Review: Don Juan

Review: Don Juan

Don Juan by Lord Byron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.

The legend of Don Juan appears to be one of the most productive stories in all of literature. After its first setting by Tirso de Molina—still a classic of the Spanish stage—it has been adapted innumerable times. Molière’s powerful version may be the most famous for the theater, and Mozart’s opera is considered to be among the greatest works of music even sounded. After speaking in French verse and singing in mellifluous Italian, the infamous seducer of Seville lived on—though much altered—to speak iambic pentameter in Lord Byron’s comedic epic.

Nonetheless, Lord Byron’s use of the legend is free to the point that it may as well have been discarded entirely. The protagonist is, indeed, an attractive young man from Seville with a formidable sexual appetite. Byron’s Juan, however, is usually the seducee rather than the seducer. He does not lie to get his way, he does not have a wisecracking servant, he does not kill the fathers of his victims, and he does not meet his end at the hands of a living statue. There is none of that here. Instead, Don Juan is an attractive young boy with a good heart who runs into a lot of trouble, mainly because every woman who sees him wants him. It is a pleasant twist on an old tale.

Though a member of the Romantic age, Byron does not strike me as a Romantic poet. His poetry is witty, snappy, sharp, irreverent, and lean. There is nothing sentimental, meditative, or wistful in this long poem. Indeed, the verse is so prose-like that it is hardly even poetical. His most obvious literary forebear is not Milton or Donne, but Pope—another witty versifier. It seems strange, then, that of all the great English Romantic poets, it was Byron who was arguably the most famous and influential. Perhaps tastes did not change as much as we are prone to believe.

This epic poem has a loose and baggy structure. That is to say that it is full of holes and an awful lot of wind blows through it. Byron appears to have begun with a fairly concrete idea in mind, and the first three or four cantos are brilliant fun. Soon thereafter the poem falls apart, however—dissolving into an endlessly long aside, in which the main action is lost. The poem ceases to be the comic epic of Don Juan and instead becomes a vehicle for Byron’s own endless editorializing. This is still mostly worth reading, for Byron’s wit if not for his logic, but it is not exactly a work of high art.

Poor Don Juan is left in the lurch, and never does get to meet his final end—whatever that may have been. Byron met his own end before he could give one to Don Juan. If not for that, this poem may have gone on for twenty cantos more. But at the rate the story was progressing in the final cantos, twenty more may not even have been enough to bring this sprawling story to a satisfying conclusion. So let us be thankful for what we have. The parts that are weak are readable, and the parts that are strong are delightful.



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Letters from Spain #14: Public Education

Letters from Spain #14: Public Education

Here is the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about the enormous price differences between Spanish and American universities:

Here is the Apple Podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-14-public-education/id1469809686?i=1000465633689

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

I’ve come back to work from a rather pleasant weekend. To celebrate our anniversary, Rebeca and I took a little trip to the Madrid mountains. It’s a beautiful place. The geography is dominated by grey granite formations (a material that also forms many of the local buildings) and the landscape is covered in pine trees. There are endless trails for hiking and lots of cute little villages to visit. The pueblo we happened to be in was populated by a bunch of hippies, eating vegetarian meals and drinking craft beer. It was a nice escape from the city center.

Well, anyways, in this podcast I don’t want to talk about Spain’s many vacation possibilities. Instead, I want to talk about something that is a source of envy for many Americans: public education. Specifically, public higher education. As with the cost of medicine, the cost of university in Europe is strikingly lower than it is in America. To give you an extreme example, going to New York University for one year costs (according to the internet) over $70,000. Now, admittedly NYU is one of the most expensive universities in the world. But even if you want to go to a much more modest college in America, like I did, you can still pay quite a lot. In my case, I went to a public university, Stony Brook, and had to pay well over $20,000 a year.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend went to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid—one of the best universities in Spain—and paid around 3,000 euros per year. And a chunk of that was covered by a scholarship. Needless to say, she didn’t need to go into debt to get an education. Meanwhile, I graduated with well over $20,000 of debt and I’m still paying it off. So what is the deal with this huge price difference? It’s worth remembering that this wasn’t always the case. Every millenial has heard stories of Baby Boomers working their way through college. Just the other day I heard an economics professor say he paid for college by lifting boxes during the summers. Clearly, that’s impossible nowadays in America, so it’s worth asking what the deal is.

Obviously a big difference is how much the state subsidizes higher education. In Spain, as in many European countries, the government foots the bill. You could make the argument, therefore, that in Europe college isn’t really free after all, since the people pay for it in higher taxes. That’s one side to the story—and, of course, it’s a big one. But I think there is another, less-mentioned aspect to the college cost debate, and that is the culture of college.

In America, going to university is a rite of passage. It has been turned into a basic phase of young adulthood. You live away from your parents for the first time, and you live in a dorm with a bunch of other young people. Suddenly you find yourself in a world of young people with very few responsibilities. It’s a crazy time. People go to parties, fall in love, form close friendships, and very occasionally study. And campuses can be very comfortable places. My campus, for example, had free gyms all over the place, and even a pool to use. I joined an a capella club and volunteered in a local rock venue. The point I’m making is that college consisted of a lot more than just going to classes.

In Spain, college is not nearly such a huge personal step. It’s not mythologized like it is in America. I’ve never met a Spanish person who has a lot of pride for where they went to school, or strong nostalgia for their college days, or who has even really talked about their college experience at all. Meanwhile, I know Americans who dreamed of going to specific schools and whose whole friend group is from their college days. Really, university in Spain—and in much of Europe, I think—is a continuation of high school. It’s going to school. Most students don’t even move out of their parents’ house to get their undergraduate degrees. And if they do, it’s quite rare to move onto a dormitory on a college campus.

So one significant reason that college in America is so expensive, I think, is that it has become so much more than just going to school. Think about college sports. Each university in America has its own mascot, its own spirit band, its own star athletes. This doesn’t exist at all in Europe. My girlfriend doesn’t know her school’s animal. (My school’s animal is entirely fictional: it’s the Seawolf. And we had our own cheer: “What’s a Seawolf? I’m a Seawolf.”) In America, we expect a high profile guest to give a speech at our college graduation, where they praise us for being the best and the brightest the world has ever seen. Leaving college is a major ritual, too, after all. Again, nothing of the sort happens in Spain. There are no viral Spanish graduation speeches.

Since moving to Spain, I’ve come to see the American rituals of college as a bit ridiculous. A lot of it is fueled, I think, by our culture of competition. In the United States there are a handful of extremely prestigious schools with a limited number of spots, and where you go to school is a big determiner of your career. It thus becomes a part of your personal journey (and Americans love talking about their careers as personal journeys) and even your identity. This is partly why we demand so much from our college experiences. We don’t just go for the knowledge, but to take our rightful place in the hierarchy of society. We are supposed to emerge transformed, imbued with the prestige of our institution. If you don’t believe me, just talk to anyone who has gone to an Ivy League school. Either they reject it or it’s a part of who they are.

When universities are responsible for providing such an all-inclusive package—dormitories, food, social life, entertainment, psychological and physical health, and a life-defining education—it is no wonder that they cost a lot. What you are paying for is basically the brand itself. Even public universities in the United States pay huge amounts of money in marketing, in order to bolster the university’s brand. The better the brand, the higher the ranking, the more prestigious the university, and the more money it can charge to bestow its prestige on its clients—I mean students. 

I’m getting a bit carried away here, but I hope you see my point. In Spain, you are paying for your classes and little else. You emerge from university with a degree—more knowledgeable, hopefully, but not transformed into a vessel of prestige. To me, I think it’s a healthier system, not least because people don’t drive themselves crazy competing to get into the best university possible. Where you go to school does not determine your social status.

I have a limited experience going to a Spanish university. Last year, I completed a masters at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, in the Instituto Franklin (which specializes in American studies and courses for Americans abroad). The masters took one year to complete and cost me about $4,000. That’s not a bad deal. As an aside, Alcalá de Henares is worth visiting just to see the historic university buildings, which are quite beautiful. The oldest continuously operating university in the country is in Salamanca, which was founded in the 12th century. If you are in Salamanca—a beautiful city—this is also worth a visit.

Anyways, I didn’t want to talk about higher education the whole time. I also want to mention about the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (the official school of languages). This is an initiative of the Spanish government to subsidize low-cost language classes outside of the university, mainly for adults. This year I began taking classes at one of the official schools in order to revive my atrophying German skills. And it’s been a great experience. I paid a little more than 200 euros for a whole academic year of classes. That works out to—what… about two euros per hour of class? It’s a very, very good deal. And the classes are quality, with properly qualified teachers and a well-established curriculum. I’m learning a lot this year.

There are dozens of official schools in Madrid alone and about half a million students enrolled in Spain. My particular school has a very wide range of languages on offer. Besides German, there are other major European languages like French, Italian, and English. There is Spanish for foreigners—quite useful for immigrants—and there are also the other three official languages of Spain: Basque, Catalan, and Galician. Aside from this, the school offers Dutch, Danish, Arabic, Greek, Gaelic, and Chinese (to give you the short list). If you want to become a polyglot, this is a place to be. And the school’s resources extend beyond the classroom. There are language exchanges, where you can find someone and “trade” languages, and also lots of cultural talks and events. There’s even a choir!

Of course, being run by the government, there are a few things to be desired. The school is in an ugly old building. One of the two elevator’s has been broken for two months, so I have to walk up the five floors to my class. And enrolling is a pain. But for what you pay, it’s really a great deal. In fact, I think that having a public school for language training is a wonderful idea, and one that we should embrace in the States. At the very least, it would be a great resource for immigrants. And it might help us with our famous monolingualism. I’d go even further, and suggest that the model of the Official School should be extended for other sorts of things. Computer coding, for example, or even photography—any kind of skill that adults might need to learn. Even on purely economic terms, investing in education usually pays off. After all, a multilingual workforce can outcompete a monolingual one.

In general, my experiences in Spain have made me a strong believer in public education, as uninspiring and inefficient as it can admittedly be sometimes. I think we lose a lot more than we gain by conceiving of college as a giant competition for limited amounts of prestige and status. Education should be about equalizing opportunities and not exacerbating differences, which it so often does in America.

And needless to say, graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt isn’t ideal. Let me give you a concrete example of the difference that debt makes. A few weeks ago I met a man from Scotland living in Germany. He had begun to study German language and literature, but a few years into his undergraduate he decided he didn’t like it—since he didn’t want to work as a translator or a teacher—and he stopped. Now, in America he would have been deeply in debt and without a college degree to help him get a job to pay for it. He would have to start working like mad to try to pay his loans off, and he’d have a difficult time for sure. (Even the loans we get from the federal government in America can have a high interest rate.) But this guy didn’t have to do that. He didn’t sink under the weight of debt since he didn’t have any. A few years later, he re-enrolled as an undergraduate to study music. And now he’s working his way through college—just like we used to do in America—paying for his living expenses with a part-time job as an audio engineer.

To many millenials in America, stories like that seem too good to be true. But are we willing to give up our mythologized college culture and settle into treating university as just additional schooling?—schooling that isn’t necessarily transformative and which isn’t necessarily the right step for every person? That’s hard to tell.

Thank you.

Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Economics by Timothy Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Economics is one subject that causes me perpetual unease. Everybody cares about the economy, of course, and everybody argues about how it should be structured and managed. Imposing terminology is thrown around, graphs and statistics are wheeled out, and yet the situation always seems quite unclear to me. So I was pleased when Timothy Taylor framed his lectures, not as the gospel truth of economics, but as an introduction to the language of economics. Learning this language is essential if you would like to take part in this endless societal argument.

Considering the restraints of time and of format, I think that Taylor deserves praise for these lectures. In 18 hours, he manages to cover all of the major topics of micro- and macro-economics—supply and demand, price curves, government regulation, fiscal policy, etc.—in an accessible but not overly simplistic style. Further, Taylor is an engaging speaker whose enthusiasm for a potentially dreary subject helps to alleviate the dryness. Someone has got to get excited about interest rates, I suppose.

A major shortcoming of these lectures is that they were recorded in 2005, just before the enormous financial crash. Surely, a new edition is called for. Considering how much time has passed, however, I think that these lectures have held up remarkably well. For the most part, the major disagreements and issues in economics do not seem to have changed very much. Everything is here—healthcare costs, financial crashes, trade wars, deficits—which is probably not a reason to celebrate.

If Taylor can be criticized, I think it should be for inserting too many of his own views into these lectures. Some degree of editorializing is inevitable in any academic course, I think. But Taylor is quite an opinionated guide, and never hesitates to advocate for his pet policies. Admittedly this did make the lectures more interesting at times; but it also undermined Taylor’s insistence that economics is merely a way of thinking rather than a specific doctrine. To the contrary, these lectures contain very specific presumptions about and prescriptions for a successful society (hint: it is all about a free market).

Speaking more generally, it is frustrating for me the degree to which the social sciences inhabit parallel worlds. Not only do anthropology, psychology, and economics study different sorts of phenomena, but they make very different assumptions about human behavior—which often contradict one another. I was acutely aware of this while listening to these lectures, since I was concurrently reading psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which argues that the rational agent model of economic actors is fundamentally flawed. Meanwhile, my brother is reading anthropologist David Graebner’s book about the many different (non-capitalist) ways that economic activity has been carried out throughout time and across space.

Compared to psychology and anthropology, economics can seem worrisomely abstract to me—too content to rest its conclusions on untested assumptions and a priori principles. In these lectures, for example, I would have appreciated more case studies of historical examples in lieu of theoretical explanations. This would have illustrated the concepts’ usefulness far more effectively, I think.

But I am drifting off topic. As a painless introduction to economics, these lectures do an admirable job. It is a fascinating discipline with much to teach us. I am glad to have a break for now, though. A dismal science indeed.



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Letters from Spain #13: Cultural Comparison

Letters from Spain #13: Cultural Comparison

Here is the next installment of my podcast. This episode is an attempt to compare the deep values of Spain and the United States. You can see the YouTube video here:

Here is the apple podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-13-cultural-comparison/id1469809686?i=1000464935149

And here is the transcript:


Hello.

Yet another week has passed—this time of year always seems to go by so quickly—and there is nothing special to report from Madrid. According to the news from America, impeachment is a farce, the Iowa caucus is a farce, and we’re all going to die of coronavirus. Oh well. At least the weather in Madrid is unseasonably warm. Of course, that could be a concern, too, if you think too much about hot and sunny February days. But it’s best just to enjoy it while it lasts, I guess.

Today I wanted to try a higher-level cultural comparison between my two countries: Spain and the United States. Now, of course I am constantly comparing these two places on my podcast. That’s pretty much what I’m here to do. But a lot of cultural comparisons focus on details—diet, fashion, rituals, and so on. Culture goes a lot deeper than that, though. And if you want to really get to the heart of a cultural difference, you have to try to focus on these more fundamental values. Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist from the Netherlands, developed perhaps the most famous framework for comparing cultures. Basically he breaks down a culture into six independent factors, and then tries to measure them.

While I don’t know how far I agree with his theory or his methodology, I think this is at least an interesting place to start when thinking about two different cultures. Specifically, I want to focus on what Hofstede calls “power distance.” This is basically the degree to which a society accepts a hierarchy as legitimate. In other words, you can think of it as the difference in respect granted to a boss or an employee, or a parent and a child. Now, according to the Hofstede consultancy website, Spain scores significantly higher than the United States in this regard, meaning that it is a less egalitarian culture. But I have doubts about this. Much of the data was collected in the 1970s and focused exclusively on IBM employees (Hofstede worked for IBM). A lot has changed since then.

Instead, I’m prepared to argue that the “power distance” in Spain nowadays is, on the whole, quite a bit lower than it is in the United States. A lot of little things lead me to this conclusion. One obvious clue is in the Spanish language itself. Spanish, in case you didn’t know, has two forms to say “you,” a casual version (tú) and a formal version (usted). However, in Spain the formal version is rarely used. Even when you meet a total stranger or you’re in a shop, it’s expected to use the casual . To be honest, I’ve used the usted form so rarely that I’m not even good at it. Now, this is not the case in many Latin American countries. And a few decades ago, it wasn’t the case in Spain either. The language itself has stopped encoded differences in respect.

Another striking piece of evidence of this is how teachers are addressed. In America teachers are called by their last name. So I would be Mr. Lotz. But in Spain, teachers are universally called by their first name. So here, I’m Roy. I’m not even Mr. Roy or Teacher Roy. Just “Roy” to my students. This isn’t just some curious fact. Believe me: the relationship between teachers and students is very different in Spain than in the United States. Growing up, I remember seeing my teachers are unquestionable authority figures, someone to disobey at your own risk. In Spain, students just don’t have this fear of teachers like I did. There’s a definite casualness in the relationship that can drive you crazy if you’re trying to quiet down a class.

Here’s another example from the classroom. (As a teacher, this is where most of my experience is.) In American high schools, there’s a definite hierarchy among the students. There is a continuum from cool, popular kids to uncool, unpopular kids. Think of any American movie about high school you’ve seen. Besides this, there are quite noticeable cliques or groups of students in any given American class. Certain people hang together. In a Spanish classroom, these factors are refreshingly absent. At least from my perspective, there is no definite hierarchy of popular to unpopular, and the students mix pretty freely. So most of the time you can randomly group students together without fearing any issue. 

But there are other signs of this cultural trait, too. One thing that’s striking for an American is how rarely Spanish people talk about their jobs. In America, it’s one of the first things we ask about a person. And we kind of assume that a person’s job defines them, at least partially. But in Spain people often don’t ask, and never seem to want to talk about their work very much. Now, again, I don’t think that this is just a curious fact. In America, your job defines your role in a grand hierarchy. This, I think, is one of the main reasons we want to know it: because our attitude changes if we are talking to a janitor or a lawyer, even if we’re not aware of it changing. If you’re an American listening, try to imagine knowing someone for weeks and weeks without knowing what their job was. Would that make you uncomfortable?

I also think that power distance is encoded into forms of politeness. Specifically, I think about the American tendency to say “please” and “thank you” rather obsessively. Spaniards say please and thank you, of course, but not nearly so often or in so many different situations. To me this is very telling. The words please and thank you are for making requests and receiving benefits. The fact that you have to say it implies that you are not owed anything by the other members of the group, and so every benefit you receive should be treated like a generous gift (even when it obviously isn’t). The funny thing about it is that you normally say please and thank you when you’re in a situation where there isn’t a lot of choice. For example, an American might say “thank you” when a worker in a restaurant fills up their glass with water, but of course if that worker didn’t do so in a timely fashion, they might get fired. Similarly, you say “please” when ordering in a restaurant, but not when asking your friend to pass you a beer.

My point is that these words, far from indicating a situation with equal power, are most often used when there is unequal power—such as a boss telling a worker what to do, or ordering in a restaurant, and so on. Please and thank you serve as a kind of respectful mask for unequal power distributions. This is why, in some cultures, inappropriately thanking someone can be seen as disrespectful. Even in Spain, if you impulsively thank your waiters in a restaurant for everything they do—take your order, give you a beer, serve your food—then they might look at you funny. The attitude is that it’s their job and that’s it. You’re paying for a service and receiving it.

And while I’m on the subject of Spanish restaurants, I think the attitude of waiters also illustrates an important difference. To be a waiter in many American restaurants, you need to be an actor as well as a server. Waiters are expected to smile and be chipper and pleasant. In Spain, there really isn’t nearly as much of a notion that waiters should take on this role so completely. And I think this applies to many jobs: even while they are working, Spanish people tend to treat their jobs as jobs, not as roles in a play. This, to me, signals an unwillingness to identify with their level in the hierarchy of status, maintaining their primary identity as independent of their temporary social role.

This, in short, is why I think Spain’s culture has a lower score on the “power distance” scale.

While I’m on the subject of these big cultural differences, I thought I would also mention another important way that cultures can differ: individualism vs communalism. As is often noted, the United States is highly individualistic. As a Western country, Spain is pretty individualistic, too, though significantly less I think. Here, again, I think that forms of politeness give us a clue. While saying thank you and your welcome are not as important as Spain as in the US, it is significantly more important to say hello and goodbye. Spaniards take greetings seriously. When you’re introduced to a group of people in the United States, you can just wave to everyone and say “hello.” But in Spain, you need to make your way around the circle.

Similarly, you have to say goodbye (technically, “see you later”) when you leave a space, even if you’re talking to perfect strangers. This applies to a lot of situations that strike Americans as strange. You walk into the staff room at school to pick up a pencil, and you have to say “hasta luego” as you leave. Or if you visit someone and leave their building, you say goodbye to the doorman. Or even if you’re in an elevator in a crowded office building, you say “hasta luego.” This strikes an American is really bizarre. But it makes sense in a more communal culture, where being together, in a group, is a strong value in itself.

You can even get a taste of this if you look at the two countries on Google Earth. Americans live alone in big houses, separated by wide spaces. Spaniards live all bunched up together in apartment buildings, even in rural areas they bunch together in a heap rather than spread out. You can drive for miles without seeing a sign of human habitation, and then all the sudden you can see a dense village. As an American, you naturally think: why don’t they spread out? But Spanish people love being together.

As a last cultural aspect to consider, there is what Hofstede calls “masculinity,” which I think is a bad name for a useful concept. This is (and I quote) “the degree to which a society will be driven by competition, achievement, and success.” You can just call this competitiveness rather than masculine, I think. In America, life is conceived of as a struggle of all against all, a universal rat race, a giant zero-sum game. Americans want to have high status, and there is only so much status to go around. Spanish culture is not nearly so competitive.

You can see this very clearly if you teach high school. In America, we separate students into tracks: normal, honors, and AP (advanced placement). Not only that, but students in American high schools must constantly scramble to accomplish as much as they can—get high grades, engage in extra-curriculars, sports, music, dance, theater, etc. Again, in America status depends on success, success depends on money, and money partly depends on education—and, of course, there are only a few coveted spots in elite universities. Spanish high schools are not like this at all. They don’t even have official sports teams that compete against those of other high schools. And in general getting into university has none of this rat race quality that it does in America. 

To me it’s obvious that all of these cultural qualities are interrelated: a culture that is more egalitarian will be more communal and less competitive, and vice versa. 

Well, this podcast has already gone on long enough. But I hope I at least gave you some food for thought about cultural differences. I wasn’t trying to argue that either one was better, by the way. In some cases it’s nice to have a low score on the power distance scale. But believe me, as a teacher, sometimes you wish there was more of a power distance between yourself and students. On the other hand, I think that the competition to get into good colleges is psychologically and socially unhealthy. So, pick your poison I guess. 

Thank you.

Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

I think this book is mistitled. For years, I assumed that it was some kind of self-help book about when to trust your gut and when to trust your head, and thus I put off reading it. But Thinking, Fast and Slow is nothing of the sort. As I finally discovered when the book was gifted to me (the ecstatic blurbs in the front pages were the first clue), this book is the summary of Daniel Kahneman’s study of cognitive errors. The book should probably be called: Thinking, Just Not Very Well.

Granted, my initial impression had a grain of truth. Kahneman’s main focus is on what we sometimes call our gut. This is the “fast thinking” of the title, otherwise known as our intuition. Unlike many books on the market, which describe the wonders of human intuition and judgment, Kahneman’s primary focus was on how our intuition can systematically fail to draw correct conclusions. So you might say that this is a book about all of the reasons you should distrust your gut.

Every researcher of the mind seems to divide it up into different hypothetical entities. For Freud it was the conscious and unconscious, while for Kahneman there are simply System 1 and System 2. The former is responsible for fast thinking—intuition, gut feelings—and the second is responsible for slow thinking—deliberative thought, using your head. System 2, while admirably thorough and logical, is also effortful and sluggish. Trying any unfamiliar mental task (such as mental arithmetic) can convince you of this. Thus, we must rely on our fast-acting System 1 for most of any given day.

System 1 generates answers to questions without any experience of conscious deliberation. Most often these answers are reasonable, such as when answering the question “What you like a hamburger?” (Answer: yes). But, as Kahneman demonstrates, there are many situations in which the answer that springs suddenly to mind is demonstrably false. This would not be a problem if our conscious System 2 detected these falsehoods. Yet our default position is to simply go with our intuition unless we have a strong reason to believe our intuition is misleading. Unfortunately, the brain has no warning system to tell you that your gut feeling is apt to be unreliable. You can call these sorts of situations “cognitive illusions.”

A common theme in these cognitive illusions is a failure of our intuition to deal with statistical information. We are good at thinking in terms of causes and comparisons, but situations involving chance throw us off. As an example, imagine a man who is shy, quiet, and orderly. Is he more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? Now consider the answer that springs to mind (librarian, I assume): how was it generated? Your mind compared the description to the stereotype of a librarian, and made the judgment. But this judgment did not take into account the fact that there are many times more farmers than male librarians.

Another example of this failure of intuition is the mind’s tendency to generate causal stories to explain random statistical noise. A famous example of this is the “hot hand” in basketball: interpreting a streak of successful shots as due to the player being especially focused, rather than simply as a result a luck. (Although subsequent research has shown that there was something to the idea, after all. So maybe we should not lament too much about our intuitions!) Another well-known example is the tendency for traders to attribute their success or failure in the stock market to skill, while Kahneman demonstrated that the rankings of a group of traders from year to year had no correlation at all. The basic point is that we are generally hesitant to attribute something to chance, and instead invent causal stories that “explain” the variation.

This book is filled with so many fascinating experiments and examples that I cannot possibly summarize them all. Suffice to say that the results are convincing, not only because of the weight of evidence, but mainly because Kahneman is usually able to demonstrate the principle at work on the reader. Our intuitive reactions are remarkably similar, apparently, and I found that I normally reacted to his questions in the way that he predicted. If you are apt to believe that you are a rational person (as I am) it can be quite depressing.

After establishing the groundwork, Kahneman sets his sights on the neighboring discipline of economics. Conventional economic theory presupposes rational actors who are able to weigh risks and to act in accordance with their desires. But, as Kahneman found, this does hold with actual people. Not only do real humans act irrationally, but real humans deviate from the expected predictions of the rational agent model systematically. This means that we humans are (to borrow a phrase from another book in this vein) predictably irrational. Our folly is consistent.

One major finding is that people are loss-averse. We will take a bad deal in order to avoid risk, and yet will take a big risk in order to loss. This behavior seems to be motivated by an intense fear of regret, and it is the cause of a certain amount of conservatism, not only in economics, but in life. If an action turns out badly, we tend to regret it more of it was an exceptional rather than a routine act (picking up a hitchhiker rather than driving to work, for example), and so people shy away from abnormal options that carry uncertainty.

Yet, logically speaking, there is no reason to regret a special action more than a customary one, just as there is no reason to weigh losses so much more heavily than gains. Of course, there is good evolutionary logic for these tendencies. In a dangerous environment, losing a gamble could mean losing your life, so it is best to stay to the tried-and-true. But in an economic context, this strategy is not usually optimal.

The last section of the book was the most interesting of all, at least from a philosophical perspective. Kahneman investigates how our memories systematically misrepresent our experiences, which can cause a huge divergence between experienced happiness and remembered joy. Basically, when it comes to memory, intensity matters more than duration, and the peaks and ends of experiences matter more than their averages. The same applies with pain: We may remember one experience as less painful than another just because the pain was mild when it ended. And yet, in terms of measured pain per minute, the first experience may actually have included more experiential suffering.

As a result of this, our evaluations of life satisfaction can often have very little to do with our real, experiential well being. This presents us with something of a paradox, since we often do things, not for how much joy they will bring us in the moment, but for the nice memory they will create. Think about this: How much money would you spend on a vacation if you knew that every trace of the experience would be wiped out as soon as the vacation ended, including photos and even your memories? The answer for most people is not much, if anything at all. This is why so many people (myself included) frantically take photos on their vacations: the vacation is oriented toward a future remembering-self. But perhaps it is just as well that humans were made this way. If I made my decisions based on what was most pleasant to do in the moment, I doubt I would have made my way through Kant.

This is just a short summary of the book, which certainly does not do justice to the richness of Kahneman’s many insights, examples, and arguments. What can I possibly add? Well, I think I should begin with my few criticisms. Now, it is always possible to criticize the details of psychological experiments—they are artificial, they mainly use college students, etc. But considering the logistical restraints of doing research, I thought that Kahneman’s experiments were all quite expertly done, with the relevant variables controlled and additional work performed to check for competing explanations. So I cannot fault this.

What bothered me, rather, was that Kahneman was profuse in diagnosing cognitive errors, but somewhat reticent when it came to the practical ramifications of these conclusions, or to strategies to mitigate these errors. He does offer some consequences and suggestions, but these are few and far between. Of course, doing this is not his job, so perhaps it is unfair to expect anything of the kind from Kahneman. Still, if anyone is equipped to help us deal with our mental quagmires, he is the man.

This is a slight criticism. A more serious shortcoming was that his model of the mind fails to account for a ubiquitous experience: boredom. According to Kahneman’s rough sketch, System 1 is pleased by familiarity, and System 2 is only activated (begrudgingly, and without much relish) for unfamiliar challenges. Yet there are times when familiarity can be crushing and when novel challenges can be wonderfully refreshing. The situation must be more subtle: I would guess that we are most happy with moderately challenging tasks that take place against a familiar background. In any case, I think that Kahneman overstated our intellectual laziness.

Pop psychology—if this book can be put under that category—is a genre I dip into occasionally. Though there is a lot of divergence in emphasis and terminology, the consensus is arguably more striking. Most authors seem to agree that our conscious mind is rather impotent compared to all of the subconscious control exerted by our brains. Kahneman’s work in the realm of judgments closely parallels Johathan Haidt’s work in morals: that our conscious mind mostly just passively accepts verdicts handed up from our mental netherworld. Indeed, arguably this was Freud’s fundamental message, too. Yet it is so contrary to all of our conscious experiences (as, indeed, it must be) that it still manages to be slightly disturbing.

Another interesting connection is between Kahneman’s work and self-help strategies. It struck me that these cognitive errors are quite directly related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which largely consists of getting patients to spot their own mental distortions (most of which are due to our mind’s weakness with statistics) and correct them. And Kahneman’s work on experiential and remembered well being has obvious relevance to the mindfulness movement—strategies for switching our attention from our remembering to our experiencing “self.” As you can see from these connections, Kahneman’s research is awfully rich.

Though perhaps not as amazing as the blurbs would have you believe, I cannot help but conclude that this is a thoroughly excellent book. Kahneman gathers many different strands of research together into a satisfying whole. Who would have thought that a book about all the ways that I am foolish would make me feel so wise?



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Paris: Cemeteries, Tombs, and Mausoleums

Paris: Cemeteries, Tombs, and Mausoleums

My first time in Paris was a whirlwind affair. I took a horribly early Ryanair flight and had barely 48 hours to see the major sites. Every waking moment was spent on my feet—and it was easily one of the most impressive travel experiences of my life. Yet such a breakneck tour naturally left me curious. What had I missed as I marched through the city? Thankfully, my second trip to Paris was far more leisurely.

In this post, I want to talk about a particular interest of mine: burial sites. For me, visiting cemeteries is oddly comforting. It is tragic, of course, that we all must die. But it does help to put things in perspective. Recalling that the greatest artists, scientists, and emperors have all succumbed to the same fate can ease our own existential anxiety. And being reminded of our universal destiny can also help us to savor the experiences that make life really worthwhile. This is how I feel, and this is why I went out to explore some of the most famous graves in Paris.


Père-Lachaise

Père-Lachaise is located somewhat outside the city-center, and that is for a reason. As in many major cities in the 19th century, there was less and less room for more and more bodies. Overcrowding in municipal cemeteries was both unattractive and unhygienic. So in 1804, shortly after Napoleon’s ascent to the throne, several “garden cemeteries” were opened on the outskirts of the city. This same process played out in New York City, leading to the creation of beautiful cemeteries like Woodlawn or Green-Wood, among others. In Paris, the biggest cemetery established was Père-Lachaise—built on a hill outside the city, and named for a royal confessor who used to live on the site.

In appearance, Père-Lachaise is somewhere intermediate between the solid stone cemeteries of Spain and the park-like cemeteries of New York. Tree-shaded walkways lead past rows and rows of gravestones, most of them large and ornate. As soon as I walked inside I felt refreshed. After the bustle and noise of Paris, the dead make welcome company. And there are many of them to choose from. Over one million souls lie interred in Père-Lachaise—half the population of modern-day Paris. The cemetery is still active, though burial is expensive and the waiting-list is long. Because of overcrowding, the cemetery actually engages in space-saving measures, such as burying family members together or digging up bodies whose leases have expired. In Paris, even the departed get evicted.

Even though the cemetery is only two-hundred years old—quite young in a European context—it contains bodies that are far older. The most conspicuous example of this is the iconic couple: Abelard and Heloïse. Abelard was one of the finest intellectuals of the Middle Ages, whose philosophical contributions to theology are still fascinating. But among laypeople, he is most famous for his tumultuous love-affair with Hélöise, documented in a series of passionate letters that have become literary classics. Their bodies—supposed bodies, I should say—were moved to Père-Lachaise as part of a marketing ploy to boost the cemetery’s reputation, and now lay interred in an elaborate psuedo-gothic tomb, where the two lovers—whose religious vows made their love rather difficult—can now enjoy eternal rest together.

Two more celebrities were dug up and re-buried here as part of the same marketing push: the dramatist Molière and fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, who both died in the 17th century. I was especially happy to find Molière, who is one of my favorite dramatists of any kind. His comedies are uniformly profound and delightful. The two iconic writers lie interred next to one another, in fairly simple stone sarcophagi raised above the ground. I am not sure about the ethics of relocating bodies for reasons of profit; but I was very glad to see Molière.

Gertrude Stein

There are many other famous writers to be found, and not all of them French. Gertrude Stein—who wrote innovative, complex books—lies under a simple, traditional grave. The playwright Oscar Wilde’s tomb is significantly more elaborate. It is an enormous statue carved by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, featuring a kind of winged messenger. To my eyes, however, the sculpture appears a bit stiff and awkward, certainly not suggestive of flight. But it at least catches one’s attention. Somehow, the tradition of kissing the statue with bright red lipstick got underway. Nowadays there is a plexiglass barrier to prevent this. A writer I prefer to either Stein or Wilde has a less-visited tomb: Marcel Proust. After having slogged my way through all of his enormous novel, In Search of Lost Time, I was moved to see the great artist’s modest tombstone. For an artist so obsessed with remembrance, he has an inconspicuous grave.

Edith Piaf

Père-Lachaise also has its share of musicians. The body of Fréderic Chopin, the great piano composer, is close to the entrance. Further on, one comes across Edith Piaf, that star of French singers. It was impossible to look down on her grave without unconsciously hearing her distinctive voice. Yet the most famous musician buried in Père-Lachaise is not a European, but Jim Morrison, the American singer who died at age 27. His may be the most-visited grave in the entire cemetery. So many people visit and vandalize it, in fact, that the cemetery has taken to placing a barrier around the tombstone, so that nobody can get too close. 

Oscar Wilde’s tombstone

Apart from these personal monuments to the illustrious dead, there are several more general monuments in Père-Lachaise. The most general is the monuments aux morts, a sculptural complex unveiled in 1899 commemorating all of the dead in the cemetery (and presumably beyond). Père-Lachaise has more specific commemorations, too, such as the monument to the victims of the Mauthausen concentration camp. For me this is an extremely moving piece. It shows us a gaunt and haggard figure sprawled across impossibly steep steps. This is meant to evoke the “stairs of death,” 186 steps in which inmates were forced to carry granite up to the top of a quarry. Owing to my own background, I was also pleased to find a monument to the Spaniards who fought in World War II and the French who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Largo Caballero, one of the leaders of the Republic during this tragic time in Spanish history, is also interred nearby.

The Monument to the Dead

One could go on endlessly listing famous bodies in this cemetery. But since life is short, we must move on to the next one.


Montparnasse

Montparnasse is situated in the south of the city. It was established around the same time as Père-Lachaise, and for the same reasons: overcrowding in municipal cemeteries. It is the second-largest cemetery in Paris, with 300,000 bodies. While not quite as beautiful as its more famous cousin, Montparnasse is home to almost as many icons.

Of special interest for me were the two most famous philosophers of 20th-century France: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir is usually remembered nowadays as a feminist, and her book The Second Sex is still widely read. She deserves to be remembered for far more, however, as she was an extremely versatile writer and thinker. During her lifetime she published important works of philosophy, best-selling novels, and many memoirs that have become classics. She spent most of her working life in an open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, the patron saint of existentialism. Sartre was just as versatile as de Beauvoir, writing plays, novels, pamphlets, treatises, biographies, and much else. Though controversial, Sartre was extremely popular during his lifetime, and his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of mourners. I can think of no writer alive today who could compare with this pair.

There are still more writers to be found. Charles Baudelaire—one of the most important French poets of the 19th century—lies peacefully under a modest tombstone, after having thrown the world of literature into disarray. And Emile Durkheim, who helped to found sociology as a discipline, lies similarly inconspicuous among the tombs. I was surprised to find Julio Cortázar, as well, who was regarded as one of the outstanding Latin American novelists of any time. Finding Susan Sontag, the influential American essayist, only added to my surprise. Finally I must mention Samuel Beckett, the Irish writer who was one of the pioneers of the absurd. I knew that Paris attracted writers, but I did not know its appeal was so everlasting.


Les Invalides

You will recognize that Les Invalides looks an awful lot like “the invalids,” and that gives you a clue as to its history. Les Invalides originates as a huge hospital and home for military veterans who had been wounded in war, built under Louis XIV. It is a sprawling complex of long halls separated by ample courtyards, covering an enormous area in central Paris.

The majority of the complex is now given over to its use as a military museum. Thus, as you stroll through the seemingly endless halls, you see knights in armor, crossbows, muskets, cannons, machine guns, and tanks. Not being especially fond of military history, I made my way through this area rather quickly; but I am sure it would hold many delights for aficionados.

I was mainly there to see the tomb of one of the most important men in history: Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon the man was a paradox: power-hungry but idealistic, republical but imperial, egotistical but patriotic, heroic but despotic—the list goes on. This is why he is so fascinating. Indeed, I have heard that Napoleon is the subject of more books than any other historical figure apart from Jesus. It seems only fitting that his tomb be resplendent.

Napoleon lies interred under the central dome of Les Invalides, which originated as a royal chapel for Louis XIV. One wonders whether a church is the most appropriate place for the remains of the dictator—who was not, after all, especially religious—but at least the space is appriopriately grand. A painted dome ceiling hangs far above the space, which opens up to reveal the magnificent sarcophagus of the little emperor. Carved from red quartzite, the sarcophagus emerges from the floor, with its curved lid seeming to break upon the space like a wave. The sarcophagus is surrounded by statues and friezes depicting Napoleon’s glorious reign. Many of them depict the French emperor as the second coming of Alexander the Great—crowned in laurels, sitting as a god among men. It is a bit hard to stomach if you are not an admirer.

As you may know, Napoleon spent his final days on the tiny island of St. Helena, far away from France. It was only during the reign of Louis Philippe (who was trying to curry favor with Napoleon supporters) that the emperor’s bones were brought to France and interred in such grandiose style. As with all funerary displays, the pomp can seem rather empty. Napoleon died a defeated man, after all; and no matter how glorious he was, he is gone for good. But on the other hand, it is humbling to think that somebody born into ordinary circumstances could acquire such a hold over his adopted country (Napoleon was born in Corsica).

The tomb of Joseph Bonaparte

Well, the great Bonaparte is not the only one to be buried here. His son, Napoleon II, is also in attendance, though he died quite too young (21) to have anything but a minor role in French history. I was more interested in finding Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, who held the title as the King of Spain for a few years before being forced to flee. After abdicating, Joseph spent much of his remaining life in the United States, living off the jewels he took from Spain. This is basically my plan, too.


The Panthéon

The last time I visited Paris was in May of 2018—about a year before Notre-Dame burned. Nowadays, I suspect, it is impossible to look at the charred building without feeling a bit melancholy. Yet normally the area around Notre-Dame is one of the prettiest parts of Paris. The cathedral is situated on the Île de la Cité, a small island in the Seine. Crossing the bridge southwards, you could see the cathedral’s monumental form standing above calm waters of the river, and marvel at the elaborate iron spire. 

Just across the bridge you will come across Shakespeare and Company, the famous book store frequented by Anglophone expatriots like James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. This is not the original location of the store, however; nor was it ever affiliated with the store’s original owner, Sylvia Beach. This store is more like an homage to Beach’s. Original or not, it has an excellent selection of English-language books, so I decided to walk inside. I emerged with a used copy of Giogio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, a book that I had wanted to read for some time. 

Moving further south, you come to Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, another of Paris’s beautiful churches. Its façade is a rather strange and cluttered jumble of styles, which nevertheless manages to be quite charming. Unfortunately for me, both times I tried to visit, the church was closed; so I have not seen its interior. From what I have read, it is quite a lovely space.

But I was not there to see cathedrals, churches, or bookstores. I was there was the Panthéon, Paris’s great temple to its illustrious dead. It is an enormous neoclassical building, with a towering dome highly reminiscent of America’s Capitol Building (which is not surprising, since the Panthéon was a direct influence). Originally, however, this grandiose building was not built for France’s secular heros, but as a church to Saint Genevive, the patron saint of Paris. But during the atheistic years of the French Revolution, it was decided to deconsecrate the space and use it to honor heroes of the Enlightenment.

Every inch of the structure is richly decorated. The visitor walks under the peristyle, through the flowering Corinthian columns, and past elaborate friezes of religious scenes. The interior of the building is expansive and just as ornate. Any list of the sculptures and paintings would be tedious, but the interplay between Enlightenment and Church decorations is immediately noticeable. The great battle for Europe’s soul is played out on the walls.

Under the magnificently painted dome, which shows us the apotheosis of Saint Genevieve, there hangs a celebration of human science: Foucault’s pendulum. This is a simple device, consisting of a bob hanging down on a long wire. The back and forth motion of the pendulum undergoes a precession around a circle, directly illustrating earth’s motion. Behind this tribute to the human mind is a celebration of democracy: François-Léon Siccard’s sculptural portrayal of the National Convention. We see a martial female figure (liberty?) surrounded by politicians and soldiers, where underneath it states: “Vivre libre ou mourir” (Live free or die).

Foucault’s pendulum
Two Frances: The monument to the National Convention, with Jesus in the background.

As interesting as is the temple itself, the crypt was why I was there. If you have any love for classic books, it is a holy place. After descending a small staircase, you suddenly find yourself standing between two of the most influential writers of any place and time: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire was the first Enlightenment hero to be interred here. At first denied a Christian burial, his remains were first interred in secret in an Abbey in Champagne. But in 1791, during the heady days of the Revolution, it was decided that Voltaire deserved the secular equivalent to canonization, and his remains were moved here. The procession was enormous: reportedly a million people came out to celebrate the late hero, with music, ritual, and fanfare.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was moved here three years later, in 1794, after it was decided that he too was a hero of the Revolution. For my part, it is rather strange to find these two men sharing the same vault. They are opposed in both thought and temperament. Voltaire was an enemy of tyranny but he was no democrat; his writings stressed the importance of civilization and rationality. Rousseau, on the other hand, was a champion of the “general will” in politics; and he emphasized the importance of nature and feeling. The two writers sparred several times in life, each finding the other brilliant but repugnant. Somehow, the ideals of the Revolution were able to accomodate them both.

Voltaire’s tomb is the more impressive of the two, if only because of the wonderfully lifelike statue of the wry old philosopher standing before it. Rousseau’s coffin celebrates the man’s accomplishments in inscriptions on both sides, and on one end we see a hand reaching out, bearing a torch. I got goosebumps as I stood there.

Moving further into the crypt, one finds many little chambers branching off the central corridor. Many of these are filled with officers and generals, most of whom served under Napoleon. This had little interest for me. Instead, I made my way straight to the chamber containing the mortal remains of three giants of French literature: Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola.

Victor Hugo was the first to be buried here. Few writers have ever been so beloved by their country. His ceremony was even more elaborate than that for Voltaire, with over two million people in attendance. Emile Zola, another liberal writer, was next to enter the Parthéon, although the ceremony was disturbed by an assassination attempt on the life of Alfred Dreyfus. (Dreyfus was a Jewish officer falsely accused of a crime, whom Zola publicly defended. Proust writes much about the case in his enormous novel. Dreyfus is now buried in Montparnasse.) Finally, as recently as 2002, Alexander Dumas was relocated here, in recognition of his enormous popularity.

As usual with the tombs of icons, standing in their presence is both humbling yet exalting. But what I most like about such visits, perhaps, is that it helps to make a historical figure—a person who can seem impossibly distant—seem real and concrete. These people are no longer just names on a page, but just as real as I am.

So ended my visit to Paris’s tombs. If you can believe it, I managed to visit all of these illustrious graves in the span of a single day. It was a modern, secular pilgrimage.


The Catacombs

Though I have never visited the catacombs myself, I feel that I cannot end this post without at least making mention of this popular spot. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, by the end of the 18th century Paris was having a problem with making room for its ever-multiplying dead. It is difficult for an American to quite realize the scope of this problem, since our country’s history is so comparatively shallow. Paris has been around a long time: inhabited since at least the Roman times, it has been a major settlement for over 1,000 years. In short, there are an awful lot of bones to bury, and the city’s space is limited.

By the late 1700s, the situation was getting serious. In the largest municipal cemetery, Saints-Innocents, so many people were buried on top of one another that the ground was piled up to six feet (or two meters) high. In some areas, this proved to be so heavy that it caused the ground to collapse. Also, as you can imagine, having such a huge pile of bodies is not good for the water supply, not to mention for the air quality. Luckily, however, a solution was at hand. Much of the ground in this area of the city—the Left Bank, close to Montparnasse—was riddled with tunnels and holes, widely used in previous years to mine limestone. Thus, beginning in the 1780s, wagons carried these ancient bones into their new resting-place, under the streets of Paris.

Photo by Djtox; taken from Wikimedia Commons

I admit that it does make me feel a bit ethically uneasy to imagine disturbing the eternal rest of so many citizens. Then again, I suppose many of the bones belonged to people who had lived centuries ago, and who were buried in mass graves anyway. Now these skulls and femurs compose one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. The skeletal remains are arranged into patterns on the walls, creating a kind of grim aesthetic charm. I suppose I should visit; but the thought does make me slightly queasy.

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