Said and read – February 2019

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What is it about options that is so difficult for us? Why do we feel compelled to keep as many doors open as possible, even at great expense? Why can’t we simply commit ourselves?” – Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our DecisionsDan Ariely

Once more I have not managed to read as much as in previous years, and this makes me a bit sad. I hope to pick up more books starting in March.

Previous Said and read blog posts: 2019 – January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for February:

What holds true for a conversation holds equally true for reading, which is—or should be—a conversation between the author and the reader. Of course, in reading (as well as in a personal conversation) whom I read from (or talk with) is important. Reading an artless, cheap novel is a form of daydreaming.” –Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights: Escape from FreedomErich Fromm

Highly recommended

*Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our DecisionsDan Ariely

I was surprised to find that a book I stumbled on accidentally as a part of my psychology studies was quite engaging. Essentially Ariely explores decision-making, and how we think we are being perfectly rational as we make decisions. Many influences come into play, often largely invisible, unconscious forces, and Ariely and colleagues have run a number of experiments to examine some of these influences and the irrational conclusions of our decisions. It’s fascinating stuff looking at how, for example, something is framed, changes our perception of its value or importance, whether it is negative or positive.

Most of all I enjoyed the parts about how humans love to collect more and more options, leaving all options open, but forego in many cases, the truly important or most valuable outcomes, in an effort to never have to make a choice or let go of the endless options before us (stuff like online/app-driven dating presents this dilemma with great immediacy). Strangely, Ariely cites Erich Fromm, the only other thing of significance I finished reading in February, on the topic of too many options, too much opportunity.

Good – really good

*Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights: Escape from FreedomErich Fromm
*To Have or To Be? – Erich Fromm
*The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – Erich Fromm

On some level, I am disappointed in myself for reading so few books in February, but I do try to remind myself that the Erich Fromm volume I’ve just finished reading is actually several books within one volume.

Fromm has been coming up in my readings on psychology, philosophy and some other more New Age type reading I did over two years ago when I started my mission to read more (I started by reading some books a friend had asked me to read to her and record a very long time ago, which included these “New Age” type books). These antecedents coupled with my own curiosity and the relevance of these theories given the current political and social climate gave me a reason to get through these books, which weren’t always easy. I found it best to read these when I was a captive audience and basically had nothing else to do but focus, i.e. on plane journeys. Most recently I was flying between Frankfurt and Glasgow, and a flight attendant scared the shit out of me by standing very close behind me, staring over my shoulder (without my realizing it) and almost whispering in my ear, “That’s the smallest font! You must have excellent eyes.” But apart from that strange interruption, I was able to read these books in peace.

It was perhaps most interesting to see Fromm’s assertion in Escape from Freedom: “The United States has shown itself resistant against all totalitarian attempts to gain influence.” Perhaps so, at the time of writing. Fromm was not blind enough to think the situation static: “Yet all these reassuring facts must not deceive us into thinking that the dangers of “escape from freedom” are not as great, or even greater today than they were when this book was first published. Does this prove that theoretical insights of social psychology are useless, as far as their effect on human development is concerned? It is hard to answer this question convincingly, and the writer in this field may be unduly optimistic about the social value of his own and his colleagues’ work. But with all due respect to this possibility, my belief in the importance of awareness of individual and social reality has, if anything, grown.

As Fromm examines the societal shifts that came about as a result of the shift from economic systems of the medieval era to what is now capitalism, we see echoes of the kinds of questions being raised in how we live (and in many cases suffer) today:

In one word, capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.

He also writes at length about something that is one of my personal annoyances – boredom (or “insufficient inner productivity”). He argues that this belongs to the kind of society we live in, the creation of the need for constant stimulation and the disintegration of man’s place in society (having a role and knowing what he should be doing):

“Chronic boredom—compensated or uncompensated—constitutes one of the major psychopathological phenomena in contemporary technotronic society, although it is only recently that it has found some recognition. Before entering into the discussion of depressive boredom (in the dynamic sense), some remarks on boredom in a behavioral sense seem to be in order. The persons who are capable of responding productively to “activating stimuli” are virtually never bored—but they are the exception in cybernetic society. The vast majority, while not suffering from a grave illness, can be nevertheless considered suffering from a milder form of pathology: insufficient inner productivity. They are bored unless they can provide themselves with ever changing, simple—not activating—stimuli.”

On so many levels, the readings are deep and difficult and range across so many different subjects from history to linguistics, from philosophy to the nature of love or collective versus individual identity; it is hard to summarize here (and is probably not even necessary – if you’re interested in these kinds of things you will seek this out).

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Half-Blood BluesEsi Edugyan

It took a long time to get into this book, but once I did I enjoyed it and was able to reassess the style that made it hard to “crack”. It does not immediately come across as linear and is hard to insert oneself into, but once you do it’s got quite rich language and a wholly new perspective. It is possible one I will need to read a second time to appreciate fully.

Coincidences

No great coincidences this time.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I don’t think I really read anything disappointing… boring textbooks don’t really count since they are useful and required, even if they don’t ignite creativity or excitement in the way that fiction or poetry might.

The silent woman

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“The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women.” —D. H. Lawrence

“It has taken me most of my 40 or so years as a conscious person to realize: I don’t owe anyone an explanation.” – Me

Today I read an article by Danish writer Dorthe Nors on the invisibility of middle-aged and older women. She writes: “A middle-aged woman who’s not preoccupied with handling herself or taking care of someone else is a dangerous, erratic being. What is she up to? And what’s the point of her being up to anything?” It fell in my lap at the right time, seeing as how I’m sidled right up to middle age, and have always been a bit invisible anyway.

In that sense I, perhaps wrongly, feel like I can see this clearly and objectively, but I doubt this is true. Perhaps it is, as one dear friend commented when I shared this article, “I think middle age must come as much more of a shock to women who fit the current standards of beauty. For someone to whom men have never paid much attention, there is not much difference in how we are considered in middle age. While difficult to deal with when young, you are forced to find your self-worth outside of a man and man’s view of you at an earlier age.”

This article arrived at a moment when I was otherwise contemplating commitment and choice. We are led, at least by the media, to believe that our choices become ever-more limited, and scarcity rears its terrifying head – in the workplace, in terms of potential relationship or sexual partners, even in our friendships. I don’t think any of this is as acute as we’re told, but it is also not universal. It depends on you, where you are, what you are doing, what you want and all kinds of other factors. In the midst of all the infernal thinking, someone said to me, referring to more specific things than I thus applied it to, “There are still a number of points ahead of you at which your life branches off in multiple directions. You still have options, choices.” Logically I know this but a combination of inertia and grief, and a soupçon of fear, has stopped me in my tracks. I feel a bit like I have been shaken awake and have no time to lose.

But a lot of sluggish meandering through literary contemplations on women, communication, relationships and marriage had to happen first.

Finding a voice

For a lot of women, finding their voice – the voice that represents them truly, not just the voice and content she uses as a conciliatory mediator, but the voice and content as the one who gets labeled as a bitch or troublemaker or a roadblock simply because she actually is the smartest one in the room, knows what she is doing and has thought through all the potential outcomes and problems. The voice that is not just a cushion, a boomerang, a mirror for something a man says or does, but the voice that is not afraid of or concerned with how she is perceived. This is mined with risk. It is all easier said than done. It’s not just having the knowledge and eloquence to hold forth on a given subject, it’s as Rebecca Solnit posits, just being able to assert the right or space to say anything at all:

Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

I am not sure how much of my own difficulty in asserting myself is rooted in age-old shyness (as opposed to my being female). But, as an adult, I also live in Sweden, so I don’t find that men are quite as domineering, particularly when they have sought out my expertise in my own field. Right after I wrote that sentence I happened to see this opinion piece by Paulina Porizkova on feminism. She realized when she moved to Sweden as a child that suddenly “my power was suddenly equal to a boy’s”. In the Swedish world, “the word ‘feminist’ felt antiquated; there was no longer a use for it”; after all, “Women could do anything men did, but they could also — when they chose to — bear children. And that made us more powerful than men.”

It was only later, in comparing the roles of women in her native Czech Republic, in Sweden, in France and finally the United States that she could embrace the need for feminism:

“In the Czech Republic, the nicknames for women, whether sweet or bitter, fall into the animal category: little bug, kitten, old cow, swine. In Sweden, women are rulers of the universe. In France, women are dangerous objects to treasure and fear. For better or worse, in those countries, a woman knows her place.

But the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.” –Paulina Porizkova

I also tend to have the upper hand in business dealings because everyone else is using English as a second or third language, and it’s my first. But I certainly recognize that battle of trying to gain the right to speak. And the ability to say what I want or need to say without being interrupted or talked over or “mansplained to”. This isn’t scientific, my observations/thoughts. But being this insular, shy person for my entire life, while teeming with vociferous opinions, thoughts and ideas, I experience the ongoing struggle, but then I also experience this with louder, more domineering women who stubbornly want to hear the sounds of their own voices and repetitive thoughts (they’ve probably learned to behave this way because they too are fighting for a space for their voices). I also keenly feel that these communication difficulties (not mine specifically but more general, gender-related mismatches) have informed my opinions on male-female communication, relationships, and have contributed a lot to my desire to be alone.

It often takes us such a long time as people to find our true voices, to be ourselves, that it’s a shame that it’s twice as hard for women of all ages under most circumstances, and that by the time we as middle-aged women find our voice and claim the agency to speak openly and freely and to demand the floor, so to speak, we are silenced by this invisibility (or as Alex Qin explains in her SkillShare TechSummit 2017 keynote, linked above, being hypervisible and invisible at the same time).

Limit the options and dull the minds

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“It’s not easy because your heart is closed off, but yes, you must move into the future.”

Random bits – the bits that piqued my interest and kept me reading anyway – from the sort of New Age book as I finally close it up and move on to something else…

“Arrested personal growth serves industrial ‘growth’. By suppressing the nature dimension of human development (through educational systems, social values, advertising, nature-eclipsing vocations and pastimes, city and suburb design, denatured medical and psychological practices, and other means), industrial growth society engenders an immature citizenry unable to imagine a life beyond consumerism and soul-suppressing jobs.”

 

“…there are two important questions in life, and it is essential not to get them in the wrong order. The first is “Where am I going?” and the second is “Who will go with me?”

 

“They have not learned what Alan Watts called ‘the wisdom of insecurity’– that life is a hazardous adventure (which is what makes it interesting and joyous), that an artificially secure life is a dull one, and that significant security is impossible because change is unavoidable, illness and injury are common, and death inevitable.”

 

“For over one hundred years, mainstream American education has been systematically tuned to produce, on the one hand, blue-collar workers, and soldiers, and on the other, white-collar scientists, technologists, military officer, business managers, and career professionals. The idea has been to ‘keep America strong’, which means more successful than other nations in competing for Earth’s limited resources, on which all human economies are grounded. This has been accomplished in the United States and other Western societies by creating a large workforce of wage slaves and soldiers and a sizable cadre of sharp and ambitious minds capable of managing that workforce and creating technological advances for the mark of military-economic ‘progress’. Consequently, we have a bifurcated educational system successfully designed to limit the options and dull the minds and aspirations of the first group while both sharpening and narrowing the minds of the second. The education emphasis for the professional class is on thinking, but thinking in rather shallow and constricted modes. Independent, critical thinking and any kind of feeling, imagining, and sensing are minimized, marginalized, or discouraged because they are deemed irrelevant or detrimental to industrial development or personal fulfillment. Another reason these innate human capacities are suppressed in Western societies (and must be) is because they easily expose the egocentric idea of ‘progress’ for the self-destructive and world-devastating fantasy that it is.”

 

“In our society, the late teens and early twenties are often thought of as our one chance in life to sow wild oats. This way of thinking belies an unconscious co-optation of our innate wildness — our true, abiding, and sustainable vitality. Something in us is truly wild and wants to stay that way through our entire life. It is the source of our deepest creativity and freedom. When we say about youth, ‘Let them have their day, their wildness, their fun; soon enough they’ll settle down like we all do,’ we’re betraying the fact that we’ve made our human world too small for soul. We’ve abdicated a critically important part of our human nature.

Even the phrase ‘sow wild oats’ suggests that, like oats, our wildness is doomed to domestication. Egocentric society believes these human oats (and their sowers) are not meant to remain wild. Young people might briefly be allowed their ‘freedom’, but it’s rare that they are encouraged to uncover, celebrate and claim their full wildness for a lifetime.”

All quotes in blocks from Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World by Bill Plotkin, 2008.