Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery

The Logic of Scientific DiscoveryThe Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl R. Popper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We do not know: we can only guess.

Karl Popper originally wrote Logik der Forchung (The Logic of Research) in 1934. This original version—published in haste to secure an academic position and escape the threat of Nazism (Popper was of Jewish descent)—was heavily condensed at the publisher’s request; and because of this, and because it remained untranslated from the German, the book did not receive the attention it deserved. This had to wait until 1959, when Popper finally released a revised and expanded English translation. Yet this condensation and subsequent expansion have left their mark on the book. Popper makes his most famous point within the first few dozen pages; and much of the rest of the book is given over to dead controversies, criticisms and rejoinders, technical appendices, and extended footnotes. It does not make for the most graceful reading experience.

This hardly matters, however, since it is here that Popper put forward what has arguably become the most famous concept in the philosophy of science: falsification.

This term is widely used; but its original justification is not, I believe, widely understood. Popper’s doctrine must be understood as a response to inductivism. Now, in 1620 Francis Bacon released his brilliant Novum Organum. Its title alludes to Aristotle’s Organon, a collection of logical treatises, mainly focusing on how to make accurate deductions. This Aristotelian method—dominated by syllogisms: deriving conclusions from given premises—dominated the study of nature for millennia, with precious little to show for it. Francis Bacon hoped to change all that with his new doctrine of induction. Instead of beginning with premises (‘All men are mortal’), and reasoning to conclusions (‘Socrates is mortal’), the investigator must begin with experiences (‘Socrates died,’ ‘Plato died,’ etc.) and then generalize a conclusion (‘All men are mortal’). This was how science was to proceed: from the specific to the general.

This seemed all fine and dandy until, in 1738, David Hume published his Treatise of Human Nature, in which he explained his infamous ‘problem of induction.’ Here is the idea. If you see one, two, three… a dozen… a thousand… a million white swans, and not a single black one, it is still illogical to conclude “All swans are white.” Even if you investigated every swan in the world but one, and they all proved white, you still could not conclude with certainty that the last one would be white. Aside from modus tollens (concluding from a negative specific to a negative general), here is no logically justifiable way to proceed from the specific to the general. To this argument, many are tempted to respond: “But we know from experience that induction works. We generalize all the time.” Yet this is to use induction to prove that induction works, which is paradoxical. Hume’s problem of induction has proven to be a stumbling block for philosophers ever since.

In the early parts of the 20th century, the doctrine of logical positivism arose in the philosophical world, particularly in the ‘Vienna Circle’. This had many proponents and many forms, but the basic idea, as explained by A.J. Ayer, is the following. The meaning of a sentence is equivalent to its verification; and verification is performed through experience. Thus the sentence “The cat is on the mat” can be verified by looking at the mat; it is a meaningful utterance. But the sentence “The world is composed of mind” cannot be verified by any experience; it is meaningless. Using this doctrine the positivists hoped to eliminate all metaphysics. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine also eliminates human knowledge, since, as Hume showed, generalizations can never be verified. No experience corresponds, for example, to the statement: “Gravitation is proportional to the product of mass and the inverse square of distance,” since this is an unlimitedly general statement, and experiences are always particular.

Karl Popper’s falsificationism is meant to solve this problem. First, it is important to note that Popper is not, like the positivists, proposing a criterion of ‘meaning’. That is to say that, for Popper, unfalsifiable statements can still be meaningful; they just do not tell us anything about the world. Indeed, he continually notes how metaphysical ideas (such as Kepler’s idea that circles are more ‘perfect’ than other shapes) have inspired and guided scientists. This is itself an important distinction because it prevents him from falling into the same paradox as the positivists. For if only the statements with empirical content have meaning, then the statement “only the statements with empirical content have meaning” is itself meaningless. Popper, for his part, regarded himself as the enemy of linguistic philosophy and considered the problem of epistemology quite distinct from language analysis.

To return to falsification, Popper’s fundamental insight is that verification and falsification are not symmetrical. While no general statement can be proved using a specific instance, a general statement can indeed be disproved with a specific instance. A thousand white swans does not prove all swans are white; but one black swan disproves it. (This is the aforementioned modus tollens.) All this may seem trivial; but as Popper realized, this changes the nature of scientific knowledge as we know it. For science, then, is far from what Bacon imagined it to be—a carefully sifted catalogue of experiences, a collection of well-founded generalizations—and is rather a collection of theories which spring up, as it were, from the imagination of the scientist in the hopes of uniting several observed phenomena under one hypothesis. Or to put it more bluntly: a good scientific theory is a guess that does not prove wrong.

With his central doctrine established, Popper goes on to the technicalities. He discusses what composes the ‘range’ or ‘scope’ of a theory, and how some theories can be said to encompass others. He provides an admirable justification for Occam’s Razor—the preference for simpler over more complex explanations—since theories with fewer parameters are more easily falsified and thus, in his view, more informative. The biggest section is given over to probability. I admit that I had some difficulty following his argument at times, but the gist of his point is that probability must be interpreted ‘objectively,’ as frequency distributions, rather than ‘subjectively,’ as degrees of certainty, in order to be falsifiable; and also that the statistical results of experiments must be reproducible in order to avoid the possibility of statistical flukes.

All this leads up to a strangely combative section on quantum mechanics. Popper apparently was in the same camp as Einstein, and was put off by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Like Einstein, Popper was a realist and did not like the idea that a particle’s properties could be actually undetermined; he wanted to see the uncertainty of quantum mechanics as a byproduct of measurement or of ‘hidden variables’—not as representing something real about the universe. And like Einstein (though less famously) Popper proposed an experiment to decide the issue. The original experiment, as described in this book, was soon shown to be flawed; but a revised experiment was finally conducted in 1999, after Popper’s death. Though the experiment agreed with Popper’s prediction (showing that measuring an entangled photon does not affect its pair), it had no bearing on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which restricts arbitrarily precise measurements on a single particle, not a pair of particles.

Incidentally, it is difficult to see why Popper is so uncomfortable with the uncertainty principle. Given his own dogma of falsifiability, the belief that nature is inherently deterministic (and that probabilistic theories are simply the result of a lack of our own knowledge) should be discarded as metaphysical. This is just one example of how Popper’s personality was out of harmony with his own doctrines. An advocate of the open society, he was famously authoritarian in his private life, which led to his own alienation. This is neither here nor there, but it is an interesting comment on the human animal.

Popper’s doctrine, like all great ideas, has proven both influential and controversial. For my part I think falsification a huge advance over Bacon’s induction or the positivists’ verification. And despite the complications, I think that falsifiability is a crucial test to distinguish, not only science from pseudo-science, but all dependable knowledge from myth. For both pseudo-science and myth generally distinguish themselves by admirably fitting the data set, but resisting falsification. Freud’s theories, for example, can accommodate themselves to any set of facts we throw at them; likewise for intelligent design, belief in supernatural beings, or conspiracy theories. All of these seem to explain everything—and in a way they do, since they fit the observable data—but really explain nothing, since they can accommodate any new observation.

There are some difficulties with falsification, of course. The first is observation. For what we observe, or even what we count as an ‘observation’, is colored by our background beliefs. Whether to regard a dot in the sky as a plane, a UFO, or an angel is shaped by the beliefs we already hold; thus it is possible to disregard observations that run counter to our theories, rather than falsifying the theories. What is more, theories never exist in isolation, but in an entire context of beliefs; so if one prediction is definitively falsified, it can still be unclear what we must change in our interconnected edifice of theories. Further, it is rare for experimental predictions to agree exactly with results; usually they are approximately correct. But where do we draw the line between falsification and approximate correctness? And last, if we formulate a theory which withstands test after test, predicting their results with extreme accuracy time and again, must we still regard the theory as a provisional guess?

To give Popper credit, he responds to all of these points in this work, though perhaps not with enough discussion. But all these criticisms belie the fact that so much of the philosophy of science written after Popper has taken his work as a starting point, either attempting to amplify, modify, or (dare I say it?) falsify his claims. For my part, though I was often bored by the dry style and baffled by the technical explanations, I found myself admiring Popper’s careful methodology: responding to criticisms, making fine distinctions, building up his system piece by piece. Here is a philosopher deeply committed to the ideal of rational argument and deeply engaged with understanding the world. I am excited to read more.

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Central Europe: Vienna

Central Europe: Vienna

The train from Munich crawled through the city’s surroundings towards the central train station. We were entering Vienna. I gazed eagerly through the window, but could discern nothing save for the usual nondescript buildings, the industrial wreckage, and the bleak tracks and power cables that surrounds every modern city like a cage. Nevertheless I was excited. I had just finished Stefan Zweig’s absorbing autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which portrays the Vienna of the pre-War years (before World War I, that is), in loving detail. But I hardly needed Zweig’s description to know that I was entering one of Europe’s cultural capitals, where great artists, writers, and especially musicians lived and worked.

Thus I felt a little disoriented when I stepped off the train and found myself on a city street. I don’t know what I was expecting—a giant opera house or a city-sized museum—but certainly not an ordinary street, full of ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Indeed, the scene that confronted me was rather ugly, full of glass office buildings surrounded by yellow cranes (no doubt busy erecting more glass office buildings). Yet the disillusion quickly passed, since, after storing my bags in a luggage locker, I went straight to the Belvedere Palace Museum, a quick ten-minute walk away. Thus before I could even glimpse the city I was plunged into its art.

Belvedere_Palace

The Belvedere Palace consists of two buildings, an upper and a lower, both built during the Baroque period. They are separated by a lovely orangerie, a French-style garden full of neoclassical statues, carefully pruned ferns, decorous fountains, and artificial ponds. From the Upper Belvedere (where the museum’s most famous art is located), the visitor can see Vienna’s center looming beyond, with its cathedral’s dark spire splitting the skyline. It is a lovely place, worth visiting even if it were not full of famous works of art; and its design, by Johann Lukas von Hildebrant, proved stylistically influential. But I am no connoisseur of palaces or their deadening pomp. So after a quick walk around the gardens, I queued up and passed through the ornate lobby into the museum.

Belvedere_Collage
Above: the Belvedere gardens. Below: a painting of the gardens by Canaletto

The Upper Belvedere’s collection focuses on art from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The highlight of its collection, and the reason why so many tourists bother visiting, is its extensive collection of Klimt’s work. For my part I knew close to nothing about Gustav Klimt before my visit; thus I felt somewhat out of place in such a horde of gaping spectators. Klimt is much more famous than I had suspected. There was a frenetic energy in the Klimt rooms, much like the atmosphere in the Louvre around the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, with tour groups jostling for photos (which are inevitably ruined by other jostling tourists). What was all the fuss about?

The first works I encountered were of plants, trees, and other natural scenes. Klimt’s style immediately struck me for its resemblance to wallpaper. An eye for pattern and design transforms everything into an ornament: the colors decorate rather than delineate, and any sense of depth is flattened into the scheme. As I gazed into the swarming mass of greens, pinks, reds, blues, and yellows, I felt a tingling sense of pleasure, like that of drinking cool soda water on a hot day. Every element of the paintings was subservient to a sense of texture, an almost tactile use of color. I would not call them beautiful, but they are very pretty.

But Klimt’s most famous works are not of nature, but of women. These combine his taste for the ornate with a surprisingly frank sensuality; and the combination has proven popular.

Kilmt_Judith

Judith and the Head of Holofernes illustrates this perfectly. Klimt takes the original story from the Book of Judith—about a widow visiting an enemy force and decapitating its general, Holofernes, traditionally interpreted as an act of pious devotion—and turns it into one of the most iconic images of the femme fatale. The disrobed Judith looks at the viewer with an extraordinary expression, a perfect mixture of scorn and invitation, of seduction and triumph. Her carefully realistic skin contrasts sharply with the abstract two-dimensional background, made from gold-leaf, which makes her seem to pop out from a graphic design. Though the painting celebrates the triumph of woman over man, to me it represents the double poles of fear and desire of the male gaze—the sex drive tinged with castration anxiety, to use a Freudian expression (as we must, in his home city).

Even more famous than this painting is The Kiss. Indeed, it is so famous it can hardly be properly seen, which is the irony of so many famous painting. The crowds they attract make it impossible for the visitor to observe closely, to ponder, to become completely absorbed in the work. To give the museum credit, they have set up a printed copy of the work in an adjoining room, marked “Kiss Selfie Point,” in the hopes that selfie-seekers would go there and leave the original unmolested. But it did not work. Dozens of people were gathered around, all busy taking pictures of each other and of themselves, and seemingly none actually looking at the painting.

Kiss_Painting

All this notwithstanding, I can see why the painting has become so iconic. The woman kneels on a flowery meadow, her lover bending down to kiss her cheek. The poses are exaggerated and unnatural, reminding me of Mannerism; the man’s neck in particular seems painfully bent. Yet all the attention is focused on the woman’s face, which wears a look of rapturous joy. They are both wrapped in golden clokes, the man’s with a stiff vertical design, the woman’s with swirling spirals, which serve to obscure their bodies into one amorphous whole. The composition of the figures, situated at the top of the canvass, makes it seem as if all nature—the earth, the flowers, the stars—are swelling and concentrating themselves on this one blissful moment.

Having said all this in Klimt’s praise, I must admit that I am not particularly fond of his work. At best the strike me as excellent graphic designs, absorbing and attractive, but failing to touch any strong emotional or intellectual keys in me.

The Upper Belvedere has more to offer besides the world’s best collection of Klimt. One painting which stands out in my memory is a pentaptych (consisting of five separate panels) by Hans Makart, portraying the five senses in allegorical form, as female nudes engaged in symbolic poses—looking at a mirror, cupping an ear, smelling a flower, reaching for an apple, or resting a hand on a cloth. The painting is saved from its potentially trite theme and shallow symbolism by excellent technique and tasteful execution; the result is an ode to sensuality, which artfully represents Makart’s own views on ‘Total Art’ (art that appeals to all the senses). As you may know this idea is mostly associated with Wagner, and indeed the two of them were friends in life. The sensuality of Makart’s work was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable influence on Klimt, who is said to have worshipped him.

Makart_Fuenf_Sinne

Another famous painting on display is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. This is one of five surviving versions by the painter, the others scattered around Europe. The original painting, which hangs in Malmaison, was commissioned by Napoleon to send to Charles IV of Spain after the two countries’ rapprochement following the strife of the Revolution. (Charles sent Napoleon a portrait of himself by Goya.) The painting is executed in David’s characteristic neoclassical style, turning Napoleon into a second Alexander the Great. Though the heroic ethos of David’s paintings is ethically questionable at best—the worship of warriors and conquerors is something I have trouble understanding—his works are undeniably visually striking and impressive, and this one is no exception.

Napoleon_at_the_Great_St._Bernard_-_Jacques-Louis_David_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

The only other work I will mention (though there are many more deserving of note, ranging stylistically from neoclassicism to romanticism to impressionism) is the collection of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. These are hard to miss: they cover an entire wall in the museum and, besides, are unlike any other busts in the world. Rather than sculpt images of calm dignity, Messerschmidt made a collection of extreme expressions and distorted features. Apparently he achieved this by pinching himself and observing his reactions in the mirror. They must have been awfully painful pinches, since many of the busts portray horrendous grimaces. But pain is not all he captured; some are smiling maniacally, some have their lips pursed like an old lecher, some are engaged in a terrific yawn, and so on, covering everything from delirium to disgust. It strikes one as a little silly at first; but given how often we tense up our faces—from pain, from pleasure, from a curious odor—we may rank Messerschmidt as a more accurate chronicler of the human soul than many more famous sculptors.

Belvedere_Bust

After taking in my fill of art, I returned to the train station, picked up my bags, and went off to check in to my Airbnb. The gap between my arrival in a city and the check-in time of my accomodations, by the way, is something that had been troubling me. For how can I take advantage of arriving early if I have to drag my bags around until the afternoon? The luggage lockers in train stations have proven to be the best way to solve this problem; and I recommend their use to any similarly beset travelers.

Now it was time to see the old city center. The first thing I noticed is that Vienna is very flat. Everything seemed situated on a level plain, which somehow made distances seem longer. Little deviations in angle help to make one feel progression; without that, one feels as though one is on a treadmill. The wide and long avenues also contributed to this impression: I felt small in the openness of the city’s streets, trying to traverse a space too expansive for my puny legs. But what most struck me about Vienna was the city’s unified aesthetic. Everything is built in a grand, stately style, in a noble marble-white. Walking around the center, you do indeed get the impression that you are wandering around a massive palace or museum or opera house, or rather some combination of all of the above. And this is not very far from the truth.

Vienna_city

Vienna is sometimes called the “City of Music,” and the city will not let you forget it. Concerts are everywhere. Salesmen sporting white wigs and dressed in fluffy satin suits walk the streets selling tickets to see performances of Mozart and Beethoven. It is no wonder that the city is known for music, considering that not only Mozart and Beethoven, but also Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg have worked here. Nevertheless I find it somewhat depressing that the genuine cultural vibrancy that made the city so famous—the universal love of art that Zweig lovingly describes in his autobiography, in which the theater and the opera were universal obsessions—have been turned into a kind of parody of what it was, a tourist industry, in which cookie-cutter performances of canonical works are sold to tourists, the majority of whom have only a very limited interested in classical music. I suppose this is only to be expected, considering that the profit motive of the vendors harmonizes with the desire of the tourist for iconic experiences.

Vienna_Opera
The Staatsoper

All this being said, it is no doubt true that Vienna still has a thriving performance scene. This is evidenced by the city’s several opera houses, the most famous of which being the Staatsoper, or State Opera House. This is a monumental and dignified building, built in the nineteenth century, in which Gustav Mahler worked as a conductor. Though I unfortunately did not take this opportunity (since I didn’t know at the time), it is possible to buy cheap standing-room tickets 80 minutes before a show. Another notable venue in Vienna is the Burgtheater, a elegantly decorated circular building near the Town Hall. I did not venture within, but from the outside I observed busts of Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing hovering above me, the gods of German theater. This theater, still popular, has historically been important in the German-speaking world for its trend-setting style.

Vienna_Theater
The Burgtheater

From there I walked to Vienna’s lovely neo-gothic city hall, situated at the end of a large plaza. Opened in 1883, the building bears a strong resemblance to Munich’s neo-gothic town hall (built around the same time). I suppose this resemblance is due to both structures owing much to Brussels’ authentically gothic city hall. On the day I visited there was an outdoor fair set up, and the square was full of trailers and tents selling appetizing food. Though I was tempted by Indian curry and Turkish kebab, I decided that, since I was in Vienna, I had better have a sausage. It was spicy, filled with cheese, and came with warm potato salad. The Austrians, like the Germans, certainly know how to accompany a beer.

Vienna_Cityhall

Near the City Hall (or Rathaus, in the teutonic speech) is Universität Wien’s central building. It does not look especially interesting from the street; but after wandering inside I found myself in a lovely courtyard, whose shaded walk enclosed busts of the notable Austrian intellectuals that have been associated with the university. There I found Freud’s scowling face, whose enormous forehead and glowering eyes reveal a man who sought dark secrets. Much more cheerful is Karl Popper, who looks eminently professorial and harmless, even avuncular—though I think the real Popper was not so mild. Erwin Schrödinger looks completely abstracted, as if lost in an uncomfortable dream (presumably featuring a cat); his bust has his famous equation—used to calculate quantum effects—written beneath his name. Vienna is certainly not short on intellectuals.

Klimt was famously commissioned to decorate the Great Hall of this university in 1894. When he finally revealed his designs for Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, the university reacted with shock and alarm, declaiming the works as pornographic and refusing to install them. The originals no longer survive, since the Nazis reportedly destroyed them during their retreat, though this is not confirmed. Judging from the surviving photographs, the works are quite impressive allegorical designs—both deeply original and visually striking. That being said, the profusion of nude women is hardly in keeping with the sober dignity of an old university. But when they commissioned Klimt, what did they expect?

Next to the university is the Sigmund Freud Park, where I observed college students in their native habitat—bent over cheap takeout noodles, their heads buried in books. This park is presided over by the Votivkirche, an excellent example of neo-gothic architecture, comparable even to St. Patrick’s in New York City. Its name (“Votive Church”) alludes to its construction: it was built to give thanks to God after a failed assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853, for saving the emperor’s life. God may have not been so pleased, seeing as Franz Joseph lived to see the death of his brother, his wife, and his son (Archduke Franz Ferdinand), and to witness the beginning of the Great War which would end his empire for good. Lovely as the church is, I could not properly appreciate its form, since it was being restored when I visited; and so its façade was covered with scaffolding, which in turn was covered with a giant advertisement. Nowadays even churches are billboards.

Vienna’s most famous church may be the Peterskirche. This was remodeled by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, who you may remember as the same man who designed the Belvedere Palace. Though the outside of the church is, in my opinion, unremarkable, its inside is quite impressive, decorated from top to bottom in a florid yet tasteful Baroque. Outside the church’s front entrance is the Pestsäule, or Plague Column, a memorial to the Great Plague epidemic of 1679. The column is bursting with forms and figures, using a complex iconography to represent the victory of faith over the threatening disease (in those days thought to be caused by sin). Though full of angels, the bulbous form of the column manages to be quite grotesque, which I think is appropriate given what it commemorates.

One more church deserves mention. On one of my walks back to my Airbnb I stumbled upon the Karlskirche, which unfortunately was closed when I found it. Yet, even from the outside, the church leaves an impression for its monumental size and for the spiral columns (inspired by Trajan’s column) that flank its entrance. The Karlskirche is only a five-minute walk from another of Vienna’s treasures: the Naschmarkt. This is a street market that has existed since the sixteenth century. Now, I am no foodie, nor do I enjoy shopping for exotic products. Nevertheless I was impressed by the vast display of fresh fruits and vegetables, of spices and herbs, of candies and baked goods, all of which seem to go on forever—indeed, it was almost unbearable to witness, since I visited on an empty stomach (but didn’t leave that way).

Naschmarkt_collage
Stalls at the Naschmarkt (above); and a painting of the same market, with Karlskirche in the background (below)

Yet dwarfing even the finest of these churches in size and splendor is Vienna’s Cathedral, the Stephansdom. Its profile is unmistakable. The front entrance of the cathedral (to the west) is flanked by two Romanesque towers, rising up in grandiose dignity. To the back is the cathedral’s famous southern bell tower, a massive gothic spire that can be seen from many corners of the city, a feature as characteristic of Vienna’s skyline as is the Duomo in Florence. Yet the Cathedral’s most striking feature is not its towers nor its profile, but its colorful roof. The Stephansdom’s slanted roof is decorated with glazed tiles; on the southern side these are arranged into a bright diagonal pattern; and on the north the tiles create Vienna’s and Austria’s coats of arms. The inside of the cathedral is decorated in a high gothic style and contains the tomb of Emperor Frederick III, who was responsible for obtaining cathedral-status for the church from Pope Paul II.

Cathedral_Collage
A painting from the Belvedere (left) and my photo (right)

I feel that I am rambling on about Vienna, and yet failing to capture the flavor of the city—a city which for so long was one of the great cultural and political centers of the continent. “Center” is the operative word here, since the city leaves no doubt that it was the seat of power and the ultimate arbiter of artistic taste. Yet I am cataloguing buildings as if they were a random assemblage, while Vienna seldom feels haphazard or fortuitous; rather the city feels planned down the last centimeter, like one giant palatial complex. Indeed, you might say that the city seems to grow out of the labyrinthine Hofburg Palace in the city center. This palace served as the winter residence of the omnipotent Habsburgs for generations; and it is still occupied by the President of Austria.

The most iconic view of the palace is from the Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, a crushingly vast, open space that features two heroic equestrian statues: of Archduke Charles of Austria, and of Prince Eugene of Savoy, two of Austria’s greatest generals. Facing this plaza are the arching wings of the Neue Burg, the newer section of the palace (built in the 1800s), whose arms sweep out like a giant embrace. This is only a fraction of the palace, however, which expands chaotically through the area. Built over a span of centuries, the Hofburg lacks the unified grandeur of, say, Versailles or the Schönbrunn. Indeed, when I visited I could not tell where it begun or ended.

Hofburg

Nowadays the gargantuan complex, in addition to being the official residence of Austria’s leader, is the home of several institutions. One wonders how any emperor, however egotistical and vain, could ever have used so much space. The aforementioned Neue Burg, for example, is home to an ethnology museum, a museum of arms and armor, and a museum of musical instruments. Elsewhere in the complex is Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School, which puts on horse shows that are a popular attraction. (I didn’t go.) The Imperial Treasure is also on display—with its bejewelled crowns and scepters and other ornaments of power—though no doubt well guarded. What attracted me most was the Court Library (now part of the Austrian National Library), famous for its gorgeously decorated Punksaal (“State Hall”). And this is only a taste of the behemoth.

Right next door to the Neue Burg of the Hofburg is the Maria-Theresien-Platz, an attractive square named for the statue of Empress Maria Theresa in its center. Two of Vienna’s most famous museums face each other from across the square: the Kunsthistorisches Museum (the Museum of the History of Art) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (the Museum of Natural History). These are housed in matching grand, palatial buildings, topped with a dome, which creates a satisfying symmetry across the square. The two buildings were built under the reign of the unhappy Franz Joseph in order to make the imperial art and science collections public—for which we may heartily thank him. Though both museums are popular attractions, the art museum is indisputably the more so. Being in all things a follower, I visited this one.

The museum building itself is attractive. A mock-palace decorated in a neoclassical style, each room is well-tailored to the art it displays: providing a charming but not distracting background. The exception to this is the central stairwell, which is adorned with statues of heroes and lions, and whose ceiling and walls are covered in paintings. Klimt is responsible for a few of these paintings, such as a nude Cleopatra that occupies a nook. Not only is the building itself impressive, but the exhibitions are expertly arranged and displayed. It is an excellent institution.

Gemma_augustus

Despite the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s name, the museum is not an attempt to portray the whole history of art. The collection is, rather, the result of the tastes of Emperors and the periods of their glory. Thus we begin with antiquities—Egyptian and Greco-Roman—for the Empire funded and commissioned many excavations in the years when it was easier to simply take artifacts from their native lands. I admit that it was difficult for me to pay proper attention to these collections, since I was in Austria to learn about Austria, not Egypt or Greece. This is a shame, however, as the collections are undeniably impressive, well-organized and displayed, and featuring thousands of items—many of them beautiful and all of them instructive. Of particular note is the Cult Chamber of Ka-ni-nisut (a section of an Old Egyptian Temple) and marvelous Gemma Augusta, a delicately carved inscribed gem from a Roman workman.

From these relics of ancient peoples the collection jumps to the high point of Habsburg in the Kunstkammer rooms. A Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer (normally translated as “chamber of curiosities”) originated during the Renaissance as a kind of private a museum, a collection of strange and rare objects to stimulate the mind (and sometimes thought to have occult properties). The other examples I have seen contained fossils (not understood at the time), stuffed exotic animals, and foreign artifacts. But the Kunstkammer in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is full to the brim of luxury items, the most striking of which are delicate creations in gold. Far from the product of intellectual curiosity, this collection seems more to be a display of wealth.

The most notable item in this section is the salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini. I was especially keen to see this, since I had read and loved Cellini’s roguish autobiography—possibly my favorite example of the genre—in which he repeatedly boasts that he is the best goldsmith in the world, even of all time. So I was curious to see whether his boasting was justified. It was. I find it depressing to think that this man, who wrote one of the great books of the Italian Renaissance, was also an extremely accomplished artist. Some people can do everything. The cellar contains two reclining figures: a man representing the sea, and a woman representing the earth. Each is seated next to decorous boxes, one to contain salt, the other pepper. The craftsmanship is exquisite in every detail: the bodies lithe and expressive, the ornamentation sumptuous. Imagine having something like that at your dinner table.

Cellini_salt

Though the Cellini Salt Cellar is without doubt the highlight of the Kunstkammer rooms for its artistry, it is only a small part of the extraordinary display of craftsmanship and wealth. A succession of Habsburgs used their combination of resources and connections to assemble a vast collection of scientific instruments, statuettes, models, clocks, lamps, and decorative plates, trays, and cutlery, all of it made with the finest craftsmanship out of the most expensive materials. And yet, aside from Cellini’s cellar, the display produced in me little more than an admiration for the fine skill required, and a mixture of awe and disgust at the flaunting of riches.

After exploring the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Habsburg rooms, I thought there could be little more to see in the museum. But I was blissfully wrong. The second floor of the museum is a world-class painting gallery, comparable to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or even Madrid’s Prado. The collection mainly contains works by Germanic, Dutch, and Flemish artists, though there are some notable exceptions. One of these is Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow, with the rosy-faced Virgin Mary watching over the infant John the Baptist and Jesus, playing in a field. The painting exhibits the Renaissance master’s smooth forms, agreeable colors, and harmonious compositions. Also notable are the several works by Velazquez on display, which were originally given as a gift by the Spanish to the Austrian Habsburgs.

kunstmuseum_gallery

Jan_Vermeer_The_Art_of_Painting

Other paintings call out for attention: several excellent portraits by Jan Van Eyck, self-portraits by Peter Paul Rubens (looking resplendent) and Rembrandt (looking rather shabby), and one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, The Art of Painting, which portrays a painter (himself, presumably) engaged in painting a woman dressed in blue (possibly his daughter). As is usual with Vermeer, an expert composition is matched with exquisite realism, blending the iconic and the intimate. On the one hand, the painting looks like a snapshot of an ordinary day; you can almost guess the time of day from the shadowing on the crickled map on the far wall. And yet, once examined, the painting reveals itself to be anything but casual, but even more carefully composed than the painting which is being painted in the painting.

All of these wonderful works notwithstanding, the highlight of the gallery is indisputably its collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The acknowledged master of the Flemish Renaissance, Bruegel began his career as an engraver of prints, and only took up the brush comparatively late in his short life (he died at around the age of 40). Even so, he left us with a treasury of paintings, which combine the engraver’s eye for detail with an earthy humor and an ironic sensibility, making him one of Europe’s great artists.

Perhaps I enjoyed Bruegel’s work so much because there were influenced by another of my favorite artists, Hieronymus Bosch. This is most apparent in Bruegel’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent, which tackles the typical Boschian theme of the combat between sin and piety in the typical Boschian manner of a vast panorama. In the lower-left of the large town square the people boisterously celebrate Carnival, with all the hilarity, mirth, and drunkenness expected; and in the upper right, robed figures and well-behaved children carry out the abstemious rituals of Lent. The riot of detail is too much for the eye to take in at a glance, or even several; and no central narrative emerges from the busy activity of the town. The closest thing to a central action is the joust between the figure of Carnival, a fat man seated on a barrel, being pushed by drunkards, wielding a skewer, and Lent, a skinny, miserably figure in religious vestments, being pulled by a monk and a nun. Both of these figures are pure Bosch in their exaggerated ghastliness, down to the odd objects sitting on their heads.

Pieter_Bruegel_d._Ä._066

Another remarkable panorama by Bruegel is his painting, Children’s Games, which shows hundreds of kids engaged in dozens of sorts of play—with masks, with dolls, in groups, by themselves, climbing, rolling, play acting, and so on—creating a veritable anthology of childhood. But Bruegel’s artistry is not confined to these social summaries. He was also deeply sensitive to the beauties of nature, as is shown in his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow. I do not think that I am the only one to feel a peaceful sense of sublimity in this work. Somehow Bruegel has captured the feeling of the hours after snowfall, when the world is frozen still and silent, and the works of human hands are humbled in the anonymous white of winter. When I visited there was a guest artist busy making a copy of the work, which I admire, for there is much to learn in this work.

800px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow_(Winter)_-_Google_Art_Project

Yet my favorite work in the Bruegel collection is his Tower of Babel, the most convincing representation of that mythical tower I know of. I admit I am predisposed to like the painting because the story is among my favorits of the Bible. It shows how much we humans, individually weak, can accomplish if we unite together—a power so great as to even make God in heaven tremble, since He decided that He had better scatter us and confuse our speech if He was to defend his astral territory. The story seems so prescient, too, considering that we have succeeded in leaving earth and entered the heavens, and with the help of two universal languages: English and mathematics, the international languages of science. Though the story has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory for humanity’s presumption, I tend to see it as an allegory for the potential of cooperation. Thus I feel a strange pathos when I look at Bruegel’s image of the unfinished—never to be finished—tower, dominating the landscape and brushing away the clouds.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited

This does it for my tour of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. But one museum remains: the Sigmund Freud Museum.

This is located in the apartment were the psychoanalyst lived and worked for over 40 years, on Berggasse 19. I believe the rest of the apartments in the building are still residencial. To enter I had to queue up on the stairwell, since only a limited number of visitors can be admitted at any one time, due to the limited space. I admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the museum. You see, when Freud fled the Nazis and moved to London, he was able to take all of his furniture (such as the famous couch) with him; so the museum in Vienna is largely bereft of its original furnishings. (There is a Freud Museum in London in which you can see what his house and office looked like.) Instead, the exhibition mainly consists of information and photographs, with a few antique items on display.

Even though I did not learn very much about Freud—since I already knew a fair amount about the psychoanalyst before my visit—it was still special to know that I was standing in the apartment of somebody whose thoughts had changed the world. For even if Freud’s ideas are bunk as science and questionable as therapy, he undoubtedly contributed to our concept of the human condition, helping to erode the old Platonic idea in rational beings, and instead accustoming us to the now-common notion of unconscious, unreasonable, and ugly motivations. Since Freud, we have not been able to trust so blithely in the logic of our thoughts or the purity of our actions; and I think this is ultimately a good thing: since blindness to the animal within makes us unable to restrain it.

§

Evening was falling now, and I was going to leave the next day. I was tired and sore from having walked all day for days on end; but there was one more place to visit: the Schönbrunn Palace.

Sometimes called the “Versailles of Vienna” (which is somewhat Francocentric, I think), the Schönbrunn (literally, “Beautiful Fountain”) is the marvelous palace that, for hundreds of years, was used by the Habsburgs as a summer residence. As such, it stands in the center of Austrian history. Franz Joseph, Austria’s aforementioned last emperor, was born, lived, and died within these walls. Located about an hour’s walk from the center, the palace is accessible by metro, tram, and bus for the foot-weary, and is easily worth the detour.

Schonbrunn_collage
The palace from the gardens (above); and a painting of the palace from the road (below).

As it stands today, the Schönbrunn mainly owes its monumental, neoclassical form to that remarkable empress, Maria Theresa. It is painted a cheerful yellow color, which helps to humanize the inhuman proportions of the building. The visitor entering from the street passes two imperial eagles, elevated on columns, which lead into a stone courtyard. By the time I arrived the palace was closed (which did not much bother me, since I prefer gardens anyhow). So I walked around the monumental pile to the other side, which opens up into the palace’s orangerie.

Schonbrunn_gloriette

The gardens are arranged in the orderly French style, with rows of ferns adorned with classicalizing statues of heroes and gods. These lead up a gentle hill to the famous Gloriette, a kind of ceremonial structure, vaguely reminiscent of a triumphal arch, built to celebrate Habsburg power. I slowly ascended the slope until I reached its modest peak. The grass swells like an ocean wave on its way down the hill; and at the bottom, flower patches lead up to the palace, which does not look so presumptuously big from up here, and whose yellow façade grows agreeably in the sunset light. Vienna is stretched out in the distance, almost completely flat, save for the dark spire of a church silhouetted against the pink sky. I wrote in my diary: “The clouds look painted. I can almost see the brushstrokes.”

Schonbrunn_view

I made my way back down through a side path, which took me through a more wooded area and passed near the palace’s zoo. Some large animal—a lion, a bear, or even an elephant—was growling powerfully in its enclosure. The deep and throaty roar made my hair stand on end; the sound was so deep it even seemed to shake the leaves on the trees. A panic momentarily came over me; and this instinctual fear quickened my senses and snapped me out of my fatigue. I was here, I was in Vienna, listening to an elephant in the palace gardens.

Finally I reached the bottom of the hill and passed by the palace on my way back to my apartment. As I passed, strains of music caught my ears. A concert of chamber music was being held in the palace; and by standing nearby, I could hear the players quite well. It was Mozart, whose composition accompanied my final moments of wonder in the City of Music.

The next day, as I waited for my train to take me to the airport, I wrote these concluding thoughts in my diary:

Every day I ingest Culture, sometimes so much I can hardly swallow it all without feeling ill. What effect does all the art-viewing and book-reading have on me? Does the sophisticated, elegant, finely crafted decorations of, say, an Egyptian sarcophagus create any reflected, echoed, imprinted form in my mind? Do I gain something from visually processing the forms of brilliant men and women? My mind has its limits, which I feel all the more keenly when I measure myself against these artists.

 

Review: Protagoras & Meno

Review: Protagoras & Meno

ProtagorasProtagoras by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But you cannot buy the wares of knowledge and carry them away in another vessel; when you have paid for them you must receive them into the soul and go your way, either greatly harmed or greatly benefited

In style the Protagoras is intermediate between the questioning Socrates of the early dialogues and the doctrinizing Socrates of the Gorgias. Here, Socrates is not only concerned in revealing the confusion of common notions, but also in advancing his own theories; yet the dialogue ends on an inconclusive note and, what is more, the ideas that Socrates advances are not the ones we recognize as Plato’s own mature philosophy.

As in the Gorgias, Socrates enters a gathering of sophists and their admirers, with the intent of questioning the practice of Sophism. Unlike Gorgias the rhetorician, however, Protagoras the sophist proves himself to be a formidable opponent. Indeed, in the beginning of the dialogue Protagoras has the upper hand, effectively resolving Socrates’ doubts regarding the teachability of virtue.

Socrates questions whether virtue can be taught, because, if virtue is teachable, then why do good men have bad sons? And why are their no specialists in virtue, as there are specialists in medicine and carpentry? Protagoras counters, first, with a myth about the origin of virtue, explaining that it was a gift of Zeus to all humans. Thus everyone is capable of virtue, and everyone is a teacher of virtue according to her ability; indeed you might say that virtue is taught all the time every day, just like Greek is. To illustrate the point, Protagoras uses a thought experiment involving a society where everyone played the flute. In such a society, some good men would likely have sons who were subpar flute players; but even the worst player in that society would likely be adept relative to a non flute-based society.

To drive home the point, Protagoras observes that punishment would be unreasonable if virtue were not teachable. For to punish as pure retribution is irrational and beastly—naked vengeance, which may satisfy anger but which will not undo any past wrongs. Punishment can only be rational if it is directed towards the future: to correct the wrongdoer and to discourage any others from following her example. The fact that the Athenians punish therefore proves that they believe that virtue can be taught.

Socrates uncharacteristically declares himself wholly satisfied and convinced by this answer. But one doubt remains: Are the parts of virtue, such as wisdom, courage, or piety, all independent, or are they all different names for the same basic thing? Protagoras at first asserts them to be different; a person may be courageous but impious, for example. However, Socrates trips him up with a question about opposites. Does everything have only one opposite? Yes, says Protagoras. So everything that is not wise is foolish? Of course. Then it is possible for piety to be foolish? At this Protagoras hesitates, and attempts to stop the conversation. Meanwhile, Socrates puts forth his doctrine that virtue is knowledge, specifically knowledge of pleasure and pain; and that this knowledge allows us to accurately estimate the pleasant and painful consequences of actions, and to make the best choice. (Plato would not persist with this position.)

In the course of this argument, Socrates and Protagoras have a dispute about the length of their responses. After Protagoras gives a little speech in answer to a question, Socrates professes himself too forgetful to follow long utterances, and requests that Protagoras stick with short answers. (This request is made to Gorgias, too.) Protagoras bristles at this and wants to quit; it takes the surrounding party to convince him to carry on. This seems to have been one of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) main complaints against the sophists, namely that they conceal poor reasoning in extended eloquent speeches. Plato also takes the opportunity to poke fun at those who argue by quoting and interpreting poems, putting a long and wholly implausible interpretation of a poem in Socrates’ mouth, thus illustrating that with sufficient ingenuity any meaning can be extracted from any poem.

The combatants disperse as friends and Socrates lives to argue another day.


MenoMeno by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Reading this dialogue immediately after reading the Protagoras confronts the reader with the mystery of Plato. For here are two dialogues, both about the same questions—What is virtue? Can it be taught?—and coming to opposite conclusions. And this leads to still more questions: Was Plato’s own opinion changing? Or was he representing Socrates’ opinions in one dialogue and his own opinions in another? Or did Socrates’ own opinion change? Or is it some other mixture of reported and original thought? It is impossible to know the answer—but that has never stopped philosophers.

The Meno is a fine example of Plato’s economy. Not a word is wasted in this dialogue. We begin with the inquiry and jump straight into difficulties. Can virtue be taught? Well, what is virtue? Meno says that each type of person has their own virtue—women, men, slaves, citizens, children, adults, and so on. To which Socrates responds that these virtues, qua being virtues, must all have at least one quality in common. (Here Wittgenstein would interject.) Then Meno throws up his hands, declares himself stunned, and offers his famous paradox (quoted above).

Socrates weasels his way out of this with the Platonic doctrine of remembrance. What if we are born (rather, reborn) already filled with true knowledge, and must merely remember what our souls learned during their sojourns in heaven. He demonstrates by leading one of Meno’s young slaves through a mathematical demonstration of square roots. By making the correct deductions, the boy is able to find the right conclusions, from which Socrates concludes that the boy “knew” the information all along. (Though this conclusion will likely strike most of us as absurd, one must keep in mind that, for Plato, all empirical knowledge—knowledge gained through the senses—was not truly knowledge at all, since the observed world changes, but the Truth remains forever eternal.)

The slave boy retreats, enlightened but not emancipated (depressingly, not even great thinkers had scruples about slavery back then), and Socrates and Meno return to the original question. Anytus the politician then appears, whom Socrates uses to prove that the sons of great men are often rather ordinary as far as virtue is concerned, which prompts Anytus to warn Socrates not to slander citizens (he would later be an accuser of Socrates during his trial). There are two possible explanations for this: Either virtue cannot be taught, in which case it is not knowledge; or these great men did not themselves possess the knowledge of virtue.

This second option is pursued by Socrates, who makes a delicate division between “knowledge” and “true opinion.” These may sound identical, but for Socrates the latter is distinguished by not being properly justified. If, for example, I guess that a book of poetry is under the table, and it is under the table, I have true opinion, since I was correct, but not knowledge, since my being correct was fortuitous. Socrates concludes that these great men acted virtuously from true opinion—vouchsafed by the gods—and not real knowledge, since they could not transmit their virtue.

As a teacher myself, I cannot help being interested in the questions of this dialogue. For me, the fundamental paradox was aptly summed up by Gibbon: “the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” That is, teaching will most benefit those who least need teachers, since they are motivated to learn on their own, and vice versa. This seems to apply as much to mathematics as it does to virtue. Can a virtuous Hadrian whip a vicious Commodus into shape? I am skeptical. And yet, it is this quixotic task I have set before me.

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Don Bigote: Chapter 4

Don Bigote: Chapter 4

(Continued from Chapter 3.)

Don and Dan Do Drugs

“Dan, will you do me a favor, please? I think those brutes knocked out a few of my teeth.”

Don Bigote sticks two of his boney fingers inside his mouth and pulls his cheek, showing me his bloody gums. We’re sitting in a lifeboat—me rowing, him sitting opposite me—floating in the Atlantic somewhere off the coast of Europe. We left yesterday, very early in the morning, and have been floating since then without spotting land.

“Listen, Mr. Bigote, this is the third time you asked me this. Are you feeling alright?”

“To tell you the truth, Dan, I feel rather unwell. Those monstrous animals knocked me over the head rather hard.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“But are some teeth missing?”

“How many did you have to begin with?” I ask.

“Seven.”

“Yeah, you’re down to four.”

“Those beasts!” he says, punching the air with his fist. “Those brute beasts!”

“I’m not feeling too hot, either, sir,” I say. “I don’t know how much longer I can row.”

“You’re doing admirably, my boy,” Don says. “Say, where are we?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. One of sailors told me to keep going southeast and we’d hit Spain within 24 hours. But I’m pretty sure it’s been longer than that.”

“May I see the compass?”

“Sure.”

“Hmmm,” he says, holding the little compass that was stored in the boat’s cabinets. “According to this, we’re going northeast, not southeast”

“Sir, this is no time for joking around.”

“My dear Chopin,” he says, “I have never told a joke in all my life. See here.” He hands me back the compass.

“Isn’t this southeast?”

“Have you ever studied the art of navigation, my esteemed assistant? The evidence is indubitable.”

“Are you kidding me? What direction does the needle point?”

“North.”

“It points north?!”

“Oh!” he says, throwing up his hands. “How low our education has fallen, in the hands of the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy!”

“But I was sure it points south!”

“Have they taught you this lie, too, Chopin?”

“No, I just figured it would point towards Antarctica, since it’s so much bigger than Greenland—like, more gravity.”

“I see that the noble science of physics is also in a sorry state.”

“Should I turn around?”

“Hmmm,” Don Bigote says, stroking his mustache. “Judging from what I presume was our position, I believe you can just continue east and we will reach land somewhere on the Iberian coast.”

“Oh God, I hope we’re close. My hands and my back are killing me. And I’m already super sunburned.”

“I have faith in your youthful strength, Chopin. I would offer to help, but the injuries I received at the hands of those subhuman conspiratorial henchmen render such a course of action inadvisable for the sake of my future health.”

“I really wish you hadn’t pulled that stunt, sir.”

“Are you referring to my courageous action against the global conspiracy as a ‘stunt’, Chopin?”

“I’m just saying that we could have had a nice, easy trip to Spain and gotten off with all our stuff, and now we’re lost in the ocean.”

“Do not take this the wrong way, Chopin, but sometimes I pity your naiveté. They could never have allowed us to land. If not for me, we would be sitting in some dungeon in Saudi Arabia being forced to speak using gender-neutral pronouns and being fed a steady diet of vegan cooking.”

I decide it’s useless to try to talk sense into the man, so I lazily row some more. Bored, I observe my boss. He’s sitting straight upright, his eyes constantly scanning his surroundings in a weird twitching motion, his tongue exploring the gaps in his mouth, his left hand twirling his mustache. What a freaky dude.

Maybe I’m just dizzy from the rowing, but I don’t feel very angry at Bigote, despite the fact that he created this stupid mess. I’m actually starting to like him. Somehow all his conspiracy talk is starting to get under my skin. Not that I believe that Muslims and Mexicans are responsible. Not the gays either—though I guess feminists might be up to something. But anyway, is it so crazy to think the world is gonna end soon? I mean, lots of people think so. My dad says stuff like that all the time. And if that’s true, then Don Bigote isn’t the worst guy to hang around. I bet he’d be pretty useful in the apocalypse. I just need to survive till then. And when it’s all over, I’m sure he’ll give me a country or something to be king of, and then I can fulfill my lifelong dream of owning a harem with all the hotties that survive. Isn’t this a good idea? Or maybe the sun is getting to me.

§

I wake up feeling like I’d just passed through the intestines of a giant worm. If it were a hangover, this would definitely be in my top five worst ones. I guess I passed out at some point yesterday as it began to get dark.

“Egad, Chopin! I think we’ve hit land!”

I open my eyes, get up, and look around. We’re on a beach.

“Thank God!” I say, scrambling out of the boat. “I thought we were done for.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” he says. “But now we are faced with yet another difficulty. We must find some human settlement and ascertain our precise location.”

“Can’t be too far.”

“You may be right, Chopin. But in my weakened condition I do not think I can walk even a short distance.”

“I’m not feeling too hot either.”

Bigote sticks one of his big spider legs out of the boat on the sand, and tries to climb out. But he falls flat on his face and begins floundering around in the water.

“Sir!” I say, and rush to help him. I pull him up and out of the water. He sits slumped over on the sand like a washed-up jellyfish.

“Oh, Chopin, I’m ashamed to be seen like this. Will you help me get to those trees over there?”

I drag him to some palm trees nearby and set him down.

“Chopin, I think those malicious conspirators poisoned me while I was being held in captivity. I am faint and weak. I fear this may be my final hour.”

“Oh, don’t complain so much, sir. You’ll be alright.”

“I am no malingerer nor am I prone to fits of hypochondria, Chopin. I need medicinal aid.”

“I think there’s some tylenol in the rowboat.”

“Don’t be flippant, Chopin. I need something far more powerful. Luckily my many hours on survival blogs have given me a deep knowledge of medicinal herbs. Perhaps I can find something around here.”

“What kind of blogs are we talking about here, exactly?”

“Will you pass me a couple leafs of that bush over there?” he says, pointing.

“This one?”

“Yes. Oh, and also those little berries on that one. And a few of those needles. This is very good. Now, will you fetch a bottle of water, a dish, and some cutlery from the boat?”

All this done, Bigote begins to crush the plants together with a knife and a little water until he gets a muddy greenish paste that looks like the primordial ooze from which all life emerged.

“The potion is prepared,” he says, holding up the vomity dish.

“I’m not sure I’d eat that, sir…”

“I admire your caution, Chopin, but I’m afraid my options are quite limited. Either succumb to the poison of my captors, or trust in my botanical knowledge.”

“I think you should take a bet on your captors not knowing anything about poison.”

But as I say this, he takes a spoonful of the slimy green paste and pops it into his mouth. I observe him closely. His face tenses up with disgust. He gags a little. He swallows it down. I’ve seen it all before, like one of my lightweight friends taking a shot. I expect instant vomitation. But, instead…

“It worked!” he cries in triumph, and jumps to his feet. “I feel wonderful, Chopin!”

My eyes pop out in disbelief. Does this nutcase really know how to make medicine from plants? Now that I think about it, I guess it’s the kind of shit he would know. Here’s a guy who can’t go five minutes in society without making the evening news, but put him in a forest and he’s good to go.

“Chopin, honestly this mixture is a wonder drug! You must try some.” He holds up the plate to me.

I look at it warily. It looks like crushed up caterpillars. But I look at Bigote, and I can’t deny he seems a lot better. Screw it.

I take a spoon of the mushy mess and slowly hold it up to my face. Then, without giving myself time to taste or smell it, I jam it down my throat. First I taste the acid bitterness, but at least it’s better than most of the light beer I drink. But then I feel the slow descent of the thick, burning mass down my throat and into my stomach. My limbs come alive with a tingly, fiery feeling. Suddenly I feel wide awake and my heart starts pumping with adrenaline.

“This is like ritalin!” I say.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Bigote says. But I notice a strange note in his voice. I look and see that he’s red in the face and covered with bullets of sweat.

“Hey, you alright sir?”

But as I say this, suddenly I’m sweating and burning up, too, and I feel an ominous descending motion in my insides like a lead weight hitting my bowels.

“Excuse me!” I yell, knowing there isn’t much time. And I run into the forest, unbuckling my belt, unzipping my fly, so that my pants begin falling down my waist as I scramble to some hidden spot. I see a nice little clearing in the bushes up ahead, but as I stumble forward my foot catches on something hard and heavy, and I fall straight on my face. I try to get back up, but I feel it coming and I know there is no time. So I bend into the fetal position and await the onslaught.

It is more horrible than even the worst combination of beer and burritos can wreak. I don’t even want to talk about it. I am in so much pain that I begin to hallucinate colors and shapes. My eyes are streaming with hot tears. I cry for my mom and weep. It’s all over in five minutes—which pass like eons—and I’m so weak afterwards that I can only crawl away and lay, pants down, covered in scratches, sweat, and tears, curled up on the forest floor. And I solemnly swear that this is the last, ultimate, and final time that I trust Don Bigote.

I lie here for a long time, slowly recovering my consciousness, waiting for the pain to go away. My stomach is still on fire. I probably lost all the water in my body, through multiple channels. My vision is still blurry and I’m seeing spots. But the mosquitoes are biting me and it smells like a locker room, so I slowly get to my feet, perform the necessary cleaning—don’t ask—and start making my way back.

But after just a few steps I notice something weird in the grass, dangerously near the disaster zone. It must be what I tripped on. I go forward, holding my nose, to investigate. It’s… a metal suitcase. What the hell? I take it to a safe distance and open it up, hoping to find a million dollars or some gold or something like that.

I’m not far off. The suitcase is full to the brim with little baggies of white powder. What a find! I had a friend who dealt coke in high school and he said a gram cost at least 60 bucks. And there must be, like, a lot of grams in this suitcase. I mean, I don’t remember the metric system very well, but we’re talking dozens of grams at minimum. Heck, it might be one of those kilogram things. Get this stuff to the right people and we’ll have enough to rent out a club, with enough coke left over for everyone there.

At this point I remember that I had an English professor in high school who used to give us these moral dilemma things, and one of them was finding a big wad of money in the street. The right thing to do is to turn it into the police, of course (not that I’d do it). But what’s the right thing to do when you find a buttload of cocaine in the middle of a forest? Leave it? I mean, some teenagers might find it when they’re off drinking, and then I’d be the one responsible for their cocaine addiction. Do the coke myself? That’s just impractical. Call the police? They’ll arrest me! The only responsible choice is to take it and sell it.

I gingerly close the suitcase and start back towards Bigote. I find him sitting against a tree, his shirt torn off and wrapped around his head, his eyes wide and blank, his thin, pale, bony chest exposed to the mosquitoes.

“Chopin!” he says as I get close, though he doesn’t turn his head towards me, but looks blankly upward.

“Hey boss.”

“The potion I made seems to be having a strange effect on me.”

“You’re telling me man.”

“I appear to have gone blind, Chopin. And I think I have developed a severe fever.”

“Are you serious?”

“But fear not, Chopin. Just as was true of the blind Homer, by losing my earthly sight I have gained a higher sensibility. I see now that my course of action has been in error. What a fool I have been!”

“So you’re done with the conspiracy?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Chopin. The conspiracy is all there is. But I was in error in deciding to explore the decaying Western civilization. You see that our current civilization, however noble, nurtured a viper in its bosom. Western society must have developed a weakness, an essential flaw, which made it vulnerable to this heinous conspiracy.”

“I think you should drink some water, sir.”

“Do not interrupt, Chopin. This is important.”

“Sorry, I…”

“As I was saying, Western society, though the most glorious civilization known to history, must have had some essential flaw which has led to the conspiracy. So instead of preserving it, Chopin, we must begin anew. We must emulate Robinson Crusoe, stranded in the wilderness, learning from scratch how to survive: how to tame the rough boughs of nature, how to harness the power of the winds and the water, how to reap the land and sow the soil. And from this noble simplicity a civilization will naturally emerge, like a plant from the soil, infused with the goodness of simplicity and free from the corruption of decadence.”

“So, like, those people on Survivor?”

“At first, yes, that is what we must do.”

“Here?”

“This is as good a spot as any, Chopin.”

“I don’t think that’s a great idea, sir. One time in school we had to read a book about something like that, though I only read the SparkNotes so I could copy answers on the inside of my arm for the test (which worked by the way), and I think the book was about these kids who get stranded on an island and do something like that, and it doesn’t end well.”

“I am afraid your speech, Chopin, is sometimes so full of vagaries and redundancies and asides, that I have trouble catching your meaning.”

“Like, I think we’re just gonna go crazy and eat each other.”

“Nonsense, Chopin. We are in the bosom of nature and have plentiful resources to draw upon.”

I open my mouth to answer, but just then I feel an aftershock of the potion somewhere in my lower intestine, and instead say “One second, sir!” and run off to suffer my fate. But I don’t want to leave the suitcase for even a second, so I take it with me and drop it off nearby.

The business done—much less painful this time, thank God—I pick the suitcase up again to head back to Bigote. But of course life is never so simple and easy, not even during summer vacation, and the next thing I know some strong arm is wrapped around my mouth and something that feels an awful lot like a gun barrel is jammed into my back.

“Who you?” I hear a voice say, gruffy and Russiany.

“Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm,” I say.

“Move your hand, Hugo,” I hear another voice say, squeeky and nasal. “And if he yells, shoot ‘im.”

The strong arm moves down from my mouth to my neck.

“Who you?!” the gruff voice repeats.

“Hey, guys,” I say. “I assume this is about the drugs?”

“Oh, well here we got a really smart guy,” says the nasal voice. “Don’t we, Hugo? Real fucking smart. I can’t believe how smart he is, figured it all out by himself.”

“Tell who you,” the gruff voice says, and jams the gun harder into my back.

“Hey, hey, guys take it easy. I’m here to make the handoff to you. The boss didn’t want anyone stumbling on the shipment,” I say, trying my best to sound like I’m from a movie.

“Oh, the boss doesn’t trust us, now?” says the nasal voice, now appearing in front of me. He’s a small, skinny guy with a thin mustache, wearing a fluffy beanie and a leather jacket. “Doesn’t trust old Hugo and Ed to get the job done? Thinks we need some supervision? Thinks we’re babies, does he?”

“No, no, he’s just had a few shipments go missing in the past few weeks, that’s all,” I say.

“Oh shipments missing, like it’s our fault,” he continues. “Let ‘im go, Hugo.”

The arm withdraws and I fall to the ground, panting. I look up to see a big bald man with small squinting eyes, dressed in a tank-top.

“Hugo, check if it’s all there,” Ed says, as he paces angrily back and forth. Hugo bends down and opens the suitcase.

“Here all,” he says.

“Good, let’s get the hell out of here. I hate this place.”

They stumble off through the bush, and I automatically follow them.

“What do?” Hugo says to me.

“I was, er, wondering if you guys could give me a ride. You see our boat ran out of fuel and we had to take a lifeboat to get here.”

“You didn’t check your fuel beforehand?” Ed says, waving his finger around. “You didn’t think it was a good idea to just take a moment, a few seconds, to look at the fuel gage? It didn’t occur to you? Slipped your mind?”

“I…”

“Just come on,” he says.

We only go a few more paces when another voice breaks through the brush.

“Chopin, is that you? Chopin?” It’s Bigote.

“Who the fuck is that?” Ed says, whipping out his gun.

“Hugo kill,” Hugo says.

“No, no, wait guys. He’s my partner.”

“Your partner?”

“He’s cool, you guys. It’s just… He took something while we were on the boat and he’s still coming down from the high. He’ll probably say some crazy stuff, but just ignore him.”

“You know,” Ed went on, “when I got into this business I thought, I really thought, that I would be working with professionals. Serious people. People who wanted to do a good job. People who wouldn’t do drugs when they’re transporting drugs. Is that too much to ask? Is that an unreasonable expectation?”

“Chopin?” Bigote calls. “I hear other voices. Who are you with?”

“Sir!” I call out. “I have some excellent news. I have found some allies in our fight against the conspiracy!”

“Allies, Chopin? How do you know?”

“They gave me the sign, sir.”

“The sign?”

“Yes, the universal sign of the counter-conspiracy. I read it in one of the blogs you’re always talking about.”

“Well, if you say so, my good assistant,” Bigote says.

“What the fuck are you guys talking about?” Ed says. “Is this some kind of funny joke? Some kind of hoo hoo, hee hee, laughing haha joke?”

“It’s the only way I know how to keep him calm,” I whisper. “Otherwise he has a bad trip.”

“This is priceless, priceless.”

“Hugo hungry.”

“I know, Hugo. We’re going now. Hey kid, get your friend and we’re getting out of here.”

But just then a roar whooshes over head. It’s a helicopter flying low. Hugo and Ed jump to the ground, and I follow their lead.

“Oh, Jesus it’s the fucking cops,” Ed says. “Bastards are stepping up their patrols.”

“Chopin!” Bigote calls again. “I think that’s the conspiracy! They’ve followed us here!”

“What do we do?” I say.

“Hugo kill.”

“Chill out, Hugo,” Ed says. “We gotta wait out here for a while to be safe. Now it’s too dangerous to make a move.”

We move into the clearing where I left Bigote. He’s still leaned up against a tree, his eyes wide and white.

“Still blind sir?” I ask.

“As a bat, Chopin. Thus I must apologize to my new allies for not getting to my feet to formally greet you, for my weakened physical condition and lack of sight would make such a procedure very burdensome. But I give you my warmest welcome and heartiest gratitude.”

“Man, he’s totally gone,” Ed says to me.

“Hugo hungry.”

“God damn it, Hugo, can’t you wait?”

“Pancakes.”

“Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?” Bigote says.

“We’re the knights of the fucking round table,” Ed says. “Who do you think we are?”

“Ah, is that what your organization is called? What a noble name for a noble cause!”

“Are we gonna have to put up with this? Will we be forced to put up with this the whole time?” Ed says to me.

“Chopin!” Bigote says. “I must say that my potion is having a strange effect upon my nerves. I am afraid that I was over-excited before when I was talking of beginning a new civilization. Though the idea may have some merit, the thought has occured to me that we ought to recruit more people before we make the attempt. Though perhaps our two new friends would be interested?”

“Interested? In what?” Ed says.

“Well, instead of fruitlessly fighting the evils of the current world and striving against difficulties to preserve what we have against the coming darkness, perhaps it would be better to let the world go its own bad way and to start anew, inventing a new way of life for the world to come.”

“Boy, if I could start the world over,” Ed says. “Boy, what would I do? Boy, oh boy, oh buddy boy. Lemme tell you, if I could start the world over.”

“Exactly!” Bigote says. “Think of the possibilities!”

“First thing I’d do is I’d get all these big tough guys who think they know what’s what and who’s who and are breathing down into their chest, and I’d teach them hows it feel to iron your shirt like the rest of us, hows it feel to button your trousers like an ordinary fella.”

“You are quite right,” Bigote says. “The world is full of power-hungry demagogues who must be humbled if the world is to be set right.”

“And another thing,” Ed goes on. “I’d show ‘em what it means to be a real workin’ fella. You know? A real professional guy. A guy who knows his business, who sits down without crossing his legs, you know what I mean?”

“A work ethic is no doubt the cornerstone of any good society,” Bigote affirms.

“One thing that really grinds my gears into a knot is all the hullabaloo on the news. I mean, what kind of a world are we living in? All these shaved faces in suit ties and one says this, another says that, and what happens in the end? I’ll tell you what happens. The same thing that always happens.”

“Dishonesty in politics is one of the constant plagues of civilization.”

“Hugo hungry,” Hugo grunts.

“All right, all right,” Ed says. “We’ll go to the car. Happy now Hugo? Did I make you happy? Am I being a good partner?”

“Hugo no want talk.”

“You hear that?” Ed says. “Hugo no want talk. And Hugo never want talk. Know what it’s like working with a guy who no want talk? Oh, it’s barrels of fun. Whole barrels.”

“Hugo no want talk. Want pancakes.”

“Let’s just go.”

I put Bigote’s arm over my shoulder and help him walk. We go on for about half an hour until we reach a little dirt road. There, covered with a camouflage tarp, we find a grey sudan. Ed gets in the driver’s seat, Hugo the passenger’s, and Bigote and I crawl into the back.

“Where we headed?” I say.

“Oh, we got a backseat driver now do we? Someone who wants to drive from the back?”

“Sorry, I….”

“Just let me worry about it, will you?”

“Hugo want eat.”

“Hugo, will you just cool it? I mean, just pack a snack next time, okay? Can you plan ahead? Is that so hard?”

Hugo grunts grumpily.

We start driving, turning from the dirt road, to a local road, to a small highway. It’s a rural area and it’s still the early morning and there aren’t so many people around. The weather is quite misty, so we can’t see very far, and there isn’t much to see anyway except trees and fields. Some time passes without anyone speaking. Then Ed says:

“Anybody gonna talk? Or are we going to sit here in silence, like I do every day with this big guy over hear? Real great company you two in the back are. Regular social butterflies.”

Bigote has meanwhile passed out. He’s slumped in his seat, his face pressed against the window, drool dripping from beneath his mustache. I don’t feel so hot either. I haven’t eaten or drunk anything since that damn potion, and I feel dizzy in the head. But I don’t want to be taking any chances with these people, so I decide to give it a go. I open my mouth:

“What…”

But I’m immediately cut off by the sound of a siren behind us. It’s a cop car.

“Oh Jesus,” Ed says. “Can this day get any worse? I mean, can it? Please, God, make it worse than it is. Please, I beg you.”

“Hugo kill.”

“Will you just let me handle this, Hugo? Hugo no kill, okay?”

“Hugo hungry.”

We pull over by the side of a country road. The cop walks up from behind and up to the driver side window. Ed rolls it down.

“Yes, officer? Is there a problem?”

Bom Dia. Posso ver sua licença?”

“Hey, buddy, I’m sorry but I don’t speak Portuguese.”

“Ah, pardon me. May I see your license?” he says in perfect English.

“Why’d you stop us?” Ed says, as he squirms to take his wallet from his pocket.

“Your lights weren’t on. In the fog, you must have the lights on.”

“My lights weren’t on? You stopped me because my lights weren’t on?”

“It’s the law, sir,” the officer says, as he grabs Ed’s license.

“Well, can I just turn ‘em on now and you let us off with a warning?”

“I’m afraid not, sir. I’ll have to give you a ticket.”

“Well, isn’t this wonderful? Isn’t this just great?”

“Sir, please sit here while I search your information.”

“Does this make you feel powerful, huh?” Eds voice keeps rising in pitch. “Make you feel like a big tough guy? Is this how you get off, buddy?”

“Sir, please be quiet.”

“Oh, now I have to be quiet? You’re so high and mighty you can tell me to shut up?”

“Sir, I will not ask you another time. I’m going to search your information and I will be back in 3 minutes.”

“Hey, listen buddy,” Ed says, changing his tone. “I know this may seem a little unusual, but how about we just take care of this between the two of us? How’s, say, fifty euros sound? Will that take care of the problem?”

“Get out of the car, sir,” the officer says. “This is not acceptable behavior.”

“Me? Get out?”

“You heard me,” the officer says, tapping his hand on the car.

Just then, with a roar, Hugo’s arm shoots across the space, grabs the officer’s hand, and drags him into the car.

“Argghhhh!” the officer screams, until Hugo’s huge arms wrap around his neck and squeeze until there’s a loud crack. I heave but there’s nothing to vomit. Bigote keeps sleeping.

“Did you just kill him, Hugo? Did you really just kill this guy right on my lap?”

“Hugo kill.”

“Jesus, Hugo, another one?”

The two men open the doors and get out. Hugo pulls out the dead officer and throws him into a ditch by the side of the road. I get out, too, from pure shock.

“Another one, Hugo? Another police officer? I can’t believe this. You know this makes my life difficult? Do you understand it hurts our business? Not to mention it’s honestly a little cruel, Hugo, a little cold-hearted, if you don’t mind me being frank.”

Ed is waving his little arms around like a madman, pacing back and forth, jumping up and down, doing his best to intimidate the giant.

“Hugo hungry.”

“Oh, and now Hugo is hungry. Hugo kill and Hugo hungry. What Hugo want eat, eh?”

“Pancakes.”

“Oh, the fucking pancakes!” Ed says, his voice ascending into a shriek, waving a pointed finger in Hugo’s face. “Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes! Hugo want pancakes today! Hugo want pancakes yesterday! Hugo want pancakes to—!”

His voice is cut off as the giant man grabs him by the throat and lifts him off the ground.

“Hugo, Hugo!” Ed says, his voice rasping, his legs kicking in the air. “Hugo, please! I’m sorry…”

“Hugo not like Ed.”

“Hu—!” Ed spits out, before Hugo’s massive paw tightens and produces the same spine-chilling crack as with the police officer. Ed’s body goes limp.

“Hugo kill,” Hugo says with satisfaction.

I watch the whole thing and I’m paralyzed with fear. I’ve never seen a man killed before, except in movies and video games and stuff, you know, and it’s really not pretty in real life. Like, honestly it’s pretty horrible to watch. My legs feel like jelly and my mind is a total blank, sort of like the time I got caught cheating by Sharona, but that’s a different story.

Hugo holds Ed’s body for a few seconds, grinning with pleasure. I mean, it must have been the first few seconds of peace and quiet the guy had had in years, no offense to Ed. But then Hugo throws the body aside and turns his big bald head towards me.

“Hey, man,” I say.

“Hugo kill,” he says.

“Don’t say that, dude. That’s just mean.”

“Hugo kill and then eat pancakes.”

He begins walking towards me. I want to run but I’m like a deer in headlights. I’m attached to the spot. He gets closer and I try with all my energy to walk backwards, but instead I just fall on my ass. He’s right above me now. This is it. I love you, mom. You’re alright, dad.

His hands reach out towards me. I close my eyes. The next moment I hear a soft thud and a huge weight lands on me. I open my eyes to find Hugo sprawled out on top of me. He’s a heavy bastard.

“Beware the force of my valiant arms!” Bigote cries. He is standing over Hugo, holding the metal suitcase.

I squirm from under the big guy, who’s bleeding a lot from the back of his head, and I get up.

“You saved me!” I say, in disbelief, to Bigote, and I hug the idiot with all my might.

“A gentleman never abandons his assistant,” Bigote says, proudly. “Especially not one as resourceful as yourself.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“Nay, do not be so effusive with your gratitude, Chopin. Indeed, it is I that should be thanking you.”

“Me sir?”

“Why yes, Chopin. That was a brilliant maneuver you pulled back there. Fooling those agents of the conspiracy into thinking that we were their allies! It was brilliant. I would truly be lost without you, Chopin.”

“Oh, yeah… of course…”

“Now, quickly Chopin. We must steal their arms and their vehicle, and evacuate the scene. Surely the conspiracy will be hot on our trail here.”

“Right!”

We strip the two drugrunners and the poor officer of their guns, get in the sedan, and drive off as fast as we can without attracting unwanted attention. And I make sure to turn on the lights.

An Adolescence in Two Acronyms

An Adolescence in Two Acronyms

DBZ & SSBM

After I got home from long and boring day of school, I would sit on the couch, turn on the television, and lazily do my homework during the commercial breaks.

This procedure—which I followed for years—guaranteed that homework would be torture. Even simple tasks could take ages, from starting, stopping, forgetting, and starting again. And since I did not devote even half my attention to the work, I did it badly without learning anything. Yet by the time I got home from school I was so burnt out that I had to distract myself from the work as much as possible, just to stay sane. It did not help that this homework was inevitably the most pointless drudgery—“busywork,” as my mom called it—requiring time but no thought, some attention but no creativity. Television at least took the edge off.

In the late afternoon, when I got home, there usually wasn’t anything very good on. As the day waned the quality would improve, until, finally, it was time for Toonami. Toonami was a programming block on Cartoon Network, specializing in Japanese anime dubbed into English. The programs were presented by TOM, an animated robot man—surprisingly pudgy for an android—who was a kind of space-pirate broadcaster, transmitting the shows from his spaceship all across the galaxy. You can imagine that the teenage me was entranced.

The first anime to win me over, and the one that was to remain my favorite, was a show called Dragon Ball Z. On the surface it was like any superhero cartoon; the characters had powers and fought bad guys; and since I had long been a fan of Superman and Batman, this drew me in. Indeed, the protagonist, Goku, had a backstory almost identical to Superman’s. One of the last survivors of his destroyed planet, Goku arrived on Earth as an infant and was brought up as a human. Yet his alien fisique soon proved much stronger than a normal human’s, and so on, etc.

All this was standard stuff. But there were some odd discrepancies between DBZ and American superhero cartoons. DBZ had a surprising amount of ethical ambiguity—at least, surprising for a young teenager. Bad guys sometimes became good guys, or at least semi-good guys; and the good guys were often foolish, cowardly, or just silly. This did not happen with Superman and Batman, who were always good, brave, and wise, and whose enemies were always arrogant, cowardly, and bad. Another fundamental difference was the concept of training. The characters in DBZ did not simply have powers, but had to continually train to develop their abilities, which grow as the series progresses.

But the most striking difference were the fights. Whereas Batman threw batarangs and gave karate chops, and Superman mainly stuck to a few good jabs and hooks, the characters of DBZ would disappear into a blur of punches and kicks, shoot energy rapid-fire until whole landscapes were engulfed in flame, make the entire earth shake as they charged their attacks. The fight choreography was light years beyond the most daring American cartoons. And the fights lasted longer—much longer. Two characters could be embroiled in a fight for whole episodes, sometimes even multiple episodes: hours and hours of anime action. After DBZ, the Justice League seemed tame.

The show was unashamedly centered on fights in a way that I found irresistible. The plot became ever-more perfunctory, merely serving to set up meetings between powerful characters so they could proceed to beat each other to pulp or blow each other to bits. If you think that the plot of a usual superhero movie is thin, try watching DBZ. Everything—the characters, the pacing, the story—is dictated by the demands of epic battle. Characters have epiphanies just so they can reach another power level; characters fall in love just so they can have kids, who will have their own battles; characters make irrational decisions just so that battles will be prolonged.

DBZ is most infamous for its long power-ups, wherein a character will scream his head off while his body emits light and heat in a fantastic buildup of energy. I almost admire how shamelessly this device is used by the writers to fill episodes and build tension. This is the only explanation for the power-ups, since they make no sense within the story: the fighter is perfectly vulnerable during the ordeal, just standing there and screaming like a wild monkey. And yet time after time their opponents let it happen, despite the possibility that a successful power-up spells defeat. Even wicked world-destroying villains are above interrupting this sacred process, it seems. While this yodelling lightshow takes place, all the other characters retreat to gape and repeatedly exclaim how amazed they are. Certain phrases become obligatory: “I can’t believe how powerful he’s become!” “What? Impossible!” “This energy! Can it really be from one person?” Even by the end of the series, when they have all seen a hundred power-ups, the spectacle never fails to fill them with awe and dread.

Sometimes these power-ups led to transformations, which is another hallmark of DBZ. The young Goku found that, like a sort of King Kong werewolf, he transformed into a giant dog-monkey during a full moon—until cutting off his tail solved that problem. His rival Vegeta, another Saiyan, used this transformation against Goku until, being similarly dismembered, he was deprived of this power. And this is not the end of the Saiyans’ ability to transform. The most iconic of these is the Super Saiyan, in which the hair turns golden and stands straight up. But this turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg; Super Saiyan 2 and 3 followed, and in other media even the ape-like Super Saiyan 4.

And the Saiyans aren’t the only ones who transform. The show’s most famous villains—Frieza, Cell, and Majin Buu—are all distinguished by their many metamorphoses; and these are not just changes in hairstyle, but involve a complete modification of their bodies. I suppose we associate these bodily mutations with insects, which is why it seems like a villainous thing to do. Indeed, Cell has beetle wings, and Majin Buu emerges from a cocoon like a butterfly. Even more nefarious, these two villains unlock their new forms by absorbing other people, like giant mosquitoes. And yet it is interesting to note that, for all three of these villains, their most powerful form is their most humanoid. The combination of human and animal traits is, after all, the essence of monstrosity.

§

A few years after I started watching DBZ, I began to delve into Super Smash Brothers Melee. In case you are not familiar with this game, SSBM is a fighting game originally released on the Nintendo GameCube in 2001. It is the sequel to the original Super Smash Brothers game on Nintendo 64, which I had been playing with my friends since elementary school. Some of my happiest memories from childhood are of sitting in my best friend’s basement playing Smash. And Melee was just as good, if not better. Both Smash and its sequel Melee are ideal party games—there is no backstory, the objective is clear, they require little skill to enjoy, and up to four people can play at once. Just choose a character and try to knock the other guy off.

My brother and I bought SSBM almost as soon as it came out, and for a while we played it the way it was designed to be played: as a lighthearted, meaningless diversion among friends, much like Mario Kart. But then, in high school, we began to take games more seriously. This began when we started playing online computer games, both greatly widening the pool of our competition and introducing us to gaming culture—a culture of competition adequately summarized and parodied in the online series Pure Pwnage (which we also watched). The goal was not just to have fun, but to be the best, to crush and humiliate your opponents: in short, to pwn noobs.

It was during this period that our neighbor visited us one day, and said he wanted to play SSBM. This was somewhat odd, since we believed that SSBM was just for button-mashing fun, not for serious high-level play. “But look,” our neighbor said. “I found out about advanced techniques.” And he searched a video of the wavedash.

The wavedash is the most iconic advanced technique of SSBM. It is hard to explain what it is without giving some idea of the game. Normally, you can run, jump, or roll to move around. These are all standard controller inputs, a straightforward combination of a button and the joystick. But a wavedash is executed by pressing the jump button, and then immediately air-dodging (by pressing another button while angling the joystick) diagonally towards the ground, thus interrupting the jump: two inputs, one after the other. The result is that the character slides across the stage, sometimes very quickly. This method of locomotion was likely not intended by the game’s architects. But it works wonderfully.

The wavedash alone significantly added to gameplay, giving players speed and maneuverability that weren’t available before. But this was only the beginning. There were lots of these so-called advanced techniques: short-hop, dashdance, L-cancel, crouch cancelling, directional influence, wall-teching, and on and on. We had played the game for years and had never even suspected the existence of higher-level play. Out of the package, the game seemed as simple and obvious as Parcheesi; that was its appeal. But these techniques opened up an entirely new level of gameplay, turning a lighthearted diversion into a lightning-fast contest of reflexes.

Seeing these techniques in action was incredible. Top players made combo-videos, showing how they could string together attacks in inescapable sequences, juggling their opponents across the fighting stage and then sending them flying. Even more impressive were the videos of professional players. This was around 2007, right before SSBM was discontinued from its three-year run on the Major League Gaming circuit (a company that organizes gaming tournaments with big prizes and high publicity). This meant that YouTube was already full of videos of high-level players competing in formal competitions. PC Chris, KorenDJ, Azen, Chudat, Isai, and Ken—we watched their matches and marvelled at their prowess. Soon enough my neighbor and I were practicing these advanced techniques and sharpening our skills against one another.

Here I should pause to explain a bit about how SSBM works. Unlike in other fighting games, where you have a certain amount of health or stamina that is depleted by your opponent’s attacks, in SSBM you have percentage. This determines how far you are sent if an attack hits you. A player with 0% will hardly move from an attack, while a player with 150% will take off like a cannonball. If you fly too far off stage, in any direction, you lose a “stock,” or life. Another big difference is that there are no predetermined combos in SSBM. (As in, no series of controller inputs automatically results in a combo.) Combos have to be discovered or invented by the player, and rely on a mixture of luck and timing to pull off. The result is a far freer fighting game, with death may come at any time (or postponed indefinitely), and where each sequence of moves is improvised in the moment.

Another attraction of the game is its wealth of characters. There are twenty-six to choose from, each with a different set of moves, a different height and weight, a different walking and falling speed, and consequently requiring techniques and styles of play. And though some characters are generally far stronger than others (competitive players arrange them on a tier-list from best to worst), the game’s architects did an excellent job in giving each one unique strengths and weaknesses, making each two-way matchup unique. I mostly played Captain Falcon, a mid- to high-tier character with strong moves and fast movement, but who suffers from predictable recovery and being easily comboed. My neighbor mostly played Marth, one of the best characters in the game, who nevertheless suffers from a difficulty in finishing off opponents.

After a few months of practice, my neighbor and I were good enough that we could beat any normal player without much trouble. And yet even though I improved greatly, I was constantly frustrated at my inability to best my neighbor. No matter how good I became, he was always at least slightly better—sometimes more than slightly—and no amount of practice could bridge the gap. This made me furious. Even for my adolescent age, my maturity level was not high. I had a low tolerance for frustration and had difficulty controlling my anger. So sometimes, when being badly beaten, or when victory was snatched away from me at the last moment—as it always seemed to be—I would explode and slam my controller on the ground, or throw it across the room, sometimes damaging or even breaking it. Fully indoctrinated to the gaming ethos, I wanted only to win, to be the best, to crush my opponents; so when I was myself beaten, I felt worthless, empty, powerless.

This experience playing videos games, incidentally, is one reason why I generally avoid competitive situations. While competition seems to bring out the best in some people, I think it brings out the worst in me. I become petty and spiteful: arrogant towards those I beat and resentful towards those who beat me. So focused on winning, I cannot relax and enjoy what I’m doing, which ironically makes me less likely to win. The pressure I put on myself makes me nervous; I think about how good it would feel to win, how awful to lose, and my palms begin to sweat and my mind races; I panic, my playing suffers, and I lose—and then the rage comes, and I mentally chastise myself until I feel like a little worm squirming in the mud. This is more or less what would happen to me as I became ever more engrossed in competitive gaming, which is why I have developed a reluctance to compete in adulthood. Since so much of life in a capitalistic world is based on competition, at times this puts me out of harmony with my surroundings—but that’s another story.

The closest I ever came to the professional player scene was my one trip to a local tournament. I went with my neighbor. My mom drove us. The tournament was held in a video game shop next to an old toy store I used to go to. Strange to say, my memory of this tournament is very vague. I remember being in a cramped room full of chairs and TV screens, and feeling intimidated by all the older people around me (at around 15, we were probably the youngest there); I didn’t say a word to anybody except my neighbor. I remember sitting down to play my first match with sweaty palms, and I remember being beaten, but putting up a respectable fight. And that was it for me.

So my very promising career as a professional gamer was quickly snuffed out. Discouraged by the huge skill-gap that remained between myself and even moderately ranked players, I lost heart. Not that it mattered much, since the following year my interests abruptly switched from video games to playing guitar—but, again, that’s another story.  

§

The reason that I am writing about these two adolescent obsessions of mine is because, strange to say, they never entirely left me. After many years of scarcely thinking about Goku or Captain Falcon, I now find myself regularly watching clips from DBZ and SSBM matches, and really loving them. And this, in a man who normally looks down his nose at all lowbrow pleasures. Why the resurgence in interest?

Partly my renewed interest has been sparked by an actual resurgence in these media. After a long hiatus, the Dragon Ball Z saga was continued in the new series, Dragon Ball Super. And after a period of decline following the release of SSBM’s sequel, Super Smash Brothers Brawl for the Nintendo Wii (a game far less amenable to quick, competitive play), the Melee community has rebounded and grown, with regular tournaments all over the world, and even a full-length documentary devoted to the game’s early years.

I began watching Dragon Ball Super out of boredom and a sense of nostalgia, but I was quickly hooked into to the series. In every way it is an improvement from DBZ. The story has far less filler—notably, the power-ups only take a few minutes. The already perfunctory plot-lines about monsters trying to blow up the world have been scrapped for simple tournaments, giving the characters a chance to pummel each other without further ado. The villains are, for the most part, no longer shapeshifting monsters but other martial artists. And the animation is much sharper and impressive. Yet the basic elements remain the same. The humble Goku trains to unlock new transformations (Super Saiyan God, Super Saiyan Blue, Ultra Instinct) in order to beat the enemy, who is, as usual, arrogant and overconfident.

I started to watch the Smash Brothers Documentary out of a sense of curious irony, amused that somebody would make a documentary about such a silly subject. But I soon found myself genuinely impressed. Indeed, for a fan-made documentary uploaded directly to YouTube, it is almost absurdly well-made—informative, entertaining, and attractive. Directed by Travis ‘Samox’ Beauchamp, the documentary contains nine episodes, each of which is dedicated to a notable player from SSBM’s “Golden Age” (the years following its release): Ken, Isai, Azen, PC Chris, Korean DJ, Mew2King, Mango, with many other players making an appearance. Having followed these players in high school, it was fascinating to hear their own story in their own words. And the commentary, far from the usual callow gamer smacktalk, was consistency thoughtful and humane—especially that of the player Wife. In short, the documentary really captures the magic of the game and the community which has formed around it.

But even if DBZ and SSBM are still going strong, it does not explain my continued interest. Again, I have a tendency to be extremely pretentious when it comes to the media I consume. I seldom resist the opportunity to denigrate popular music, films, and books as simplistic, formulaic, childish, etc. (Here you see my nasty competitive side expressed in a different way.) And yet here I am, still watching a cartoon about men flying and fighting, still watching people manipulate characters on a screen, still enjoying the adolescent obsessions that I thought I had left off long ago. Clearly, these two media have a consistent appeal to me. But why?

They are similar in several conspicuous ways. Both SSBM and DBZ focus on fast-paced fights, with characters dashing, jumping, and flying through the air—shooting projectiles, exchanging blows, sending each other flying. In both, the fight itself is more compelling than the outcome. Though DBZ has good guys and bad guys, we do not watch to see who wins (it’s always Goku), but to see the fight itself—the sheer spectacle of it. And even the story-mode of SSBM does not have anything resembling a plot. The whole substance of SSBM and DBZ is made of rapid punches, flying kicks, and energy beams. And since the fight is the main focus, both media include training as a major focus. Goku is not simply strong, like Superman is; his strength is the product of work. Top SSBM players, too, must put in endless hours of practice to compete on their level.

Another striking similarity is that both SSBM and DBZ are male-oriented. Though Dragon Ball Super finally incorporated some female fighters, DBZ’s fighters were exclusively male; and though I do not have the statistics, I believe the show’s audience was similarly male-dominated. One look at an SSBM tournament will reveal how completely boy-centered is the game. Every top player I know of is male; the commentators, too, are all men; and the audience is inevitably a chorus of husky voices. Perhaps this should be expected. True to the cultural stereotype, both DBZ and SSBM are bereft of romance and sentiment, and instead focus on violence—a traditionally male vice.

It should be noted, however, that both the show and the game are pretty tame. Indeed, I would argue that both DBZ and SSBM are distinguished by a kind of vanilla violence, where characters are punched but do not break their bones, where they lose a game or are sent to the afterlife but never really die (the important characters in DBZ are inevitably revived with the titular dragon balls)—where the stakes are, in short, never very high. (The resemblance only increased in Dragon Ball Super, where the characters are eliminated from the tournament by being knocked off the stage, just as in SSBM.) It is a violence without bloodshed and without consequence, for the pure sport and spectacle of it. And this, perhaps, explains why the two attracts similar demographics, namely “dorky” men: they are male but not manly, competitive but not cutthroat, violent but not vicious. It is purely imaginative fighting.

§

DBZ and SSBM are similar, then. But again I must ask: Why do they hold such a consistent appeal to me? The most obvious answer is nostalgia. I am a boy who grew up right when they were coming out, and they remind me of my childhood. This, however, leads to another question: Why did they appeal to me in the first place?

This is, perhaps, also no mystery. I fit their demographics pretty well. I was a dorky boy who has never been popular or good at sports. Like other video games, SSBM gave me a chance to excel at something competitive. I could not beat anyone in any physical activity, but I could run circles around my opponents on the screen. And Goku was the perfect hero for a boy in my situation: whose strength was the product of determination, and whose persistent efforts could defeat his more naturally talented foes—muscly monsters whose overconfidence always led them to neglect their own training. In short, the imaginative identification with the heroes of DBZ and the characters of SSBM could transform a slow, weak, pudgy kid into a lightning-fast, super-strong fighter.

SSBM and DBZ were a form of escape in more ways than one. Not only did they provide me with an escape from my nerdy, unathletic self, they also provided a much-needed relief from the omnipresent boredom of school. My memories of middle and high school are, with some notable exceptions, sitting in a claustrophobic room, feeling tired and bored out of my mind, seldom paying attention to what was being said or read. Despite this, I was actually a good student—at least as far as grades were concerned. But the endless amounts of busywork, the dry lectures, and the repetitive routine had me constantly on the verge of burning out completely.

When I got home my first priority was to unplug, to forget everything from the day and to put school as far as possible from my mind. Shows like DBZ and games like SSBM were perfect. They require no thought to understand and enjoy. Indeed, then and now their primary function for me is to switch off my intellect, leaving only a kind of dim, dog-like awareness of movement. When I indulge in these media I am in a trance, as incapable of critical thought as is a goldfish.

Many times in later life I have found myself feeling the same way I felt in high school: bored to tears by my daily life—an endless parade of meaningless obligations and unrewarding tasks—and looking for some way to forget it all. Intellectual pleasures are arguably not the best way to do this, since they sharpen rather than blunt the attention. But SSBM and DBZ are perfect: cartoon fights without meaning, appealing to my primitive brain and leaving the frontal lobe blissfully empty. Indeed, I have found that when I am particularly keen to watch SSBM fights on YouTube, it is usually a sign that I need to liven up my routine.

In saying these things I hope I have not insulted or offended anyone connected with these media. I have only the warmest feelings towards DBZ and SSBM; and if I wore a hat I would take it off to the makers of the first and the players of the second, who have provided me with so many happy hours. For the world—at least how it is now—necessarily involves drudgery. As long as we have routines we will have boredom. And some light escapism is, I think, a healthy and natural way of coping with the limitations of our own identities and the plodding monotony of the day-to-day.

[Cover photos taken from SmashWiki and Dragon Ball Wiki; its use falls under Fair Use.]

Holden Hollingsworth: Conversation Assistant

Holden Hollingsworth: Conversation Assistant

When I first saw Holden Hollingworth’s name, I thought “This guy is going to be interesting.” Then he told me that everyone born into the Hollingsworth family has a name beginning with H, and I thought “This guy doesn’t disappoint.” A man capable of an extended poker face, I wondered if I ought to trust such an outlandish assertion, until I met the Hollingsworths and was quickly lost in a blur of H’s. Luckily there is more to Holden than his double consonants: a smooth-talking Texan with an endless supply of anecdotes and a continually open mind, he has been a pleasure to work alongside. Here is his story:


ROY: So have you ever been interviewed before?

HOLDEN: I have been interviewed before. I guess mostly for jobs, but also I had to do this interview where the students in a school where I used to work asked me for college advice. And so I gave them advice for going away to school the next year.

R: You were interviewed for their benefit?

H: Yes, I was asked what advice I had for the students as they went to college and I advised them to go to an out of state school. Basically, I told them that going to school in a new area of the country would be beneficial for giving them a better understanding a place/people that they did not grow up with, and that that was one of the main points of the university experience.  I gave them a few other bits of advice as well. They played the interview at graduation.

R: Alright, so tell me about your background—your family, your education, your hobbies, and so on.

H: I grew up in Texas. Pretty close-knit family. There were three kids who were born pretty close together, two years apart. So I have an older brother, Harrison, I’m the second, and a sister, Hadley, and we were all born in Dallas.

R: And then two more siblings, right?

H: Well, two more but they came much later. So we were born in Dallas and then we moved to Kingwood, which is in northeast Houston. When I was 11, my younger brother Heath was born. And when I was 16, my youngest brother Hudson was born. So throughout the whole time when we were growing up there was a baby in the house. We spent a lot of time together as a family… playing games, eating family dinners, and traveling quite a bit. Especially in Texas the first couple of years, because my dad was still trying to pay off med school debt.

R: What’s his job?

H: He’s an OBGYN. He’s now in the United Arab Emirates. So anyway, that’s my family.

R: What about your university education?

H: I went to TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a good experience, and it was nice because my mother had grown up nearby and a lot of her family was still living in the area. I went in and I thought I was going to be a dentist. So I took the pre-dental course-load and I finished that but I really hated it. I thought that it was a bunch of hoops that you had to jump through in order to go to dental school.

For instance, Organic Chemistry is something that is not needed if you are going to be a dentist, and yet, it is used as the main weed-out course. Our professors suggested that we spend fifteen hours a week studying for O-chem, as it was affectionately called, if we wanted to get an A. It seemed arbitrary, and like such a large time investment and that was only the start. After dental school you have to jump through more hoops to become a dentist, and then you would buy into a practice, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then you’re paying it off, and that’s the type of lifestyle that does not allow for much freedom to do anything except follow the track that’s been set up for you. I ended up making a course change and majored in history. And then after I graduated I went into teaching.

My hobbies? I really enjoy running. I ran cross country and track-and-field throughout high school and college. I enjoy playing guitar and reading. Earlier it was mostly fiction and now it’s mostly nonfiction… Old movies, new movies… I like watching movies.

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R: What did you do when you graduated college?

H: When I graduated from college I moved home and I became a substitute teacher. Then I became a full-time teacher at the same school. It was a pre-K-12 school and they focused on Classical education, which breaks education into three phases: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Your primary school is grammar, logic is middle school, and rhetoric is high school. I mostly taught high school and middle school: English, history of the middle ages, US history, and my last year they had me co-teaching the capstone rhetoric class. In this class, the students came up with a topic, usually a contentious issue, for example physician-assisted suicide. Then, they researched it all year, and they wrote a 20-page thesis. At the end of the course, the students had to defend their thesis before a panel of judges.

I was there for three years. And I was also coaching cross-country and swimming. At the end of that time, I was feeling a little burnt-out, I felt pulled in a lot of different directions. So I decided to leave.

R: Alright so, is this when you started traveling?

H: That’s when I started traveling.

R: Why did you decide to go?

H: My family had already moved to Indonesia (they lived there for several years before moving to the United Arab Emirates). So I didn’t feel any familial obligations or a strong connection to the place where I was living. I had taken this long road-trip with a buddy of mine named Tom. We drove from Houston to the Grand Canyon. And on the trip I had a revelation, which was “I can keep doing this.”

R: You mean, in terms of what you wanted or in terms of your resources?

H: I think that resources were probably an important part of it. I had a college degree, some teaching experience, and had saved a little money. But mostly it was the revelation that I was happy on the road. I enjoyed moving around. And part of it was my background. My mom really likes traveling. She prioritized that quite a bit growing up. That was one of her interests. And as I said, I was feeling a little burnt out teaching high school, and I was looking for a lifestyle changer. So when I was going to the Grand Canyon I thought that I could do something that I wanted to do, I was still quite young, I was only 25, and I could enjoy myself. So I decided to take a year off and travel.

R: Where did you go?

H: I spent about eight weeks in Turkey, Greece, and Croatia. And as I was traveling other trips were coming together. I traveled primarily with my family, a little bit alone, and also a good friend of mine named Grant. It was really nice, especially the solo travel. I had never really done that before and I was surprised by the kindness of strangers. People wanted to show you their country, their home, the things that they liked about it. So I had a lot of what I like to call “single-serving friends.” For example, I was in Greece for a little while and I kept going to this restaurant, and the waitress/owner/cook gave me a nice breakfast and a packed lunch free of charge, saying “Hey, take this, you need food.”

I did some solo travel in the States as well. I did a big West Coast trip, where I started in Eugene, Oregon, and ended in Anchorage, Alaska, and then I flew back to Texas. I was busing some, I was hitchhiking some, and then I flew from Vancouver up to Anchorage. That was a nice trip. I hadn’t spent much time in the Pacific Northwest before that. It was cool to see the people there and the culture there. I’d spent a lot of time in Texas, where people are very friendly, and I spent quite a bit of time on the East Coast (where my brother went to school), where the people are more interested in what they are doing. And on the West Coast I felt like people were very interested in the things that they were pursuing but also very interested in having relational experiences.

After that I went to East Coast of the US, Europe, the Czech Republic, Germany… I went to Bali… The rest of my time was spent in the Rockies (training for a marathon) and the western U.S. ranging from Montana to California.

R: This was all in one year?

H: Yeah. So it was my year on the road. It was a really good year. I learned a lot. I became quite self-reliant, which was good. And then I got to spend some time doing some things I wanted to do, which I hadn’t done much of when I was teaching back in Texas.

R: What did you do next?

H: I finished my time traveling and I came back to Houston for a little while, and I was working as a swim coach at a gym. Then I applied for a teaching job in Chile and I got offered the job, and I moved to Chile to be a teaching assistant, to a small town northwest of Santiago called Los Andes. I wanted to work a little bit and to go to a place where I could learn some Spanish. I picked Chile mostly because of its natural beauty. I knew that the Atacama Desert was in the north and I wanted to see that. Patagonia is in the south. Also they pay their teachers fairly well.

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R: What did you do there?

H: I was a language assistant. Again I was working at this pre-K-12 school. It was kind of strange. I was with seniors in high school and then I’d go straight to kids who were pre-school age. I’d be trying to speak in somewhat elevated English and then I would be dancing and singing with four-year olds. It was fun, it was difficult, just because I was working 30 hours a week in four days. Quite a bit different from the gig we’re doing here. I traveled a lot, which was nice. Chile has a lot to offer as far as travel is concerned.

R: How did you decide to come to Spain?

H: When I was in Chile I met some people who had done the auxiliar program and they suggested it highly. They were like, “Look, instead of 30 hours a week you work 16. It’s a pretty laid-back schedule. You also have a chance to travel within Europe.” Which was exciting to me, the chance to see more of Europe, especially Spain. I’d never been there before. As soon as I got back to the States I applied to the auxiliar program. And as you know the process takes several months to hear back, apply for the visa, you’ve got to dot all your “i’s” and cross all your “t’s”—blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda.

R: What were some of the challenges of moving here?

H: Oh, mostly wading through the, you know, bureaucratic things. You have to do the paperwork, you have to figure out where you’re gonna live, you have to set things up. Every time you move to a new place there are certain difficulties. But I had already experienced that in Chile so I felt somewhat prepared. But there are always these little things, like, you have to find an apartment. Is it a good apartment? Is it the right location? Are your roommates okay? Besides that, moving here was not super challenging because I have spent the last few years traveling around and moving quite a bit.

R: What are some of your duties as an auxiliar?

H: Essentially, assisting in the classroom. Sometimes leading the class. I teach, or co-teach, help teach…  biology, English, and history. Biology is the thing I know the least about, since I haven’t studied it since college. That gave me some pause initially, trying to come up with lectures and activities for that, but the teacher that I work with has been very helpful. In history I’ll usually teach a short lecture on whatever subject they’re talking about. And for English, sometimes I take students out in small groups and really work on their speaking and grammar. Those are the primary duties of being an auxiliar for me.

R: And the challenges of being an auxiliar?

H: The main thing here has been that the behavior is very different from what I’m used to in the States. Spain is similar to Chile, where the students are more familiar with the teachers, they call them by their first name. And because of that familiarity, and maybe that lack of distance, there’s a little bit less respect. They’re talkative and you really have to get on them, like “Hey, be quiet.” And part of it is, I think, that I’m an assistant teacher, and that position is afforded less respect than the primary teacher.

R: How would you compare the education system here with Chile and with the States?

H: Both in Chile and in the States I was working in private schools. The private school where I worked in the States was quite small, 15 kids to a class. So really easy to manage the classroom. The kids were quite bright, there was an admissions test to get in. There were very few behavioral problems. And I felt like I was teaching content, not teaching students how to be what I would call “a good citizen.” And I really enjoyed that quite a bit.

In Chile, it was very different. Much larger classroom. Maybe 30-35 kids. The kids in the back would always be talking, so you would have to shout over them. They did not respect the primary teachers. And I was even less respected. Even though the kids are mostly nice one-on-one, it’s just when you got them in that group they wanted to talk with their friends and not do very much. Most students, there are some exceptions, they all fall to the lowest common denominator. They’ll do what they want to do as long as you allow them to do that thing.

Here in Spain I would say it’s in-between Chile and the US. The kids, mostly nice, mostly respectful, there are a few problems with talking. It’s not horrible like it was in Chile, but it’s not as good as it was in the States. I think the kids are quite smart here. One of the things that’s different is the culture and the grading system. I’m not used to a 5 being a pass, 50%. In the States it was 70 or above. In Chile it was more than 50% as well.

I feel like students are the same everywhere. They want to get away with as much as they can. So if you’re teaching 15-16 year old kids, there are some similarities.

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R: What do you plan on doing when you leave Spain?

H: I’m hoping to get my feet wet in the National Parks job arena this summer. I’ve been offered a summer position at the historic site in Hyde Park where FDR grew up. What I would like to do is to work for a government agency, either the State Department or the National Park Service.

R: How do you think you’ll look back on this experience?

H: For me, this is a continuation of the last few years of my life. I’ve been traveling quite a bit. And I feel like, as my twenties end, so does that time in my life. At least for a little while.

R: You mean the traveling time?

H: The traveling time. And the twenties time. Anyway, I think I’ll think of it as the time when I was really trying to experience different cultures, meet different people, and learn different things, but not through book-learning. When I look back I’ll think, “This is the time when I was ready to experience new things.”

CVKA1157
Diego is on the far left; Becca the far right; Holden the third from the right.

Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

ApologyApology by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is perhaps the most iconic of Plato’s works, the closest thing that philosophy has to a Sermon on the Mount. And just as with our Biblical narratives, the dialogue presents a historical difficulty. To what extent is this speech fact, and to what extent invention? The only other record we have of the trial is from Xenophon, who wasn’t even there. Plato was there—or at least he asserts that he was—and yet it beggars belief that the young, would-be amanuensis could retain the entire speech in his mind after one hearing, or that he could write it down with tolerable accuracy as the events unfolded. It seems far more likely (to me at least) that this speech is more or less a fabrication made well after the fact, attempting to preserve the flavor and impression of Socrates’ final speech but not the exact words themselves.

All speculation notwithstanding, the essential facts are preserved: Socrates was accused of denying the gods and of corrupting the youth, made a bold and waggish defense of himself, was convicted, refused to mitigate the consequences, and triumphantly accepted the death penalty. Yet what really emerges from this speech is not a record of events but the portrait of a man.

Here Plato reveals himself to be a writer of the highest order. Fact or fiction, Plato’s Socrates is one of the great characters of literature. Though Socrates’ life is at stake, he does not falter for a moment. He treats the accusations with amusement, dismissing them with playful arguments that reveal his absolute indifference to the outcome. Far from bowing and scraping to preserve his life, Socrates flaunts his superiority to his accusers, couching his boasts in an ironical humility. He is a man in perfect control of himself and in perfect peace with the world.

Even if the real Socrates was truly this remarkable, it would have taken a writer of exquisite talent to effectively render him in prose. And if this is largely Plato’s invention, we must rank him along with Shakespeare, for Socrates utters now-famous phrases nearly as quickly as Hamlet. Western philosophy could not have asked for a more rousing beginning.


CritoCrito by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The saga of Socrates’ trial and death continues. This time his friend, Crito, visits him in his cell to try to persuade him to escape into exile. Socrates is true to form, insisting that nothing—not the reputation of himself or his friend, nor concern for his own life—ought to be considered except reason. Crito must attempt to persuade Socrates to escape. The dialogue ends with the famous personification of the Laws of Athens, in the course of which Plato hits upon one of the earliest formulations of the social contract: by living in Athens, Socrates implicitly agrees to be bound by her laws. Since Socrates’ enjoyed the benefits of the laws, he must accept their penalties.

More so than in the Apology, one feels here that this is Plato’s invention and not something that actually occurred. The dialogue seems especially crafted to rehabilitate Socrates’ reputation, portraying the old philosopher as a dutiful citizen with a patriotic love of Athens. As a piece of drama the dialogue is one of Plato’s finest. It has considerable philosophic importance, too, for its aforementioned prefiguring of the social contract. Nevertheless I confess that I find Socrates’ reasoning extremely thin. Surely laws may be unjust; and a law may be just in itself and yet unjust or mistaken in its execution. If that is so, should the citizen passively accept it simply because it is the law? One senses the fine Socratic irony here, too, arguing playfully rather than sincerely. Socrates surely had compelling reasons to accept his death—but one doubts that pure patriotic regard of law was the whole of it.


CharmidesCharmides by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the early inconclusive Socratic dialogues. Socrates, just come back from fighting in the Peloponnesian War, meets two of Plato’s relatives, Critias and Charmides. The latter of these is portrayed as a handsome youth, graceful of form and pure of mind. (Ironically enough, after the disastrous defeat of Athens in the war, both Critias and Charmides went on to become members of the Thirty Tyrants.) Socrates takes the opportunity to question Charmides about a Greek term that is rather unsatisfactorily translated into English as “temperance.”

The conversation takes many twists and turns, following the normal Socratic procedure: a definition is proposed (in this case, living quietly), an exception to the definition is found, a new one is proposed, and the process continues. As often happens in these early dialogues, the conversants seem to only get further from the point the longer they speak, getting hopelessly lost in the weeds of dialectic. Here we also see a quality that commonly irks readers of Plato, the tendency of Socrates’ interlocutors to give their unwavering assent to whatever rhetorical question, thought experiment, or logical distinction that Socrates poses, even when obviously fallacious. We also see Plato’s early tendency to get wrapped up in merely verbal confusions that hardly make sense when translated.

In any case, the dialogue takes an interesting turn when Critias proposes that temperance is a kind of meta-knowledge, the knowledge of knowledge. But how could we know for sure whether we knew something or not? And besides, how would that knowledge be useful? Merely knowing that we knew the art of medicine, for example, would be inconsequential compared to the knowledge of medicine itself. But how could temperance be inconsequential knowledge, if it is an important and noble attribute? The dialogue proceeds thus, seeming to intentionally confuse the issue through its series of involutions. But Plato will return to these questions with a vengeance.


LachesLaches by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here is another of the inconclusive dialogues. Socrates is asked by a couple of older men, Lysimachus and Melesias, whether to educate their sons in the art of fighting in armor. Socrates characteristically shifts the theme to a more abstract inquiry: What is courage? Commonsense definitions—such as “to stand and fight” or “to endure”—are quickly eliminated as admitting of exceptions. Nicias, a well-educated general, then proposes that courage is a certain kind of knowledge: that of future good and evil. After further dialectical maneuvering, the conversants find that they have gotten too general and have defined all of virtue and goodness, while leaving the specific nature of courage undefined. Socrates shrugs his shoulders and they break for lunch.

Though the question of courage is of somewhat limited philosophical interest, I do think that Plato hits upon the oft-overlooked role of knowledge (or lack of knowledge) in this seemingly physical or emotional virtue. This is characteristic of Plato, of course, for whom knowledge and goodness are tightly linked. Argument aside, the well-drawn characters of this dialogue are yet another example of Plato’s talent as a dramatist.


LysisLysis by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This dialogue is normally grouped along with Laches and Charmides as an early, inconclusive dialogue. They are also alike in providing amusing portraits of life in Athens. This dialogue, for example, has a humorous beginning. Ctesippus complains to Socrates that Hippothales is always going on about his great love for the beautiful youth, Lysis, and composing horrid love poems in honor of his beloved. Socrates chides Hippothales and professes to demonstrate the correct way to speak to a beloved. What commences from this, however, is a rather ordinary Socratic interrogation—this time about the relationship of privilege to knowledge—which I doubt was very useful to the would-be wooer.

The topic of the dialogue then abruptly shifts to the nature of friendship. My general impression from reading Ancient Greek writings it that friendship was a far more important institution for the Greeks than it is for us. In any case Socrates and his interlocutors make little headway with this seemingly obvious problem. Is friendship the attraction of like to like? of like to unlike? of good to good? of neutral to good?—and so on, until they call it quits. I do think that the nature of friendship, which we are wont to take for granted, is an interesting topic to explore. But this dialogue contains, at best, only suggestions for future investigation.


MenexenusMenexenus by Plato

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This work hardly merits the term “dialogue,” being mainly taken up by a lengthy speech. Socrates professes to have learned a funeral oration from a woman named Apia, who was Pericles’ consort. Plato seems to have been simultaneously parodying the practice of giving these speeches, but also proving his superiority to other writers of the genre, particularly Thucydides. If it was Plato’s goal to best the historian, he fell far short; and nowadays the speech reads like a silly rhetorical exercise, albeit of some historic importance.


IonIon by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This lovely little dialogue, one of Plato’s shortest works, involves Socrates and the rhapsode, Ion. Ion is a rhapsode, which means that he recites, embellishes, and interprets poetry. In Ion’s case he is specialized in Homer, and admits that he knows nothing about any other poet. Socrates pounces upon this. How is it possible to master the best and most difficult of something, and leave the rest untouched? Also, how can Ion give sensible interpretations of the events of Homer’s poetry, when he does not have any of the skills—fishing, sailing, leading armies, and so on—mentioned in the poems?
Ion is not the brightest fellow, and is not able to give any sensible answer to these questions.

Socrates presses his point that Ion has no real knowledge and instead practices his art through inspiration. This, of course, is a famous Platonic assertion, which reappears many times throughout his works. However, I find his reasoning supremely unconvincing here. There is no absurdity in only understanding Homer and no other poet; poetry is not mathematics, with the more complex manifestations derived from the simpler. Further, there is no absurdity in being able to interpret a poetic passage about fishing while knowing fairly little about fishing itself. These ideas apparently did not occur to Ion (or Plato). But the simplicity of Ion, who is oblivious to Socrates’ irony, is winsome enough to make this a delightful read.


EuthyphroEuthyphro by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Euthyphro begins the story of the trial and death of Socrates. It is one of Plato’s best known and, I think, best executed pieces. Here we see the Socratic dialogue form stripped to its bare essentials, with only two speakers, one problem, and minimal framing. Socrates is on his way to his trial; he has been accused, among other things, of impiety. He meets Euthyphro, a soothsayer, who is on his way to his own trial; he is prosecuting his father for murder, after his father’s negligence led to the death of a worker who had, himself, killed a slave. Socrates asks Euthyphro how he can be sure that this prosecution is the right thing to do, which leads to a discussion of piety.

The argument takes many turns, of course, but boils down to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: Is an action pious because it is beloved by the gods, or beloved by the gods because it is pious? While this may seem like mere sophistry, the implications of this question are immensely destructive to theistic ethical codes. For if morality exists independently of God (or, in other words, if we can know what is right or wrong without consulting the divine will) why consider God the fountain of good? And if morality is defined by the will of a God, how can we know what that will is? Perhaps via revelation: but then how distinguish legitimate and fake revelation? For if morality had no existence except the will of God, then no revelation, however apparently abominable, could be discounted. And since eyewitness testimony is nefariously unreliable, virtually no test would be able to unequivocally determine which “revelation” was to be followed. The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that good and bad can be distinguished without any supernatural considerations.

Euthyphro is, thus, of immense philosophical interest. It is also a dramatic masterpiece. Socrates’ ironic demeanor in dealing with the dense Euthyphro is delicious. Perhaps in no other work has Plato so convincingly shown the contrast between the reflective and the non-reflective mind. I continually found myself chuckling as I read. Yet again I am amazed that Plato, who started the Western philosophic tradition, remains its most able writer.

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Review: Gorgias

Review: Gorgias

GorgiasGorgias by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… for philosophy, Socrates, if pursued in moderation and at the proper age, is an elegant accomplishment, but too much philosophy is the ruin of human life.

Gorgias is easily one of Plato’s best stand-alone dialogues. Indeed, as others have mentioned, it often reads like a germinal version of the Republic, so closely does it track the same themes. A transitional dialogue, the early know-nothing Socrates of unanswered questions is already gone; instead we get Socrates espousing some of Plato’s key positions on truth and morality.

Socrates descends on a party of rhetoricians, seemingly determined to expose them. He questions Gorgias, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, in the attempt to pinpoint what, exactly, rhetoric consists of. We get the usual Socratic paradoxes: if we ought to be convinced by knowledgeable people—a doctor when it comes to medicine, an architect when it comes to buildings—how can somebody who lacks this knowledge teach the art of convincing?

Gorgias insists that rhetoric is used to accomplish justice. But is Gorgias an expert on justice? No. Are his pupils already just? Neither. And cannot rhetoric be used for unjust ends? Of course. This effectively trips up the old rhetorician. Gorgias’ energetic young pupil, Polus, steps up to defend the old master. He denies what Gorgias said about rhetoric being used to accomplish justice, and instead claims that it is used to gain power.

This brings Socrates to another one of his paradoxes: that powerful orators are actually to be pitied, since inflicting injustice is worse than suffering injustice. Though Polus laughs, Socrates trips him up just as they did his mentor, by getting him to assent to a seemingly unobjectionable proposition and then deducing from them surprising conclusions. (Socrates was not, you see, without his own rhetorical tricks.) Polus finds himself agreeing that tyrants are to be pitied.

At this, Callicles enters the fray, not a rhetorician but an Athenian gentleman and a man of affairs, who plays the same role that Thrasymachus plays in the Republic. He scorns philosophy and insults Socrates. All this highfalutin’ talk of justice and truth and such rubbish. Doesn’t Socrates know that what is right is a mere convention and justice is simply whatever the strong wish? Socrates then embarks on his usual procedure, trying to get Callicles to assent to a proposition that is incompatible with Callicles’ position. Callicles eventually gets confused and tired and gives up, allowing Socrates to finish with a grand speech and a Platonic myth about the judgment of souls.

To the modern reader very little in this dialogue will be convincing. Plato is no doubt right that rhetoric is, at best, neither bad nor good, but is akin to cosmetics or cooking rather than exercise or medicine—the art of pleasing rather than improving people. Yet since we have learned that we cannot trust people to be selfless, disinterested seekers after the truth—as Socrates repeatedly claims to be—we have decided that it’s best to let self-interested parties compete with all the tools at their disposal for their audience’s attention. Heaven knows this procedure is far from perfect and leaves us vulnerable to demagogues. But the world has proven depressingly bereft of pure souls like Socrates.

Also unconvincing is Plato’s moral stance—namely, that those who commit injustice are to be pitied rather than envied. He proves, of course, that the unjust are more deserving of punishment than the just; this was never in doubt. But he does not, and cannot, prove that the unjust are less happy—since a single jolly tyrant would refute his whole chain of reasoning. Indeed, by establishing a moral precept that is so independent of happiness, Socrates falls into the same plight as did Kant in his categorical imperative. This is a serious difficulty, since, if acting justly can easily lead to unhappiness, what is the motivation to do so? The only way out of this dilemma, as both thinkers seemed to realize, was to hypothesize an afterlife where everyone got their just desserts—the good their reward and the bad their castigation. Needless to say I do not find this solution compelling.

Yet you can disagree with all of Plato’s positions and still relish this dialogue. This is because, as usual, the most charming thing about Plato is that he is so much bigger than his conclusions. Though Socrates is Plato’s hero and mouthpiece, Plato also seems to be aware of Socrates’ (and his own) limitations. Callicles is not a mere strawman, but puts forward a truly consistent worldview; and Plato leaves it in doubt whether his own arguments prevailed. He even puts some good comebacks in Callicles’ mouth: “Yes, by the Gods, you are literally always talking of cobblers and fullers and cooks and doctors, as if this had to do with our argument.” By the Gods, he is!

(Cover photo by Jebulon; licensed under CC0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

The Feeling Good HandbookThe Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike with previous Burns books, I read this one while I was feeling relatively normal and untroubled. I did this because I sensed myself relapsing. Cognitive therapy, as you might know, is based on the premise that your thoughts control your moods and emotions. Thus it works by changing your beliefs and even your values in order to alleviate depression, anxiety, and problems with relationships. In my own experience, this can have a remarkably liberating effect. The problem is that, when the relief passes and you once more get sucked into the humdrum world of daily troubles, the original beliefs and values come creeping back.

But why is this? Why are we so prone to adopting irrational and self-defeating patterns of thought? Why do we embrace unrealistic standards, make unjustified assumptions, jump to unwarranted conclusions—only to wallow in misery and fear and loneliness—when a few pen-and-paper exercises is sometimes all we need to feel better? It is peculiar. Robert Wright argues that our cognitive imperfections stem from our evolutionary heritage. A competitive and materialistic culture might also contribute. Burns, for his part, does not offer much in the way of explanation; his aim is therapy, not theory. Yet answering this question seems vital if we are to fight an offensive battle rather than a defensive one.

It seems to me that the most proactive strategy would be to intervene on the social rather than the psychological realm (if that were possible). To pick a simple example, if an obsession with being the best is really self-defeating—at least as far as happiness is concerned—then why the opposite message so passionately embraced in the culture at large?

Perhaps it is because these value systems, which equate happiness with accomplishment, do benefit the group even if they are not psychologically desirable. An office full of perfectionistic over-achievers might out-compete an office full of contented workers with nothing to prove. Advertisements may not have much effect in a world of high self-esteem. And political parties will have trouble getting elected in a world without anxiety. In these and a thousand other ways, society depends on the very thoughts and attitudes that books like this try to combat. No wonder that relapse is common once therapy ceases.

It is also true that there are hidden, and sometimes ugly, benefits to our bad habits. It feels satisfying to think oneself superior to others. Insulting and controlling other people brings a rush. Anxiety helps us to avoid discomfort. Intimacy requires painful vulnerability. And who wants to accept imperfections in oneself? Burns’ methods require that we see ourselves as flawed, that we acknowledge that other people have a point, that our anger is often unjustified, that we face our fears—and who wants to do that? Indeed, sometimes the beliefs that are most precious to us, the beliefs that form our identity and reality, are just what cognitive therapy encourages us to give up—the belief that, for example, your money makes you superior, or that life is rotten, or that your wife is crazy—and these beliefs can seem more important than happiness itself.

Well, I’m not sure I have a solution to this, other than meditating and occasionally dipping into some cognitive therapy books when I feel particularly troubled. For that purpose The Feeling Good Handbook is well suited, since it is a sort of omnibus of Burns’ general approach, with sections on depression, anxiety, and communication. Even though I was not looking for any special relief, I still found the book useful (specifically the section on procrastination, which prompted me to finally begin submitting my novel to agents). As usual, Burns is a heartening voice—compassionate, intelligent, and motivating—who is accessible without descending into tackiness. And it is always a relief to read his anecdotes, since they remind me that these problems, far from hopeless or strange, are part of the human condition.

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