The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist with a philosophical bent. His earlier books were: 

  • Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
  • Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
  • Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

In The Strange Order of Things, he emphasizes the role of homeostasis in making life possible. Here’s one definition:

[Homeostasis is] a property of cells, tissues, and organisms that allows the maintenance and regulation of the stability and constancy needed to function properly. Homeostasis is a healthy state that is maintained by the constant adjustment of biochemical and physiological pathways. An example of homeostasis is the maintenance of a constant blood pressure in the human body through a series of fine adjustments in the normal range of function of the hormonal, neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems.

Damasio explains how, billions of years ago, the simplest cells began to maintain homeostasis, and thereby survive and even flourish, using methods, including primitive forms of social behavior, that are similar to methods used by complex organisms like us. He also emphasizes the role of feelings in maintaining homeostasis. He doesn’t suppose that bacteria are conscious, but points out that they do react to their surroundings and changes in their inner states. He argues that organisms only developed conscious feelings of their surroundings and inner states as nervous systems evolved. He thinks it is highly implausible that a human mind could function inside a computer, since computers lack feelings and feelings are a necessary part of human life. Furthermore, Damasio concludes that culture has developed in response to human feelings. Culture is a complex way of maintaining homeostasis.

I’ll finish with something from the publisher’s website written by the British philosopher John Gray:

In The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio presents a new vision of what it means to be human. For too long we have thought of ourselves as rational minds inhabiting insentient mechanical bodies. Breaking with this philosophy, Damasio shows how our minds are rooted in feeling, a creation of our nervous system with an evolutionary history going back to ancient unicellular life that enables us to shape distinctively human cultures. Working out what this implies for the arts, the sciences and the human  future, Damasio has given us that rarest of things, a book that can transform how we think—and feel—about ourselves. 

I can’t say the book changed how I think about myself. That’s because for some years I’ve thought about myself as a community of cells. It’s estimated that an average human body is composed of some 37 trillion cells and contains another 100 trillion microorganisms necessary for survival. Once you start thinking of yourself as a community of cells, adding homeostasis to the mix doesn’t make much difference.

For more on The Strange Order of Things, see this review for The Guardian and this article John Gray wrote for Literary Review.

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I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael

Before she became a famous film critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote about movies out in San Francisco. She also offered her opinions on radio station KPFA. I Lost It at the Movies includes selections from her criticism between 1955 and 1964.

The single word that best describes her writing is “provocative”. She slams a number of movies generally considered classics (West Side Story, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, This Sporting Life). She also strongly criticizes other film critics, especially Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and the group of critics who subscribed to the auteur theory (film is all about the director). Her favorite films from this period include Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (“perfect”). She loves Antonioni’s L’Avventura but hates his La Notte.

Kael appreciates many popular American classics but thinks the films of the 50s and 60s that have mass appeal tend to be formulaic. She loves a number of movies that appealed to “art house” audiences but makes fun of art house patrons who take obscurity and complexity to be artistic or “deep”. Here she is on her chosen profession:

The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others [308].

I disagreed with a number of her opinions (in some cases, she seems to think a movie misfires because she would have preferred it to be about someone else), but she certainly communicated her enthusiasm to me. So far, I’ve watched a relatively obscure Japanese film she recommended, Kagi or Odd Obsession, about a husband who tries to regain his sexual powers by getting his wife to have sex with their prospective son-in-law, and I’m planning to watch another one, Fires on the PlainThe latter is about Japanese soldiers undergoing pain and privation and doing horrible things in the Philippines at the end of World War 2. She called it a “masterpiece”, writing that “it has the disturbing power of great art: it doesn’t leave you quite the same”. 

After watching Odd Obsession, I read her review again. She did indeed see more in the movie than I did (not a surprise). If I make it through Fires on the Plain, I’ll see if she saw more in that one too.

Note:  Someone identified as “Not Pauline Kael” has posted what certainly seem to be Kael’s reviews from I Lost It at the Movies, including the ones for Odd Obsession and Fires on the Plain. They are worth reading.

The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

I read The Metamorphosis in high school fifty years ago. I remember not liking it, although I don’t remember why. I have a much higher opinion now. When Gregor Samsa wakes up and discovers he’s been turned into a giant insect-like creature, or “some kind of monstrous vermin” as this translation says, we don’t know what to expect. Will it be a simple horror story, a tragedy, a comedy? I didn’t expect Gregor to still be preoccupied with his normal affairs, like how his transformation will affect his job and his plan to send his sister to a music conservatory. Nor did I expect his family to immediately assume that the creature in Gregor’s bedroom was Gregor. The Metamorphosis is a horror story, a tragedy and a comedy too.

Another story in the collection is In the Penal Colony. It’s less well-known than The Metamorphosis, but equally disturbing. It concerns the use of a brutal machine designed to torture and kill anyone in the penal colony accused of misbehavior. The machine is horrible. So is the officer who vigorously defends the use of the machine even though he knows all the arguments against it. It is a portrait of a true believer, the kind of person who would continue to support a president who shot and killed someone in the middle of 5th Avenue.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

There is no trial in The Trial. At least, there’s no trial in the sense of a judicial proceeding in which witnesses testify, evidence is presented and a decision is rendered. What there is instead is an ordeal with judicial aspects.

Joseph K. is informed one morning that he’s under arrest. But he isn’t told why or even who is arresting him. He’s allowed to go about his business before being summoned to a gathering in the attic of a tenement building that’s presided over by a supposed  “Examining Magistrate”. Joseph K. makes a speech critical of the proceedings but doesn’t demand to know why he’s been arrested.

That is the last official event related to his arrest that he attends. Months go by filled with lengthy discussions of the Court (whatever that is) and his case (whatever that is). He speaks to various officials, other people who have been similarly “arrested”, a lawyer, a priest, his uncle and a painter who is said to have connections with senior judges. It’s surprising that such a mysterious, nonsensical situation can give rise to such subtle, detailed discussions.

The novel ends with a brief chapter in which something happens but nothing is revealed.

Before reading The Trial, my impression was that it was a story about an unfortunate citizen dealing with a mysterious government bureaucracy. That is true, but I kept thinking that it’s also about the human condition. Life is a trial. We are subject to powerful forces we don’t really understand and we don’t know when or exactly how the proceedings will conclude. We consult experts, some of whom aren’t expert at all, and consider our options. Then our story ends. (The book, like life, is also funny at times.)

The Plague by Albert Camus

I read The Myth of Sisyphus in college and didn’t understand it at all. I read The Stranger a few years ago and didn’t really enjoy it. So it was good to start reading The Plague and find it both understandable and enjoyable (or as enjoyable as the subject matter would allow).

The plague in question is the bubonic plague. It strikes a city in Algeria in modern times, killing thousands of people. For months, nobody is allowed to enter or leave the city. The novel has relatively few descriptions of the physical effects of the disease. There is more said about its psychological effects. We follow the activities of Dr. Rieux, who does whatever he can to help his patients, and a small number of his acquaintances, some of whom become his friends as the months go by.

The Plague is sometimes described as an “existentialist” novel, although Camus apparently disliked that term. It certainly does concern human existence, and human existence under great stress. I haven’t checked to see whether the plague is supposed to symbolize something. What I took away from the novel is that most people will rise to the occasion, as we see whenever a disaster occurs. It also occurred to me that all of us are quarantined on this planet, with no possibility of escape, and that we are all going to succumb to something sooner or later. The difference is that some of the characters in the novel get out alive.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

This is the interesting story of the Cambridge Five, five graduates of Cambridge University who worked for the British government from the 1930s to the 1950s while they spied for the Soviet Union. Kim Philby was the most successful of the group and is the author’s principal subject. Philby was a double agent for 20 years, working for the British security services while delivering massive amounts of information to the Russians. The secrets he passed to the Russians resulted in many operations being blown and lots of people being killed. Eventually, he fled to the Soviet Union (although it’s very possible that Britain’s MI-6 encouraged him to leave in order to save the British government a great deal of embarrassment).

Philby and his fellow spies (Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt) all became convinced at Cambridge that the Soviet Union had the best available political system. That made it relatively easy to recruit them in service of the Russians. Three of them lived out their lives in Moscow. None of them were ever prosecuted for spying.

The principal theme of the book is that the Cambridge Five were able to remain undiscovered for so long because they were comfortable members of the British ruling class. The security services and the Foreign Office were primarily run by other members of the upper class who presumed that the men they worked and drank with were gentlemen and would never betray their country.

After Philby confessed to spying for the Russians, he could have been returned to England for prosecution or even assassinated. But he was permitted to circulate freely until he defected one night, boarding a freighter bound for Odessa. Other spies weren’t treated so gently:

I mention the fate of less favored traitors who did far less than Philby but spent years in prison for it.

“Ah well, Vassall –well, he wasn’t top league, was he?”

(John Vassall, homosexual son of an Anglican parson and clerk to the naval attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow, was sentenced for eighteen years for spying for the KGB.)

Mr. Vassall had not attended Eton or Cambridge, as Mr. Philby had, and never belonged to the right gentlemen’s club.

Simply Napoleon by J. David Markham and Matthew Zarzeczny

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most important people who ever lived. I’ve been curious about him but haven’t wanted to read an 800-page biography. That’s why I got a copy of this brief one. It’s part of the “Simply” series of short biographies for the general reader. Other titles in the series include Simply Freud, Simply Dickens and Simply Tolstoy.

I now have a better understanding of Napoleon’s life, but do not recommend this book. It’s a second-rate production. It covers the major events in Napoleon’s military and political career, but provides little insight into his thinking or character. It lists precise statistics for the losses in battles that happened more than 200 years ago but never indicates that the numbers aren’t necessarily to be trusted. For example, it’s stated that 243 Spaniards were killed and 735 were wounded, while some 2,200 Frenchmen were killed, 400 wounded and 17,635 were captured in the same battle. Is it plausible that almost 10 times as many Frenchmen were killed while almost twice as many Spaniards were wounded? A number of illustrations appear as black splotches.

Furthermore, the subjects emphasized are sometimes bizarre. One paragraph covers Napoleon’s seizure of the French government and the creation of a new constitution in 1799. That’s immediately followed by almost nine pages devoted to the slave revolt in Haiti and its repercussions.

If you want to read something short about Napoleon, you might try Napoleon: A Very Short Introduction and A Very Short Introduction to the Napoleonic Wars. I haven’t read those two, but the “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press tend to be quite good.