Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review of Notes From Underground by Dostoyevsky

No way around it—this character is a creep. No, worse, he’s a downright pizza-sheet (to him who has ears…). He’s one of the most pathetic characters in all of literature, right beside the all-time sorriest literary pukes like Shakespeare’s Parolles (“Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?), Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, and Tolkein’s Grima Wormtongue. He is an incredibly self-centered, insecure, desperate, conniving, passive-aggressive, socially impotent, lazy, blow-hard. He’s the guy you don’t want at a party, but he’s also the guy you don’t want spending too much time alone with his deep-rooted rancor, household cleaners, and a pinch of nitroglycerin.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Martha Stout claims in her book The Sociopath Next Door that 4% of the population are conscienceless sociopaths who have no empathy or affectionate feelings for humans or animals. Now, I don’t think this story’s character suffers from a genetic form of sociopathy, but his choices have narrowed his skills and boundaries of thought to the point that he is no longer able to swing out of the rut of his ill-timed and over-calculated social impulses. He no longer can sense the edge of etiquette and simple human courtesy. It’s like he’s watching himself in a movie, directing his moves, but unable to react to any direct stimulus without sending a signal back to the conscious ‘director’, which delays and hopelessly exaggerates any attempt at an appropriate response in conversation and interaction. Once you start falling behind in fashion, etiquette, and colloquial pleasantries; and once you lose the naturalness of relating to people—“losing the habit of living”—and becoming too strained and artificial, it’s hard to catch up. Once you’re out, you’re out.

The scary thing is that any analytical, self-aware person, especially introverts and those with a penchant for inner-dialogue, would recognize the meandering self-scrutiny and ‘affliction of options’ (“aporia”) that hamstrings this character. You, Mr. or Mrs. Nerd, reading this classic book review, might very well be able to identify characteristics which you share in common with the protagonist, and that is probably unsettling—which, I think, is Dostoyevsky’s point. Here’s a dude we all despise, but he definitely represents a path we could plausibly take. It’s getting easier to withdraw, develop and live on our private fantasies about who we are, and what we ‘look’ like to others. Social networking sites, comfort in our own homes, technology that enables us—for a certain amount of money—to reinvent an image we can maintain at a distance; all these things may exacerbate the unreality of self-image that may be developing along with our complimentary intellectual/spiritual regress and decreasing confidence in our neglected substance. “After all, we don’t even know where real life is lived nowadays, or what it is, what name it goes by…we are always striving to be some unprecedented kind of generalized human being.” And in our super-societies where we are one of several billion people in the world, this ‘generalized human being’ becomes a real possible distraction away from who I ACTUALLY am, to derive a sense of self from the rubric under which I appear on a census, or what accomplishments I list on my resume, or what value-community I subscribe to, or what profile photo I post on Facebook. “Soon we shall invent a method of being born from an idea” or, at the very least, drive sexy, blue alien bodies from the safety of our basements (that was a reference to Avatar, in case your geek-check failed to highlight it). It’s elementary really: there is the ‘authentic’ me, and there is the me I like others to think of me as. If the two meet, as they did in this story, the meltdown could be nuclear. And hilarious. And deadly. But hilarious.

It was obnoxious but absolutely hysterical how the anonymous character put on airs with his friends, threw temper tantrums to earn their respect, and then wanted to challenge them to duels for the slightest imagined sleight. But the verbal lashing he gave to a broken prostitute was absolutely unforgivable. She was as low as she could be, and he mocked her, rubbed her hopelessness in her face, and even lowered himself to painting a picture of her future un-mourned death. “There’ll be no tears or sighs or prayers for you,  and nobody, nobody at all in the whole world will ever come to your grave: your name will vanish from the face of the earth—just as if you had never existed, never been born! All in the mud and marsh, you can knock as much as you like on the coffin lid at night…” (aCOUGHsshole!!)Of course she cries, he feels bad, he admonishes her some more, feels bad again, offers her his address to come visit him, and then yells at her some more when she visits in hope that he can help her out of her situation. Yeah. He’s a scumbag.

Probably the biggest take-away is the lesson of the paralysis of intellectualism and inaction. It was Goethe who stated, “Thought expands, but lames; Action animates, but narrows.” Thinking brings new possibilities for action, but the longer one thinks, the less fit one is to act; while acting moves one along to new spheres of life, but the longer one moves without some hard-thought, the fewer options one has to choose between. The former was the proclivity of our ‘hero’. His life was all in his head, but his body and instincts had dilapidated. “A man of the 19th century ought, indeed is morally bound, to be essentially without character; a man of character, a man who acts, is essentially limited.” Limited, but alive, as the character found out all too soon. He even admitted as much in his schizo-rants, “Too think too much is a disease, a real, actual disease.” You don’t say. The first half of the story portrays him taking us on a roller-coaster of his rationalizations which he uses to defuse any sense of his responsibility and urgency to act. He gets lost in what he thinks is the inability to classify everything perfectly in his mind, blaming it on the malapropic “many-sided sensitivity to sensations” of civilized people, and this advanced intellectual lopsidedness ends up turning men and women into rationale statues, stone-heavy and packed with generic information that can no longer move them or motivate them.

But let’s not declare this man insane and unfit for society just yet. There’s something to this. Matter of fact, I’m sure this form of reasoning and apparent logical determinism scared Dostoyevsky a bit. Where is individuality without desire? “If ever volition becomes completely identified with common sense, we shall of course reason, not want, purely because it is impossible to want what has no sense.”But then again, we do a lot of things that don’t make apparent sense. Matter of fact, life is ultimately beyond all logic in that life gives birth to logic, conditions it, and continues to ‘live on’ even despite apparent contradictions. “Man’s nature acts as one whole, with everything that is in it, conscious or unconscious, and although it is nonsensical, yet it lives.” Dostoyevsky is, in effect, arguing with himself. But, man, it is a joy to see the debate cut back and forth with excellent points on both sides that leave me dumbfounded. Who can argue with the sentiment so masterfully and beautifully expressed, “Ah, gentlemen, what will have become of our wills when everything is graphs and arithmetic, and nothing is valid but two and two make four?... Twice two is four is, in my opinion, nothing but impudence…it is like a cocky young devil standing across your path with arms akimbo and a defiant air. I agree that ‘two and two make four’ is an excellent thing; but to give everything its due, ‘two and two make five’ is also a very fine thing.” Thinking of a mathematical genius like Lewis Carroll creating brilliant nonsense stories like Alice In Wonderland really hits this point home. So, Dostoevsky has, in my opinion, successfully infected his readers with aporia to suspend our judgment just long enough for his schizo protagonist to go ballistic on his friends. Which is also fun to watch.

Was Dostoyevsky manifesting his own aporia and insecurities in this work, putting his internal dialogue on display? Yes, I think so. Was Dostoyevsky a madman? Maybe a little, but sometimes in a good way. Was he revealing himself to be more petty and full of self-doubt than most people? Definitely not…he was being more honest the most people. Did Dostoyevsky make a good point against the ‘rational egoists’ of the day who thought that reason alone could solve all world problems? Sure, why not. It was a veritable bat to the head of academic Utopia. Can I think of any more questions people might ask of the book that I haven’t already answered? Uhhhhh…

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Review of Flow by Mihali Csikszentmihalyi

Every once in a while I read a book that I think some people I know might like or should read, and other times I read a book that I think everyone should read. This is one of those books. It can profoundly change or fortify the way you look at life and happiness…in a good way! I am SO impressed. I wasn’t two chapters in when I was buying a copy for my wife, starting a weekly video-chat with my brother as we read through it together, and telling other friends about it. It did not disappoint. I truly think everyone who is serious about living life to its fullest should read this book. However, that is not to say that I think everyone is ready to read this book, partly because it is slow-going in parts and one would probably need to be accustomed to reading in general just to get through it; or a person’s life may be too busy to really soak it in; or it may be outside the range of understanding until some other foundation is laid. It’s a relatively short book (about 230 pages), but it could take some time to assimilate the revolutionary concepts.

I can hear the question now, “What’s so revolutionary about it?” Well, wipe that sneer off your face (and the piece of brownie on your chin…a little lower…to the right…there…got it) and let me tell ya! It claims that we can be most happy when we encounter problems; that we are often unaware of how unfulfilled we are during our free time, or vice versa, how fulfilled we are when working; that we can enjoy ‘optimum experience’ in any employment at any pay rate; that we often miss out of fulfilling experiences because we don’t know how to identify and pursue opportunities for ‘flow’; and a meaningful life can be lived with satisfaction on a variety of levels, with potential for adjusting and redirecting goals/action at any moment.

Hear me when I say, this book really helps to clear up the notions of happiness, enjoyment, purpose, and meaning in life. It isn’t a tired self-help book or the latest insipid leadership bestseller. It’s ground-breaking in psychology and sociology, bringing new light to the meaning of work and suffering, and explaining why and how we can enjoy life as a result from—not merely in spite of—difficulty. “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

And, for what it’s worth to some, I found this to be an exquisitely phrased and very nicely illustrated response to the rise of relativistic inertia (aporia) in postmodern worldviews that some feel will inevitably bankrupt the morality of future generations. Csikszentmihalyi's (pronounced 'chick-sent-mee-hi') work would indicate that a life of meaning, happiness, and moral stability is possible with a postmodern mindset. What’s more, a person who is free from the constraints of antiquated rules and traditions that are no longer relevant or helpful in our world have more opportunities, not less, to enlarge her sense of meaning and happiness in the universe.

To begin with, the author uses the word “flow” to mean that state of naturally confident and euphoric being we sometimes describe as being “in the zone,” or enjoying a attitude of absolute positivity and a sense of accomplishment. It is where one feels like there is a strong and steady flow to the process of one’s experience of life that produces a sense of overall purpose and rightness. We all know that feeling. We sometimes describe it as feeling like we’re doing something that we were “born to do.” It’s the thrill of mastery over chaos, the moving of a mountain, or trailblazing a new territory which brings intense focus and elation. “Flow [is] the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” It’s not the restful state of not-being-bothered, but exercising control and exerting oneself with positive results, including a new sense of order in one’s actions, and further, a sense of knowing one’s place in the universe.

To study people’s widely varying experiences of flow, the author and his research team at the University of Chicago tried something ingenious. They sent home beepers to thousands of people all over the world: aging women in Korea, adults in Thailand and India, teenagers in Tokyo, Navajo shepherds, farms in the Italian Alps, and workers on the assembly line in Chicago. The beepers went off at random times throughout the week, and participants had to stop what they were doing to journal a few things including what they were doing, what they were feeling, what they were thinking about, and what they would rather be doing.

What they found was a pattern of experiencing flow that was consistent with people in all places, occupations, and stages of life. The research team’s study found—as illustrated in the graph below where the x axis represents difficulty, and the y axis represents skills—that for most people if difficulty in tasks increased, but their skills did not increase, the result was anxiety; while increasing skills without increasing difficulty/challenges resulted in boredom.

Enjoyment, or “flow”, became evidenced as the vector between the two that revealed a balance of difficulty/skills that were continually increasing in complexity. The possibility of experiencing flow was pretty much, across the board, attainable by anyone in any situation. The research also concluded that flow might even be more often present in situations where a person may not have been conscious of the potential for flow, like at work or during an arduous task; while, ironically, they reported experiencing less flow during their vacation, weekends, or free time. Even so, the experience of flow appeared to be largely unacknowledged by participants in the study when it wasn’t anticipated, and they still reported a desire to be somewhere other than work even when experiencing flow, chasing that ever-elusive, difficulty-free pastime that would be thrilling and fulfilling with the least amount of work. This is explained by the author as a culturally ingrained expectation, a desire for some type of easy-Eden that appears in every culture’s mythos.

Evidently, enjoyment far outweighs pleasure in most people’s values. “Enjoyment occurs when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire [pleasure]; but has gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.” In this sense, enjoyment is a transcendent becoming of more than one was, an expansion of being; or what Nietzsche would describe as life “which must ever surpass itself.” The author lists and gives excellent treatment of the conditions and symptoms of this enjoyment, which are:

1.       Confronting achievable tasks

2.       Concentration

3.       Clear goals

4.       Immediate feedback

5.       Deep and effortless involvement that crowds out other worries

6.       Sense of control over actions/environment

7.       Loss of self-awareness, but stronger awareness after activity ends

8.       Loss of sense of time

But lest someone think that enjoyment sounds too strictly formulaic, we must keep in mind that enjoyment might indeed occur accidentally, but the author is mostly interested in helping people learn from, so as to repeat, their experiences of enjoyment in life, which enjoyment is always a possibility in any circumstance since everything we do is potentially a source of enjoyment. Not only can we find enjoyment in any situation, but the author concludes that the mind can be exercised as a ‘dissipative structure’, which is a system that actually feeds off chaotic or destructive energy and channels it in positive ways. “Without [dissipative capabilities] we would be constantly suffering through the random bombardment of stray psychological meteorites” calculated to reduce our focus and effectiveness. Enjoyment, then, is not only a creation of meaningful experiences (‘autotelic’—self purposing) from static factuality, but it can also be a transformation of negative energy into positive energy (‘dissipative’).

Order in the mind is something we take for granted. When the ideas inside our head about the world are ordered well, the world outside our head is better managed and adapted to. When disorder arises, so do frustration, confusion, anger, and fear. The author hits this emphasis of cognitive structure pretty hard. Order in the mind offers better choices and paths in the world, and helps to sort and sharpen our skills as difficulty increases. “Everything we experience—joy or pain, interest or boredom—is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like.” Any professional without an accurate internal map of the world or sophisticated gear developed by an internal plan is not going to be as effective. Language, music, poetry, memory, internal dialogue, and creative games are all discussed by the author as ways to utilize our ability to encode the external world in a downloadable ‘binary’ of abstractions and symbols which help to order and evolve this inner world.

Games are given no trivial role here. Everything in life is a potential game-- as one philosopher put it, “everything that happens to us is a chance”—and every challenge can cultivate skills and increase complexity with regular feedback and rewards. I am reminded of Thoreau’s words, “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport.” Small games incorporated into daily life are dubbed by the author ‘microflow’, small games which help us find enjoyment and create ‘play’ out of the mundane.  I especially loved the author’s comparison of culture with game. “The difference [between culture and game] is mainly one of scale…both consist of more or less arbitrary goals and rules that allow people to become involved in a process and act with a minimum of doubts and distractions…culture as a whole becomes a ‘great game’.” He sees religion, law, customs and traditions to be ways to set manageable, though perhaps sometimes narrow and abortive, parameters on an otherwise infinite host of options and information. “Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos…Cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that help us tackle the challenges of existence. In so doing they must rule out many alternative goals and beliefs, and thereby limit possibilities; but this channeling of attention to a limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless action within self-created boundaries.”

Religion and custom even of the most primitive nature can optimize “life-space” (my words), exploring and exhausting the possibilities of a limited sphere of thought and existence, although it becomes quickly detrimental when cultural space is optimized but there is no growth towards increasing complexity or extending the boundaries outward. A checker’s game has only so many moves; new chess pieces and rules increase the possibilities and skills involved with the same board; a different board altogether allows for a larger variety of games and therefore skills developed. The goal of flow is enjoyment through optimized practice and growth, and this is facilitated by respecting the rules of culture and game, but also being willing to change the rules and even the game when the time comes.

The author bear-hugs some big topics for such a little book, including the nature of consciousness and the ‘meaning of meaning’, the latter actually being an excellent application of his ideas to the bigger questions of life. He breaks down the semantics of the word ‘meaning’ into three categories: 1) Meaning as a ultimate goal or purpose (“the meaning of food is give us energy”), 2) Meaning as personal intention and resolution (“he was meaning to take the trash out”), and 3) Meaning as a personal ordering of impersonal information, identities and events (“the sound of ambulance sirens means that someone is in need of medical attention”). He goes on to expound on these senses of meaning as applied to our desire to discover the meaning of life, and he actually does a fantastic job on the topic, even if the results may seem initially anticlimactic to theistic worldviews.

To the question, “How do we learn which goals are worthwhile to pursue with the antiquation of many traditional values and goals?” he answers by, “Through trial and error, through intense cultivation, we can straighten out the tangled skein of conflicting goals, and choose the one that will give purpose to our action.” Not as comforting as it may be true. Consciousness has brought some boons (though the author was a bit obscure on this point when he compared human consciousness with animal behavior which apparently is “always in a state of flow”) as far as more nuanced enjoyment and complexity of being through tackling more difficult goals and struggling towards the light of understanding and mastery; but there’s no denial that problems become more complex too, and often challenges and skills are out of balance for a time, inducing anxiety or boredom.

Now, to be fair, and I feel like someone should say it at this point, so it might as well be me, despite the overwhelmingly positive tenor of the book and the proposition that enjoyment is achievable by all people in all situations; still, some people’s lives suck, and that’s all there is to it. Take, for example, children exploited in forced labor, abuse, or neglect; people with mind-crippling illnesses or disabilities; or anyone in situations that endure unimaginable cruelty or agony emotionally, mentally, or physically. Granted, the author says that “stress exists only if we experience it; it takes the most extreme objective conditions to cause it directly”, but those extreme conditions do exist for some people, and the only way out is a cure and not merely a new way to look at the problem. But the author’s point is that extreme, volition-crippling circumstances and suffering are the exceptions, not the rule; and it would behoove us to prepare for what we can fix, not what we can’t fix. And, as a rule, we are able to experience enjoyment much more than we often tend to believe, as our dissipative, autotelic capabilities are much more vast and near to hand than we often assess them to be.

Overall, I found this author to be extremely reasonable and balanced in his approach, and I began to trust him the more I read. He used a multitude of real life vignettes, staying grounded in reality by widely varied anecdotes. He never drifted too far into theory before he snapped back to real life. It seemed very fair and considerate towards differing viewpoints, especially regarding the value of historical events and belief systems which have helped to shape humanity. He doesn’t claim to offer a final weltanschuuang—an answer to everything—but he does offer something…that works! So, there’s that. It seems that a universal practice—not a uniform, formally expressed praxis—has worked pretty well for people throughout all time and places to produce flow and enjoyment; and still seems to be, at bottom, what makes people most happy. At the very least this is a good fix until we find what we are looking for.

Well done, Csikszentmihalyi! Bravo!