Sunday, February 20, 2011

2011.02.20 — Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti

In one of the Goodreads threads, after a heated discussion on the individual versus the group, one of the threaders, Rose, suggested the book Crowds and People by Elias Canneti.

I'd not heard of it before. I reserved it from my local library, and it has begun in an interesting, even challenging way. Canetti makes a very bold statement, using intensifiers I question: 'nothing more' and 'only'.

I hope to write my reaction to this first section, when I've thought about it for a bit, but I think it interesting enough to share.
The Fear of being Touched

THERE is NOTHING that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him., and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless flesh of the victim.

All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear. They shut themselves in houses which no-one may enter, and only there feel some measure of security. The fear of burglars is not only the fear of being robbed, but also the fear of a sudden and unexpected clutch out of the darkness.

The repugnance to being touched remains with us when we go about among people; the way we move in a busy street, in restaurants, trains or buses, is governed by it. Even when we are standing next to them and are able to watch and examine them closely, we avoid actual contact if we can. If we do not avoid it, it is because we feel attracted to someone; and then it is we who make the approach.

The promptness with which apology is offered for an unintentional contact, the tension with which it is awaited, our violent and sometimes even physical reaction when it is not forthcoming, the antipathy and hatred we feel for the offender, even when we cannot be certain who it is—the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch—proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality. Even in sleep, when he is far more unguarded, he can all too easily be disturbed by a touch.

It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose psychical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest (15-6).

My question to my self and the world, is 'Is this true?' Or, to be more precise, is this as true as Canetti's intensifiers aver? What about people like the Dalai Llama or Cesar Milan? Are these kinds of people so exceptional that Canetti's generalization is effectively true?

In his review of Canetti's memoir Party in the Blitz Jonathan Wilson also provides a nice personality sketch of Canetti.

Friday, February 18, 2011

2011.02.17 — Analytical Psychology - Jung on the serpent

I was bumbling around this evening and stumbled into C.G. Jung talking about the serpent. Poked around a little more, and came across a reference by William Blake on the serpent in his 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.'

I love that poem, but had forgotten about the serpent comment, because it is so small:

Till the villain left the paths of ease,
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.
Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.
Anyway, because of this, and my own quirk, I think Jung's short piece is interesting and so here it is:
The serpent in the cave is an image which often occurs in antiquity. It is important to realize that in classical antiquity, as in other civilizations, the serpent not only was an animal that aroused fear and represented danger, but also signified healing. Therefore Asklepios, the god of physicians, is connected with the serpent; you all know his emblem which is still in use. In the temples of Asklepios, the Asklepieia, which were the ancient clinics, there was a hole in the ground, covered by a stone, and in that hole lived the sacred serpent. There was a slot in the stone through which the people who came to the place of healing threw down the fee for the doctors. The snake was at the same time the cashier of the clinic and collector of gifts that were thrown down into its cave. During the great pestilence in the time of Diocletian the famous serpent of the Asklepieion at Epidaurus was brought to Rome as an antidote to the epidemic. It represented the god himself.

The serpent is not only the god of healing; it also has the quality of wisdom and prophecy. The fountain of Castalia at Delphi was originally inhabited by a python. Apollo fought and overcame the python, and from that time Delphi was the seat of the famous oracle and Apollo its god, until he left half his powers to Dionysus, who later came in from the East. In the underworld, where the spirits of the dead live, snakes and water are always together, as we can read in Aristophanes' The Frogs. The serpent in legend is often replaced by the dragon; the Latin draco simply means snake. A particularly suggestive parallel to our dream symbol is a Christian legend of the fifth century about St Sylvester there was a terrible dragon in a cave under the Tarpeian rock in Rome to whom virgins were sacrificed. Another legend says that the dragon was not a real one but artificial, and that a monk went down to prove it was not real and when he got down to the cave he found that the dragon had a sword in his mouth and his eyes consisted of sparkling jewels (130-1).

C.G. Jung.
Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice. (The Tavistock Lectures.)
New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 1970.
Foreword by E.A. Bennet. (Out of print as of today's date.)

I went snooping on the web for snake imagery,and stumbled into an interesting university paper on the psychology of the snake in myth, religion and literature by Greg Morgenson, called 'The Serpent's Prayer: The Psychology of an Image.' It includes D.H. Lawrence's poem 'Snake,' William Blake from 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,' and quite a lot of other stuff.

Monday, February 14, 2011

2011.02.14 — Alexei Tsvetkov on Poetry from Poetry Feb 2008

Robert, in the Goodreads social networking site, cited a prose extract about poetry from the Czech poet Alexei Tsvetkov that I thought was very good. This is what he quoted:
Poetry is apparently an emotional amplifier, one that is almost neutral, morally. In fact, it flourished in times that few of us would like to see repeated. Still, many of the best poets have tamed it in the manner of Orpheus, and it appears to have lost much of its force together with its menace. Hence Auden’s observation — as well as Brodsky’s halfhearted rebellion.
And he supplied the link to read the entire piece, which turned out to be a part of an extended Journal-like entry by Tsvetkov that is very good reading.

And given that people's tastes are different, I thought the following was an even better citation:

... When I abandoned poetry, I went on to dabble in various other genres hoping I’d get closer to the truth. Well, I didn’t, of course, the truth remaining as distant as ever. But I have now rediscovered what poetry is good for. It is the only way I know how not to lie — provided, that is, I stay far enough away from the halls of  heroes.
This writing is published in the February 2008 issue of Poetry.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

2011.02.13 — Payback 2nd Time

Since reading this the first time in 2009, I knew that I would be re-reading it, especially in conjunction with my putting together my anti-economics course, Economics Demystified. And so, the re-read is simply delightful, as I'm taking my time to think about her arguments and observations. (And I will be blogging, soon, I hope, a curious fushigi between something Atwood wrote and Noam Chomsky in Language and Politics.)

Very early in the book (p3-6), Atwood talks about the role of 'faith' in how money/debt functions. I am incorporating her text into my lecture notes, but it is interesting enough to post here. Given that it is a bit longer than what copyright rules allow, I've included links to the publisher for those who would like to purchase this excellent book.

Toronto: House of Anansi Press 2008
ISBN 9780887848100

So, from Payback: Are banks like tooth fairies?
We kids of the 1940s did usually have some pocket money, and although we weren't supposed to talk about it or have an undue love of it, we were expected to learn to manage it at an early age. When I was eight years old, I had my first paying job. I was already acquainted with money in a more limited way — I got five cents a week as an allowance, which bought a lot more tooth decay then than it does now. The pennies not spent on candy I kept in a tin box that had once held Lipton tea. It had a brightly coloured Indian design, complete with elephant, opulent veiled lady, men in turbans, temples and domes, palm trees, and a sky so blue it never was. The pennies had leaves on one side and king's heads on the other, and were desirable to me according to their rarity and beauty: King George the Sixth, the reigning monarch, was common currency and thus low-ranking on my snobby little scale, and also he had no beard or moustache; but there were still some hairier George the Fifths in circulation, and, if you were lucky, a really fur-faced Edward the Seventh or two.

I understood that these pennies could be traded for goods such as ice cream cones, but I did not think them superior to the other units of currency used by my fellow children: cigarette-package airplane cards, milk-bottle tops, comic books, and glass marbles of many kinds. Within each of these categories, the principle was the same: rarity and beauty increased value. The rate of exchange was set by the children themselves, though a good deal of haggling took place.

All of that changed when I got a job. The job paid twenty-five cents an hour—a fortune! —and consisted of wheeling a baby around in the snow. As long as I brought the baby back, alive and not too frozen, I got the twenty-five cents. It was at this time in my life that each penny came to be worth the same as every other penny, despite whose head was on it, thus teaching me an important lesson: in high finance, aesthetic considerations soon drop by the wayside, worse luck.

Since I was making so much money, I was told I needed a bank account, so I graduated from the Lipton tea tin and acquired a red bank book. Now the difference between the pennies with heads on them and the marbles, milk-bottle tops, comic books, and airplane cards became clear, because you could not put the marbles into the bank. But you were urged to put your money in there, in order to keep it safe. When I'd accumulated a dangerous amount of the stuff—say, a dollar—I would deposit it at the bank, where the sum was recorded in pen and ink by an intimidating bank teller. The last number in the series was called "the balance"— not a term I understood, as I had yet to see a two-armed weighing scales.

Every once in a while an extra sum would appear in my red bank book—one I hadn't deposited. This, I was told, was called "interest," and I had "earned" it by having kept my money in the bank. I didn't understand this either. It was certainly interesting to me that I had some extra money — that must be why it was called "interest"— but I knew I hadn't actually earned it: no babies from the bank had-been wheeled around in the snow by me. Where then had these mysterious sums come from? Surely from the same imaginary place that spawned the nickels left by the Tooth Fairy in exchange for your shucked-off teeth: some realm of pious invention that couldn't be located anywhere exactly, but that we all had to pretend to believe in or the tooth-for-a-nickel gambit would no longer work.

However, the nickels under the pillow were real enough. So was the bank interest, because you could cash it in and turn it back into pennies, and thence into candy and ice cream cones. But how could a fiction generate real objects? I knew from fairy tales such as Peter Pan that if you ceased to believe in fairies they would drop dead: if I stopped believing in banks, would they too expire? The adult view was that fairies were unreal and banks were real. But was that true?

Thus began my financial puzzlements. Nor are they over yet (3-6).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

2011.02.12 - The Individual and the Group - A Goodreads Thread

I have been a participant in an interesting discussion, in a Goodreads thread, on the psychological problem of societal fixes being best addressed by systemic changes (laws and the like) or through individual change as prescribed by C.G. Jung. Robert is pro-systemic, and cites the civil rights movement of MLK. I, siding with Jung, distrust the long term effectiveness of systemic fixes, and also cite MLK.
ROBERT:  Emotion makes me want to agree [with you, egajd, that systemic change comes about from personal change], but rational examination makes me disagree. Here's the deal, with as much brevity as I can muster. J[ung] was wrong on this point. You can not heal systemic problems by fixing individuals. Moreover, systemic fixes will not work without genuine inner change on the part of at least a critical mass of individuals.

This is not an either/or question...rather,it deserves a both/and answer.

Take, for example, the civil rights struggle. There is no way that systemic problem would have been addressed even as well as it has been without legal, governmental, organizational...yes systemic action. There is still far to go on this issue, but there has been much progress, and it wouldn't have happened if it were left to the individual.

Sure, in "theory" (pardon the pun) if enough individuals were fully integrated and whole, then the issue might dissolve away. The fact is, that ain't gonna happen. And that's the problem with societal issues.

So...again...J was wrong on this. It takes both.

I liked Robert's argument, but was not convinced by it. So I responded with:
EGAJD: Curiously enough, my emotion wants me to agree with you, but my rational examination makes me disagree. It would be nice if group hugs had long term results. And I'm not saying that for immediate triage or palliative care, group social remedies may be required, or cannot spark a personalized revolution. But in the long run, without a personal revolution that changes the quality of the individuals within the system, the system will revert back, more or less, to what was before. For example, MLK's movement was a great step forward for equality of blacks in the USA in this century, following failed earlier emancipation movements. But the nature of how each individual has retained or shed his or her racism is the measure whether or not equality has been achieved within the society. And so, when MLK's movement wasn't quite successful, the group solution was affirmative action and name changes. Regardless of the 'correctness' of this approach as a solution to equality failure, the fact that it was needed after freedom walks is telling: without the individuals being 'fixed,' movies will continue with the inside jokes about Afro-Americans catching cabs and future variations of freedom walks and affirmative actions will be required. And will continue to be required until the individuals that constitute the group are no longer racist. And that change is done effectively with one person at a time, not because it is made a socially responsible or just edict. Self delusion is rarely erased by the preacher or philosopher sermonizing — they are more likely to simply shift the delusion.

And now, after all this talk and putting of words into J, I get to cite from him:

We are still so uneducated that we actually need laws from without, and a task-master or Father above, to show us what is good and the right thing to do. And because we are still such barbarians, any trust in the laws of human nature seems to us dangerous and unethical naturalism. Why is this? Because under the barbarian's thin veneer of culture the wild beast lurks in readiness, amply justifying his fear. But the beast is not tamed by locking it in a cage. There is no morality without freedom . When the barbarian lets loose the beast within, that is not freedom, but bondage.
Jung, C.G. Psychological Types. Princeton: Princeton University Press, par 357.
Group fixes are a form of bondage used to mask the beast, not tame it. Which is why the group can very easily become a mob, and group fixes become ... problematic.
Of course, Robert wasn't satisfied by my iron-clad argument! He responded:
ROBERT: Huh? That's precisely the opposite of what I was saying. Your filters appear to be getting a little too thick, my friend (:-)
But the nature of how each individual has retained or shed his or her racism is the measure whether or not equality has been achieved within the society.
I completely disagree. It is one measure, but not THE measure. There are still many racists in our society, but the systemic, organizational changes that have been put in place are a significant step forward. Again...the individual insight is very important, but with or without it there has been progress. Moreover, the institutional changes influence the individuals. I realize you might not like to admit that, but it is plainly true from my perspective.
I, being a bit of a sophist, and a verbose one at that, replied with:
EGAJD: Yes, my contrariness was deliberate. I was gently pointing out that rationality is problematic — it is confounded, distorted and/or abused by the boundary or initial conditions upon which the logic is placed. Raymond Smullyan plays very humorously with the problem of logic and rationality as it applies to the real world in his very fine book 5000 BC and other Philosophical Fantasies. JR Saul more seriously explores this in Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.

And I do (did!) admit that institutional changes may influence individuals. But until that influence on the individual is on a significant percentage of the individuals, the systemic changes, even if very forcibly enforced will be, and have been historically, surface gloss only. When the ruling structure of the Eastern Bloc fell apart, the first thing that the Czechs and Slovaks started doing was killing each other: the forced rule of peace that had 'united' them as a country was only effective so long as the task masker was there to ensure compliance to the rules. As soon as the law left, the 'old' way of thinking came to the fore. The individuals had not been changed.

And I am not convinced that individuals change more readily, completely or honestly if it is done more or less coercively. Take a look at the push back MLK's movement got, and after that affirmative action. Even the need to discuss extirpating Mark Twain's literature from discussion because he used the 'n' word is... is... I have no way to describe that. And I note that here I have indeed felt coerced to censor myself, and in that action I am violating not only my respect for the history of the English language, but am also condescending to the intelligence of African-Americans! But this is seriously being discussed in halls of academe as if it were meaningful! Worse, I am being delusional if I believe truly that expunging such words from the lexicon of English will effect social change — it does not require epithets to be disrespectful and so removing them will not remove whatever disrespect they carry, because the disrespect is outside of the language.

These kinds of philosophical leadership vs individual ideas were very pointedly, but humorously explored by Chuang Tzu's Wandering on the Way,

and by Lao-Tzu in The Tao Te Ching.

For example:

1 (38)

The person of superior integrity
          does not insist upon his integrity;
For this reason, he has integrity.
The person of inferior integrity
          never loses sight of his integrity;
For this reason, he lacks integrity.

The person of superior integrity takes no action,
          nor has he a purpose for acting.
The person of superior humaneness takes action,
          but has no purpose for acting.
The person of superior righteousness takes action,
          and has a purpose for acting.
The person of superior etiquette takes action,
          but others do not respond to him;
Whereupon he rolls up his sleeves
          and coerces them.

     When the Way is lost,
          afterward comes integrity.
     When integrity is lost,
          afterward comes humaneness.
     When humaneness is lost,
          afterward comes righteousness.
     When righteousness is lost,
          afterward comes etiquette.

     Etiquette is the attenuation of trustworthiness,
          and the source of disorder.
     Foreknowledge is but the blossomy ornament of the Way,
          and the source of ignorance.

For this reason,
     The great man resides in substance,
          not in attenuation.
     He resides in fruitful reality,
          not in blossomy ornament.
     He rejects the one and adopts the other.
Chapter 1 of Victor H. Mair's translation.

This Goodreads' thread was, in general, very interesting.
Rose added an interesting book recommendation, Crowds and Power by Elias Cannetti

And Herman cited a great translation of the classic story of Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream.