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On Dostoevsky’s conception of authority in The Brothers Karamazov

An ugly side of humanity exposed itself when members of the social news sites digg.com and reddit.com crucified an artist whose books failed to live up to the refined tastes of the digg and reddit community.  The relevant posts can be found here (digg) and here (reddit).

It is with some embarrassment that I admit the treatment of this artist brought tears to my eyes. My first thoughts were along the lines of “What if the author is child whose parents helped publish his first attempt at a novel to encourage his creative expression?” Would this experience forever crush the naive enthusiasm for writing that had developed in someone who could have otherwise developed into a great talent? Then I wondered what would have happened if Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the first part of which was narrated by a retarded man, was judged and dismissed by the first page in a similar manner. Or what if the book was intended as science fiction satire, and the narrator’s bad grammar a clever version of the “unreliable narrator” device?

I soon realized, however, that my “don’t judge a book by its cover (or first page)” rationalization was not sufficient to account for the strength of my feeling.  However, at the time, I also happened to be reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and following the webcasts about the book from Professor Dreyfus’s course in Existentialism in Literature and Film at the University of California, Berkeley.  The lectures were enlightening in many ways, but of particular interest to me was Professor Dreyfus’s insight into Dostoevsky’s attempt to “existentialize” various key Christian doctrines such as baptism, confession, miracles, the incarnation, and of course, the crucifixion. Dostoevsky’s intent was to explain certain religious teachings in terms of everyday human experience.  Thus, for example, baptism is explained as a lasting childhood memory of kindness, and miracles are explained, not as events which contradict the laws of physics and chemistry, but as meaningful coincidences and revealing dreams.  As a secular person, religious doctrines are usually far off my radar, so I am certain that I would have missed this key aspect of the book were it not for the webcasts.

It suddenly dawned on me that, with respect to the above posts on the social news sites, I was witnessing a modern version of the crucifixion in a form similar to that existentialized by Dostoevsky.  Here was a man relentlessly mocked based on nothing more than the evidence of the bad grammar and simple-mindedness of the narrator on the first page of an original novella.  On this flimsy evidence, the author was held up as nothing less than the symbol of a deteriorating popular culture itself- a culture that all too often celebrates the crude, the immature and the stupid.

My husband wondered how I could feel so badly for this author when he could only benefit from all the attention and the many “positive reviews” of his book on Amazon.  In fact, my husband went on to point out, this author had quite possibly sold more books as gag gifts than many struggling authors sell in a life-time.  Far from providing comfort, however, these reflections only served to further validate my thoughts, for they pointed to the fact that the people mocking this artist are inextricably part of the same culture.  These are the members of the social news sites which also showed enthusiastic support for such exemplars of intelligence and taste as, for example, Hot Chicks Who Date Douchebags and Explosions and Boobs. It seems to me then, that to the extent the book is a product of that culture, the tormentors bear the same guilt as the author.  To the extent, however, that this artist dared to place his individual stamp on this shared culture by creating a original work of art, the author has proven himself infinitely greater than the lemmings mocking him.

I suddenly saw that this person’s ultimate potential as a writer and the merits of this particular book were irrelevant. The point is that the author did not let himself be defined by culture, but rather, working as a part of and within his culture, he created something original.  Is there any greater destiny or higher purpose in the life of man than to develop his potential as an individual? And what surer means to achieve this goal than creative expression?  What right do these people, blindly following the crowd, have to judge this author as an individual?

It was then that I remembered there were some unanswered questions posed by Professor Dreyfus in his lectures on The Brothers Karamazov concerning the nature of authority as well as the role of crucifixion.  In one lecture, Professor Dreyfus noted that in The Grand Inquisitor (a kind of story within the story of The Brothers Karamazov), Dostoevsky set up the question of authority as an issue with which he would be concerned.  However, Professor Dreyfus wondered where in the book Dostoevsky solved this riddle by showing his readers the wrong ways and the right way to exercise authority.  In another lecture, Professor Dreyfus put forth a second set of questions concerning the nature and role of crucifixion: why is it that there needs to be someone who suffers for the sins of everyone?, how would one go about suffering for everyone?, and how can the suffering of one person somehow make the world better, or fix something that was bad before?  It is my contention that the questions about authority on the one hand, and crucified on the other are very closely related, and in the following paragraphs, I will attempt to explain why.

Warning: spoiler alert for The Brothers Karamazov*

The problem of authority

Dostoevsky sets up the problem of authority as an antinomy.  He puts it forth in the clearest form towards the end of book, right before Dmitry’s trial.  At this point in the book, the narrator notes that everyone in attendance agreed that the evidence was conclusive and Dmitry must have committed the crime.  However, the majority of males in the audience, many with “stern, frowning faces . . . equivocally desired retribution for the criminal . . . ” (840) In contrast, the woman were “irrevocably convinced” that Dmitry would “‘be acquitted on grounds of humanity, of the new ideas, the new emotions that are now about,’ etcetera, etcetera.” (847)

The men, in other words, took a traditional view of authority which implies the existence of something like absolute guilt and innocence. According to this view, one person’s fate is decided from the perspective of a wholly innocent authority.  If the person is judged to be guilty, he bears the sole responsibility for his crime, and the most extreme forms of punishment are warranted (e.g., Siberia).  This view can be thought of as representing an ideal of justice governed by the principle of retribution.

The women, on the other hand, appear to believe that environmental circumstances coupled with Dmitry’s Dmitry’s “>Karamazovian nature compelled him to kill his father.  As the crime was inevitable, and Dmitry had no real choice in the matter, he was a victim and could not be held responsible for his actions.  This view seems to lead to complete anarchy, where no one can be held responsible for anything, and no one can be in a position to judge anyone else. On the other hand, this view can also be thought of as representing an ideal of justice governed by the principle of mercy.  The idea is that, if a man is shown mercy, he will see that “I am guilty before all men and am the most unworthy of all men” and that “men are better than I.” (953) This realization will then cause the criminal to repent and spend the rest of his life in atonement for “the numberless debt that stands before him from this day.” (953)

The two polar positions are also represented by the public procurator and Dmitry’s defense counsel, and are spelled out in great detail in the two closing speeches.  Many of the main points are further highlighted when the crowd interrupts at various times to applaud the speaker.  The speeches bring to mind the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus‘s play The Eumenides, which depicts the trial of Orestes for the murder of his mother.  In this play, Apollo takes the role of the defense attorney for Orestes against the Furies thirst for revenge on behalf of his mother’s spirit. The comparison is interesting to me, because in the Greek play, reason seemed to represent both justice and mercy taking a stand against a savage and barbaric notion of vengeance.  For Dostoevsky, reason seems to play a dual role:  on the one hand, seemingly overwhelming evidence is marshaled by the prosecutor in support of his call for retribution, on the other hand, the defense counsel turns reason in on itself and argues that the “evidence” can be used to support just about any story and that, therefore, mercy is the only reasonable option.

The role of crucifixion in resolving the antinomy

Dostoevsky’s means of solving this antinomy follows directly from his conception of connectedness.  For Dostoevsky, everything and everyone is connected, and “all is like an ocean, all flows and is contiguous, and if you touch it in one place it will reverberate at the other end of the world.” (414) There can be chains of good, but there can also be chains of evil.

Each day and hour, each minute walk close to yourself and take care that your inward form is well-apportioned.  Perhaps you have walked past a little child, walked past him angry, with a foul remark, with a wrathful soul, it may be that you did not notice him, the child, but he saw you, and your inward form, unattractive and impious, may have remained within his unprotected little heart.  You were not even aware of this, but by that very fact it may be that you have sown a bad seed in him, and it may grow, and all because you did not guard yourself in the presence of a young child, because you had not tutored in yourself a love circumspect and active.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Concerning Prayer, Love and the Contiguity with Other Worlds

Thus, it is very easy for a person to begin or perpetuate a chain of evil, as illustrated, for example, when Alyosha deeply offends Grushenka by refusing to look at her.  On the other hand, there is also a seemingly infinite number of places any one person could intervene to stop a chain of evil and transform it, through love, to an “onion” (good) chain.  Dostoevsky therefore takes a very broad view concerning crimes of omission, which is brought into sharp focus with respect to Ivan’s role in the crime.  In Dostoevsky’s view, it appears that any person who fails to stop a crime shares at least some part of the guilt with the acting criminal.

. . .realize that you yourself are guilty, for you might have brought light to the evil-doers, as the only sinless one, and you did not shine.  If you had shone, then with your light you would have illumined the path for the others, too, and he that committed the evil deed might not have committed it in your light.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

In light of Dostoevsky’s views concerning crimes of omission and the connectedness of all things, what first appears to be the bizarre ramblings of a delirious child and an old monk is seen to embody a profound Christian truth:  “each of us is guilty before the other for everything.” (374) Moreover, this is a truth that is seldom recognized by those who presume to judge the acts of their fellow human beings.**

Recall again the virtual crowd on the social news sites mocking an artist from within a shared culture, and consider the following biblical verses, the first of which is the response of Jesus on the cross to the mocking crowd as found in Luke:

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.  Luke 23:34

Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself, for you who judge practice the same things.  Romans 2:1

Let the person among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone . . .  John 8:7

Now consider the death of Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov. The true murderer was someone who, as a child, never met with agape love, but instead was told that he was “inhuman.” That set the stage for him to lap up “the new ideas, the new emotions that are now about,’ etcetera, etcetera” (847) in the culture, and come to the logical conclusion from this that “all things are lawful.” (808).   The murderer acted with no motive to speak of, but purely as a creature of culture.  Thus, everyone attending Dmitry’s trial bore some guilt for the murder.  In a delirious rage, Ivan Fyodorovich accuses the crowd:

‘Oh, I am in my right mind, all right . . . and it is a villainous mind, the same as yours, the same as theirs, the lot of them, those . . . p-pug-mugs!’ he said, turning suddenly to the public.  ‘A father has been murdered, and they pretend they are frightened,’ he ground out with malicious contempt.  ‘They give themselves airs before one another.  Liars!  They all desire the death of their fathers.  One vile reptile consumes the other . . . Were it not for the parricide they would all lose their tempers and disperse in a rage . . . Circuses!  ‘Bread and Circuses‘!’

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, A Sudden Catastrophe (emphasis added)

Given Dostoevsky’s view of the connectedness of all things and the infectious nature of evil, crucifixion becomes a necessary means of stopping an evil chain.  Evil must, so to speak, bottom out somewhere:  it grows and grows until it is at last definite, recognizable, and unignorable.  At that point, the crowd rises in horror to publicly expose and root out the evil. In a kind of false unity, but unity nonetheless, the crowd finds someone to hold responsible, and crucifies the last link in the chain.***  A person can only serve as the last link in a chain of evil if they take the suffering upon themselves in the right way, however, which brings me to my next point.

The proper exercise of authority

Authority must be exercised with compassion, in a way that recognizes the suffering of the one crucified and helps him to understand the important role he must play in putting an end to the chain of evil.

Bear in mind that you can be no man’s judge. For a criminal can have no judge upon the earth until that judge himself has perceived that he is every bit as much of a criminal as the man who stands before him, and that for the crime of the man who stands before him he himself may well be more guilty than anyone else.  Only when he grasps this may he become a judge . . . And even if the law itself appoints you as his judge, then act even then to the best of your ability in this same spirit, for he will go away and condemn himself even more harshly than your judgment . .

– Fyoder Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From The Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

According to Dostoevsky, sometimes, it is even appropriate for a judge to take the suffering upon himself.

If you are able to take upon yourself the crime of the man who stands before you and is judged by your heart, then lose no time, but do so and suffer for him yourself, while letting him go without reproach.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

The ideal use of authority is illustrated best in the book by Alyosha, when he intervenes during the “stoning” of little Ilyusha by six other boys.  Although Ilyusha taunts and throws rocks at Alyosha too, Alyosha does not retaliate.  Instead, he repeatedly asks of the boy how it came to be that Alyosha had done something to harm him.  The little boy then bites Alyosha’s finger to the bone, and still, Alyosha does retaliate.  In this scene, which recalls the biblical imperative to “turn the other cheek,” Alyosha has taken upon himself the suffering of the little boy, and in so doing, puts an end to the chain of evil that led to the stoning incident.

The forms of judgment elaborated in the antimony do not serve to stop the chain of evil. If one presumes absolute guilt and innocence, and assigns the full responsibility of a crime to one person, an injustice has also been committed:  namely, the criminal’s dual role as a victim as well as a perpetrator goes unrecognized, and the people in the chain that introduced the evil to the perpetrator go unpunished.  Thus, if the perpetrator is brought to understand his suffering and punishment in a retributive sense, all he sees is injustice with respect to others who were not caught or punished for their evil deeds.  This he is likely to stew over, and later use as a rationalization for committing further crimes, further perpetuating the chain of evil.  On the other hand, if the perpetrator is brought to understand that, although he is the basest of the base among men, he will go unpunished solely because the one judging him is infinitely greater and wiser than he, he will more likely than not continue to act the base role assigned to him, as well as attempt to bring everyone else down to his level.  That evil can be spread in this way is illustrated by Fyodor Pavlovich in the beginning of the book when he plays the buffoon at the monastery and explains:

When I go among people I do indeed always feel that I’m more vile than any of them and that they all take me for a buffoon, and so I say to myself: ‘Very well, I really will play the buffoon . . ‘

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, An Inappropriate Gathering

Before this scene, the Elder Zosima warned Fyodor Pavlovich to “above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for it is from that that all the rest proceeds.” (62)  This same kind of evil shows up again when Grushenka feels ashamed of herself before “a man like [Alyosha].” (454)

Dostoevsky understands all too well that that empirical truth that people who live in crime have often been victimized themselves – they grow up surrounded by crime and poverty and see no other alternatives open to them – the abused becomes the abuser.  The only way out of this cycle seems to be through transformative suffering.  The role of the judge is not condemnation, but compassion.  The judge must greet the criminal with agape love, and, understanding that he is a victim as well as a perpetrator, accept him as an individual -both the good and the bad.  The judge is then in a position to bring a criminal to understand that there is another alternative: namely, he may affirm the good within him and continue the chain of agape love.  Only with this understanding will the criminal be capable of bringing an end to the chain of evil that has so ensnared him.

Thus, with respect to the author crucified on the social news site, criticism may have been appropriate, but only constructive criticism from those who have read the entire book. Further, only individuals can properly serve as judges, group-think cannot lead to a fair evaluation.  And, finally, perhaps in this case, it is only fellow artists who could have a deep enough understanding of the difficulties of the task faced by the author to be able to adequately illustrate for him how to overcome and transform the deficiencies he is inadvertently perpetuating.

With respect to criminal justice, there is possibly no greater example of this type of compassion than that offered by the legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who must have been channeling Dostoevsky in his argument on behalf of Leopold and Loeb:

I know, Your Honor, that every atom of life in all this universe is bound up together. I know that a pebble cannot be thrown into the ocean without disturbing every drop of water in the sea. I know that every life is inextricably mixed and woven with every other life. I know that every influence, conscious and unconscious, acts and reacts on every living organism, and that no one can fix the blame. I know that all life is a series of infinite chances, which sometimes result one way and sometimes another. I have not the infinite wisdom that can fathom it, neither has any other human brain. But I do know that if in back of it is a power that made it, that power alone can tell, and if there is no power then it is an infinite chance which man cannot solve . . .

Why should this boy’s life be bound up with Frederick Nietzsche, who died thirty years ago, insane, in Germany? I don’t know. I only know it is. I know that no man who ever wrote a line that I read failed to influence me to some extent. I know that every life I ever touched influenced me, and I influenced it; and that it is not given to me to unravel the infinite causes and say, “This is I, and this is you.” I am responsible for so much; and you are responsible for so much. I know that in the infinite universe everything has its place and that the smallest particle is a part of all. Tell me that you can visit the wrath of fate and chance and life and eternity upon a nineteen-year-old boy! If you could, justice would be a travesty and mercy a fraud.

-Clarence Darrow, summation in Leopold and Loeb (emphasis added)

Darrow insisted upon arguing solely in front of a judge, and declined the right to trial by jury for fear that the trial would become a circus that could only end with the boys being sentenced to death.  The two boys defended by Darrow were spared their lives by the judge, but sentenced to life in prison.

* All page number references in parenthesis are to Penguin Classics 2003 edition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, translated by David McDuff.

** Professor Dreyfus maintains that Zosima’s statements on this particular point do not represent the solution to the antinomy.  I do not agree.  Zosima has the answer, or at least the beginning of the answer, to nearly all of the antinomies set up in the book.  Professor Dreyfus also notes that other commentators have held that Zosima represents Dostoevsky’s view on this point, and I think Dreyfus’s claim that Zosima goes wrong here is in need of much further evidence than the mere assertion that it just seems wrong, because, for example, it does not make sense for Zosima to hold himself responsible for remote horrors occurring in Africa.  Rather, it seems to me that Zosima’s view on this point follows directly and logically from his views on connectedness, which Professor Dreyfus seems to accept.  By his objections, Professor Dreyfus does raise an important question concerning the limits and degree of responsibility of any given individual for the evil of the world.  However, this question also appears to be answered by Dostoevsky through Zosima’s discussion with Fyodor Karamazov concerning the dangers in feeling ashamed before others, a theme that occurs throughout the book, particularly when Grushenka misinterprets Alyosha’s demeanor for disgust directed towards her.  It appears then, that the guilt one bears before all creatures does not mean that one is necessarily more guilty than everyone else or that one bears sole responsibility for the evils of the world – that would result in shame before one’s fellow-men, which only results in further evil.  It is rather a sense of shared responsibility that Zosima is referring to by the statements in point.

Further, picking up Professor Dreyfus’s example of the remote occurrences in Africa, let’s take, for example, the case of child soldiers. Can a person in the West share some responsibility for the murder and torture victims of a child soldier operating in Somalia or Sierra Leone?  According to UNICEF, child soldiers most often join the army either “voluntarily” because they have no other choice or means of survival,  or they are kidnapped and forced into service.  Once a part of the army, they are “socialized” into violence, usually by witnessing the torture and murder of other individuals, even friends and family members, and/or being tortured, beaten and drugged themselves.  Given these circumstances, are these children to bear full responsibility for the evils they commit for their regimes?  A good case could be made that the children are also victims.  So should the handlers and trainers be responsible, many of whom were also retained previously as child soldiers themselves?  Or should the African governments be held responsible?  And if the governments should be held responsible, who is it that should be holding them accountable?  No one?  Such would be the view of those who hold man has no right to judge the actions of another.  The West, perhaps?  Certainly, if the world made it a priority, they could intervene and stop such practices.  But they don’t.  Why?  The governments of the West are democratically accountable.  Ultimately then, the reason for the non-intervention turns on the priorities of the citizens of those countries.  Perhaps the decision for non-intervention (or minimal intervention) is even morally justifiable, but even if so, these children soldiers and their victims are still suffering because the world’s resources are devoted to other causes, both public and private, elsewhere.  This can be viewed as a crime of omission on a large scale.  The evil in the world bottoms out, so to speak, on the lives of these children and their victims. Certainly, a case for shared responsibility can be made, and I strongly believe this is the case Dostoevsky is making.

Take an example more familiar and current within the U.S:  tort reform, and in particular, medical malpractice reform.  Currently our system is one of “shame and blame,” in which patients are able to sue doctors or other treatment providers individually or jointly “responsible” for adverse treatment outcomes.  There are many problems with this system, least among them is that it doesn’t appear to be working.  Statistics have shown that medical errors happen more frequently in the United States than other rich countries.  There have been many explanations offered as to why this system of accountability does not work.  One hypothesis that I have heard multiple times is that this “shame and blame” system more often than not creates a culture in which doctors and other health care workers do what they can to protect themselves and their co-workers from lawsuits.  This in turn, even if unintentionally, leads to less emphasis on figuring out exactly what happened – on full disclosure – in order to take appropriate steps to prevent similar mistakes in the future.  One of the most promising solutions proposed is a systems based approach patterned after programs successfully employed in the aviation and nuclear power industries.  For example, in the aviation industry, it is not the pilot’s sole responsibility for the safety of the passengers, but rather the pilot, the maintenance crew, the air traffic controllers, and others all play an important role.  Likewise, in medicine, not only doctors, but also nurses, administrators and the patients themselves all have an important part to play in ensuring a successful outcome.  The approach is backward-looking, in that it is compatible with providing compensation for the victims of the errors, but also forward-looking in a way that the shame and blame system never was:  the new approach focuses on disclosure of errors and the adoption of system-wide checks and preventive measures with the aim of preventing the error from happening again.

Perhaps in the West, it is easier for us to accept this kind of systems-based approached when it concerns negligent errors and global problems for which shared responsibility and diffuse blame seem particularly relevant (environmental problems and climate change come to mind).  It is less easy for us to see how this concept applies when it comes to intentional crimes.  It seems to me, however, that Dostoevsky was interested in eroding this distinction somewhat.  For Dostoevsky, even crimes that we would normally classify as intentional – the murder in the Brothers Karamazov – appeared to be something else.  There was no one person to blame for the murder, rather, the murderer acted as a de-humanized agent of culture (or of the public, in Kierkegaard’s terms).  Given Dostoevsky’s broad view on crimes of omission, as well as the emphasis he places at the end of the book poking fun of the doctor’s alleged ability to testify regarding the defendant’s mental state, and the prosecution and defense arguments concerning the defendant’s intent, there is a strong case to be made that for Dostoevsky, crimes, even intentional crimes, are a societal problem that everyone, at least in the community, shares some degree of responsibility for.  This position appears to me as something like a positive relativism, in which there is never any doubt that any given criminal end is evil (and not just legally, but also morally), but for that evil, there is never any one person solely responsible.  The idea was to turn the culture into a positive force in the lives of individuals, to spread eventually over the whole world.

*** This type of crucifixion, however, by the crowd, would be avoided given the proper exercise of authority. In fact, Alyosha expresses his disgust for this type of crucifixion in the epilogue when Ilyusha’s friends all claim that they also wished to sacrifice themselves for truth and justice (like Dmitry), to which Alyosha replies “[b]ut surely not in such a cause, not with such disgrace, such horror!”  Thus, while crucifixion per se is not needed, it seems that there will always need to be someone able to suffer for the sins of others in order to put a stop to evil chains.

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Romanian Nature

Last week we went to visit my husband’s parents in Beius, Romania, a relatively small town just across the Hungarian border, about a four hour drive from Budapest. Now, there are people I know who hate the outdoors – who, for example, refuse to go camping or anywhere without a full-size bed, private bathroom, and make-up, hair and personal care supplies. I was never one of those people, and must admit, I even felt some degree of pride in not being that bad. I always loved my version of “roughing it,” which usually consisted of camping, canoeing, and/or hiking trips. Sleeping bags, tents? No problem. Outhouses? I can deal with the smell. Western amenities? Don’t need them.

Or do I? See, every time we travel to Romania, I morph into that cliche, spoiled western girl that I had tricked myself into believing I wasn’t. First, my allergies kick in. In the United States and Sweden, where I live now, I hardly notice them anymore, but in Romania, no matter the season, my nose turns into a faucet and I can’t go anywhere without a package of tissues with me. When we visit my husband’s grandparents, who live in an even more remote, rural area than his parents, I am reduced to sitting in the house with a Kleenex held to my nose. Next, my husband or someone in his family will inevitably ask for the English word for any number of old, obscure gardening, needle/yarnwork, cooking or other tools, and my complete ignorance as to the work involved is betrayed by my answer: “I have no idea. I’ve never seen something like that before.” And let’s not forget the subtle glances exchanged when I try to politely decline or am simply unable to finish my serving of chicken or pig brain, liver, or heart, or react strangely when I’m told that the egg his grandmother is offering me is a delicacy because it was never laid, but rather an undeveloped egg found inside the hen when it was cut down. Once, on a trip to a neighboring city about an hours drive away, I suggested we try eating out at a restaurant. That suggestion was quickly declined, as they explained that restaurant food was over-priced and much, much worse than anything prepared at home by my mother-in-law. Then, there are the shocked gasps when I try to throw out, for example, milk that has been sitting out all day that my toddler son never drank. (My father-in-law stopped me, and then consumed the curdled milk the next day, explaining that it was no different than yogurt). And I swear my mother-in-law is silently reproaching me every time I get out of the shower for having consumed way too much hot water.  These are just a few of the stark cultural differences I was struck by before.

This visit I kept noticing how goal-directed my behavior was, and how this aspect seemed to have a surprising effect on my relationship to nature.  During our visit, I always wanted to know ‘what the plan was:’  where were we going, how long were we going to be there, etc.  I found myself getting quite impatient when I didn’t know the answers to these things, which was almost always.  I usually consider myself a flexible person, so I was surprised how much it bothered me to leave the house with only a very vague idea of what I would be doing or how long I would be gone.   For an example of a typical outing with my in-laws, consider what happened on the way home from our last visit to my husband’s grandparents.  First,  we stopped by a neighbors’  so my son could play with a particular dog which had run up to the car to greet us.   Then we realized we forgot my son’s  jacket, so we went back to get that, and once again stopped to see the dog. My father-in-law then spotted a tree along our route with some flowers that could be used to make a medicinal tea, so we stopped to pick some of the flowers.  Next we noticed an inch worm crawling slowly along the back of one of the seats, so my father-in-law again pulled over in order to release the inch worm back into the wild.  My husband saw a male pheasant, so my father-in-law stopped and we got out to take pictures.  He wanted to try to capture a picture of the bird in flight, so we did some pheasant chasing in an unsuccessful effort to scare it into flying.   A little later, we spotted a female pheasant, and again stopped.  Lastly we stopped to take some pictures of a sad looking Romanian flag with the one of the tricolors completely sheared off.  No one had bothered to replace it.  After about the third stop in the chain, I began to get impatient and wanted to get on home.  At the same time, I really admired the enthusiasm and almost insatiable sense of wonderment and curiosity so characteristic of my in-laws.

This experience had me wondering whether it might be possible to lose the ability to stop and smell the roses.  William James drew a famous distinction between directed attention and involuntary attention, or fascination.  Direct attention allows us to concentrate on task and goal oriented behavior, while involuntary attention results when we allow ourselves to be distracted by a bird chirping, twigs snapping, or the scent of jasmine in the air.  Much has been said recently about the negative effects of direct attentional fatigue, and the restorative effects of natural surroundings. I wondered, however, if it was possible to have the opposite problem, and whether a learned effectiveness at blocking out distractions over my lifetime had caused me to lose my naive ability to interact with nature.  That is, an interaction in which one follows nature wherever it might lead, as opposed to imposing upon it one’s own will and goal.

Just when I was beginning to admire the Romanian attitude towards nature, my husband inadvertently alerted  me  to a darker side. As we were admiring the strangely sole kitten his grandmother’s cat had just given birth to, he remarked that it was fortunate that the cat only had one kitten.  ‘Otherwise,’  he said, ‘they would have probably had to kill the others with a pitchfork.’  Needless to say, I was absolutely horrified by this statement.  It was incomprehensible to me why they wouldn’t have the cat spayed in the first place, give the unwanted kittens away, or as a last resort, at least use a more humane method of killing.   My husband’s reponse was simply ‘what can I say, nature is cruel.’

Then, as we were leaving, on our drive back to the airport in Budapest, we nearly ran into a horse standing there in the dark right in the middle of the road.  My father-in-law honked his horn, but he barely moved.  He appeared to have a lame leg, and his ribs were visible.  My husband commented that it was sad that, now that new EU regulations forbid horses and carts on the main roads, many farmers, no longer having any use for their horses, simply abandoned them to starvation.

Nature’s cruelty or man’s?  Or is there a difference?


Filed under Essays

On neuroenhancement

The New Yorker recently featured an article on so-called “neuro-enhancement” or “cosmetic neurology.” As the name suggests, neuro-enhancement refers to off-label use of stimulants usually prescribed to children and young adults for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The article cited some alarming statistics. For example, at some universities, the number of undergraduates taking prescription stimulants for non-medical use reached up to twenty-five and even thirty-five percent. Average use was reported to be around 4.1 percent of students according to a study completed in 2005. The statistics suggest that pill-popping among college students in order to stay awake and focused is becoming about as “normal” and socially acceptable as drinking a cup of coffee. Why is that so disturbing?

There doesn’t seem to be much of a debate as to whether measures should be taken to stop this practice. Unlike the case in the sixties, when hallucinogens and other “mind-expanding” drugs were all the rage across college campuses, there is no “war” on this type of drug. Perhaps this is partly because the stimulants have a legitimate medical purpose, and are prescribed to treat a recognized psychiatric disorder. Most of the drugs that became popular in the sixties have no corresponding medical use, although, at least in the case of marijuana, some people might argue otherwise. But I think a more likely explanation for the relative complacency surrounding the stimulants has more to do with today’s efficiency driven culture. Unlike drug usage in the sixties, the drugs today are not being taken in the context of a counter-cultural movement. To the contrary, they are being used for the purpose of meeting or surpassing the very demands that we as a society, via educational institutions, employers, or other organizations, place on our youth.

In law school, we had a word for hyper-competitive, brown-nosing students. We called them gunners, and they were not liked. You know the type– the kind of student who would resort to misfiling the books in the library that everyone needed to use for the completion of an assignment, and other deceptive and off-putting behavior, just to give themselves a slight edge. In the end though, it was never the gunners who earned the highest grades and got the best jobs. In our first year, almost inevitably, the top grade in any given class went to an unassuming student that no one else had really paid much attention to before. Later of course, we did notice them, and knew exactly who was going to be at the top of our class. They were always the students that floated through seemingly effortlessly, supported by a natural, unquantifiable knack for the nuances of legal analysis. That’s not to say they didn’t work hard. Sometimes those with the most natural talent were also the least motivated, and those students ended up falling behind, and after an initial advantage, ended up about the same place in the class rankings as the gunners and others who, while maybe not as diabolically competitive as the gunners, worked extremely hard but simply lacked that innate ability that catapulted their peers to the top.

Why do I relate these observations about the old pecking order at my law school? Well, it struck me that the gunners are going to be among the early adopters for this new class of neuro-enhancing stimulants. Might this make them a little more effective in their quest for classroom dominance? If the statistics cited above are correct, and such a high percentage of students are taking these drugs, then it seems likely that this indeed might be the case. This is disconcerting to me because of the type of ability that this could potentially devalue and displace.

What does it mean to have a “natural” ability or knack for something? Although this manner of description comes quite “naturally” to us in common speech, it’s a concept that’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly. I venture to offer a few characteristics that people usually have if they are described as having a knack for something. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and reasonable people may well disagree with the importance that I assign to these two factors, but it seems to me that the advantages enjoyed by a person with a knack fall into two broad categories. First, there is a quickness factor. A person with a knack usually picks up the target skill very quickly. A corollary to this might be that such a person does not stand to benefit as much from additional exercises and practice sets designed to teach lower level aspects the person with the knack already understands. Second, the perspective of a person with a knack seems to differ from that of their peers. A person with a knack tends to have more insight into the “big picture,” and perhaps largely for that reason, it is usually the person with the knack that comes up with innovative new ideas.

Both of these characteristics – quickness and the tendency to have a better grasp of the whole – are intangible features that don’t lend themselves very well to quantification or scientific study. They are also features that don’t respond well to training and practice as means of improvement. Whether you “get it” or you don’t seems to be governed, not by conscious control, but largely by subconscious processes. In many respects, what we call natural ability overlaps with a concept cognitive neuroscientists call “automaticity,” or perhaps, it is better to say that people with a knack seem to be able to automatize difficult or complicated tasks more quickly than others. Neuroscientists categorize a set of skills as automatic if it is inevitably and incorrigibly executed given the relevant stimulus, and once executed, it does not consume cognitive capacity. That is, other tasks can be performed in parallel. Paradigmatic examples include reading or playing a piano sonata. In short, people with a knack are able to quickly automatize certain necessary skills, which then frees up cognitive resources for use in exploring a given subject more deeply, or simply from more of a meta-perspective.

So what happens if the gunners begin setting the pace? They lead us right into a Heideggerean nightmare: instead of using technology to take over the drudgery and the minutiae and leave us free to actualize those creative impulses that, perhaps even more than reason, set us apart from animals, we are using technology to enslave our minds. Sparks of inspiration don’t come when all cylinders are firing, when for example, we are frantically putting together that quarterly report for the boss by the end of the day. They are far more likely to come when the mind is free to wander: while we are taking a walk, sitting by the side of a pool, or relaxing in the evening before we head off to bed. Neuro-enhancers may lead to an amazing ability to churn out more reports, but they also have the effect of crowding out the possibility for inspiration and originality, leaving behind the slick outer shell of an over-polished, two-dimensional world. Ironically, it appears that the things we don’t have conscious control over might be the very things that set us apart as individuals, for it is our subconscious, automatic, instinctual behavior that frees up cognitive capacity and saves us from becoming automatons, mere cogs in a machine. Perhaps society would benefit more if the best students, instead of following the lead of the gunners, took the afternoon off to smoke a joint or experiment with LSD.

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