we rise above before force reasserts its crushing power. Weil’s mirror too, is also the loveliest in that she was writing on a poem of war during a time of war, and it may be, that we will never understand the Iliad like how she understood it, until we find ourselves looking at it, like Weil, from a time of war. Today, critics like myself living in Canada, are only peacetime critics.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Author Blurb

Simone Weil was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century: a philosopher, theologian, critic, sociologist and political activist. This anthology spans the wide range of her thought, and includes an extract from her best-known work ‘The Need for Roots’, exploring the ways in which modern society fails the human soul; her thoughts on the misuse of language by those in power; and the essay ‘Human Personality’, a late, beautiful reflection on the rights and responsibilities of every individual. All are marked by the unique combination of literary eloquence and moral acuity that characterized Weil’s ideas and inspired a generation of thinkers and writers both in and outside her native France.

REVIEW of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Giridharadas

2019, Vintage, 288 pages

Giridharadas defines MarketWorld as “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.” He has a beef with MarketWorld because of its inherent contradiction. In Winners Take All, Giridharadas points out the irony of how MarketWorlders donate money to rehab programs after raking in profits selling opioids (Purdue Pharma). Other examples include how MarketWorlders who own companies that target African Americans with more addictive menthol cigarettes give grants to help African Americans eat healthier in Harlem (Loews Corporation). Winners Take All is written as a tell-all exposé revealing the dark side of philanthropy all the way from Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century to The Clinton Global Initiative and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today.

The problem, according to Giridharadas, is that MarketWorlders become who they are by exploiting the masses. They harness the inequalities in the system to become the power brokers. And then they donate money to the causes that they support. They target a social and economic issue such as poverty, for example. But they never target the inequality itself that lies at the root of poverty. And that, writes, Giridharadas, is the heart of the contradiction: MarketWorlders create the problem, then ease their conscience by writing a cheque. Philanthropy in that guise is a sham. Today’s philanthropists donate, but they preserve the status quo that makes such donations necessary. Without the status quo, they wouldn’t have become rich. The rich have a blindspot when it comes to inequality. To illustrate his point, Giridharadas begins his book Winners Take All with a memorable epigram by Tolstoy:

I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible . . . except by getting off his back.

Solution One: Increase Taxes on the Wealthy

Because the rich will not address inequality, another group has to step up. Giridharadas proposes that the government is well suited for this task. The government, by increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, can fund a greater array of social programs to alleviate inequality.

Although not mentioned by Giridharadas, one such program that would have wide support from both sides of the political spectrum, from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang to economist Milton Friedman–the architect of Reaganomics–is a universal basic income program. Such a program would simplify government and do away with the stigma of receiving welfare, employment insurance, and many other government programs by doing away with income-tested benefits by providing an automated and perpetual income stream to each citizen irregardless of wealth or need. Universal basic income appeals to the right because it simplifies government, makes government smaller by rolling welfare, employment insurance, disability benefits, etc., into one program. And universal basic income appeals to the left because it satisfies the left’s mandate for government to look after people.

In Canada, many people during the Covid-19 pandemic have come to rely on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments. In the dialogue on what happens when the CERB program ends, some people have suggested instituting a universal basic income program. We will see.

Solution Two: Change Corporate Structures

Corporations exist for one purpose, and that purpose is to maximize shareholder value. “Greed is good,” runs the corporate mantra. If a company tries to place “doing good” ahead of “creating shareholder value,” shareholders will revolt and replace the board of directors. As Harvard business school professor Michael Porter and Mark Kramer wrote in a seminal 2011 essay: “Creating Shared Value,” companies overlook the long-term good by maximizing shareholder value in day to day and quarter to quarter operations. What if a new type of corporation could be created, one where “doing good” was built into its charter along with “maximizing shareholder value?”

After working years in private equity, this is what Andrew Kassoy did: he came up with and enacted a plan to reform corporate structure. He devised a framework to convert existing companies or for startups to structure themselves as “B corps” or “benefit corporations.” B corps would pursue a dual mandate to enrich shareholders and pursue good. Notable B corps today include Kickstarter, King Arthur Flour, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Natura.

The largest B corp is the publicly traded education company Laureate Education with over 150 campuses in ten countries. It started trading on the Nasdaq in February 1, 2017 at $14 per share. Three and a half years later, it’s trading at $13.81, down 1.35%. I compared Laureate Education (LAUR) to other conventional (e.g. standard, not B corp) education companies trading on the Nasdaq. Perdoceo Education (PRDO) was at $9.78 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $11.81, up 20.76%. Lincoln Education (LINC) was at $1.96 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $5.34, up 176%. K12 (LRN) was at $19.53 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.93, up 48.13%. Finally, America Public Education (APEI) was at $24.40 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.84, up 18.2%. The difference in performance between the B corp Laureate Education and the others must be the inferred cost of “doing good.” The question, as always, is: “Do you invest in Laureate and let their board decide what is good or do you invest in the others and take the profit to use on what you yourself decide is good?” You cannot have your cake and eat it too: either you let Laureate do good at the cost of your return on investment or you invest in the other, more mercenary companies which will enrich you at others’ expense.

Solution Three: Ask the People You are Helping for Feedback

It’s ironic, writes Giridharadas, how the elites change the lives of those who need help without ever consulting them. The elites–who hail from the ivory towers and the gilded halls of private equity–look at social issues as corporate or academic issues: have a meeting, break down the problem into discrete quanta, insert each of these quanta into a PowerPoint presentation, put in into a chart, a graph, and connect the points. But, the greatest problems of our age are human concerns. Instead of turning the oppressed and the downtrodden and the unfortunate into a statistic and foisting your preconceived notion of what is good onto them, why not ask them what they want, ask them if they have ideas of how to better their world? If your goal is to help a village in Mongolia, it might be a good idea to do some ground reconnaissance in addition to your closed-door PowerPoint presentation.

This seems like a good point. Who knows the unintended consequences of bringing Western reforms to the far corners of the globe? I wish Giridharadas had taken his own advice in Winners Take All. He interviews many people and presents many points of view in the book. Unfortunately, all the critiques of capitalism he cites comes from CEOs, former presidents of the United States of America, private equity barons, and TED talks thought leaders. What does the street vendor in Vietnam think of inequality? What about the Mongolian miner working at the Rio Tinto copper mine? We don’t know. This not knowing the view from the ground brings me to my closing point: what are the roots of inequality?

The Roots of Inequality?

If you ask the power brokers in First World countries where poverty comes from, they will tell you that poverty arises from inequality. It started with Adam Smith’s economics. He told the butcher, the brewer, and the baker that self-interest makes the world go around. From Adam Smith to today’s corporations a line can be drawn: Smith’s self-interest has become the corporations “greed is good” mantra. As a result, some became rich and others became poor. The results are disastrous, they will say. And they will quote statistics that are hard to argue against, statistics such as how the top ten percent of people own ninety percent of the world’s wealth. Capitalism is the problem, the power brokers will say. And that is what they do say in Giridharadas’ book. Capitalism allows the few to get rich off the backs of the many.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in First World countries why they live in poverty, they might, to judge from movement such as Occupy Wall Street, say something similar. Capitalism favours the rich, who get rich by exploiting the poor. The rich, in turn, through lobbying and donations to political parties, fandangle new ways to avoid paying taxes and nurturing the society that made wealth possible.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in Third World countries why they live in poverty, they just might have something different to say than the folks in First World countries. Judging from the vitality, dynamism, and energy in the hustling and bustling markets emerging in Vietnam, China, Poland, and Hungary, less well to do folks in Third World countries may be welcoming capitalism’s market reforms. Their response may be the opposite to that of their counterparts in developed countries.

This is one of the reasons I was hoping that Giridharadas would have asked the people burdened by inequality all over the world for their feedback. I conjecture that First World folks are quick to blame inequality. And I conjecture that Third World folks are less likely to blame inequality. My question, and one that is valid, in my mind is this: is capitalism a First World problem? My gut tells me many folks outside the First World would actually welcome capitalism.  Why this divide?

What is Inequality?

My closing question is this, and I don’t think it’s a question that’s easy to answer. There are so many variables involved, the question is probably best thought of as a thought experiment. My question is this: is inequality an artifact of capitalism, or is inequality something else, a natural, sociological phenomenon?

For a second, let’s turn away from the financial marketplace. Let’s look at book sales, something that has attracted my attention since publishing a book last year. Each year, over three million books are released globally. Most of these three million books will sell a few hundred copies. Some will sell thousands and tens of thousands. But the book market, despite being made up of millions of books, will be dominated by a few best-sellers. Think Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Dan Brown. In fact, the top 10% of best-sellers will be responsible for 85% of all books sold. If we extend this slightly, the top 20% of best-sellers will have captured nearly the entire book market, being responsible for 95% of the world’s book sales. Talk about inequality! But does anyone complain about the inequality of the book market? I think most people accept this as the way things are.

Did the distribution of book sales–the top 10% of the sellers own 85% of the market–remind you of another distribution I mentioned earlier in this blog? Earlier, citing Giridharadas, I wrote that the wealthiest 10% own 90% of the world’s wealth. In the markets, it appears a few winners take all. So too, in the book market, it appears a few winners take all. Is there a relation between the book and stock markets?

The Power Law Distribution

Although consumers believe they exercise autonomy in purchasing books, an emergent phenomenon can be seen if you plot book sales on a double logarithmic graph with the x-axis representing the sales rank (with each unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,) and the y-axis representing sales volume (again, with each vertical unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,). When sales rank and sales volume are plotted on a double logarithmic graph, a straight lines forms, descending on roughly a 45-degree angle from the top left to the bottom right of the chart.

Emergent phenomena are some of the coolest things. They are phenomena that appear on large scales, but not on small scales. The flight of starlings or the motions of schooling fish are emergent phenomena: like book buyers, they make individual decisions but the sum of their individual decisions can be modelled. When we see emergent phenomena, we see in social, economic, and natural systems a greater power at work, an invisible hand creating order from chaos.

If you plot on a log-log graph the number of people against their wealth, you will find that the miraculous happens: the data points will form a straight line with a similar slope to the book sales graph. Wealth–or inequality–obeys a power law distribution. What this says is that inequality is a natural phenomenon like all the other distributions that obey a power law. Besides book sales and income, the size of cities, the power of earthquakes, and the frequency academic papers are cited all obey power law distributions.

The power law hints at powerful forces shaping the quantities it measures. To determine the hidden mechanisms guiding the power law’s invisible hand, we have to conjecture. With book sales, for example, we can conjecture that the winning authors take all because of the influence of big publishers, word of mouth, the action of book clubs, the ability of social media to scale sales, the concentrating effect of bestseller lists, and so on.

Something similar can be done for income. We can conjecture, for example, a base point where people start off at similar incomes and wealth. By the action of chance, some will make more than others. Then we can add more variables: the ones with more can invest more, increasing their wealth at a faster proportion than those with less wealth. And perhaps those with minor wealth will choose to invest their money with a handful of winners, increasing the wealth of the handful of winners in much the same way as book buyers congregate towards a few best-selling titles. Then sooner or later, in this thought experiment, you end up with an income distribution that approximates that of the real world. Note that in this thought experiment, capitalism and inequality are not necessary hypotheses. The only necessary hypothesis is that, by random chance some will become wealthier.

In this view, capitalism and the markets are not responsible for inequality. In any given society–socialist, capitalist, communist, and agrarian, from the Bronze Age through to ancient Rome, the Industrial Revolution, up to modern times–the action of chance and the snowballing effect of social networks will create a winner take all distribution in wealth. You can redistribute the wealth through revolution or taxation, but you only reset the system for a duration: inequality, like the force of earthquakes and the size of cities, is a natural law built into the structure of society, any society. The moment the system is reformed, it starts working itself back into a critical state in a new guise.

The elites ascribe their position and wealth to superior intelligence and work ethic. The poor ascribe their position to the erosive power of capitalism and inequality. They are both fooled by randomness. If we can observe, from ancient to modern times, the distribution of income following a power law, then inequality is nature’s will. And how do you rebel against natural law? In ancient Rome, the Gracchi thought they had the answers. In revolutionary France, Robespierre thought he had the answers. Today, Thomas Piketty proposes his answers. But what is the answer? The answer, Giridharadas, is blowing in the wind.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of THE GIFT: HOW THE CREATIVE SPIRIT TRANSFORMS THE WORLD – Lewis Hyde

Vintage, 2019 3rd edition (1983 original), 474 pages

In its Library of Congress classification, Hyde’s The Gift is filed under the heading of “economic anthropology.” I can see why it’s an economics book, but perhaps for a different reason than you think. Its structure reminds me of Bloomberg finance articles. Have you noticed how formulaic finance articles are? They begin with some eye-catching headline: “Bob Big Shot Banker Sees Gold Surging to $2500” or something equally dramatic. Next come the supporting arguments: uncertainty in the upcoming election is driving up the price of gold, geopolitical tension is driving up the price of gold, and so on. Then the article ends by hedging its own arguments: “But all bets are off if the good guy wins the election” or “But all bets are off if the peace settlement is negotiated in time.” Does this sort of structure seem familiar?

Like Bloomberg articles, The Gift begins with an enticing eye-catching headline: “Capitalism Destroys Art: Hyde and Artists Call for a Return of the Gift Economy.” The arguments follow, fast and furious. Art is a gift. To assign a market value to a gift destroys the gift. For this reason, artists languish under capitalism. Gift economies, however, increase the abundance of art. Look to the tribes of the South Sea Islands which circulated necklaces and armshells. Look to the potlatch ceremonies of indigenous North American populations who exchanged ornate copper plaques. Look to the embodied wisdom in folk tales that say: “To possess is to give.” And, for evidence of the fecundity of art in gift rather than market economies, look to the poems and lives of two American poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. Then, in a surprise move, Hyde concludes by saying that perhaps all bets are off: art and capitalism can coexist.

Finance articles make me smile. They’re articles which seem to say something but say nothing. By hedging their bets, the writer tries to have it both ways: heads I win (“I told you this would happen”) and tails I win as well (“I told you this might not happen”). The writer has no skin in the game: he’s already covering his tracks in case he’s wrong. For the same reason Hyde’s The Gift arouses my suspicions. He talks of the evils and excesses of the market economy, touts the wholesomeness of the gift economy, and ends by saying that although capitalism destroys art, capitalism is here to stay.

If his thesis, as the conclusion of the book seems to say, is incorrect and requires further examination, then what’s in it for the modern day artist?—the book makes it clear that there can be no returning to the widespread gift economies of old. Society is just too big now. Why should the artist read this book? In the foreword, Margaret Atwood writes: “If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act or make films, read The Gift.” But, having read the book, I am thinking that, if I wanted to write, paint, sing, compose, act, or make films, the last book I’d want to read would be The Gift. The world it paints for the arts is dismal: art is a gift that the artist will never be paid full value for.

When I picked up The Gift, I was hoping for some kind of revelation into value in art and in life. The reviews and accolades the book received were of the highest order. I was hoping for something life-changing, something like Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’ Your Money or Your Life, a book I read twelve years ago which changed the way I look at labour. The Gift, I feel, fails to live up to its hype.

Art is a Gift

Hyde’s fundamental position is that art is a gift. It’s inspiration. We don’t will art to happen, it just happens. The ancients allegorized this inspiration into the image of the Muses who would visit the artist to infuse the artist with the divine vision. In more modern times, when Jack Kerouac advises artists to be “submissive to everything,” he’s telling them to think of themselves as a conduit for inspiration, rather than as the source of the inspiration itself. Because art is a gift and not a commodity, capitalism can’t quite put the correct value on art. And when it tries to value art, it destroys art in the same way as a gift is destroyed when one starts to calculate its value in dollars and cents. Or so Hyde argues.

Three objections to the “capitalism can’t value gifts” hypothesis come to mind. First: is art a gift? Second: if art is a gift, then are not many things other than art also gifts? Third: doesn’t the market circulate art further than the gift economy could?

It’s a romantic notion to think of the artist as a Byronic figure communing with nature in some distant cave. I get that. But is that the case? For a long time, the artist was thought of as a tradesperson, and looked upon the same way as we look at electricians, plumbers, and carpenters today. Except these artist tradespeople wouldn’t build houses. They would build songs to be sung at the liturgy. Think of JS Bach or Handel, who were employed to churn out new compositions for the faithful year in and year out. Other artists were expected to craft poems to recite at state festivals. Think of Sophocles and Aeschylus, poets who wrote plays year in and year out for the festival of the Greater Dionysia.

Is the production of art a gift created by a heroic Byronic artist tuning into the world spirit or is the production of art a trade? These days—as evidenced by Hyde’s position—art is pure inspiration, something that breaks all the rules like Jimi Hendrix’ guitar playing. It comes to you from the heavens. But, in the past, the creation of music was more like a trade. Young composers would spend years imitating the old masters in music guilds (the historical equivalent to the trade unions producing carpenters today) before creating something in their own style. Even in folk music up to the 1950s, you wouldn’t be expected to write new songs: if you were a folk singer, you were a tradesperson, working in the tradition, putting your spin on the songs passed down to you.

Wouldn’t artists be better served to think of themselves as tradespersons? It’s a more down to earth way of looking at yourself than seeing yourself as a lightning rod for divine inspiration. And this way, you can get paid some kind of standard market rate. Hyde has a point when he says it’s hard for Byronic hero type artists to be paid fairly: how much should you charge to be the lightning rod for divine inspiration? Baroque composers such as Telemann and Heinichen were considered to be tradespersons. It wasn’t until Beethoven and later that the cult of the divinely inspired artist arose. Maybe we should return to Baroque sensibilities where art is not so much a gift, but a trade.

Hyde, however, addresses this point. He posits that today there is low art and high art. By low art he means romance novels and perspective drawings used to illustrate architectural spaces. In some cases, artists may partake of both spheres, as in the case of the painter Edward Hopper, who would paint soulful night-scenes of American cities one day and produce paintings for magazines such as Hotel Management the next. Low art is art by the numbers, is machine art, is expendable art, is art that will be forgotten. High art, on the other hand, has soul and, like scientific discoveries and the other monuments of the creative spirit, will endure for all time.

I object to this sort of split between low and high art. This sort of distinction smacks of elitism, seems hoity-toity. If, say, romance novel such as Nora Roberts can sell millions of copies over and again, then, there is something of the creative spark in her artistry. Her work moves people. It is art. This point has been a matter of contention in my book club, of all places, for a long time. I’ve been trying to get us to read a romance novel. The response is: “Romance novels are beneath us.” To which I respond: “You know how hard it is just to sell a few hundred copies of a book? These writers are selling hundreds of thousands of copies. In a hundred years, I bet there will be university courses on the 21st century romance novel and people in the future will lament how underrated the best romance writers were. Some romance novels will even become classics.” Some people believe this may happen. Some don’t. The people who don’t believe it could happen also didn’t believe the Smithsonian Museum would stage a Bob Ross painting exhibition. Bob Ross is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. If you’re not familiar, Bob Ross is the TV painter who painted “happy trees,” “almighty mountains,” and “fluffy clouds,” the painter whose works were considered crass, banal, and derided as commercialized kitsch by the serious artists of the time.

If you’re looking for more examples of low art which makes high art blush, consider Andy Warhol’s Pop Art or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Beethoven spent four years at the end of his life composing 33 variations around Diabelli’s banal and run-of-the-mill waltz. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, they created art that appealed to mass sensibilities to make a few bucks. The legend surrounding the variations is that Beethoven refused to work with Diabelli’s Schusterfleck or “cobbler’s patch” theme until he found out how much Diabelli was paying. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, the commercialization of their gift does not seem to have impaired the soul or their art. Warhol is considered one of the 20th century’s preeminent artists and The Diabelli Variations one of the pieces the pieces amongst in the concert repertoire.

For a moment, let’s say with Hyde that art is a gift. What is more, let’s also say with Hyde that gifts are better off circulating in the gift rather than the market economy. Then the real question becomes: is art the only gift?  Let’s say there’s a gardener. She just has a knack growing plants. Her talent is a gift just as much as the painter’s or poet’s art is a gift. Should the gardener also circulate the fruits of her labours outside the market economy? Or let’s say there’s a dog or horse whisperer. He just has a knack with animals. His talent is a gift as well. People are dumbfounded at how he understand animals and animals him. Or let’s say there’s an athlete. She can skate and shoot the puck better than anyone else. She’s gifted. Now consider this: Hyde would have zero issues with hockey players, veterinarians, and farmers partaking in the market economy. Athletes, doctors, and farmers also have a gift. Why does Hyde only have an issue with artists partaking in the market economy? Is it because, at bottom, he feels that the market economy pays artists too little? I’m thinking that may be the real reason. Note that his two case studies of poets in the second section of the book are both poets that lived and died in penury: Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound.

Either / Or, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie

In a typical either / or proposition that characterizes his book, Hyde writes:

But the artist who sells his own creations must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together. He must, on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity. He must be able to reckon its value in terms of current fashions, know what the market will bear, demand fair value, and part with the work when someone pays the price. And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to see his art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell, or only a commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market, not in response to the demands of the gift.

Either the artist uses his gift or the artist commercializes his gift. If he uses his gift, he may not have anything to sell. If he commercializes his gift, he loses the soul of art. Grim indeed. But what of the artist who realizes he can adapt his gift to the market economy? That was the story of poet Leonard Cohen. He realized his gift was poetry. And he also realized he couldn’t make money selling his poetry. Not that he was unhappy selling his inspiration, there just weren’t buyers. But he realized if he set his poetry to song, he could make a living as a singer-songwriter. He adapted. Hyde’s artist is an idealist, all or none. The all-or-none artist can’t adapt, and become a bitter shell: case in point is Ezra Pound. Why not adapt your gift like Leonard Cohen? Most people would say the commercialization of his art in no way detracts from the soul of beauty.

David Bowie was another artist who found a way in capitalism. He securitized his art by inventing and issuing “Bowie bonds.” Investors would purchase bonds in $1000 denominations from Bowie. The bonds were backed by his music catalog. The royalties from his music catalog would pay investors 7.9% each year over ten years. The investors bought the rights to his royalties for a decade. At the end of the decade, Bowie would return the investors’ principal, and the rights to the catalog went back to Bowie. The investors would get a 7.9% income stream, and a chance to own the man who sold the world. Bowie would get $55 million up front, the amount of money investors poured into his Bowie bond offering. Does anyone think the lesser of Bowie’s music for having turned his gift into a commodity? Did this exchange somehow alter how people enjoyed his music?

Would Bowie and Cohen have been greater artists if they had avoided contaminating their gift with market forces? Would they have greater respect if they had lived in penury like Whitman and Pound? Gift exchange, to be sure, in potlatch ceremonies and the South Sea islands, is a splendid ceremony. In the past, if you had tried to sell Bowie bonds to fellow tribe members, you’d surely be run out. But today, we live in a market economy. If you try today to live within the marginal gift economy, you’ll be run out of society like Whitman and Pound. The artist would do well to live in and change with modern times. To me, Hyde’s position is idealistic and seeks a return to what is not there anymore.

Credibility

It’s more enjoyable to read a book when you feel that the author is an expert in whom you can believe. In a chapter called “The Bond,” Hyde argues that materialists treat life like a commodity. He cites a car company that knew of a safety defect but neglected to implement it due to the cost. Here’s the passage:

In a classic example both of cost-benefit analysis and of the confusion between worth and value, the Ford Motor Company had to decide if it should add an inexpensive safety device to its Pinto cars and trucks … In the end, however, Ford decided that benefits did not justify costs, and no safety feature was added to the vehicle. According to Mark Dowie, between 1971, when the Pinto was introduced, and 1977, when the magazine Mother Jones printed Dowie’s analysis of the case, at least five hundred people burned to death in Pinto crashes.

Reading this passage triggered my spider-sense. Elsewhere, Hyde cites sources in detail. No endnote here. And no mention of Dowie in the bibliography. Then there’s the hedge: “According to Mark Dowie.” Elsewhere in the book, people “declare,” “say,” or “explain” the facts. “According to” belies the author’s confidence. And then the final trigger was the qualification of the number of burning deaths as “at least five hundred people burned to death.” Either you are burned to death or not. I expected a whole number, not an indeterminate “at least five hundred.” If that many people perished, I found it amazing that Ford could continue to sell the car for so many years. I decided to do a quick Google search.

The results shook my belief in Hyde. According to the Wikipedia article—which I regard as a neutral source (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Pinto)—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that “27 deaths were found to have occurred between 1970 and mid-1977 in rear-impact crashes that resulted in fire.” That’s a big difference: 27 versus “at least 500” deaths. The Wikipedia article also discusses the legacy of Dowie’s analysis, the findings of which have been debunked in peer-reviewed law journals.

The Gift is now in its 3rd edition, copyright date 2019. Hyde’s gone through and revised the text. But it’s a shame that he didn’t include a footnote placing an asterisk next to Dowie’s claims. He could have at least mentioned that Dowie’s claims are open to question. Because there isn’t a note, I wonder how often Hyde’s facts are open to interpretation elsewhere in the book.

If You Talk about Money Supply, Please Include a Discussion on Inflation

Hyde asserts that the ideal loan which draws together people in the gift society is the interest-free loan:

In a society that recognizes the right to make a reasonable profit on capital, the equity rate is called the prime rate. Above the prime we have rates for speculators and suspicious strangers. Higher still, we have modern usury, loan sharking, theft by debenture. And below the prime we find various “friendship rates,” which fall to different levels for different degrees of friendship, until we return to the interest-free loan, the pure gift case.

The best loan, one that reinforces the human bonds in Hyde’s ideal gift society, is the interest free loan. By giving the gift of not charging interest, the relationship between creditor and debtor becomes equable. But is this true?

The Gift came out originally in 1983. In the 1980s, inflation in the US averaged 5.82% each year. In the decade prior, inflation averaged 7.25%. Einstein once said that “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.” In Hyde’s gift economy, debtors understand inflation—which compounds like compound interest—and creditors have no idea. Creditors, by not charging interest, give their wealth to debtors.

If a creditor in lends $1000 dollars on January 1, 1980 and receives back $1000 dollars on December 1, 1989, he will have lost close to half his money. Because of 5.82% inflation in the 1980s, $1000 in 1989 will only buy you what you could have brought with $567.97 in 1980. This is because of inflation: the $2 loaf of bread in 1980 will cost $3.52 in 1989. The creditor, if he wants to preserve his spending power in the face of inflation, would have to ask the debtor to pay back in 1989 not $1000, but $1760.67. But this, in Hyde’s book, is called usury, frowned upon in the gift society. I would have liked to see Hyde tackle the issue of inflation in his chapter on usury. It’s not as easy as saying: interest free loans preserve relationships. They don’t. Interest free loans ruin the creditor.

Later on in the chapter “Ezra Pound and the Fate of Vegetable Money” a similar issue arises: inflation should be a crucial element of the discussion. But it’s nowhere to be found. “Vegetable money” was Pound’s term for a perishable currency. Pound thought that a perishable currency would encourage the circulation, rather than the hoarding of money. You lose money by having money. Pound advocated German economist Silvio Gesell’s stamp scrip which would lose one percent each month. While inflation in the 1980s wasn’t as drastic—5.82% each year—it achieves the same result: by holding money, you lose money. I was looking forward to a discussion on inflation and Pound’s perishable currency. But inflation is nowhere to be seen. Inflation was the monetary phenomenon of the 1980s. That makes it even more surprising there is not one mention of inflation anywhere in the book.

Walt Whitman

The second half of the book contains two case studies in the gift society. The first looks at poet Walt Whitman. He gave himself to nursing soldiers back to health, teaching illiterate and rude young men to read and write, and writing poetry. These were his gifts to the world. But what did the world give back? Hyde ends the chapter on an enigmatic note. Whitman alone, unloved, and unappreciated finds solace in nature. Whitman believed in the gift society. But what did society give back to him?

Ezra Pound

In exploring the roots of Pound’s antisemitism, Hyde constructs a new portrait of the Jew as a modern incarnation of Hermes, at once the protector of thieves, god of commerce, messenger of the gods, and lord of roads. Was such a new portrait that plays on old caricatures really necessary? But let us suppose that, to explore Pound’s antisemitism, it was somehow necessary and justified. Then the next question: was is also necessary to reproduce Arthur Rackham’s illustration: “The Jew of Hawthorn Hedge” in the chapter on Pound? The illustration also plays on caricatures of Jewishness.

Closing Thoughts

In The Gift, Hyde tells the story of the gift societies of the old day, the societies where artists were cherished and received gifts in turn for sharing their gift of art. These gift societies gave way to market societies, gave way to capitalism, gave way to modern exchanges which no longer valued art and artists. In The Gift, Hyde has given a gift to all those disenfranchised with modernity: his gift is an idealized vision of an abundant past. I found this book to be imbalanced in its criticism of the market economy and its praise for the gift society. Remember, Bronze Age Greece was also a gift society. That didn’t prevent the Achaeans and the Trojans from ravaging their cultures and artists by waging the ruinous Trojan War. The funny thing, however, is that by destroying their cultures, they gave the singers of the future a song to sing for the ages. Perhaps the extinction of the artists—the best of the homo sapiens—under the market economy today will inspire a new epic song, one as big as The Iliad, the poem of force.

In today’s age, Hyde thinks that the artists cannot. I think that they can. And therein lies a quarrel. Hyde’s question, however, remains: why do so many artists fail to find recognition today? I think the answer is that in the old day, the village or the tribe would nominate one person to be the artist, one person to be the seer, and so many people to be farmers, hunters, and gatherers. In short, one did not choose a vocation, or at least did not choose in the same way as we think of it. At a young age, one shows strength: the tribe trains this person for the military life. Another person shows the spark of art: the tribe trains this person for the artistic life. In this way, they look after one another in a mutual compact. Today, however, we ourselves choose to be an artist or a politician or a cobbler. We have this freedom of choice. And we pay for this incredible freedom by sometimes being rejected. I think that, had Walt Whitman or Ezra Pound been born in an earlier age into a gift society, and they had spoken out against the values of the tribe and lived outside the tribal society, they would not have fared much different than they did in the market society in which they actually lived. Artists today fail to find recognition because they have taken risks to become an artist. Some will fail so that others can succeed. That is freedom’s price.

Don’t forget me. I am Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of NEW DRAMATURGIES – Mark Bly

Routledge, 2020, 121 pages

Reading Bly’s book was a special treat. Here’s the story of how I came across his wonderful book. The National New Play Network (NNPN) invited me to speak at their “We’ve Been Here Before: Theater & Crisis” panel earlier this year. The panel took place during the pandemic and was live-streamed on Zoom. With over 300 people watching, I must admit I was a little nervous. But it was well worth it: one of the folks tuning in was Mark Bly. Sometimes fortune smiles on you. He was interested in what I had to say and got my contact info from Jess Hutchinson, NNPN’s engagement manager. Mark and I struck up a dialogue and exchanged books: I sent him a copy of my theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected and he sent me New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for the 21st Century Playwriting.

In New Dramaturgies, Bly presents nine exercises to unleash the beast within the playwright. Are you too focused on writing about personal experiences? No problem. Try “Bly’s myth exercise” and see if your writing takes on a more universal and timeless perspective. Are you experiencing writer’s block? No problem. Try “Bly’s sensory writing exercise” and see how touch, smell, taste, hearing, and the other senses unlock a train of words, rolling and rambling over one another. Are you worried that the forward momentum of your play has stalled? No problem. Try “Bly’s character’s greatest fear” exercise and kickstart the action. As Holly Hepp-Gálvan, one of Bly’s former students, puts it, these exercises “not only get writers writing” but “set them on fire.” The excellent thing about this book is that Bly gives you successful applications of his exercises by his former students, many of which have become top names on the stage and on the screen. That way you can see the exercise in motion. I love it.

When I was younger, I thought to name something after yourself was a prideful thing, something to be avoided. With this mindset, if you were starting a car company, you would name the company after an agile animal such as “Jaguar” instead of naming it after yourself like how Henry Ford did. Now I’m older, I’ve changed my mind. Putting your name on your work gets you skin in the game. When your name is on it, you tell the world you stake your reputation on its quality. Your name, after all, is on it. For example, if you were considering two similar gyms, which one would you instinctively trust more: “The Forge World Class Gym” or “Tom Yankello’s World Class Gym”? Why this digression? All the playwriting exercises in the book are in Bly’s name: “Bly’s music memory exercise,” “Bly’s Einstein’s dreams exercise,” and so on. I like that. Bly has skin in the game. When he says his exercises work, he has a stake in it: his name.

I think of this book as a series of nine studies or études, similar to the Etudes Liszt and Chopin wrote for the piano. Like Liszt and Chopin’s Etudes, they are short exercises that work on specific techniques. And just like Liszt and Chopin, Bly has condensed many years of learning into these Etudes. Although it’s a short book, it’s long on the gems. Here’s one concept Bly recounts (quoting neuroscientist Eagleman) that fascinates me to no end:

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is the moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

When I read this, an epiphany struck me: the third death is the death I fear. Why had I never thought of this before?–a good reason to pick up Bly’s book.

How has New Dramaturgies influenced me? It’s taught me that dramaturgs approach the text unlike academics. My teachers in the classics taught me: if it’s not in the text, it doesn’t exist. You’re not allowed to question concepts, ideas, and realities that lie beyond the text. For dramaturgs and playwrights, however, it’s different. They need to ask the questions that academics shun. They need to ask what drives the characters, and–if the answer isn’t in the text–they need to come up with their own answers. This reminds me of a series of conversations I had with director, playwright, and actor Tony Nardi. He explodes the writer/actor dichotomy by arguing that a writer, in writing, acts and that an actor, in acting, writes. Bly’s book has taught me that fascinating insights happen when you go beyond the text by asking questions such as what a character’s greatest fear or pleasure is. When an actor acts or when a critic interprets, their performance is more powerful when they go beyond the text. When writers go beyond the text, the become actors. And when actors go beyond the text, they become writers.

The series of playwright exercises in New Dramaturgies gave me a crucial insight for which I am very grateful. As part of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, each year I workshop the winning play. As the jurors get closer to announcing the winner, I’ve been thinking of how to run this year’s workshop. I saw how Bly’s exercises, by focusing on a fundamental aspect of playwriting, allowed the play as a whole to become what it must be. Then it occurred to me: the fundamental aspect of playwriting I would focus on in the workshop would be risk. In the risk theatre workshop, we would ask questions such as: what is at stake, why a character goes all-in on an uncertain outcome, why characters up the ante, the role of the unexpected, and so on. Many times, when you’re working on a problem and can’t come up with an answer, if you keep reading, the answer will come to you. Such was the case reading New Dramaturgies.

Book Blurb

In New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting, mark Bly offers a new playwriting book with nine unique play-generating exercises. These exercises offer dramaturgical strategies and tools for confronting and overcoming obstacles that all playwrights face. Each of the chapters features lively commentary and participation from Bly’s former students. They are now acclaimed writers and producers from media such as House of Cards, Weeds, Friday Night Lights, Warrior, and The Affair, and their plays appear in major venues such as the Roundabout Theatre, Yale Rep, and the Royal National Theatre. They share thoughts about their original response to an exercise and why it continues to have a major impact on their writing and mentoring today. Each chapter concludes with their original, inventive, and provocative scene generated in response to Bly’s exercise, providing a vivid real-life example of what the exercises can create. Suitable for both students of playwriting and screenwriting, as well as professionals in the field, New Dramaturgies gives readers a rare combination of practical provocation and creative discussion.

Author Blurb

Mark Bly has worked as a dramaturg, director of new play development, and associate artistic director for the Arena Stage, Alley Theatre, Guthrie Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, and Yale Rep, producing over 250 plays in a career in theatre spanning more than 40 years. Bly has dramaturged Broadway productions and has been credited as being the first production dramaturg on Broadway for his work on Execution of Justice. Bly has also served as the Director of the MFA Playwriting Programs for the Yale School of Drama, Hunter College, and Fordham/Primary Stages in a nearly 30-year Teaching Artist career. He is the editor and author of The Production Notebooks: Theater in Process Volumes I & II. Bly is an active freelance dramaturg and was the recipient of the LMDA’s G.E. Lessing Award for Career Achievement in 2010 and in 2019 was honored by The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival with its most prestigious award, The Kennedy Center Medallion of Excellence.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of CIVIL WAR – Lucan (translated Matthew Fox)

Penguin, 2012, 537 pages, translated by Matthew Fox

Has there ever been a better time to read Lucan’s Civil War? It’s the story of the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Principate. It’s the story of a world gone mad where a young and brash Caesar takes on Pompey the Great, the grizzled war hero. One leader takes too many risks, the other, too few. One leader has the gods on his side, the other has Cato on his side. The world hangs in balance. No one knows who Fate and Fortune will favour. Though the outcome is uncertain, all the participants in this game of death wager all-in. This is Lucan’s Bellum Civile or Civil War, sometimes also called The Pharsalia, after the famous battle at Pharsalus where, under divided standards, Roman slew Roman.

The Good

The first century critic Quintilian hits the nail on the head when he writes: “Lucan is fiery and excited and most illustrious for his clever phrases [sententiae].” Lucan was Twitter before there was Twitter. Today, he would have broken the internet with his wit on fire:

Caesar could bear none better, Pompey no equal.
Which one took up arms more justly? Knowing that
is not allowed–a high judge acquits each one:
Gods favored the victor, but Cato the lost cause.

The unspoken thought here is that senator and stoic philosopher Cato is equal to the gods. Daring. The image of mortals rising up to challenge the heavens occurs in many of Lucan’s memorable images. Here, for example, he contrasts Caesar to Liberty personified. Guess what?–they are evenly matched:

Flee dire battles
and call the gods to witness that who persists in arms
no longer dies for you, Magnus. Like the losses
in woeful Africa, like ruinous Munda, and the defeat
by the bay of Pharos, so the greater part
of Thessaly’s conflict after your departure
is no longer for Pompey’s world-famous name
nor zeal for war, but it will be the matched duel
that we always have: Liberty versus Caesar.

And here Lucan warns the Emperor Nero (who, ironically, he is planning to assassinate in the Pisonian conspiracy) to be mindful where he sets up his heavenly throne: if Nero sets it in the wrong spot, he would unbalance the cosmos:

When your watch is through
and you seek the stars at last, your chosen court
of heaven will welcome you, delighting the pole.
You could hold the scepter, or you may like to mount
Phoebus’ flame-bearing chariot, range the earth–
unfazed by the change of sun–with roving fire;
whatever you please: each god will cede to you,
and nature will relinquish her right to you
to be what god you will, install your world throne.
But do not choose your seat in Arctic regions,
nor in warm skies inclined to adverse south winds:
from these your gaze on Rome would be aslant.
If you weigh on any one part of boundless space
the axle will feel the load. Keep your weight
to the middle: balance heaven.

There’s no need for gods in Civil War because mortals can take the immortals’ places.

The Bad

Lucan’s Civil War is full of gladiatorial spectacle. In this regard, it’s similar to other Silver Age Latin works. The tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, are also full of macabre scenes befitting of B-movie horror films. Maybe in some future age these scenes will come back into vogue. Here’s one of many such passages from Civil War:

That day offered
many marvelous forms of death upon the sea.
An iron claw swings quickly up onto a ship
and hooks Lycidas. He would have sunk in the deep,
but his comrades grab and hold him by the shins.
He is ripped to pieces, and his blood does not flow slowly
as from a wound, but floods everywhere from open veins,
and his soul that circulated through his various limbs
is absorbed by water. Nobody’s life has ever fled
through so large a passageway. His bottom half
took to death the limbs that had no seat of life.
But where the heaving lungs lay and the guts glistened,
there his fate was stalled; this half of the man
struggled a long time, till finally death got him all.

The Ugly

The speeches by the leading characters all seem to be spoken by the same voice: Lucan’s. They are all manic caricatures of their character types. Erictho, in conjuring the nether powers, becomes, not a witch, but the caricature of evil:

“If I call on you with a mouth that’s sinful
and polluted enough, if I never sing these songs
while still famishing for human entrails,
if I’ve often bathed a hacked-up breast
still full of soul divine and brains still warm,
if any infant whose insides and head I’ve laid
upon your platters would have lived if I had not–
obey me as I pray!”

Who talks like that? Or take the nihilistic Pompey. On the morning of the Battle of Pharsalus, he exhorts his troops thus:

“If all agree with this,” he said,
“and if the time needs Magnus as a soldier,
not as leader, I won’t transgress the Fates by stalling.
Let Fortune envelop the nations in one downfall,
let this day’s light be the last for a large portion
of humankind. But I call you to witness, Rome!
Magnus welcomes this day when all will perish.”

Who exhorts troops like that? Magnus becomes a caricature of fate. So too, the do-gooding Cato, exhorting the troops after the grievous loss at Pharsalus, becomes a caricature of virtue:

“You who have chosen to follow my standards
as the one safe thing, with unconquered necks
and unto death–train your minds on our great task,
the utmost toils of virtue. We are heading
for barren plains, the world’s burned-out wastes,
where Sun is too hot, water rare in the springs,
and dry fields crawl with deadly serpents.
The path to law and order is hard, and so is
the love of our fatherland, now falling to ruin.”

Some say that Cato and Pompey are the heroes of Civil War. I’m not so sure. They have become such concentrated versions of themselves that it’s hard to take them seriously. Caesar too is a caricature, but he is a caricature of action. He is Goethe’s Faust before there was Faust and Nietzsche’s will to power before there was a will to power. For example, when under siege and about to perish, Lucan’s Caesar is still acting and planning as though he was the besieger going forth conquering, and a conqueror. There is something attractive in his never say die mentality. The same cannot be said about the cardboard cutout characters Pompey and Lucan.

Fate and Fortune

A primary consideration in epic poetry from Homer to Milton is the antinomy between fate and free will. I published an article on fate and free will in the journal Antichthon. If you’re interested, it’s available here. In the Iliad, Zeus hold the scales of fate. If he holds the scales of fate, it would seem that fate bends to Zeus’ will. But it’s not so clear: when the scales of fate doom his mortal son Sarpedon, all Zeus can do is watch. Even though he holds the scales, the scales seem to operate on a higher level of agency. So too the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost can be seen continuing the discussion Homer began so long ago in the Iliad:

Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.

Unsurprisingly, Lucan also explores the generic convention of fate and free will in Civil War. Instead of fate and free will, however, in Lucan it becomes the antinomy between fate and fortune.

In Lucan, certain events are fated. Roman civil war itself is fated. Rome had become too great. Civil war is the mechanism for nations to return to nature’s mean:

Great things rush to ruin: the powers that give bounty
have set this limit on increase. Not to any foreign
nations did Fortune lend her envy to use
against the people ruling on land and sea.
Made slaves of three masters, you caused the damage,
Rome, with fatal bonds of tyranny never before
loosed against the crowd. Foul concord! Blinded
by depths of greed! What use to unite your strength
to hold the world in common? As long as earth
shall light on sea and air on earth, and labors
keep the Sun revolving, night following day
through the same sum of signs, no pledge to reign
as peers will hold. All power is impatient of equals.

Unlike in Homer and Milton where fate is fate and free will is free will, Lucan’s fate is more like Virgil’s fate where–though it is true that certain events are fated to happen (such as founding Rome)–the actions of mortals and immortals can precipitate or delay fate. So, Virgil’s Juno says:

But I, great wife of Jove–who left no thing
undared, who tried all ways in wretchedness–
am beaten by Aeneas. If my power
is not enough, I shall not hesitate
to plead for more, from anywhere; if I
cannot bend High Ones, then I shall move hell.
I cannot keep him from the Latin kingdoms:
so be it, let Lavinia be his wife,
as fates have fixed. But I can still hold off
that moment and delay these great events.

There’s an echo of Juno in Lucan, through the mouth of Erictho:

The evil Thessalian, thrilled to hear her name
was famous and well known, responded, “If you’d asked
of lesser fates, young man, it would have been easy
to rouse unwilling gods and attain your wish.
My art can cause delay when the rays of stars
have marked one death, or even if all constellations
would grant one an old age, we can cut his years
in half with magic herbs. But once a series of causes
has descended from the world’s first origin
and all fates struggle if you want to change anything,
when the human race is subject to a single blow,
then Thessaly’s ilk admits it–Fortune is stronger.

Fate, in Lucan’s Civil War, is like fate in Virgil’s Aeneid: you can speed it up or put it off a few years, but the hour of doom comes sooner or later. But notice a strange tilt in Lucan. Whereas fate and free will are at odds in Homer, Virgil, and Milton, Lucan uses fate and fortune interchangeably: fortune is stronger than Erictho’s resources when fate decrees it must be so. This deserves attention.

Some of you may know about my theory of tragedy based on risk. I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. It is also profitable to analyze risk in Civil War. The world of Civil War is one that rewards risk takers. Two characters in Lucan’s epic get things done: Caesar becomes top dog and Cleopatra wrestles her kingdom back from her brother. What do they have in common?–both Caesar and Cleopatra throw risk to the winds. Lucan’s Caesar and Cleopatra are both daring, both reckless. They are risk takers, natural-born gamblers.

Cleopatra, for her part, sneaks into the palace to seduce Caesar:

Such a daring spirit she got from that first night
when our own generals lay wrapped up in bed
with Ptolemy’s incestuous daughter. Who
will not forgive your raving love for her, Antony,
when fire even consumed the hard heart of Caesar?

Caesar, for his part, also does what needs to be done, risk be damned:

But Caesar, reckless in everything,
thinks nothing is done if anything’s left to be done.

While the narrator in Civil War pays homage to Cato and Pompey, the gamblers come out ahead. In a way, Civil War says one thing, but does another. It keeps the reader guessing what the actual message is, if there is any message.

Skin in the Game

A few years ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a fantastic book: Skin in the Game. Success, he argued, happens when you have skin in the game, when you have a stake in the outcome. Caesar and Pompey’s speech to the troops illustrates the importance of having skin in the game. Compare how they address their troops:

Pompey: If all agree with this
and the time needs Magnus as a soldier,
not as leader, I won’t transgress the Fates by stalling.
Let Fortune envelop the nations in one downfall,
let this day’s light be the last for a large portion
of humankind. But I call you to witness, Rome!
Magnus welcomes this day when all will perish.
. . .
I’d wish the first lance of this deadly war
would pierce this head, if it could fall without
upsetting the balance, or destroying our party.
For victory will not bring more joy to Magnus.
Today, once this massacre’s been committed,
Pompey will be a name that’s either hated
or pitied by all peoples. This final cast of lots
for everything will bring all evils on the vanquished.
All the guilt will fall upon the victor.

Caesar: Breaker of the world, in all my affairs the fortune,
soldier, the riches of battle so often longed for
lie at hand. There’s no more need for prayers.
Summon fate now with your sword! In your hands
you hold the greatness of Caesar! Today is the day
I remember was promised me at the Rubicon’s waves,
and looking forward to this we took up arms,
postponing our return for triumphs denied us
until today, which will prove, with Fate as witness,
who took up arms more justly. This engagement
will render the loser guilty. If for me you’ve assaulted
your fatherland with fire and iron, fight now
all the more savagely and with your sword
free yourselves from guilt. For if the other side
becomes the judge of war, no hand will be clean.
This struggle is not for me, but so that the lot of you
might be free, hold power over all nations,
that’s my prayer.

Pompey asks the senate troops to fight for God knows what. Caesar, on the other hand, gives his troops skin in the game. The troops, he tells them, fight for Caesar’s greatness. Not only that, they fight for the triumphs the senate denied them. And, on top of that, they fight for their freedom: if they lose, they will be punished as traitors. They fight for their lives and win. This is the power of skin in the game. Caesar knows the power of skin in the game. Pompey doesn’t. To me, this is one of the mysteries of Lucan’s Civil War: for all the narrator extols Pompey, Pompey is sure dense. With that sort of exhortation, of course he gets routed at Pharsalus.

A Note on the Translator’s Introduction

I was surprised to see this passage in the translator’s introduction:

Alexander was a notorious admirer of Homer and Achilles: Caesar, too, is possessed by the glorious myths of Troy. If history-as-narrative had derived from the deep stream of Homeric epic, history-as-action was also always driven by men who were avid readers of epic, fired by its prize of immortal glory for heroic exploits. But it is possible these great men are simply, but tragically, poor readers of epic, deriving from it the wrong lessons, deluded by false notions of the heroic. After all, Achilles’ rage was “destructive” and for himself it results only in grief and the noble gesture of pity for his fallen enemy, the fatherly king Priam. [emphasis added]

If Alexander and Caesar are poor readers of epic, then who is the good reader of epic, the one who can derive from epic the correct lesson?

In all likelihood, many readings of poetry, epic, and literature are possible. For those seeking immortal glory, the myths of Troy have their allure. And that is all. There is no lesson. I don’t think Homer was meaning to say: “Look, I said Achilles’ rage was “destructive,” look what it did to poor Priam. Please don’t be like Achilles. He’s not a good role model.” That’s what the translator’s introduction seems to say to me, that the translators are good readers of epic, and, as good readers, have correctly derived the lesson Homer was trying to teach readers, that attaining immortal glory for heroic exploits is wrong because of all the suffering it involves.

Epic is life transformed into immortal glory. Sure, there’s suffering and destruction, but that’s the price. Don’t believe me? Then take Helen’s words in Homer’s Iliad to heart (Helen to Hector):

But come now, come in and rest on this chair, my brother,
since it is on your heart beyond all that the hard work has fallen
for the sake of dishonoured me and the blind act of Alexandros,
us two, on whom Zeus has set a vile destiny so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.

Suffering is justified, says Helen, so that we can be remembered forever. So too the destructive civil war allows Lucan to make Caesar and Pompey into a song for the men of the future (narrator speaking):

O sacred mighty work of poet-seers,
you rescue everything from fate and grant
eternal life to mortal peoples. Caesar,
don’t be touched by envy of sacred glory.
For if Latin Muses have a right to make a promise,
as long as Smyrna’s singer endures in honor,
the future will read you and me: our Pharsalia
will live, not condemned to shadows in any age.

For so much destruction, we have Lucan’s Pharsalia, otherwise called Civil War. In future ages, those who seek eternal renown will add the name of Caesar to the roll-call of heroes who achieved immortality. And also in future ages, someone too will tell these glory seekers that they are poor readers of epic. But who will be remembered–the glory seekers or their critics? Would you rather be a good reader who is forgotten soon or a poor reader who is remembered forever?

I wanted to like Lucan’s Civil War more than I did. Lucan, if Fortune had vouchsafed you to write Civil War in your seventies, you would have outshone Virgil and rivalled Milton and Homer. But as it was, fate cut you down at age 25. Those whom the gods love die young.

Book Blurb

Lucan lived from AD 39-65 at a time of great turbulence in Rome. His Civil War portrays two of the most colorful and powerful figures of the age–Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, enemies in a bloody and convulsive struggle for power that severed bloodlines and began the transformation of Roman civilization. As law and order broke down, the anarchy that resulted left its mark on the Roman people forever, paving the way for the imperial monarchy. Matthew Fox’s verse translation brings Civil War to life for a new generation of readers while retaining the rhetorical brilliance of the original, creating a new definitive edition of this classic.

Author Blurb

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (A.D. 39-65) was the nephew of the philosopher Seneca and close friend of the young emperor Nero, until a poetic rivalry and possibly political differences led to their falling out and Lucan being banned from both reciting his poetry in public and pleading in the law courts. He was a prolific and popular poet, but his only work to survive is his Civil War, a trenchantly anti-Caesarean epic about the fateful struggle between the rival leaders Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, which ended in disaster for the Roman Senate at Pharsalus in 48 B.C., the battle which forms the poem’s dramatic climax. In A.D. 65, after the great fire had ravaged Rome and with much discontent against Nero simmering across the empire, Lucan joined the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor, which failed and resulted in the execution by forced suicide of many of those involved. Along with his uncle, the author Petronius, and many other prominent Romans, Lucan took his own life, reputedly dying while reciting defiant verses from his epic. Since antiquity Lucan’s poem has been read as part of the classical canon, alongside the works of Virgil and Ovid. Its influence on the literary tradition from medieval to modern times is considerable, while Lucan’s death created a legacy of literary-political martyrdom that fired the imagination of revolutionary thinkers from the Renaissance to the many revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Translator Blurb

Matthew Fox studied Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oregon and earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Classics at Princeton. He has taught classics, anthropology, humanities, and writing at Princeton, St. Peter’s College (NJ), Deep Springs College (CA), where he held the Robert B. Aird Chair in Humanities, and Rutgers University, and now teaches at Whitman College (WA). His research focuses on the classical epic tradition and ancient cultures of poetic and musical performance.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

pages 145-160 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

“Tragedy,” writes Wohl, “is the humanist genre par excellence, treating the questions that seem most profoundly to define mankind.” And therein lies a problem. How much do women partake in the world of mankind? On the one hand, Greek tragedy is filled with powerful and dynamic female characters: Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Medea in Euripides’ Medea, to name a few. But on the other hand, feminist scholars have been suspicious that tragedy builds up the female only to demolish her in the face of the male. The dramatic arc in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon-Libation Bearers-Eumenides trilogy–otherwise called The Oresteia–begins, for example, begins with the rule of woman and ends with the rule of man.

In addition to male writers’ questionable motives for creating powerful female characters, Wohl finds another facet of Greek tragedy disturbing. Greek tragedy, as a literary artifact of the ancient world, preserves the misogyny prevalent in a society where women could not vote, could not own property, could not represent themselves in court, were relegated inside the household, could not perform in the theatre, and could not even attend the theatre as spectators (this last point is a matter of debate). As an artifact of a misogynist society, characters in Attic tragedy frequently voice sexist musings, such as when Jason in Medea says: “It would be better if men found another way to bear children and there were no race of women.”

Because of the power imbalance between the male and the female, because tragedy was a mouthpiece of male playwrights, and because tragedy gives voice to the embedded misogyny of fifth century Athens, feminist critics such as Wohl have a love-hate relationship with tragedy. On one hand, tragedy, as the humanist genre par excellence which examines the hard-hitting questions that define mankind, is most beautiful. But as the mouthpiece of misogyny, tragedy is most ugly.

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

For a long time, writes Wohl, the scholarly tradition ignored the role of women in classical antiquity. That all changed in 1975 with Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pomeroy looked to tragedy as a source of information about how women lived. Her groundbreaking book launched the first wave of feminism in Greek tragedy.

First wave feminism gave priority to Euripides’ plays. Euripides had a reputation for allowing his female characters to speak freely. In the comic playwright Aristophanes’ play Frogs, for example, the fictional character Euripides claims that he gave women a voice in his plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles were less useful.

The aim of first wave feminism was to extract the lives of real women from the tragic text. It is an empiricist approach that considered that the lives of real women are knowable. In first wave feminism, the female character was considered a sign that, properly decoded by a scholar, could shed light on women’s lives in antiquity. What did first wave feminism discover about real woman’s lives? It discovered that the freedoms women enjoyed differed city to city. Women did better in Sparta than Athens (ever notice that many of the powerful female protagonists in tragedy are, like Medea, foreigners?). And it discovered that in the higher social classes, a woman who was a whore may have had more freedom than a freeborn wife.

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

At some point, the authority of the author as a creator of meaning gave way to the view that the author does not create meaning. The creation of meaning became an interpretive act that the reader or theatregoer was responsible for. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” kicked off this view. If the author was not responsible for the message and the meaning of the text, it becomes harder to extrapolate the lives of real women on Euripides’ authority: after the death of the author, Euripides had no authority. A new approach was required.

The second wave of feminism began with Helene Foley’s 1981 article: “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama.” Instead of extrapolating the lives of real women from the text, second wave feminists explored the cultural concept of woman. This was the new approach after the death of the author, an approach where, as Foley writes: “The Athenian audience must have brought to their experience of the remarkable women of drama a way of understanding these characters which grew out of their psychological, religious, political, and social lives and problems.” The writer-creator was dead. The reader-interpreter is born.

By exploring the representation of woman in tragedy, second wave feminists learned about the society that created such characters. The Clytemnestras and Medeas, they concluded, were the creations of a deeply misogynistic society where the female was associated with disorder and the male with order. Tragedy seemed to say that, for a world to arise and to found civilization, the male must tame the female.

Second wave feminism also added an extra dimension to interpretation. While female characters in first wave feminism were considered to be signs of the lives of real women, second wave feminism added the notion that female characters could be signs as well as generators of signs. Mind you, they were still stuck in androcentric texts written by male playwrights, but this addition increased the range and depth of study, as it brought Aeschylus and Sophocles back into the fold. Because female characters spoke with less freedom in Aeschylus and Sophocles, first wave feminism had little use for either of them. They preferred Euripides. But when you consider that Aeschylus and Sophocles were two of the three pieces of “the big three,” it is a grievous loss. Second wave feminism welcomed back Aeschylus and Sophocles.

By allowing female characters to function as a generator of signs allowed feminists to study captivating female characters such as Clytemnestra. Second wave feminists such as Froma Zeitlin looked at how attention to fictional female characters within tragedy can tell us about the world of tragedy. Zeitlin found, for example, that empowered female characters such as Clytemnestra could generate signs. Clytemnestra is saying something by playing with feminine tropes–such as pouring a hot bath–when she destroys Agamemnon. Generating signs is a itself a sign of will. Although Clytemnestra generates signs, she never gets what she wants: the tragedy isn’t written around her. She could be the star. But she is only a blocker character. A male character, Orestes, is the star. Conclusion? Women are prominent in tragedy not for the sake of woman, but to illuminate the male world.

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

If first wave feminism tells us about the lives of real woman and second wave feminism tell us about the lives of women within tragedy, what does third wave feminist research tell us? Hint: do you remember the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street? Soon after the movie came out, if you went down to the trading floor, you’d see the brokers wearing suspenders. The funny thing is that they didn’t wear suspenders before the movie came out. What happened? Life imitates art is what happened. Third wave feminism’s breakthrough was the realization that the representation of women on the stage shapes the lives of women off the stage.

Third wave feminists include Victoria Wohl herself and scholars such as Barbara Goff (author of The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytus and History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama) and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (author of Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic of Women and Feminist Theory and the Classics). While third wave feminists agree that tragedy shapes culture and society, they disagree on tragedy’s directive in doing so.

The disagreement between third wave feminists can be broken down into two competing camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists, such as Wohl, believe that feminine resistance in Greek tragedy accelerates progressive social change. “By giving a public voice to those who were normally silent in the political arena,” writes Foley, “tragedy can open fresh perspectives on and restore some balance to a civic life and dialogue otherwise dominated by citizen males.” Pessimists such as Rabinowitz, however, find that heroines’ brief moments of glory reinforce male control over women. The function of tragedy, according to the pessimists, is to reinforce the status quo of male control of the female.

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

Is tragedy propaganda reinforcing the status quo? Or is tragedy revolution, the spark that ignites change? I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I create a play to reinforce male dominion over woman?” If they did, their plays would constitute propaganda. Propaganda plays fail to entertain. Anyone who thinks a propaganda play can be successful may want to look at Mussato’s Ecerinis. His tragedy schools theatregoers on the dangers of tyrants. It is not very good. Greek tragedy, however, is very good. For this reason, I don’t think fifth century dramatists were thinking: “How can I uphold the misogynistic status quo in my play?” as they wrote their plays. If they had this thought in mind, they would have written poor plays.

Was tragedy, then, revolution, a firebrand to ignite change? Tragedy was a civic festival sponsored by the city to celebrate the city. As one of Athens’ largest and most prestigious festivals, it would be an odd place to incite revolution. For this reason, I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I give a public voice to those who are normally silent?” If they had this thought in mind, they city would likely have removed their funding.

If they were neither reinforcing the status quo nor giving voice to the oppressed, what were the tragedians aiming to achieve when they wrote tragedy? According to my risk theatre theory of tragedy, when playwrights wrote plays, they were thinking: “How can I create the most thrilling play, one that will wow the audiences?” To create the most thrilling play, they made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. They chose risk because risk triggers the unexpected outcomes that wowed audiences. So Euripides tells us in the concluding lines of many of his plays:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Because there were two types of risk–upside and downside–two types of dramatists arose. The ones who loved to dramatize downside risk became known as tragedians. And the ones who loved to dramatize upside risk became known as comedians. But whatever type of dramatist you became, you explored risk because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk triggers what the audience expects, namely, the unexpected ending.

To thrill audiences, tragedians would place society’s most sanctified values at risk. “What would happen,” they asked, “if we explode society’s strongest bonds?” “What would happen,” they asked, “if we show how love makes us most vulnerable to hurt, destruction, and grief?” As tragedians formulated their questions, they found a fertile ground in the tensions between men and women. To exploit the full dramatic potential of these tensions, tragedians needed women who could go toe to toe with the men. In a way, because of fifth century prejudices against women, for women to be able to go head to head with men, the women of tragedy had to be better and more talented than their male counterparts. In turn, the men in tragedy are often less clever and capable, as they have the tailwind of an androcentric society to prop them up.

In a risk theatre feminist reading, it is out of dramatic necessity, not a benevolent desire to improve women’s conditions or a malevolent desire to oppress women, that we have dynamic characters such as Clytemnestra, Medea, and Phaedra. What do you get when you put together powerhouse female characters with hotheaded male characters? You get unexpected endings. It is this unexpected ending that drew audiences back to tragedy again and again. Powerful female characters, in this light, are born out of dramatic necessity, a literary artifact.

That we have powerhouse female characters, of course, does not mean that women on stage were men’s equals. On stage, women are equal to men in their desire, but not in their power. The power disparity between the male and the female is not unlike the difference in power between mortals and immortals, another fertile source of inspiration for tragedians. Consider this beautiful passage from Homer’s Iliad where the god Apollo reminds the mortal Achilles that man is not god:

Then Phoebus Apollo spoke to the son of Peleus saying, “Why, son of Peleus, do you, who are but man, give chase to me who am immortal? Have you not yet found out that it is a god whom you pursue so furiously? You did not harass the Trojans whom you had routed, and now they are within their walls, while you have been decoyed hither away from them. Me you cannot kill, for death can take no hold upon me.” 

Achilles was greatly angered and said, “You have baulked me, Far-Darter, most malicious of all gods, and have drawn me away from the wall, where many another man would have bitten the dust ere he got within Ilius; you have robbed me of great glory and have saved the Trojans at no risk to yourself, for you have nothing to fear, but I would indeed have my revenge if it were in my power to do so.” 

A few things are telling in Achilles’ response. To Achilles, the difference between mortals and immortals isn’t that one is wiser or better looking or longer lasting. The difference, to Achilles, is only in the quanta of power they wield: “I would indeed have my revenge,” says Achilles, “if it were in my power to do so.” The difference between mortals and immortals does not lie in their physical or mental qualities, nor in their aspirations, dreams, and desires. The difference is that one has more power than the other.

In Achilles’ interaction with Apollo, he plays the female: he is mortal, Apollo is immortal. If we apply Achilles’ rebuke to Apollo to the dynamic between males and females, what we get is the female saying to the male: “I would have my way, if it were in my power to do so.” I think this is what we get in tragedy. Just like Achilles in the face of Apollo, the female is, in tragedy, everything the equal to the male, except in power. In all her physical and mental qualities, and also in her aspirations, dreams, and desires, the female is the male’s equal. In this way, tragedy was a progressive art. But it was not progressive for the sake of women. It was progressive because it made for a more entertaining play.

A feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy opens the doors to new avenues of research. Does the changing power differential between men and women from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides signify a change between men and women in the real world? Does the power disequilibrium between mortals and immortals shed light on the disequilibrium between men and women in fifth century Athens? What happens when the power differential between mortals and immortals is mapped onto the relationships between men and women?  And what about the immortals themselves?–how is gender constructed in high Olympus? If, as Euripides says, the function of tragedy is to dramatize unexpected outcomes, how do playwrights exploit the tensions between men and women to supercharge risk? A ton of possibilities emerges from a feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy.

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

What’s next in feminist philology? If first wave feminism was to explore the lives of real women, second wave feminism to explore the “lives” of women in the text, and third wave feminism to explore the influence the text has on reality, perhaps fourth wave feminism will be to explore what our changing interpretations of women in antiquity say about us ourselves in modernity? In critiquing misogyny and bad practises in the ancient world, perhaps we also expose some of our own underlying deficiencies? If history is any indication, some of our best and most progressive ideas will be judged quite harshly in the coming centuries, if not sooner. Like in theatre, unintended consequences attend the most noble intentions.

One thing that Wohl points out is that, no matter the stature of women in the ancient play, she still exists in an androcentric text written by a male author. With playwright competitions such as the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/), we are seeing more and more new tragedies being written by female tragedians. In 2020, 89 male playwrights and 46 female playwrights entered. Although two-thirds of the entries this year were by male playwrights, this is much better than antiquity where 100% of the surviving plays are by male playwrights. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a bold new 21st century tragedy with powerful and dynamic male and female characters interacting within a gynocentric instead of an androcentric text? And what fun that would be for feminist scholars to critique. Soon.

Author Blurb

Victoria Wohl is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (1998) and Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens (2003).

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.