Category: The Arts

My Conversation with Elisa New

Here is the audio and transcript, Elisa is a Professor of English at Harvard, with a specialty in poetry, and also star and driving force behind the new PBS show Poetry in America.  Most of all we talked about poetry!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let me express a concern, and see if you can talk me out of it. I’m going to use the word best, which I know many literary critics do not like, but I believe in the concept nonetheless.

In my view, the two best American poets are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and they were both a long, long time ago. They were quite early in the literary history of this nation.

Is that a statement about the fame-generating process, a statement about somehow their era was better at generating the best poets because we had a much smaller population, or am I simply wrong in thinking they’re the best American poets?

NEW: I don’t know what to say to you. I revere them. They are the most important poets for me. They invent two ways of being a poet, and two of the ways that so many poets who have followed them also acknowledge.

Would there be Hart CraneAllen GinsbergCarl SandburgC. D. WrightC. K. Williams? Would there be any of those — Frank O’Hara — without Walt Whitman? And they would be the first to say, “No.”

Would there be Susan HoweMarianne MooreElizabeth BishopSylvia Plath? All in different ways, would we have them without Emily Dickinson? I don’t know. I’m not sure I can enter . . . Is it that we’ve lost it? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’ve lost it.

COWEN: I turn to European history, again using the “best” word, but it’s plausible to think Homer and Dante are the two best European poets ever in some regards, and they, too, are each quite early in a particular stage of history. What is it about poetry that seems to generate so many people as at least plausible bests who come at the very beginnings of eras?

NEW: Well, isn’t it that poetry is cumulative, and canons are cumulative, and those who are there first, they’re never superseded — unlike, say, for economists who would say, “Adam Smith is a really smart guy, but it’s not like we go to Adam Smith to understand Bitcoin.” They would say, “No. That knowledge has been superseded.”

In literary knowledge, we continue to learn from our predecessors and also continue to feel awe before the persistence of certain phenomena that they . . . Shakespeare saw that Iago was a slippery-mouthed conniver of a kind we still recognize.

We recognize ourselves. We recognize something enduringly human in these oldest of poets, and then, maybe, we elevate them even more.

And:

COWEN: Is it possible that American English isn’t rich enough? I find if I go to Ireland, or especially to Trinidad, I envy the language they have there. They’re both speaking English. If you think of America today, there’s texting, now a long history of television.

Our language is great for quick communication, number one in the world for science. Now there’s social media. Nineteenth-century American English has longer sentences. It’s arguably more like British English. Isn’t the problem just the language we grow up with around us isn’t somehow good enough to sustain first-rate poets?

NEW: It is. It’s so rich. I love the way it evolves, the way my kids don’t say “whatever” anymore. “Whatever” had such incredible potency. “Epic.” When they started to say “epic” had such potency. When hip-hop artists say, “That’s really ill.”

I love the fertility of slang. I love the way mass culture, and its technological limitations, and then its new breaths does funny things to language. I tell my students about this. I say, “You know the way how in ’30s movies, the women are always sweeping around going, ‘Oh, darling,’ in The Thin Man, and there’s this ‘Hi, honey . . .’” [laughs]

If you watch a ’30s movie, and then you watch a ’50s movie, and you see the plasticity and the ingenuity that human beings put into . . . We don’t say, “Hey, kid.” We don’t call anyone a kid anymore. It sounds really archaic and corny.

And:

COWEN: Which is more interesting, Instagram poetry or Facebook poetry?

Definitely recommended, interesting throughout.  We talked about Shaq too.  After the conversation ended, Elisa said something striking to me, something like: “I liked this conversation because you didn’t ask me about “the humanities,” you asked me about poetry.”

Where do our best ideas come from?

A correspondent writes to me:

Isn’t it weird that the best ideas we have just…. pop into your head? I have no idea how to trace them. They just show up.

@Tyler any research into this area?

Dean Keith Simonton springs readily to mind, noting he has a new book coming out this year on genius.  Here are some overview pieces on simultaneous discovery, and of course those tend to stress environmental factors.  Here are some approaches to the multiplicative model of creative achievement.  I am a fan of that one.  What else?

Brutalism in Singapore

Is this article evidence that we (I?) are living in a simulation?  Or did the editors of The Economist place it as an Easter Egg for me?:

The building, which was once called a “vertical slum” by a Singaporean legislator, is a densely packed mix of residential and commercial units. Along with People’s Park in Chinatown (pictured), which has been praised by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, it is among a handful of Brutalist buildings that were built in a surge of architectural confidence after the country became independent in 1965. They are particularly adored by those who love concrete, as well as bold and wacky colours.

Modernist buffs have started to fret that many of these Brutalist buildings will soon be gone. In February one of them, Pearl Bank, once the highest residential tower in Singapore, was sold for S$728m ($544m) to CapitaLand, one of Asia’s largest real-estate developers. The company plans to demolish the yellow horseshoe structure and build a “high-rise residential development” of 800 flats in its place.

Here is the full story, here is a related article from Malay Mail.

My Conversation with David Brooks

David was in top form, and I feel this exchange reflected his core style very well, here is the audio and transcript.

We covered why people stay so lonely, whether the Amish are happy, life in Italy, the Whig tradition, the secularization thesis, the importance of covenants, whether Judaism or Christianity has a deeper reading of The Book of Exodus, whether Americans undervalue privacy, Bruce Springsteen vs. Bob Dylan, whether our next president will be a boring manager, and last but not least the David Brooks production function.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Walt Whitman, not only as a poet, but as a foundational thinker for America. Overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: I’d have to say slightly overrated.

COWEN: Tell us why.

BROOKS: I think his spirit and his energy sort of define America. His essay “Democratic Vistas” is one of my favorite essays. It captures both the vulgarity of America, but the energy and especially the business energy of America. But if we think the rise of narcissism is a problem in our society, Walt Whitman is sort of the holy spring there.

[laughter]

COWEN: Socrates, overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: [laughs] This is so absurd.

[laughter]

BROOKS: With everybody else it’s like Breaking Bad, overrated or underrated? I got Socrates.

[laughter]

BROOKS: I will say Socrates is overrated for this reason. We call them dialogues. But really, if you read them, they’re like Socrates making a long speech and some other schmo saying, “Oh yes. It must surely be so, Socrates.”

[laughter]

BROOKS: So it’s not really a dialogue, it’s just him speaking with somebody else affirming.

COWEN: And it’s Plato reporting Socrates. So it’s Plato’s monologue about a supposed dialogue, which may itself be a monologue.

BROOKS: Yeah. It was all probably the writers.

And on Milton Friedman:

BROOKS: I was a student at the University of Chicago, and they did an audition, and I was socialist back then. It was a TV show PBS put on, called Tyranny of the Status Quo, which was “Milton talks to the young.” So I studied up on my left-wing economics, and I went out there to Stanford. I would make my argument, and then he would destroy it in six seconds or so. And then the camera would linger on my face for 19 or 20 seconds, as I tried to think of what to say.

And it was like, he was the best arguer in human history, and I was a 22-year-old. It was my TV debut — you can go on YouTube. I have a lot of hair and big glasses. But I will say, I had never met a libertarian before. And every night — we taped for five days — every night he took me and my colleagues out to dinner in San Francisco and really taught us about economics.

Later, he stayed close to me. I called him a mentor. I didn’t become a libertarian, never quite like him, but a truly great teacher and a truly important influence on my life and so many others. He was a model of what an academic economist should be like.

Recommended.  (And I actually thought David did just fine in that early exchange with Friedman.)

Gonder, Ethiopia

Gonder was at the height of its prosperity at the turn of the eighteenth century, when it may have had a population of seventy thousand.  Emperor Fasilidades, who founded the new capital around 1635, obviously hoped to create a strong center around which the remnants of the Christian north could rally.  He picked a beautiful site, a flat volcanic ridge at seven thousand feet surrounded by mountains on three sides, but with easy access to Lake Tana in the south.  Gonder’s climate is warm during the day, cool at night, its two streams afforded plentiful water supplies and its hinterland abundant wood and produce.

Enough of an urban economy arose to sustain architecture, music, poetry, literature, painting, calligraphy, and educational, religious, and social institutions.  The emperors appeared in considerable state, surrounded by courtiers, clergy, and soldiers…

Image result for gondar ethiopia

The aristocracy and the monarchy supported the artists and artisans who put up buildings, illuminated manuscripts, decorates the interior of churches and palaces, and worked stone, wood, or pottery.  The town’s castles and other monuments were built of hewn brown basalt blocks and contained features that derived from Axumite and Zagwe times as well as Portuguese models.  They were concentrated in the center of the town, and provided a sharp contrast with the traditional round, thatched, mud wattled homes of the people.

Image result for gondar ethiopia church

That is all from the excellent Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia.

*The Radical Fool of Capitalism*

Bentham…appraised the trophies — dismissively dubbed “baked heads” — as technical innovations and recognized their potential for his own plans.  He enthusiastically praised the “savage ingenuity.”  An 1824 draft of his will was the first to contain the score of his wishes: first, to see the corpse as an inheritance…

According to legend, Behtam carried around the glass eyes intended for the Auto-Icon in his pocket in his final years.  (Supposed) attempts to dehydrating body parts in his home oven are said to have yielded satisfactory results.  Bentham believed the [Maori] mokomokai process would discolor facial traits and produce a parchment- or mummy-like appearance (which could be corrected with paint), while maintaining the physiognomy.

But Southwood Smith botched the job.  He sprinkled sulfuric acid onto the head, and in doing so docked Bentham’s nose.  He used an air pump to aid dehydration, which caused the skin to shrivel.  Bentham’s face appeared melted, the physiognomy destroyed.  In spring 1833, Smith commissioned a replacement head of wax…

That is from the new, excellent, and short The Radical Fool of Capitalism: On Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon, and the Auto-Icon, by Christian Welzbacher.

My Conversation with Bryan Caplan

Bryan was in top form, I can’t recall hearing him being more interesting or persuasive.  Here is the audio and text.  We talked about whether any single paper is good enough, the autodidact’s curse, the philosopher who most influenced Bryan, the case against education, the Straussian reading of Bryan, effective altruism, Socrates, Larry David, where to live in 527 A.D., the charm of Richard Wagner, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You love Tolstoy, right?

CAPLAN: Yeah. You love Tolstoy because here’s a guy who not only has this encyclopedic knowledge of human beings — you say he knows human nature. Tolstoy knows human natures. He realizes that there are hundreds of kinds of people, and like an entomologist, he has the patience to study each kind on its own terms.

Tolstoy, you read it: “There are 17 kinds of little old ladies. This was the 13th kind. This was the kind that’s very interested in what you’re eating but doesn’t wish to hear about your romance, which will be contrasted with the seventh kind which has exactly the opposite preferences.” That’s what’s to me so great about Tolstoy.

Here is one of my questions:

What’s the fundamental feature in Bryan Caplan–think that has made you, unlike most other nerds, so much more interested in Stalin than science fiction?

Here is another exchange:

COWEN: You think, in our society in general, this action bias infests everything? Or is there some reason why it’s drawn like a magnet to education?

CAPLAN: Action bias primarily drives government. For individuals, I think even there there’s some action bias. But nevertheless, for the individual, there is the cost of just going and trying something that’s not very likely to succeed, and the connection with the failure and disappointment, and a lot of things don’t work out.

There’s a lot of people who would like to start their own business, but they don’t try because they have some sense that it’s really hard.

What I see in government is, there isn’t the same kind of filter, which is a big part of my work in general in politics. You don’t have the same kind of personal disincentives against doing things that sound good but actually don’t work out very well in practice.

Probably even bigger than action bias is actually what psychologists call social desirability bias: just doing things that sound good whether or not they actually work very well and not really asking hard questions about whether things that sound good will work out very well in practice.

I also present what I think are the three strongest arguments against Bryan’s “education is mostly signaling” argument — decide for yourself how good his answers are.

And:

COWEN: …Parenting and schooling in your take don’t matter so much. Something is changing these [norms] that is mostly not parenting and not schooling. And they are changing quite a bit, right?

CAPLAN: Yes.

COWEN: Is it like all technology? Is the secret reading of Bryan Caplan that you’re a technological determinist?

CAPLAN: I don’t think so. In general, not a determinist of any kind.

COWEN: I was teasing about that.

And last but not least:

CAPLAN: …When someone gets angry at Robin, this is what actually outrages me. I just want to say, “Look, to get angry at Robin is like getting angry at baby Jesus.” He’s just a symbol and embodiment of innocence and decency. For someone to get angry at someone who just wants to learn . . .

COWEN: And when they get mad at me?

CAPLAN: Eh, I understand that.

Hail Bryan Caplan!  Again here is the link, and of course you should buy his book The Case Against Education.

What is the “Poet Voice” signaling?

By comparing Poets and Talkers along these lines, the researchers were able to draw two overall conclusions. First, when compared to the Talkers, the poets tended to speak more slowly and stay within a narrower pitch range. Second, very few Talkers indulged in long pauses, but plenty of poets—33 percent—had no trouble leaving their listeners hanging for two seconds or more…

This is also, perhaps, why it can seem grating or detached: “In a more natural conversational intonation pattern, you vary your pitch for emphasis depending on how you feel about something,” says MacArthur. “In this style of poetry reading, those idiosyncrasies … get subordinated to this repetitive cadence. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, you just say it in the same way.” Overall, the researchers write, “from this small sample, we would conclude that perhaps when some listeners hear poets read with one or more of these characteristics—slow pitch speed, slow pitch acceleration, narrow pitch range, low rhythmic complexity, and/or slow speaking rate—they hear Poet Voice.”

Here is more from Cara Giaimo at Atlas Obscura.

N.V.N.

Of course I end up reading much more than what gets reported here on MR.  In my preparation for my Conversation with poetry scholar Elisa New, I ran across this wonderful Anna Akhmatova poem, entitled N.V.N. and translated by Jane Kenyon:

There is a sacred, secret line in loving

which attraction and even passion cannot cross, —

even if lips draw near in awful silence

and love tears at the heart.

 

Friendship is weak and useless here,

and years of happiness, exalted and full of fire,

because the soul is free and does not know

the slow luxuries of sensual life.

 

Those who try to come near it are insane

and those who reach it are shaken by grief.

So now you know exactly why

my heart beats no faster under your hand.

 

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming…

Derek Parfit’s photographs are going on display in London

Most of the paragraphs in this Jonathan Derbyshire FT article are excellent, here is one of them:

Sokolsky-Tifft recalls Parfit quoting a line from Homer in the middle of a talk. “He started to weep because he found it so beautiful. That was when I first started to get the idea that this was a man with a strange heart, for whom art was always bubbling beneath the surface of these logical arguments.”

And:

Parfit attributed his obsession with a handful of places — he once said that there were only 10 things in the world he wanted to photograph — to a condition called aphantasia, the inability to form mental images. He was unable to visualise things familiar to him, even his wife’s face when they weren’t together.

Recommended, the work is first-rate, as is the article, and subscribe to the FT if you must.

What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?

The symphony orchestra and the Industrial Revolution

I heard Mozart’s 39th symphony in concert last night, and it occurred to me (once again) that I also was witnessing one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements.  Think about what went into the activity: each instrument, developed eventually to perfection and coordinated with the other instruments.  The system of tuning and the underlying principles of the music.  The acoustics of the music hall.  The sheet music on paper and the musical notation.  All of those features extremely well coordinated with the kind of compositional talent being produced in Central and Western Europe from say 1710 to 1920.  And by the mid-18th century most of the key features of this system were in place and by the early 19th century they were more or less perfected.

Sometimes I think of the Industrial Revolution as fundamentally a Cultural Revolution.  The first instantiation of this Cultural Revolution maybe was the rise of early Renaissance Art in Italy and in the Low Countries.  That too was based on a series of technological developments, including improved quality tempera paint, the development of oil painting, the resumption of bronze and marble techniques for sculpture, and the reintroduction of paper into Europe, which enabled artists’ sketches and drawings.

As with classical music, this unfolding of quality production was all based on extreme experimentation, a kind of scientific method, urbanization, and competing city-states.  There was also the rediscovery of knowledge from antiquity, and the importation or reimportation of science from China and the Arabic world, including the afore-mentioned knowledge of paper-making.

The creation of a book culture, and a culture of experimental science, could be cited as well.

Perhaps the only [sic] difference with the Industrial Revolution proper is that it came to sectors — energy, transport, and textiles — that boosted living standards immensely.  But arguably it was just another of a series of Cultural Revolutions that had their roots in late medieval times, with even classical music deriving ultimately from Franco-Flemish polyphony.  One of these Cultural Revolutions just happened to be Industrial.

Of course the earliest parts of Revolutions are often the best, as we’ve surpassed the steam engines of the 19th century but Mozart and Leonardo are still with us.

Washington, D.C. fact of the day

The National African Art Museum has a problem:

Attendance dropped to 159,000 last year from a high of 403,000 in 2009, when there was a special exhibition. Last year’s number is 43 percent below the 10-year average.

One of the under-reported stories about D.C. is how much the city’s art museums have faded as intellectual and cultural centers for the city.  This seems to be extreme for the African museum, perhaps because of urban gentrification, and perhaps because the African museum has an especially hard time mounting blockbuster exhibits famous to the public eye.  Prince Twins Seven Seven just isn’t as famous as he ought to be.

In the meantime, you all have the internet to keep you busy.

Software engineer and psychologist wanted

AI Grant (aigrant.org) is a distributed AI research lab. Their goal is to find and fund the modern day Einsteins: brilliant minds from untraditional backgrounds working on AI.

They need a software engineer. The qualifications are twofold: an intrinsic interest in the problem of identifying talented people across the world, and a demonstrated ability to ship software projects without much supervision. This doesn’t have to be through traditional means. It could just be side-projects on Github.

They’re also looking for a psychologist with experience in personality and IQ modeling.

Bay Area location is a big plus, but not a requirement. If you’re interested in learning more, email team@aigrant.org with information about yourself.

This is not a paid ad, but I am seeking to do a favor for the excellent and highly talented Daniel Gross (and perhaps for you), with whom you would get to work.  Do please mention MR if you decide to apply!