Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's the right thing to do?

Michael Shaw Perry has published Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition: A Guide for the Ethically Perplexed.  Perry is well-equipped for such a discussion. He earned a BA in philosophy from Dartmouth and an MA and PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins. Apparently an over-achiever, he also obtained a JD from the University of Michigan Law School.  His book reflects his "personal and intellectual struggles with the framework for ethical thinking and trying to figure out how to live a purposeful, fulfilling life." It is not light reading.

Ethics, says Perry, "is the study of how one ought to structure one's life and it is from this that ethically correct actions follow." When one is faced with a moral dilemma, ethics can help us understand the right thing to do. Perry says there are three kinds of moral dilemmas:

1) The pedestrian—the kind of daily choices we have to make, between, say, going to a child's birthday party or finishing a project at work; between telling a cancer patient she has six months to live or saying nothing.

2) The theoretical—push a fat man off a bridge to his death to stop a runaway trolley that will otherwise kill five people tied to the track? I.e., that is should you kill one person to save five?

3) The critical—a dilemma in which someone, through no fault of her own, must make an impossible choice. I.e., a mother in a concentration camp is told to choose which of her two children may live. Fortunately, such dilemmas are rare if only because there is no satisfactory solution.

After discussing moral dilemmas generally, Perry clears the ground of earlier philosophical approaches to ethics by discussing the weaknesses of theological, deontological, consequential, and value-based approaches. While each of these may have value in a specific situation, history has shown that they are not universally applicable—and philosophers like Plato, Bentham, Mill, Kant, and others have tried to develop an ethical theory that would be universally applicable.  Perry argues, cogently, that such an approach is bound to fail because they leave a gulf between the theories and "our moral condition as we find and experience it."

Perry's approach is to ground ethical behavior in identity. "I am a human being and as such have various needs, interests, and obligations. I respond to reasons, show sympathy with others, desire certain ends, feel affinity with my fellows, etc." Moreover we often have many other identities: child, brother, father, husband, citizen, employee, manager, and many, many more. Some of these identities you can never shed. You are still someone's child even if your parents are dead, even if you were an orphan. Other identities are more transient. You may be a member of the PTA, but you can drop out without serious consequences.

With these identities, says Perry, come ethical norms and obligations. These are perhaps clearest for people like doctors and lawyers, professions for which the norms and obligations have been hammered over time. It means that a doctor, a lawyer, a psychologist, a police officer, a President may perform an ethical act in that role that would be someone who is not a doctor, a lawyer, etc.
It also seems to mean that ethics are culturally bound. That is, an act that would be unethical for a businessman in one culture (offering a bribe, for example) may be perfectly ethical for a businessman in another—same identify, same act, different ethical norm.

As I said above, Moral Dilemmas is not easy reading. It would have been helped with more concrete examples, less passive voice, and a good editor. (The chapter about ethics and lawyers is among the most lively and accessible.) Nevertheless I believe the book is worth the effort to absorb if only to help clarify your own thinking about the right thing to do in what seems to be a moral dilemma.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What makes Micahel Connelly so great?

I've written enthusiastically about Michael Connelly in the past, so I am not here to praise his latest Harry Bosch mystery, The Burning Room, but to sketch some of the reasons why I think he's one of the best crime writers in America.

1) He knows where to start the story for maximum dramatic effect. Here are the first two sentences of the new book: "It seemed to Bosch to be a form of torture heaped upon torture. Corazon was hunched over the steel table, her bloody and gloved hands deep inside the gutted torso, working with forceps and a long-bladed instrument she called the 'butter knife.'" We are watching an autopsy that initiates an investigation into a 10-year-old shooting.

2) He limits the point of view to Harry Bosch. The reader knows only what Bosch knows. This means Bosch has to learn things from his partner, a young detective named Lucy Soto, and from other people. So the book is crowded with names and places, but we are able to keep track easily and the flow feels natural.

3) His account of LA police procedures and politics ring absolutely true. Because I do not know Los Angeles well, I cannot tell whether places are where Connelly says they are—but I suspect they are. Using real streets, neighborhoods, and locations lends the book authority and verisimilitude.

4) The puzzle Bosch has to solve is both complex and plausible. He is working on a both a 10-year-old shooting and a 21-year-old arson case and the action stops long enough for Bosch and his partner to compare notes, or for Bosch to report to his superiors on his progress, which helps the reader keep track of what's going on.

5) Connelly is able to introduce history (back story) naturally without interrupting the story's flow. For example, Bosch and the reader learn the details of the arson case by reading about it from departmental records. At another point he is talking to a retired detective about an old case and he recalls "the infamous 1997 shoot-out in the streets outside a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood." Bosch played only the most minor role in the incident (part of the team securing the crime scene after it was all over), but the memory has its role.

6) His characters are neither paragons of virtue nor embodiments of evil. Bosch is, in some ways, a loose cannon, although he will get a search warrant when he needs one. He's doing his best to be a good father to his teenage daughter. When Bosch and Lucy meet a neo-Nazi ex-con witness, perhaps the most unpleasant character in the book, the guy seems more pitiful than viscous for all his vitriol.

7) He does not rely on coincidence to help the story along. I believe there is only one incident that might be considered coincidence in the entire 388 pages (a news story that happens to appear on the back of a news clipping Bosch is reading). But it is so natural few readers would question it.

8) The dialogue is crisp and at times funny. For example, a reward has been offered and Bosch gets one of the tip callers who says: "I want to register for the reward."
"What do you mean 'register,' sir? It's not a lottery. Do you have information that can help us?"
"Yeah. I got information. The shooter is named Jose. You can mark it down."
"Jose what?"
"I don't know that part. I just know it's Jose."
"How do you know this?"
"I just do."
"He was the shooter."
"That's right."
"Do you know this man? Do you know why he did it?"
"No, but I'm sure you will get all of that once you arrest him."
"Where do I arrest him?"
The man on the other end of the line seemed to scoff at the question.
"I don't know that. You're the detective."
"Okay, sir, so you are saying that I need to go out and find and arrest a man named Jose. No last name, no known whereabouts. Do you know what he looks like?"
"He looks Mexican."
"Okay, sir, thank you." Bosch hung up the phone, banging it hard into the cradle. "Douche bag," he said to himself....

9) The descriptions of places and people are crisp and to the point. For example: "Ojeda was sitting at a small table. Seeing him in the cold light of the room, Bosch saw that he was a handsome man with a full head of jet-black hair, smooth skin, and a trim built. There was a weariness or sadness in his dark eyes...."

10) He saves a final twist for the last seven pages of the book. It's entirely plausible, a complete surprise—and I'm not going to spoil it here. Read the book.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is David Samuel Levinson's first novel (He published an earlier collection of short stories, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will.) It is set in small fictional college town in upstate New York. The plot involves three main characters:

—Catherine Strayed, the 40-something-year-old widow of Wyatt, a promising writer whose first novel was mercilessly savaged by the famous critic Henry Swallow. Catherine works in a bookstore in town and is slowly recovering from Wyatt's accidental(?) death. She seems to be drifting through life and to be terribly passive.

—Henry Swallow, a late 50s professor and critic who was Catherine's lover when she was his student. He has become the head of the college's writing program and, although it was his review that apparently destroyed Wyatt's writing career, Catherine rents the cottage on her property to him. He seems to be randy old goat on which age, lust, and liquor are taking a terrible toll.

—Antonia Lively, a 23-year old writer who is Henry's current squeeze and protégé who has followed him to the town. Antonia has written a best-selling book presented as fiction but based closely on her family's history. Antonia insinuates herself into Catherine's life because she would like to plunder it for her next shocking best-seller. She is a bright young thing escaping a disfunctional family.

Because this is a novel about writers, writing, and critics, Levinson has some interesting things to say about the subject. For example: "Good fiction lies to get at the truth," Wyatt used to say. "Good journalism tells the truth to gae at the lies. It's only great literature that does both. It presents a world in which the two aren't just intertwined, they're inseparable."

Here is Henry speaking to a writing class: "If I can see the writer in the work, then it's clear to me this writer is more involved with his own story than with imagining a fictional one. This is a fiction class, where you will share and evaluate one another's stories. Notice the use of the word 'stories,' because that's what I expect from you—stories, not journal entries or personal essays or chapters from your Great American Novel that also double as your autobiography. Fiction is about character. Fiction is never about you."

As a writer, I find all this—and especially Henry's long (too long to quote) indictment of contemporary publishing—fascinating, but I wonder how many readers who are not writers care.

I also wonder how many readers will be put off by the way Levinson tells the story. He begins with a first-person narrator who sets the scene. The next 100 pages are told in third person as the narrator reports the thoughts and words of the characters, thoughts and words to which the narrator could not have had access.

Which is why I was jarred when, on page 108, a paragraph begins, "I myself wasn't at Leland's to hear Henry's denunciation...." Who is the "I" here? Who is telling this story? (We eventually find out, but I was more put off by Levinson's tying up the loose threads than satisfied.)

One curious contradiction within the novel is Henry's view of fiction quoted above and Antonia's (and the stated position of the novel itself; i.e., this really happened). Antonia's seems to be that fiction is only thinly disguised fact. If Antonia cannot learn the facts about Catherine and Wyatt's marriage, she cannot write her book. She cannot make anything up. What does she think of Henry's pronouncements?

So although I had problems with some of the characters and their motivations, and in general do not respond well to novels set in made-up places, I think Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a very creditable first effort and well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Adventures in Japanese - III

To slowly, slowly improve my ability to read Japanese, I have been translating a book of short stories that my conversation partner bought me on one of her trips home. This is not "literature." The author, Hirao Okuda, is appealing to a popular audience. Nevertheless, the book contains sentences that are well beyond my ability to turn into English. For example:

絵里 は 鼻 の 奥 が つんときた。

Stick with me for a moment, and we'll go through it. 絵里 is a girl's name, Eri. 鼻 means "nose." 奥 means "inside," so 鼻の奥  means "inside [her] nose." つんときた  means "to become irritated" or "struck by a pungent odor."

So, my translation, which made some sense in the context (Eri is talking to her brother in his hospital room): "A pungent odor was in Eri's nose."

Google Translate's version: "Eri the back of the nose was Tsunto come."

My native-speaking Japanese conversation partner says the sentence means, "Eri felt she was about to cry." (The irritation in her nose is the precursor to crying.) Who knew? 

Notice that the only word in common between the original and my partner's translation is "Eri."

What all this means is that not only am I slowly learning to read, I continue to increase my respect for the scholars—Donald Keene, John Nathan, Ted Goosens, Philip Gabriel, Jay Rubin, Juliet Winters Carpenter, and more—who are able to translate Japanese into lively English. What they are able to do is astonishing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let's hear it for more reality!

On one of the groups I follow, a member wrote, "Those who say ghosts do not exist and anything paranormal is the product of a fanciful mind should really think again. Chances are you will eventually have an experience that you cannot chalk up to perceived normal reality." She went on to cite an anecdote that made her point that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

I agree with Shakespeare, but I exclude the paranormal, and said so. She asked why I was so skeptical about the paranormal, adding, "I would say it is because no truly paranormal event that you could not explain has ever happened to you. However, for me it has. I have seen spirits on a number of occasions throughout my life, not to mention other paranormal happenings."

In my defense, I said I find reality so rich, to interesting, so rewarding that I'm not interested in the unreal—other to be curious why so many people find the paranormal so rich, so interesting, and so rewarding.

I know that many people believe they have seen spirits on a number of occasions. They have had a genuine experience and assigned meaning to it. I do not doubt, I do not question the experience. I believe the experience is real. I do question the meaning they have assigned to the experience—that what they have seen (experienced) is a ghost or a spirit.

One might respond to my skepticism by asking, "But what else could it be?"

I have no idea. There is far more to reality than I can understand or explain. But a paranormal experience by definition cannot be explained by logic or science. All that says to me is that logic and science are, in certain situations, limited; we do not know everything.

But we do not have to drag in ghosts, spirits, or the supernatural to explain the experience. We simply have to say, "We don't know."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

How Freud Became Freud

Adam Phillips, an English psychoanalyst and general editor of the new Penguin Modern Classics translations of Sigmund Freud, has written a concise biography, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, which follows Freud up to the age of fifty.

Interestingly for someone whose life work was explicating a patient's biography, Freud was against anyone writing his. Indeed, when he was 30 he wrote his fiancee that he had destroyed all his notes, letters, scientific excerpts, and manuscripts of his papers to frustrate future biographers. This, Phillips points out, from a man "with no distinctive professional achievements . . . a man [who thinks he] will be worthy not of one biography but of many."

Phillips does his best to put Freud into his place and times. Although Freud was a secular Jew, he was conscious of his Jewishness (and a sister died in the Holocaust) and worried that psychiatry would be seen as a "Jewish science." He was trained as a doctor, but had little interest in medicine. He was far more interested in language, in the stories people tell about themselves, and in writing his books. He presented himself as a scientist, but his books—Interpreting Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) and others—are hardly scientific.

However, as Phillips writes, "[t]he facts of a life—and indeed the facts of life—were among the many things that Freud's work has changed our way of thinking about. Freud's work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves, but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view." I found it interesting that while Freud listened to his patients for hidden meanings, symbols, buried fears, unacknowledged lusts, and more, working on the theory that these existed, he seems to have been arrogant enough to believe he himself was exempt from them. That, indeed, he could successfully analyze himself.

Yet, the psychoanalyst, Phillips writes, "is a historian who shows us that our histories are also the way we conceal the past from ourselves; the way we both acknowledge it and disavow it at the same time (to disavow it is, one way or another, to simplify it; to acknowledge it is to allow complication)." Freud showed modern people "how unconscious they were, how removed from a clear sense of their own intentions, how determinedly ignorant they were about their own pleasure." As a result, Freud argues, we are fundamentally divided against ourselves. We no longer know what is in our best interests—or even what our best interest might be.

For a short book (162 pages), Becoming Freud is both expansive and profound. Because Freud and his ideas have had such an impact on 20th century thought, Adam Phillips has done us a service by writing about the man and his thought so effectively.