'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will'


Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.
Jacques Barzun (via the-wishy-washy-writer)

Good and Bad Academic Writing

Very few people don’t struggle with writing well. I’m not one of them. 

I spend a good portion of every week writing new articles, revising old ones, and revising again and again. I go to bed every night with the thought that I have expressed myself in the best language possible only to wake up the next morning and find a menacing heap of rubbish staring right back at me on the computer screen. It’s a most humbling ritual, if taken seriously (in my case a close second to being a parent).

I’m never proud of any piece of writing I publish, and I’d be the first person to discourage anyone from reading any of my writings. It isn’t that I’m embarrassed by my writing or that I particularly care what people think of my style, diction, and/or grammar. Rather, I eschew publicity because I’m convinced that anything I write falls short of the ideal manner in which the thoughts and concepts contained therein can be expressed. The thought wouldn’t even occur to people who are accustomed to writing well, I would imagine.

Am I being too hard on myself? Obviously not, since I continue to write anyway. I’m a big believer in the old adage about the obligation to write as long as one has something to say and someone to say it to. Writing, I find, is an effective way of coming to terms with our thoughts about life. All writing is about life; in fact, all writing is life-affirming. Regardless of its quality, the written word is a record of existence much like the other fruits of human industry. To those familiar with one’s voice, inflection, mannerisms, gestures, etc., one’s writings have the same effect as an audiovisual recording. (Whenever I dust off my grandfather’s handwritten letters to me, for instance, I sense his physical presence in the room with me. That he’s an excellent writer of Persian prose on top of that makes the experience even more mystical.)

Writing transforms a mere record of existence into a cause for engagement. Good writing makes for more intimate engagement by prompting the reader to pause and consider a passage, a book, or an essay as a subject (not an inert object) in its own terms. Consider the following passage borrowed from the essay, “Culture and Anxiety,” in Alan Ryan’s awe-inspiring collection of essays on modern liberalism:

A society that embodies liberal values - that encourages economic ambition and emphasizes individual choice, that espouses the meritocratic route to social mobility and takes for granted the variability of our tastes and allegiances - may be inimical to the values embodied in traditional liberal education. There is a tension between the self-assertion that a modern liberal society fosters and the humility required of someone who tries to immerse herself in the thoughts and sentiments of another writer or another culture; there is perhaps a greater tension still between the thought that some achievements in philosophy, art, or literature will stand for all time and the ambition to use those achievements as stepping-stones to something better. It may be a healthy tension rather than a simple contradiction; renewing the gentlemanly ideal celebrated in Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University in a liberal democracy perhaps requires us to live with such a tension. But this is something to be argued for rather than taken on trust. 

Four sentences of variable lengths; distinguished definitions of liberal values in two different realms; an argument; a reference; and a demonstration of a cautionary temperament curating it all. Few literate readers will fail to recognize the sublime erudition on display here. 

Now, contrast that piece of writing to this opening paragraph from a notable scholar and book in the discipline of International Relations (IR). This is how Robert Gilpin opens up a chapter on “Hegemonic War and International Change” in his book War & Change in World Politics (1981): 

The disequilibrium in the international system is due to increasing disjuncture between existing governance of the system and the distribution of power in the system. Although the hierarchy of prestige, the distribution of territory, the rules of the system, and the international division of labor continue to favor the traditional dominant power or powers, the power base on which governance of the system ultimately rests has eroded because of differential growth and development among states. This disjuncture among the components of the international system creates challenges for the dominant states and opportunities for the rising states in the system. 

Three sentences of variable lengths; technical, intra-disciplinary vocabulary; perhaps an argument in the last sentence, but could well be just a mildly interesting description. There is little effort expended in this opening paragraph to invite non-IR specialists into a consideration of the subject matter. What’s more, Gilpin is almost daring even IR specialists to continue reading. 

This is not an eccentric itch on my part. I value and admire the quality of scholarship produced by both authors. Good or bad, writing should be judged apart from the quality of the scholarship (i.e. the strength of the question, the merits of the argument, and the salience of the evidence gathered). But it must be judged, nonetheless, and done so scrupulously. For no matter how good the quality of scholarship may be, if it isn’t expressed in clear, engaging, and dare I say imaginative prose, then its meaning and implications are likely to appeal to only a small band of equally disengaged and unimaginative readers, regardless of their status in society or in government. Worse yet, if the scholarship is particularly strong (as Gilpin’s has), then the aspiring scholar reading the work may well regard it as a prototype for good writing.

The point about status is an important one. It isn’t merely coincidental that the rising influence of Economics (the so called “dismal science,” accompanied by, I’d add, plenty of abysmal writing) on public and international policy in recent decades has occurred in tandem with the swelling of the technocratic ranks in government agencies and in the profitable realm of the purportedly not-for-profit policy think tanks. It’s for more learned minds to question the ethical dimensions of such connections (as the New York Times has recently attempted to do); but what unsettles me are the decidedly impoverished ways in which nearly all participants in these circles express themselves. If they are not kept on a short mental leash made out of talking points, their almost robotic reverence for formulaic sentences and jargon-ridden expressions are nowadays the mainstay of cable news commentary, policy conferences, and institutional productivity (reports, studies, books, op-eds, etc.). 

Good academic writing, if it has any intention of meaningfully engaging the world, must operate at more than just a utilitarian level. It must deliberately impose a burden of understanding and of imagination on the reader. It mustn’t simply be designed to mitigate different levels of hunger and curiosity, like so many fast-food combinations at McDonald’s; rather, it must serve as an invitation to dialogue about the nature and scope of appetite itself. Good writing is nourishing to the soul as well as to the mind and the body. Bad writing is very likely a major contributing factor to a diseased existence. 

I’ve long believed that good writing is a reflection of good reading. In my medium-sized survey as both a student and a teacher, the best writers in the social sciences tend to have refined literary sensibilities. The worst writers - both prominent and marginal - tend to limit their readings outside of disciplinary boundaries to book versions of HBO Specials or the latest pop culture banality. 

In the end, any and all writing could always be better. A piece of writing is either “bad” or “good” relative to other works on offer. If only enough academics cared and took the time to become better writers - not better utility maximizers, but better craftspeople. 

How to be happy? Big question. I still think Freud got it right," he instructs. "Good health. Interesting work. Satisfying personal relationships. It’s worth checking every now and then to see how you score on all three.
Ian McEwan in this extended Guardian interview. I’ve always liked him, but not too much. His work is notable for drawing a sufficient amount of admiration but stopping just short of adoration. There is a noticeable lack of intellectualism in his writings; he’s more sentimental and less ironic than his peer group; and his prose can be too formulaic at times, seemingly intent on ingratiating the writing workshop crowd. He is spot on on the “big question” though.


Folksy torture is the best kind of torture, no?

I believe that’s how Saddam used to describe his acts of torture: “You know, some folks just need to be tortured from time to time. So, we torture some folks.”

I used to be on the fence about the wisdom behind prosecuting the Bush administration’s routine and willful use of torture. Seeing how Obama’s hesitance now seems to have been born out of what can only be described as a casual approach to the rule of law and governance, I rather regret my earlier hesitance. Obama’s approach to egregious breaches of law (forget human dignity) is to state the obvious once the topic is considered safe for public discussion, and then to act as if he’s a meager chairman of a fact-finding mission with little power except to make policy recommendations.

Let’s be frank, this president has turned out to be neither the resolute, principled, or visionary leader that his campaign led many to believe. He may indeed be all of those things as a person in his own dwellings - but not as a leader of a country so consequential to the global order. 

Another thing he claims not to be is a reporter. He describes himself as a tourist: “a marine anthropologist whose data was so thoroughly and distortingly mixed up with the means of obtaining it that it probably had no value as data”.

Geoff Dyer’s interview with The New Statesman

This is actually how I feel about the value of data collected by most social scientists (I myself don’t collect data, being at the humanities end of the social sciences and all). Too bad their writing isn’t even half as good as Dyer’s. Full interview here.

Evgeny Kissin - Bach Siciliana (No. 2 in E Major)

Should you need a mental health break from the cruel world around, then simply disengage from the torrent of sad news and pointless commentary. I’m on a 72-hour Bach and Beethoven piano sonatas/concertos regimen followed by seeing a really good friend get married.

Doesn’t need a caption. 

Gaza and the Luxury of Opinion

Too many ignorant comments about the war in Gaza in high and low circles of the internet. It strikes me that if one has the luxury of opinion about what are life and death matters to others in far away lands, then one at least should have the decency to pause before justifying any action that causes suffering. Power differentials matter.

Imagine for a moment that you and your family were confined to a piece of property too small for your basic needs and nourishment (forget flourishing!). Now, imagine that the entrances and exists to the property are controlled by overwhelming armed forces on the ground, in the air, and even from the adjacent river that runs behind the house. You and your family are doubtless resentful of this (justifiably or not), and so you are desperate to gain access to any and all pieces of weaponry and armor to lash out at your jailers, even though you have no hope of ever even approximating their military prowess. Lastly, let’s also suspend all sense of history and judgment about the reasons behind you and your family’s confinement to this piece of land in the first place (maybe you deserved it, maybe you didn’t, maybe your plight is a historical accident). 

Mindful of the immense power differential between you and your jailers, and leaving aside the morality of your confinement in the first place, the key moral question then is about your ongoing treatment. What amount of punishment constitutes too much - i.e. cruel and unusual - punishment? 

A common sense of decency and humanity demands that we affirm a reasonably similar answer to this question regardless of what we might each hold dear in our views of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Cruel and unusual behavior is never justified, but the temptation to do so, alas, is at its highest when there is such asymmetry in the distribution of power.

The consequences of our actions take hold of us, quite indifferent to our claim that meanwhile we have improved.
Selections from Part Four—“Epigrams and Interludes”—of Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufman; from The Modern Library’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

Gordimer and Me


Leo Carey recalls working with Nadine Gordimer: http://nyr.kr/1jTyEsI

“Gordimer had a slightly fearsome reputation—not suffering fools gladly, that sort of thing—but we got along well. Of course, I was trying hard not to be a fool. I sent her memos that were highly detailed, as a way of semaphoring that all was under control.”

Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP

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