Off topic

Occasionally I get bored with economics, and would rather talk about something else.  (In any case, there’s not much to say until they do the last minute Greek deal, or not.)  Here are some interesting links that I ran across:

1.  From an article on the poet Charles Simic:

His opposition to any utopian project, including nationalism, which would place a collective interest above the safety of the individual, is unremitting. As Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević was taking power in Serbia, Simic warned early on that he was “bad news,” and for his pains was denounced by Serbian nationalists as a traitor. His answer: “The lyric poet is almost by definition a traitor to his own people.” As he saw it, “sooner or later our tribe always comes to ask us to agree to murder,” which is one good reason he has resisted tribal identification with a passion: “I have more in common with some Patagonian or Chinese lover of Ellington or Emily Dickinson than I have with many of my own people.” Leery of all generalizations, he insists again and again that “only the individual is real.” As the civil war heated up, he found that his appeals to forgiveness and reasonableness were met with total incomprehension and finally hatred.

2.  This quote from Schopenauer reminds me of the internet:

Bad books are an intellectual poison that destroys the spirit. And since most people, instead of reading the best to have come out different periods, limit themselves to reading the latest novelties, writers limit themselves to the current narrow circle of ideas, and the public sink ever deeper into their own mire.

It’s from a delightful book by Enrique Vila-Matas, entitled Bartleby & Co., consisting of nothing but footnotes to a book that was never written. Highly recommended for fans of Borges, Calvino, Walser, Musil and Pessoa.

3.  In the same spirit, Morgan Warstler sent me this quote from Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

And even more so for (imaginative) travel to the past and future.  When I read internet discussions about what “we all should think” about social practice X, I sometimes have the feeling that the writers couldn’t care less about what the public view was 200 years ago, or will be 200 years in the future.  All that matters is the eternal here and now.  The most notable exception is Scott Alexander.  I’d always known that there were math geniuses, physics geniuses, composer geniuses, etc.  But not social science geniuses.  Sure there have been brilliant economists like Irving Fisher, Milton Friedman and J. M. Keynes, or even some of the top bloggers.  But none of them make you say “wow, how did he do that?” Until Mr. Alexander, who seems to have arrived from another planet to enlighten us childlike earthlings.  If he ever forms a new “ism”, you can sign me up.  This recent post is far from his best, but he somehow emerges without a spec of dirt clinging to him, whereas I’d end up covered in “mire.”

4.  Peter Hessler wrote three wonderful books about China.  Here’s an article discussing his amazing popularity in China:

I asked why they read him. After all, they must know China better than a Missourian.

“He shows us a familiar country, but one we never saw before,” said one young man, a twenty-five-year-old engineer named Brian Cheung. “He cares about the lives of ordinary people.”

A tall young man of twenty-nine stood in the background. When the crowd thinned out, he stepped forward and identified himself as an English teacher at a local university.

“I’d like to hear more from him about politics. I feel we need to know more about Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08,” he said of the imprisoned dissident and his manifesto for political change.

“But if his books were about that he wouldn’t be here promoting his books,” I said. “Those kinds of books can’t be published here.”

“I know, I know.” The young man said. “But I still want to know about that too.”

“And yet you’re here.”

“He notices things about China that make us think. He sees a slogan on the wall and describes it, just like that. No commentary. Just the slogan, and when it’s told like that, it seems absurd, laughable, like Kundera’s The Joke. And we think: What are those slogans doing there? They are absurd. And then you start to think: Why?”

When I read The Joke I thought to myself, “what would it be like to live in a society where one’s life could be ruined by a single joke.”  I don’t have to wonder any longer.

5.  And speaking of China, I found this to be an intriguing observation:

But why do I feel that China””and Sinologists””would be better off to relax about the idea that “we have great novels, too”? I feel this because I think that setting up literary civilizations as rivals (although I can understand the insecurities that led Liang Qichao and others to do it) only gets in the way of readers enjoying imaginative works. What does it matter if the author of Chin P’ing Mei might be less than Flaubert? Why should anyone have to feel defensive?

Let me put it the other way around. Novels were not the primary language art in imperial China. Measured by volume, xi, translatable as “drama” or “opera,” would be in first place, and measured by beauty, calligraphy or poetry would be. Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair, because, as my students of Chinese language eventually come to see, the fundaments of language are different.

Indo-European languages, with their requirements that tense, number, gender, and part of speech be specified, and with the mandatory word inflections that the specifications entail, and with the extra syllables that the inflections add, just can’t achieve the same purity””a sense of terseness and expanse at the same time””that tenseless, numberless, voiceless, uninflected, and uninflectible Chinese characters can achieve. In a contest, one person has a butterfly net and the other a window screen. Emily Dickinson might have come to be known as the greatest poet in world history if she had written in classical Chinese. Should Westerners feel defensive that this was not the case? Far better just to inherit what we all have done, and leave it there.



13 Responses to “Off topic”

  1. Gravatar of David R. Henderson David R. Henderson
    28. June 2015 at 09:23

    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
    I agree with the first but not the second. I stayed in a pretty small corner of the earth (rural Manitoba) for my first 16 years and was a strong opponent of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Goldwaterism. Twain left out one substitute for travel that, given his occupation, was surprising for him to leave out: reading.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. June 2015 at 09:31

    David, Good point, but it needs to be the right kind of reading. Most of what I read about China (in America) would make a normal person more prejudiced about China. Only by traveling there do I feel like I get an idea of what the Chinese are like as real flesh and blood human beings, not caricatures.

  3. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    28. June 2015 at 09:41

    I do view Scott Alexander as a social science genius, but that post isn’t an example of it. His posts on neoreaction were better, as well as some of his posts from the first two thirds of 2014. BTW, my lizard brain is exactly the same as Scott’s.

  4. Gravatar of Rob Rob
    28. June 2015 at 12:43

    Scott Alexander is great, and I’m pleased (but not surprised) to see that you think the same.

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. June 2015 at 14:54

    E. Harding, I think it’s fairly normal for one’s first year of posts to be the best. i think that was true for this blog.

  6. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    28. June 2015 at 20:08

    Good stuff, Scott. I love #2 especially, but these are all good.

  7. Gravatar of AbsoluteZero AbsoluteZero
    29. June 2015 at 06:31

    All good. Thank you in particular for #5.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. June 2015 at 12:26

    Thanks Brian and absolutezero.

  9. Gravatar of Rick G Rick G
    29. June 2015 at 19:44

    Scott Sumner, Scott Alexander, and Scott Aaronson would definitely be on my Mount Rushmore of Scotts.

  10. Gravatar of Kyle Kyle
    29. June 2015 at 20:39

    Well this was expansive! I think I might like comparative studies professor Sumner more than macroeconomics professor Sumner.

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. June 2015 at 06:58

    Rick, Thanks, but I don’t even belong on a foothill next to those two.

    Thanks Kyle.

  12. Gravatar of Cyril Morong Cyril Morong
    30. June 2015 at 07:53

    I wonder if Twain ever commented on this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

    “Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. June 2015 at 09:05

    Cyril, Great quote.

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