Not much on Russian politics here


September 4, 2017 by AK

Not that I’m not following it or stopped caring (I wish I could). Unfortunately, my response to the goings-on often resembles Khodasevich’s triad – “disgust, anger, and fear” or, in a more literal translation, “revulsion, malice, and fear.” Occasionally, I even lapse into pathetic fits of useless rage. In other words, if I can’t think clearly about something, I shouldn’t be writing about it. The best I can do for the time being is point out other people’s errors.

Rationally speaking, one should have patience, let Nature run its course, and think about the future. We should have ideas for a new dawn, I hear, even if the night seems endless. Instead, I’m thinking of an aging man, once brilliant and full of promise, now struggling, after a second stroke, to re-learn what comes naturally even to not very bright children. His progress impresses skeptics; then the final stroke comes.

Racine and other familiar names


September 2, 2017 by AK

Another excerpt from Charles Rosen’s 1997 NYRB article on La Fontaine and French prosody:

Most American and English students have a hard time understanding why Alfred de Musset literally fainted with ecstasy at the Comédie Française when he heard the line in Racine’s Phèdre:

La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé.

No doubt, the idea that Phaedra’s parents were a man who now rules over Hell and a woman who had an amorous passion for a bull and gave birth to a monster has something to do with the dramatic force of the line, but its power for Musset came from the sonority…

I’ve tried searching for Musset, Racine, and the line above. So far, no success finding a reference to Musset’s experience at the theater. Most results seem to be related to this episode in Swann, the first part of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

“You must conquer your vile taste for A. de Musset, Esquire… I am forced to admit, natheless,” he added graciously, “that he, and even the man Racine, did, each of them, once in his life, compose a line which is not only fairly rhythmical, but has also what is in my eyes the supreme merit of meaning absolutely nothing.”

The fellow so contemptuous of Musset and Racine was “a friend older than myself, for whom I had a strong admiration, a precious youth of the name of Bloch.” The two lines he quoted as meaningless were, predictably, the famous one from Phaedra and this one from Musset’s La Nuit de mai:

La blanche Oloossone à la blanche Camyre.

According to Pyra Wise, Jean Santeuil – Proust’s early, unfinished novel (1896-1900) – already included a character’s attack on Racine. It seems a reprise of an anecdote Proust had heard, probably several times and in several versions, from his professor of rhetoric at the Condorcet Lyceum. At the heart of it is the story of Théophile Gautier claiming that there is only one good line in all of Racine – the one quoted above. Whether Gautier really said and meant exactly that is not at all clear, unsurprisingly.

I still haven’t found a source to back up Rosen’s Musset anecdote. Consider, however, Maxime Du Camp‘s recollections of Flaubert. When asked about Racine, Flaubert didn’t hold back invective, citing one supposedly incongruous line with laughter or rage, depending on his mood. However, he also claimed that “La fille de Minos and de Pasiphaé” was the greatest verse in all French poetry.

As for its meaning, it’s been exegeted by too many for me to even try to add value here. Minos ended up a judge in the underworld; his wife was a daughter of Helios. The closed, deep, dark o in his name (the final s is not mute) contrasts perfectly with the light, gauzy, unhemmed -aé that ends hers. I’m still not sure why Charles Rosen called the final é open. It rings clear but it’s closed, technically speaking.

“The movement of concepts is the center of interest”


August 30, 2017 by AK

Looking for an annotated text of La Fontaine’s The Wolf and the Lamb for my previous post, I found this 1997 NYRB article by the pianist and polymath Charles Rosen (1927-2012) and could not put it down. I’ve since been coming back to it.

What many French children like about the Fables is exactly what Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought made them unfit for pedagogy: their frequent cruelty, their heartlessness. Unlike any other fabulist, La Fontaine was too clearsighted to be moral.The Fables are not immoral… they are amoral, realistic… The realistic brutality he cultivated opens the first book, although with a certain gaiety, when the grasshopper, who spent the summer singing, begs the ant, who worked all those months, for a little food:

You sang: I’m happy to hear that.
Well, you can dance now.

[- Vous chantiez ? j’en suis fort aise.
Eh bien : dansez maintenant.]

It was obvious enough to Rousseau that this did not teach children the virtues of frugality but the bitterness of experience.

I suppose the children Rosen had in mind are big enough to appreciate black humor in old verse. The most famous fables impress themselves upon small children’s memory like a senseless incantation or a nursery rhyme. To appreciate these works in a grown-up fashion, one has to forget these abracadabras and re-learn them as sensible poems. Then comes the realization that one has known some great poetry by heart since before one’s age of reason.

Rosen’s article is actually a review of Le Poète et le Roi: Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle by Marc Fumaroli:

In one of his most brilliant comments, Fumaroli writes that La Fontaine made a synthesis of Montaigne and Ariosto. He does not expand on this at any length, but the suggestion comes close to describing the essential achievement of La Fontaine.

One of the most satisfying book reviews, or articles more generally, that I’ve read in the past year or two. I’ll admit it could be partly because of my ignorance of French literature, but only partly.

The court found their arguments irresistible


August 26, 2017 by AK

The New York TimesAndrew Kramer, to be precise – reports from Moscow:

A court ordered Russia’s largest privately owned business conglomerate [Sistema] on Wednesday to pay $2.3 billion to the country’s state oil company [Rosneft]…

The conflict pits two of Russia’s largest companies. As the overall economy stagnates amid sanctions and low oil prices, the country’s elite may end up fighting over a smaller pie, with businesses seeking to gain advantage by using courts and law enforcement agencies widely seen as vulnerable to corruption.

This sounds to me like a sensible description of the conflict, but it downplays the asymmetry between the two companies’ ability to enlist courts and law enforcement as reliable allies. La Fontaine summed it up around 350 years ago:

La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure:

Nous l’allons montrer tout à l’heure.

We’ve just been shown the truth of this, once again: the arguments of the strong are always the best. Or, as Ivan Krylov put it 140 years after La Fontaine, and as every Russian schoolchild knows, “for the powerful, it’s always the powerless who are at fault.” Krylov’s wolf, tired of arguing with his prey, sums up his legal philosophy aptly: “you are guilty, at least, on the grounds of my appetite.”

Now, we may not necessarily have a wolf vs. lamb situation here – two predators, perhaps, of unequal caliber. Not a chasm of difference. However, just before the final lines of their fables comes the moment when we must decisively part ways with La Fontaine and Krylov. In both poems, the wolf cuts short the dialog and carries off the lamb into the depth of the woods. The French master dryly reports that the predator proceeds to eat his catch “sans autre forme de procès,” which can be rendered as without further ado or without due process.

This is not how things play out in Russia, where the president is a law school graduate and the prime minister is a former professor of civil and Roman law. The “forme de procès” assumes an utmost importance. As long as the codified procedures are followed, things are being done according to the law. And if it’s the pillars and lieutenants of the regime who win and independents and opponents who lose, see Article 1: the arguments of the strong are always the best. The Russian courts agree and rule accordingly.

D. S. G. Goodman on Chinese elites


August 24, 2017 by AK

I first came across this finding by Prof. Goodman in a Kommersant opinion piece (Victims of Sexual Inequality, that is, Chinese men with low prospects of finding a female partner). It was a revelation; I couldn’t believe it at first. To quote from The Little Red Podcast:

Q: You said in an interview your research found between 82-84% of today’s elite are descended from pre-49 elite.

Here’s the interview (pdf). David S.G. Goodman is a prominent Australian Sinologist, the author of Class in Contemporary China (2014). He explains his methodology:

A:  In my most recent research, 469 high income business elites in five different cities (Lanzhou, Nanjing, Qingdao, Taiyuan, and Zhongshan) were interviewed during 2009-13, roughly 100 people in each location.  The interviewees were selected on the basis of having an income at least twelve times the average of the locality where they were operational… Of those interviewed, 307 provided answers about their family status in 1949. Of those 81.3 percent reported that a direct family member (a parent or a grandparent) was a member of the local elite at that time.

I hate to be a bore but 249 is 81.11% of 307 and 250 is 81.43%, so 81.3% doesn’t correspond to an integer. It must be a typo or a minor error so let’s forget about it for now. More interesting is the distribution of the 162 informants who couldn’t or wouldn’t report their family status as of 1949. The higher the pre-revolutionary status, the more likely the informant is aware of it – but she might also be reluctant to reveal a connection to the exploiter class. If none of the amnesiacs is descended from the old elites, we’re left with 53% of old-elite descendants in the full 469-people sample. If 20% out of the 162 have old-elite heritage, the total will be 60%; if 40% (half the rate in the long-memory group), then 67% or two-thirds. Which fits with Prof. Goodman’s estimate in this 2015 interview:

Gregory Clarke in The Son Also Rises (2014) suggests that in all advanced industrial societies social mobility is lower than we think. He indicates an intergenerational transfer of privilege of about 73%. For China he suggests that it is higher at about 84%… One study from Peking University indicated that a woman’s occupation and social status is determined by her father’s in about 95% of cases and that a man’s is in about 84%. My own work on local economic elites suggests… that a very high proportion of today’s economic elites are the direct descendants of the local elites of 1949. More remarkably perhaps, about two thirds of today’s local elites are the descendants of people who in 1949 were both members of the local elite and members of the CCP.

One is tempted to draw several hypotheses from this. First, the Communists won when regional elites started flipping over to them from the Nationalists. It was a deal, not a straight military victory like the Red Army’s in the Russian civil war of 1918-22. Second, descendants of the old elites – those who survived the various purges – were well-equipped to rise in the post-Maoist order, owing perhaps to their education or social connections. Moreover, if Goodman’s results are valid, the rate of survival must have been rather high.

Perhaps this only surprises me because I wasn’t paying attention. Andrew G. Walder of Stanford and Songhua Hu, his student, wrote in Revolution, Reform, and Status Inheritance: Urban China, 1949–1996 (American Journal of Sociology, 2009):

The middle classes were the only elite group to transfer status across generations during the Mao period – an advantage attributable in large part to parental education.

In the post-Mao era, members of old elite families were free to pursue administrative careers again but…

Their affinity for elite professional careers, however, endures. The strategy that they adopted in the Mao years… still leads to advantages in the professional career line, which depends very heavily on educational credentials. Middle-class family heritage is the only household category that still confers a net advantage in an elite professional career.

Goodman’s thesis goes much further than this, however. It raises new questions about the nature of the Chinese revolution and the insane experimentation that followed.

Delusions will backfire. Just wait.


August 22, 2017 by AK

Paul Mason, the left-wing British journalist, has an excellent piece in The Guardian: “There is no place in academia for craven submission to Chinese censorship demands.”

I have three comments to make – here, because I’m late for the comments section. It’s already closed.

I write this in full knowledge that it will be read, amid resurgent Chinese nationalism, as a claim that once again the west knows best. But it is the opposite. If Xi and his generation of officials really do want to study Marxism they should start by understanding where it came from…

The West has a good chance at finding the best answers and responses if it keeps up free inquiry and an unfettered exchange of knowledge and ideas. I’m not convinced it will be up to the task, especially in the humanities, but that’s the only way to go. As for the Chinese Marxists, I don’t think they are completely ignorant of the historical origins of the only true teaching. As Mason explains,

They should understand that it drew on three strands of critical western thought – philosophy, political economy and utopian socialism – whose core concepts can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle.

Does it mean that Marxists worldwide are still clinging to the Three Whales, also known as the Three Sources and Three Constituent Parts of Marxism? It’s classic Leninism so should be on the Chinese Communist curriculum. Soviet Communists liked to emphasize their doctrine had roots in Plato and Aristotle. In a sense, what doesn’t?

Defying China’s wish to subordinate academic research and publication to its current political needs is no mere act of principle. It is an act of self-interest. Thanks to China’s “Great Firewall” there are already two internets on the planet. Facilitating the creation of two academies – one devoted to truth, the other to securing the power of Chinese officials – will backfire massively on ourselves.

I’m cautiously hoping it backfires on them after all. Life in a house of echo chambers and distorting mirrors must take its toll sooner or later. But will the other academy stay devoted to truth for long? Is it now?

A room and a half or even less


August 20, 2017 by AK

Going back to Kirsten Ghodsee’s New York Times article, Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism. It was probably a Times editor who came up with the title. As I’ve tried to explain, it’s a complicated subject that cannot be summed up in two words and requires differentiating by country, province and socioeconomic class (which did not disappear under socialism). As for the former USSR, any discussion of people’s private lives, including sex, risks slipping into irrelevance unless the infamously cramped housing is brought into the picture.

I would suggest Joseph Brodsky’s 1986 essay, In a Room and a Half, to get an idea of the communal apartments typical of post-WWII Soviet cities (Leningrad in Brodsky’s case). The essay is still behind a paywall but it’s probably worth paying for. You can read a Russian translation for free. You can also watch Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s 2009 pseudo-biopic, A Room and a Half, or a Sentimental Journey to the Old Country. I haven’t seen it but Alisa Freyndlikh (Freundlich) and Sergei Yursky, who play Joseph’s parents in the film, are both exceptionally gifted and accomplished theater actors. I’m also certain that Khrzhanovsky’s movie depicts the typical communal apartment faithfully.

If you wish to fast forward from the 1950s to Brezhnev years, 1964-82 or more loosely 1964-85, consider Yuri Trifonov’s 1969 novella The Exchange. The protagonist, Victor Dmitriyev, his wife Yelena (Lena), and their 10- or 12-year-old daughter all live in a room in a communal apartment. Pressured by his wife, Dmitriyev sells his soul to the devil, more or less, to move them into a separate flat. The two paragraphs below, from The Exchange, should provide some helpful context to the better sex under socialism debate:

They stopped talking and listened. Everything was quiet. Their daughter was sleeping behind the room divider, in the corner. Also behind the divider stood the daughter’s small desk where she did her homework in the evening. Dmitriyev had made a bookshelf and hung it above the small desk, and had laid the wiring for a desk lamp, setting up a separate roomlet behind the divider – a “solitary” as the family called it. Dmitriyev and Lena slept on a wide sofa bed made in Czechoslovakia, luckily bought three years earlier, an object of their friends’ envy. The sofa stood by the window, separated from the “solitary” by an oakwood cupboard…

In the evenings, reclining themselves on their Czechoslovak bed – which had turned out not so solid, soon going loose and creaking with every movement – Dmitriyev and Lena would listen up to every sound from behind the partition, for a long time, trying to determine if their daughter had fallen asleep or not. Dmitriyev would call in a half-whisper: “Natasha? Hey, Natasha?” Lena would tiptoe up and look in through a slit in the divider.

A side note, a follow-up as it were to Erik McDonald‘s recent posts on Muireann Maguire’s review of new English translations of Tolstoy. The third sentence in the excerpt above – “Their daughter was sleeping…” – refers, no doubt, to the moment when Dmitriyev and his wife stopped arguing to check if they hadn’t just woken up their daughter. The continuous tense is in order. However, one can also read it, in the original Russian, as a general statement: their daughter always slept behind the screen, not only that night. That would require the simple present in English. This seems a special case of the generic difficulty of translating from languages lacking the present progressive tense.

Self-censorship now required of Google Play apps


August 19, 2017 by AK

Google has removed Gab‘s Android application from the Google Play store. This was done “as a policy strike because it [the app] violates the hate speech policy.” Google Play’s hate speech policy is this:

We don’t allow apps that advocate against groups of people based on their race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, nationality, veteran status, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Gab is a social network app. As a platform and a tool, it cannot advocate for anything or against anyone: only its users can, and some have been reported to practice hate speech, as defined by Google. It seems that Google reads “apps that advocate against groups” as shorthand for “apps that are used for such advocacy.”

To some degree, even Twitter is used to these ends, but Twitter practices internal censorship while Gab does not, out of principle. By analogy, it appears that Gab would be allowed back onto Google Play if the app’s creators were committed to minimizing hate speech broadcast via the network.

In other words, Google’s hate speech rule insists on censorship, if still implicitly at this point. Even if a Twitter-like network’s administrator merely asks users to be nice (“or else Google will drop us”), it’s a request for self-censorship. Since it’s not going to work anyway, the admins will either have to censor the content and users via purges and blocks, Twitter-style, or somehow find ideal users that always talk nice. That makes internal censorship a required feature for Twitter-like apps on Google Play.

In effect, Google is telling the world that unmoderated, no-holds-barred exchanges are not welcome in cyberspace. Playing censor, playing government – both made possible by Google’s market power, which, in its turn, makes it susceptible to government regulation.

Susceptible and even vulnerable as they might be, I don’t expect anti-trust proceedings anywhere in the world to put an end to Google’s and Apple’s dominance in certain markets. If I have hope – if never too much – it’s for new technology and know-how both to dislodge the oligopolies and defang government censorship.

How about propaganda-free anthropology? 


August 16, 2017 by AK

This article is not as silly as it may sound. A few suggestions for better credibility: Don’t mix propaganda and anthropology. Forget The Female Body under Socialism and focus on the field studies. Take down that Soviet poster and the hammer and sickle.

Also, don’t claim the Bolsheviks gave Russian women suffrage: the term is meaningless without competitive elections, and it was the provisional government that let women vote – in the Constitutional Assembly elections in 1917. Thankfully, the NYT has fixed this error.

One more thing: don’t heap together societies as different as Bulgaria, East Germany and Russia. Ideally, focus on one country at a time. Bulgaria in particular is an example of a rural, archaic society transformed into an urban, industrial one under Communist rule after WWII. Naturally, the condition of women improved as they left the patriarchal countryside. As the song goes, I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (can’t get no worse). Urbanization means more independence and greater opportunities for women, even under Communism or totalitarian Islam.

Finally, the invisible elephant: housing conditions.

Overcome vs. answer


August 10, 2017 by AK

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s Response to the Controversial Google Anti-Diversity Memo begins:

Yesterday, after reading the news, my daughter asked me a question. “Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”

And ends:

I thought about all of this, looked at my daughter and answered simply.
“No, it’s not true.”

However, in between the opening and the closing passages, there’s hardly an attempt to actually answer this question beyond a simple “yes” or “no,” by rational argument. According to Wojcicki, it was a question she had “long sought to overcome” in her own life: overcome, not answer. At no point does evidence enter her response.


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