Mad Men Bores Me

If you’ve never watched the show, then never mind this review. To the rest of you I submit that Mad Men is one fraud of a series—pretentious and empty.

The first season fascinated me. Behind everything I saw and heard there seemed to be coming together the pieces of some very clever machinery of narration—tension pooling toward certain potentialities of the plot; the drama advancing and retracting unevenly, two steps forward, one step backward; some characters taking their first swipes at one another, others merely taking aim, all the while foreshadowing what makes them tick, Don Draper in particular, with his mysterious past. The preparations were exquisite. They’re carefully setting up every detail for something spectacular, I thought. And yet for three and a half seasons now the plot has done nothing but spin its wheels. In retrospect, I realize that I had mistaken superficial charm for substance all along. Mad Men is shot beautifully. Accented with quaint touches of imagery from the 60s, the set vividly recreates the feel of that decade—at least to dupes like me, born in 1986. But in terms of drama, I am afraid there is no there there.

Nearly everything interesting has long been flattened down to insignificance or hackneyed by overuse. If there is any point of composition in which Mad Men may now be said to resemble True Blood, that would be the mandatory inclusion into every episode of at least one scene of vigorous intercourse featuring the main character, as if it were Don Draper’s manifest destiny to overspread and to possess every woman crossing his path. Oh, please! I don’t care just how free love was back then. In all likelihood at least one woman would have refused this man’s advances. Even if not, the creators of Mad Men should have invented her.

Anyone remembers the first mistress of the series, the daughter of the Jewish client? How fresh she seemed, how nuanced her conversations with Draper, and how compelling their affair—her hesitation, the endearing attempts at self-restraint, the archness of her pride…. Had I known then what is so obvious now, that is, that Don Draper invariably gets to lift every piece of skirt he cares to, I wouldn’t have followed with bated breath that brief romance or felt disappointed at its banal conclusion. But Mad Men should rather disappoint its viewers than lose their interest. Ever since this Rachel Menken left the series, Draper’s flings have consisted of only flat characters with no inner life of their own and nothing of interest about their existence outside of Draper’s hotel rooms or wherever they chance to copulate. Not only are they all flat, in E. M. Forster’s sense of the word, but almost all alike—from coast to coast—as if cheaply mass-produced by the same factory. None of this would even bother me so much if I hadn’t been getting the distinct impression, lately, that these dull manikins are trying very hard to evoke something—perhaps a sense of nostalgia, the spirit of their times, some cultural turning point…. Which is why every once in a while they will attempt a gesture or phrase so far outside the narrow range of mental life they’re endowed with that we can’t help cringing. A recent example is “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves, but everybody else can see it right away,” a perspicacious insight into theory of mind from one harebrained college girl, Stephanie, to whom Don Draper would most certainly have given a go-around like she’d never had before—as Duck Phillips puts it—had the revelation that her aunt Anna Draper was dying of cancer not got in the way.

This inferior quality of craftsmanship to the bimbos, once detected, somewhat impaired my ability to take Mad Men seriously. Nevertheless, I probably would have overlooked it if the main characters, at least, could keep me glued to the screen. But they can’t. Betty Draper is the only believable creature among them: internally consistent, driven by circumstances and passions we can understand, her words and actions in perfect concordance with her personality; the only thing inexplicable about her being the creepy relationship with Glen Bishop, the young son of her neighbor. But the pace at which her emotions distill over and come to a head—comparable to the drip-drop of a barely leaking faucet—perfectly matches the show’s overall pace of progression. It’s worth noting, however, that we wouldn’t know her so well had she not delivered convincing monologues from the psychiatrist’s couch. Matthew Weiner must have learned that trick from the Sopranos: Though spilling his guts to Dr. Jennifer Melfi never seemed to do Tony much good, she earned her keep throughout the series by rendering him intelligible to us through his own words—and when she bailed out, I knew the end had to be near.

The other characters in Mad Men cannot afford this luxury of catharsis reserved for the likes of Betty and Tony. So in order to come off compelling they must be well stitched together in the first place and supplied with reasonable opportunities for behaving according to their nature. To that end, the creators should entertain clear intentions toward each character’s role in the story and see to it that that role be fulfilled. When they don’t, they end up with freaks such as Dr. Greg Harris, the husband of the lovely Joan Holloway, introduced as a frightening rapist but now mellowed into a pathetic sweetheart. Or Roger Sterling, distinguished for his pedestrian wit, who subjects himself to the indignity of dressing up as Santa for his office Christmas party in order to humor a client—a sadistic one—but goes out of his way to mortally offend and lose the business of another—a Japanese one—because…he fought them Japs in World War II. Or Peggy Olson, who never acts against her interests and seems to hold herself in high esteem—except that in the first season, Pete Campbell‘s humiliating insults to both her person and intelligence proved irresistible so she had to throw herself at him. About that whole affair, even Peggy’s ignorance of being pregnant right up to the moment of delivery seemed more believable than the way these two people who secretly have a child together consequently treat each other.

In sum, too many characters too often behave out of character. Far from adding depth, these arbitrary slips undermine any perceived coherence to them. And even as the series progresses, we never get to know them any better than at the beginning. Take Don Draper. The glimpses into his brutal childhood, rendered as flashbacks, were intended as revelatory clues. But diminishing returns set in very quickly. In the end, Draper’s past explains nothing of his present in concrete terms other than his unwillingness to physically chastise his son. More generally, it justifies his bleak outlook of life—but to that end, a far less dark and complicated past could have sufficed. This is a case of the end not justifying the means. And notwithstanding the elaborate anticlimax that went into his making, Don Draper still remains opaque. What drives him to promiscuity? Abused and unloved as a child, from where does he derive his enviable self-confidence as an adult? And what’s with the wistful imagery in his creative campaigns—the Don Draper signature? What’s the source of all this sentimentality? Can he, so unhappy in his early days and unsatisfied with married life, have such ready, first-hand access, as it were, to the tenderest recesses of America’s collective unconscious? And there’s much more to Draper that doesn’t quite add up.

The same goes for the other main characters. Absent sounder development, perhaps an all-binding plot could have anchored them firmly in place. But Weiner doesn’t seem all that intent on a plot, so the characters are left to float freely in their fictional universe, or rather blunder their way about it. The two-fold failure in composition—concerning both character development and plot structure—seems to bother no one, probably because it has no bearing on the ultimate purpose of Mad Men, which is to present a larger than life documentary about how the 60s were experienced by the specimens of an extinct class of New Yorkers. If this is what Weiner has set out to do, and he shows every indication of being interested in just that, then narrative, drama, characters—all fundamental elements of fiction—recede into the background. He does not hold their integrity sacred. On the contrary, if by their sacrifice the show could somehow increase its faithfulness to the time in which it is set, Weiner makes that sacrifice. Yet this very reconstruction of the past, whether done for its own sake or for extracting whatever lessons it is thought to contain, does not qualify as a legitimate artistic premise on which to base a work of fiction.

If the story the artist is interested in telling could have happened only in the past, then he has a valid reason for not setting it in the present. That’s because plot takes precedence. The historical setting belongs in the background and must subserve the story—not the other way around. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of Mad Men: in this reversal of artistic priorities. It is why the show feels so anemic throughout. Even the most complex characters can be reduced to embodiments of the Zeitgeist—marionettes whose strings show, animated rather whimsically at every turn by whatever emotions the writers deem most representative of the 60s.

And what were those mythical 60s even supposed to feel like? A collage of second-hand impressions; most of them admittedly derived from the short stories of John Cheever—that literary master of everything insignificant in life. He is the quarry from which Weiner dug up most of the raw material that went into the making of Mad Men’s background: the alcohol fumes and cigarette smoke that saturate the atmosphere, adultery as a common fact of life, dissatisfaction with a middle-class existence, detachment from one’s spouse and family, and, on the whole, the pervasive suggestion that worms writhe under every rock happily baking in the sun. Style in this case being inseparable from substance, heavy borrowing from the short stories of Cheever also manifests itself in the episodic, self-contained, almost cameo-like nature of Mad Men—the plot’s penchant for degenerating into dead ends presented as delectable vignettes.

Fiction that does not even aspire at Aristotelian unity can only redeem itself, if at all, by coming off wonderfully naturalistic. Rendering the facts of life faithfully entails some measure of vulgar realism, which might spoil the concentration of the narrative but which we might forgive nonetheless, as the price to be paid for crude sincerity. Mad Men, however, cannot claim this effect as an excuse for its disjointedness and want of focus. It is too studied, too sophisticated, too artful, and resorts to Cheeveresque flourishes too often to feel authentic. Even the 60s it affects to relive are a fictitious construct—bits of literature that wasn’t even true at heart, misunderstood stereotypes from the world of our parents, echoes of a past too recent to be properly cast into fiction, fake nostalgia and fake cultural criticism.

I expect better from novels than even the most polished series of TV drama—and not because of any prejudice against the merits of film, as a medium, compared to literature, but because of the common practices in each industry. Publishers consider the entirety of a manuscript for appraisal whereas network executives approve a pilot without knowing how the rest of the show will come together. Sometimes not even the creators know—they just make it up on the fly. And when that is the case, we get treated to episodes or even entire seasons which, had the work been a novel instead of a television show, would have never made it past the stage of preparatory notes or rough draft…. In a word, we get Mad Men.

Mr. Updike, Meet Miss Austen

If you are a student of literature, I recommend reading back to back John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy and Jane Austen’s novels, as I have by chance, because the contrast between them yielded interesting insights.

Updike’s Rabbit series is the ripe product of the past century—spanning its entire second half. Much has been said of Updike’s style that renders it justice, albeit in too many words—which is why I am not quoting any of it here. For the uninitiated, suffice it to say that Updike is the unsurpassed master of effaced narration, whose ample resources he exploits fully and to whose strict limits he keeps to the end. The effect on his prose is that of gritty but marvelously eloquent realism. His style is like a counterfeit note indistinguishable from the genuine in that it fabricates a structure as complex and as palpable as that of reality.

It is by a curious twist that in the 20th century, all the while visual art severed its links to physical reality and became more and more abstract, the Western novel reached a degree of naturalism and explicitness unparalleled in the past. Reality began to be captured with increasing, almost manic, precision. Shapes, colors, smells, sounds, textures, moods, minute physical characteristics, even bodily functions—every blade of grass, as it were—would now get cherished in their own right and exposed to the reader.

This recent course taken by Western literature, so much at variance with that on which the rest of Western art has embarked, perhaps owes something to the dawn of cinema: indeed, the camerawork that meticulously shines light on every detail of a staged scene and the characters that inhabit it bears a parallel to the modern literary style, which elucidates accidental details and treats inconsequential actions. But this cannot be the origin of the trend, for even, say, The Age of Innocence, written before the influence of film, already features too much detail and too little plot.

The interest modern intellectual writers take in the middle class, their partiality for ordinary people caught in ordinary moments, and the existentialist currents in which most of them are steeped, they all prejudice against plot and toward excessive detail. Yet none of these sensibilities had taken root in the intellectual and literary circles of Europe and America before World War II.

Perhaps, then, the new style dates as far back as Henry James, who might be called its first prophet, because the effaced narration he so ardently championed cannot lead but to extreme naturalism. And all those other factors—film, culture, philosophy—played auxiliary roles. What does narration, when so thoroughly effaced, do to prose in the long run?

Well, it relieves the narrator of his main responsibility, that of being judicious and selective. The author fears that jumping a few steps in the story for the sake of the plot or exercising his discretion in what to include, what to condense, or what to omit would draw attention to himself as narrator, which is taboo. He thus suppresses his activity within his narration and merely serves as a neutral camera filming the cluttered inner world of his characters and the immense reality outside them, exactly as they would perceive it in real time if they were real people.

Every activity, no matter how trifling, deserves attention now, because to cut out anything from the story would be to assert oneself as narrator. That’s one important reason, besides the extinction of prudishness from modern society, why love-making scenes are now sport in literature and not even the most explicit detail is blinked at. If it happens, then it can and probably should be told. This extreme neutrality is also the enemy of plot, for purposeful action and the clash of opposing wills—the traditional heart and soul of literature—end up diluted among those many tangential actions, hesitations, and observations, to which, because they are commonplace in life, effaced narration feels it must do justice.

In the end, the enterprise of fabricating the most realistic life, world, and set of characters possible is so seductive, so rewarding, and so much in agreement with effaced narration that it becomes an end in itself. Verisimilitude of human existence is the new goal of literature. And the more exhibitionistic a literary style, the better equipped it is to achieve it. When the author conjures up, with uncanny exactitude, specific images in the mind’s eye of the reader—the particular hues mixed in a sunset, the smell of evergreen around a cabin, the texture of a lover’s skin—he is flexing his muscles. Reality gets distilled through the five senses, in surgically precise prose.

Updike does this superbly. He makes you live under Harry Armstrong’s skin. This vicarious experience is the essence of Rabbit. It’s what makes it work. Not surprisingly, it only lasts while you are reading it. When you are done, the aftertaste is mild and fades fast. You remember how good it was, how true to life, how skillful at making you see, hear, and feel, what you should. But in the end, none of what you saw or heard or felt made any lasting impression. The vicarious experience, though uncannily rendered, does not enrich our inner life. In the end, this Harry Angstrom, whom we’ve got to know so intimately, is not worth our acquaintance. Neither is anyone around him. Perfectly as they might be cast, these characters and their interactions signify but very little. And our imagination feels manhandled, used, with nothing to show for the trouble.

After Rabbit, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion will feel like a breath of fresh air. All her novels are written in third-person omniscient. Indeed, no narrator as effaced as the modern novelist could muster that most famous opening sentence in English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” What first struck me in reading Austen after Updike was the sparseness of her descriptions, both of characters and of scenes. It’s the economy of conviction. Masterful at dialogue, Austen nonetheless collapses it into indirect speech when it doesn’t advance the plot or when it is not dramatic. She never indulges in descriptive detail for its own sake. Of Eliza Bennet, we only know that she is of middling height and has dark eyes. Of Mr. Darcy, that he is a tall gentleman, handsome, with a noble air. About the scenes where the plot unfolds we are given very little detail. Permberly is a magnificent estate—a large, stone-built house, furnished tastefully—situated opposite a valley, in the middle of the woods, by a running stream. That’s almost all we are told. But it sticks.

Austen narrates. She is interested in telling a story. Not in providing a voyeuristic peep into the inner life of her characters. Most interesting, I “see” her scenes and characters no less vividly than Updike’s. She sketches the outline and my imagination fills in the rest. In the upshot, the prose is light and nimble. And the reader finds in it room to breathe. His emotional resources are not wasted in attending to minute specifications as to the hair color of Charlotte Lucas or the crookedness of Mr. Collins’s teeth. Austen reminds us that the purpose of a novel is not being John Malkovich, or Rabbit Angstrom. It’s to tell a good story. When authors forget that, they get lost in the weeds. To quote from Elizabeth Bowen’s brilliant essay, “Notes on Writing a Novel”:

Plot is story. It is also “a story” in the nursery sense = lie. The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.
The modern novel has little to redeem its lies but the skill with which it tells them. These lies are not told for the sake of establishing a higher poetic truth. Rather, they want to pass themselves for truth. I cannot but think of Mariah Carey’s over-singing—her voice, with its challenging and melodious twists and turns, as it calls attention to its own beauty while executing a mundane, unmoving song. And that’s why the modern novel is bankrupt, and why no book like The Three Musketeers will ever be written again. Or any epic, for that matter. Tolkien was the last of the storytellers. The language of narration has been lost. Sympathy for heroes and fascination by villains no longer stir the imagination of modern writers. Evoking existential angst is all they aspire at. I don’t know whether the narrative heritage can ever live again. But any efforts to revive it must be grounded in the reading of pre-20th-century Western literature not in childhood or adolescence, or at least not only then, but well into adulthood, so as to combat our acquired taste for beautiful garbage.

A word on modesty — Theory of (Authoritarian) Mind

ConsciousnessI understand that I am just a person, and however smart, rational, and well-guided I might be, there are others out there like me. I have changed my mind many times in life about many issues, as I explored and experimented with various currents of ideas growing up. I have abandoned many positions when I realized they were unfounded, and I don’t find it hard to conjecture that as I was mistaken in the past, I can find myself being wrong again in the future. My mind is fallible therefore I have no privileged epistemological access to universal truth.

Others around me have opinions and attitudes about everything. I agree more with some, less with others. Some I think are complete idiots. I don’t know of a single person I agree with 100% about everything there is to discuss or speculate over. I am the only person I fully agree with all the time about everything (at times even agreeing with myself goes wrong). That’s a statistically certain indicator that I am wrong at least on some counts: What are the odds that while not having any privileged access to truth in general, I am always right about everything while everyone around me is wrong at least on their point of disagreement with me?

Why can’t I tell what exactly I am wrong about right now? Just like I can push almost anyone to a point where I am certain they are being irrational about something but just can’t see themselves being foolish, I too, being just another person, must be vulnerable to the same unaware-bullshit-harboring tendency.

In my mindThis makes me humble in my approach to truth. I keep the engine always running on the bulldozer of skepticism at the base of my most crucial intellectual pillars. Entire neighborhoods can turn out to be hastily-put-together public-housing-thought projects, with no business being in my metropolitan mind. While the government might have some life-long commitment to the parasitic beneficiaries of its stupid decisions, I have no intention to stick with my idiocies once I discover them to be such. Knowing that I have the guts to tear them down once I spot them, and the strength to erect new skyscrapers over their ruins, and most importantly, knowing that I can manage to know this without falling into complacency is my most effective formula for intellectual sanity.

So I constantly ask myself “How do I know?” about everything important. When something under consideration either implicitly or explicitly prescribes rules for others, my skepticism is attuned ever more so to its justification because telling others what to do is kind of a big deal! For starters, it’s almost universally backed by a looming “or else”. I don’t care who these “others” are. I am able to empathize with them, to conceive of them as people with an identity, consciousness, free will, and potentially legitimate points to the contrary. How can I possibly know that what’s being proposed is just and necessary?

What moral and epistemological authority do the proponents of this rule have, to defy the will of those to be ruled over, who might disagree? What can they properly be justified in replying to someone who tells them to just mind their own damned business? Applying this skeptical approach with fresh rigor to innumerable cases, my evaluations have historically converged to a rather consistent position which can be safely summarized as “Nothing is superior to freedom. Only negative rights are legit. Live and let live, and screw those authoritarian cocks telling you they’ve got something better figured out for everyone.”

Not everyone thinks along those lines… I wasn’t always this way either. I don’t mean so much about the pan-libertarian conclusions I have arrived at, but the actual train of thought that happened to lead me there. Most people just don’t scrutinize themselves with such modesty or skepticism and subsequently incur a high risk of screwing up.

The ThinkFuture Radio Show is my favorite podcast (sort of by default, since it’s the only one I listen to). The host, Chris Future, has this theory that almost everyone is a libertarian underneath. It goes something like this: “Do you like having other people telling you what to do, how to live your life? Do you want the government interfering with you and pulling money out of your pocket? The bottom line is that most people would like to be left alone.” So there, most of us are closet libertarians.

The crucial counter consideration to this argument is that while most people don’t like to be told what to do, they would nevertheless love to dictate others what to do. It might very well be true that most of us want the IRS out of our pockets, but we’d still love to dig our hands into others’ pockets for all sorts of reasons. We intuitively seek freedom for ourselves but find it hard to genuinely extend that courtesy to others. Accordingly, most of us are not closet libertarians but rather closet authoritarians.

But why? Don’t we know that we can’t both have our cake and eat it? I find it incredible just how eagerly most people will renounce their own freedoms just for a chance to have a say in other people’s lives. Instead of identifying with one-another and regarding arbitrary interferences with anyone as harbingers of unjust intrusions into our own lives, we usually find it intuitively easier to identify with the invasive authority. I suspect there are psychological reasons for this.

Ah, the intriguing authoritarian personality. I keep meeting these people especially at school, la crème de la crop of authoritarianism, with many passionate convictions and one or two master plans for humankind or the country. They tend to be engineers, but this might be purely coincidental given the career demographics at the University of Waterloo. They are generally pretty smart but almost always unwarrantedly smug, a sense of self probably reinforced from repeated victories in intellectual horseplay with kids not as intelligent as themselves. They think they’re hot shit, alright.

mind sparkI find them reverse-engineering human nature or the global economy, with all sorts of ideas which I even might find interesting until I realize how seriously they take themselves. They are almost exclusively determinists: human relationships are exhaustively explained through caricatures of rationalized instincts, scale-free networks and intricate feedback loops. People are puppets bound by deterministic strings: their actions predictable and fully captured by reductionist analysis. Although they see free will as a naiveté, they usually are not perplexed at the corollary of their own thoughts and convictions being epiphenomenally preordained. They indeed see themselves as being above all this.

It is typically fashionable for them to have some background in economics or history, and they advertise the shit out of that knowledge. Contempt for ‘the ordinary person’ can be found bursting passively-aggressively at the seams of their statements. Of course people are like sheep, unable to cope left to their own devices.

Authoritarians hate free enterprise. They see poverty, progress, and social cohesion as a technical problem that can be fixed (by them) with top-down intervention from the natural sciences. Human institutions are mechanical organisms to be operated on with the incisive touch of a surgeon. Naturally the view that social problems are essentially technical in nature leads authoritarians to administrative solutions. The emphasis is on creative master plans as they are to be decreed at the top, with little concern for their implementation at the bottom. They simplify or ignore reality if it clashes with the effects of their ‘right interventions’.

It seems almost cognitively impossible for them to grasp the main opportunity cost of central planning: the cumulative creativity of the ‘ordinary people’ they despise so much. They can’t understand that innovation cannot be planned. They see free enterprise as doomed to fail because it’s so stupid, without a controlling intelligence behind it, but they don’t consider how stupid and myopic their “smart” planning is, doing away with the creativity of all the interconnected ‘little people’ at the bottom. The authoritarian par excellence cannot conceive of an unspecified anonymous ‘ordinary person’ to come up with an unpredictable good idea.

This kind of person might deeply disagree with a government policy but they generally regard it as a matter of trial and error before getting it right. The issue is getting the brightest leaders in power so that the best policies are implemented to make it all right. They have an elaborate plan of what everyone should be doing to achieve the greater good and they would love to tell you about it…

I know from personal experience that this kind of person tends to be very condescending to anyone who will challenge him. Persisting rational counter-arguments can easily be interpreted as a personal attack to be responded with a personal counter-attack. If you go as far as to question their authority to prescribe everyone what to do, contempt and cynicism might ooze out of their pores before they sever all ties with you.

There is a lot to be said about the authoritarian personality. My most noteworthy personal observation is that authoritarian types tend to suffer from a poor theory of mind. I am not sure whether it is a building-block of their character or merely a consequence of deeper psychological factors, but the problem of other minds is certainly problematic for them.

the problem of other mindsDuring early childhood we emerge from our egocentric shell and start to understand that other people are not us, that everyone has a mind of one’s own and others might have different opinions and feelings from ours. This childhood revelation is just the foundation. The theory-of-mind edifice is still shaky in most adolescents, making reality checks very difficult for them and leaving little room for objectivity. The maturation of one’s personal theory of mind is marked by the realization that one’s own mind is fallible just like everyone else’s. This is the first step toward dismantling our inherent megalomania. It results in an overall epistemological modesty, and an ability to vividly conceptualize being in other people’s shoes. We can respect the consciousness of others, perhaps even empathize with them, and interpret reality from multiple perspectives.

brain.jpgI vaguely remember outgrowing the authoritarian state of mind sometime in my mid-teens. I used to be very radical about everything I believed in. The truth of my convictions, whatever they were, was self-evident to me, but of course it was only so because I happened to believe in what I believed. Whoever disagreed was an idiot for not being able to see what I saw. Condescendence was a natural attitide. Only now as I think back I realize I used to be a little authoritarian girl.

Overcoming that stage was a great achievement which unfortunately is not a routine developmental milestone. A lot of teenagers never make it. In my case I suspect it had something to do with reading classic novels with great characters. Getting in the head of robust fictional personalities who can feel, think, be aware of the world around them no less intensely than I can, and plausibly convince themselves of being right when they are not, helped put other people’s minds as well as my own into perspective. Being a sucker for movies where I had to put myself in the shoes of all sorts of characters also had a strong auxiliary and catalytic effect, as certainly did the epic turmoil of the transitional period in Albania after the fall of communism. Escaping reality or my own stupidity in that environment became too dear a luxury.

Therefore I scrutinize my authoritarian friends with a certain autobiographical amusement. The subconscious assumptions underlying their thought patterns evoke these crude megalomaniacal ideas from childhood, which stripped of their innocent romanticism sound as crazy as “Maybe I will never die: so far only others have”, or “Maybe I am the only person who is ‘real’: others in the world are just cardboard-cut figures who come in and out of illusory existence as they appear and disappear from my sensory field”, or “I am always right: truth is my state of mind”, or even “Reality is all in my head: I can learn to ignore it into nonexistence or wish it into change”.

EmpathyThere are people who still hold on to this kind of regressive egocentric bullshit to some degree or another. Theory of mind can be a developmental precursor to a theory of reality. Some realizations need to happen for others to follow. Our inherent childish subjectivity is an obstacle to learning.

If at some level your sense of reality is still that of a colorful background encapsulated in your mind, then why should you bother challenging your beliefs? It’s not like there is an objective state of affairs outside your head on which you could possibly be missing out. Outlandish statements will find their way out of your mouth much more comfortably without any counter considerations to weigh them down. Other people? How can you truly respect them for being persons of their own if you cannot conceive that there are true minds like yours, thinking, feeling, and wrestling with life’s existential puzzles inside their skulls?… How much different from sheep are they to you?

They’re just ‘people’; they’re not ‘you’! They’re complicated figures bouncing around, bound by deterministic principles. But you’re not, you’re something else, you can see through it all, you can tell them what to do! Presenting your solutions to world problems can be done with unbelievable nonchalance if the people at the bottom are just grains of sand.

Theory of mind is important. Without its sensitivities cementing genuine interpersonal relationships, someone’s ability to build bridges across his own interests and those of others is fundamentally hampered. Such a person’s mode of dealing with people can easily degenerate into a regressive state of psychological functionality based on the instinct of domination: alpha male or alpha butch bringing down the house and putting the other inferior apes in their place, hence the ‘authority’ in ‘authoritarian’.

connecting with other mindsI would call it one psychological step backward from human nature. It makes evolutionary sense for the instinct of domination to be aggressively displayed in healthy animals, since they have to fight for their limited resources. But man has reason, creativity, and craftsmanship. Survival is not a zero-sum game for us. We can use our intellect to discover ways to manipulate nature in our favor and thus pull plentifulness out of scarcity’s ass. Trade is infinitely superior to domination. We take it for granted, but you need to acknowledge the other person’s mind in order to understand the value of what it has to offer. You need to recognize that it can think of something innovative which you might have not thought of yourself, in order to realize that you have something to gain from it. Without being able to respect other minds for their own sake, in your eyes your fellow men will be little more than potential threats, beasts of burden, or pieces of ass.

Did I take it too far? Is this too psychologically farfetched? I’m not sure…

I used to ask myself what the world must look like through the eyes of a genius. I am talented in mathematics, but there are people who can see in a few seconds what would take me minutes, as there are areas where I can just follow with a lot of effort but a few minds can lead, proving excruciating theorems and whatnot. So what about the world at large, all the complex patterns appearing chaotic to the profane, the beautiful structure of reality baring its secrets to those who can see through the superfluous? What kind of wisdom would that be? Impossible to even fathom, but I think I ultimately just wanted to establish if I had reason to be jealous.

beyond megalomaniaAnd well, I have met people with specialized areas of intellect close to genius. To both my disappointment and relief, their minds are very fallible. An abyss of megalomaniacal subjectivity lies between their mighty intellect and the beauty of the world awaiting to be conquered. Crossing that abyss seems to be beyond the capacity of intellect alone. I know too many intelligent people who talk like idiots when their buttons are pushed. It’s disturbing to see great minds being too cocky to take things rationally, nonchalantly taking the soundness of their positions for granted, leaving indignant emotionality as the only appropriate response to any intellectual duel. In all its impressive depths and heights, the human mind seems to be chronically vulnerable to irrationality. Modesty and skepticism can mark the line between the intelligent and the wise, or that between the intelligent and the insane. Reason is a fragile and shaky hanging bridge, of which the life-long traversal can be accomplished by only the perpetually vigilant and humble mind.

Update: These select writings from Karl Popper speak truth to power; shame I didn’t learn about Popper’s ideas until very recently.