Neuron History

On Deep History and the Brain, Daniel Lord Smail, 2008.

Does culture evolve  and if so, how?  This is a big question, for if culture evolves and we can change its course, then perhaps we can change our future.  We tend to see cultural history as showing a progression, a direction, and that the accumulation of knowledge is increasing in complexity and power, and is ‘passed on’ in such a manner as to influence successive cultures, for good or ill.

In On Deep History and the Brain,  Danial Lord Smail suggests that the engine and logic of cultural evolution lies in the neurology of the human brain.  In his thinking, biologic evolution is about genes getting what they want, and cultural evolution is about neuron’s getting what they want.  Genes and neurons, however, don’t want the same things, and this may not be good. It has been said that our future would either be like 1984, by George Orwell, or like Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.  Daniel Lord Smail thinks it will be like Brave New World.  Genes, he suggests, want to proliferate, but neurons want soma.

Mr. Smail notes that the ideas and knowledge that ‘take hold’ in the neurons of minds the most avidly, and therefore get passed-on the most powerfully, are those that stimulate body sensations, particularly pleasure, but also fear, excitement, enhanced perception, and feelings of solidarity.  These create mental energy and a sense of virtual experience.  We crave, after all, experience, because we crave learning, and we particularly crave experience and learning that are low cost in energy. Vivid brain stimulation and virtual experience can seem like living and learning “for free” – at low energy cost.

And so, for Mr. Smail, History with a capital H can be seen as a story of seeking, obtaining, and manipulating increasing intensities of mental sensation.   Wars are fought for access to sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and hallucinogenic drugs, and religious rituals are developed for shared ecstatic mood, body excitement, and feelings of unity.  Greater masses of collective organization are sustained.  Dominant elites achieve influence and control and maintain hierarchy, using both the positives of excited ideology and the negatives of threatened and uncertain physical and emotional abuse.  History becomes a story of excitement, propaganda, group enthusiasm, and the control of the many by the few.

Not unlike mass societies, our brain neurons seem to have a heirarchical structure, with reward neurons at the top.  Mental stimulations which activate most effectively the most reward neurons will have the most acceptance and proliferation, and these reward neurons, like pharaoh’s and kings, will drive the lessor neurons to serve their needs. Think rock concerts, multi-media experiance, drugs and alcohol, the passion of political rallies, movies, television, and “Amusing Ourselves to Death“, Neil Postman, 1985.

The direction of culture evolution may not be progress, but intoxication.

Hoping for Spalding Gray

“Tell me a horror story, Daddy”.

“. . . Look around you, son.  . . . What do you see?”

There is the abyss, the secret that life is ultimately empty and meaningless, that none of us really matter.  It is that existential horror of being.  We could dwell on it, but that would make it very hard for us to live.  Life is tragic, it is full of loss, it ends in death, it can be unspeakably cruel. Yet most of us seem to rather easily avoid thinking about it.  Somehow, we keep up optimism, and have a trust that horrible things won’t happen to us.

Some people simply can’t ignore this horror of being, and when they are also exceptionally perceptive and insightful, they can live with a deep and puzzling loneliness of being different, a gnawing sense of being unable to have validation.  They often try, sometimes in charming and creative ways, to reach ‘normal’ people, but they fail and have despair.

Spalding Gray comes to mind.  He invented the creative monologue.  He gave us lively, theatrical expositions of mental journeys, musings, perplexity.  Over and over he portrays deep experience, combined with a sense of missing attachment.  He has some kind of inability to feel comfortable the way everyone else seems to feel comfortable, some kind of disconnection with himself.  He recounts life episodes of failing to act in his own best interests, like when he can’t bring himself to be on the Johnny Carson show.  He is not sure why he is who he is.  “Why don’t I have children?   Was it a decision I made or did it just happen?” He feels lost, and is puzzled that others don’t feel lost also.

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, presents a retrospective of his work, Spalding Gray: Stories to Tell. Actors read poignantly and theatrically from his journal notes. Spalding is delightfully animated with wonder, doubt, and chagrin.  We learn that he was annoyed, indeed obsessed, by his step daughter’s repetitive playing of the bouncy song “I get knocked down, but I get up again da da da da da da da da da”. Spalding mocks this. He derides it.  It is funny, but he is emphatic. He wants us to know about this.  He wants us to know that his song really, really gets to him.

Having children is an element of reprieve for him, but ultimately he can’t go on.

The program ends with a large screen photo of Spalding.  In full view he is there – his puzzled, glint-eyed, emphatic, dramatic, funny, bemused expression.  He makes sense.  There is a sense of relief for him, gratitude, and even joy.  He can be known after all, he is seen.  It is all the more precious as we know he was never sure.

Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges gives a great portrayal, not just of a failing country music artist, but of an alcoholic.

Alcohol chiefly blocks emotional intelligence, not intellectual intelligence.  The alcoholic over time doesn’t know what makes him sad, what makes him happy, what makes him anxious.  We have these emotions for a reason, they teach us what matters to us, what frightens us, what brings satisfaction.  The neurologist, Antonio Damasio, in his book  Descartes’ Error, descirbes how loss of emotional processing leads to profound dysfunction.  The alcoholic, without reliable emotional processing, becomes a baffling mixture of preserved intellectual intelligence but increasing emotional stupidity.  This is Bad Blake, a man of talent and creativity who abandons a son and a wife, can’t write music anymore, and doesn’t know why.

We can explain alcoholism as a charming by-product of creative  genius.  We think of it as enhancing creative powers.  We can be fooled into seeing it as a movingly tragic antidote for gifted peoples’ special pain.  This movie, though, gives us none of that.  Bad Blake was bad because he was a alcoholic, and he became sensible, and talented, when he stopped drinking.  His new woman interest didn’t waver when she saw it clearly. Somehow, she had learned, perhaps the hard way, and she wasn’t going to risk the welfare of her son.

In American Prometheus, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, we find the clearly portrayed – but little acknowledged – martini alcoholism of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the  creator of the atom bomb.  We see that his wife was an alcoholic also, her’s more severe, he an enabler.  Oppenheimer became a frustrating, puzzling mix of mental genius and emotional failure. The man who built the atom bomb eventually lost his security clearance, and his family.  His son went off to live in seclusion in the mountains of New Mexico, working as contractor and carpenter, twice married and divorced.

When his daughter Toni was born, her mother suffered postpartum depression, and was drinking, “a lot”, so she left Toni with a nanny friend, and went away for a number of months. Robert Oppenheimer would periodically visit the child.

It was all very strange.  He would come and sit and chat with me, but he wouldn’t ask to see the baby.  She might as well have been God knows where, but he never asked to see her.”

“Would you like to adopt her?”

No, she reassured him . . . over time he would become “attached” to the baby.

“No, I’m not an attached kind of person”.

After failed marriages, no children, and recurrent unhappiness, Toni hanged herself in the family beach house of Hawksnest Bay, in the Virgin Islands, overlooking where her father’s ashes and urn are submerged.

New Deal, Political Deal

Many consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be our third greatest president.  In books such as The New Dealers’s War,  by Thomas Fleming, 2001, and  The Forgotten man, by Amity Shlaes, 2007, FDR receives re-evaluation.

Not all went as well with FDR as has been taught.  Unemployment was still 20% in 1939.  There was a severe recession in 1937, Europe had recovered much faster. Eight years into his presidency, we were not prepared for war, a war easily foreseeable, and building the military would have greatly aided the economic recovery. Churchill was left to oppose Hitler largely alone for a year, and eventually the US had to side with and arm Stalin to beat Hitler.  We were unable to influence the immense slaughter in Poland and Ukraine by Germans and Russians alike. FDR placed Japanese American citizens in detention camps, he prevented Jews from emigrating from Europe.  Ships with fleeing Jews were actually sent back into the clutches of Hitler.

FDR shelved Einstein’s famous warning about the possibility of an atom bomb, and the English had to urge on the Manhattan Project.  FDR did not move to support anti-lynching legislation, or oppose the segregationist southern democrats.  His National Recovery Board supported monopoly price fixing and collusion in markets, favoring big business, placing small businesses at great disadvantage. This was eventually ruled unconstitutional, unanimously, which led FDR to try to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court.  He taxed the ‘little guy’ with excise taxes, and raised taxes overall, and enormously increased government regulation.  The NRA in 2 years created more federal law that all the previous years of the nation since 1789.

The Great Depression turned out to be the one exception of the US ‘boom and busts’ that didn’t quickly resolve, the only one in which government didn’t act to increase the incentives of investment and the small business economy.  The hampered economic recovery served to justify increasing federal power.  And increasing federal power is what he did. He targeted political enemies with IRS investigations, and muscled the elections of congressional leaders.  Far from having a ‘first class temperment’, he manipulated,  frustrated, and infuriated his appointees, and staff.  Many abandoned him.  He was the first to break George Washington’s honor code of serving only two consecutive terms.

But he was a political success.  The New Deal was a political deal.  FDR personally directed New Deal funds for political gain, lavishing his supporters with government funds, denying those that opposed him.   He was a charming public speaker, he cultivated and pressured the press to support him and to gloss over his contradictions.  He spoke a strong populist theme, but he bought elections with New Deal money. In his great electoral victory of 1936, federal spending outpaced all local and state spending for the first time.  He didn’t hesitate to say opposing things to opposing audiences.

FDR died in office, galvanizing his image of victorious service to the nation, but he brought Tamany Hall to Washington, D. C.

He’s not there, he’s gone.

In the movie “I’m not there“, creative Hollywood artists who know Bob Dylan, and know of his singular importance in our time, want to give tribute to him. There has been no sign of his acknowledgment, of course.

It is curious, and very to the point, that the chosen title song for this movie may be the most personally significant song Mr. Dylan has ever written, and also the very one song of all of his repertoire that has not been placed on any of his albums, or posted on any of his lyric anthologies.  Indeed, people cannot agree on what the lyrics actually say.  The recorded version of the song very likely is an unfinished song, with filler words and phrases, to be refined later, which seems never to have happened.

Yet, it is an truly compelling and emblematic song.  Written in the basement tapes sessions during his life in Woodstock, as his attempt to be a normal person, a normal husband, a normal father is slipping.  He seems to be fighting and grasping with the cost of his incessant, unshakeable artistic being.  The song just may be too raw, too painfully emotional for him to finish, or acknowledge, or publish.

“I’m not there” is dirge-like, with anger, blaming of others, and blaming himself.  It does not resolve.  There is a grinding, plodding anguish.  He has five young children and a lovely wife, but he knows he can’t maintain it, knows he is going to bow out, not at all sure it will be wonderful, sensing that it will be painful, sure that others will be disappointed, and, worse, that it will be selfish. . . but he can’t help it.

Now I’ll cry tonight like I cried the night before

And I’ll feast on her eyes

But I’ll dream about the door.

I was born to love her

But she knows that the kingdom waits so high above her

I wish I were there to help her

But I’m not there I’m gone.

Legacy of Compromise

Legacy of Secrecy, The long shadow of the JFK assassination, Lamar Waldron, with Thom Hartmann, 2009

Democracies are new to the world stage.  And the first, truly world wide power, the United States, is a democracy.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the United States had unprecedented military dominance.  The US could and did topple and build whole governments the world over.  Yet, according to this book – and many, many similar books – within US boundaries, criminal enterprises with government-like powers, have thrived.  It is a curious and unexpected development that such a powerful nation could have had such an astonishing usurpation of its power within its own borders.

If the stories outlined in this book can be believed, rogue elements within the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia, working within, caused more national injury –  including presidential assassination and forced presidential resignation – than any outside enemy could have hoped to achieve.  Illegal business – drugs, prostitution, protection, gambling, and fraud, etc. – have attained the power of life and death over citizens, the ability to kill and get away with it, even Presidents.

The getting- away- with- it is the stunning story here. With shrewd involvement, calculated funding, and planned compromise of politicians and law enforcers – including the FBI and the CIA –  criminal organizations have gained immunity within. And so for these authors, our democracy has become a symbiosis of the legal and the illegal, and there is a tenous balance of crossing the line and not crossing the line.  Scandals are the inevitable splashes when crossing the line spills over – think Watergate, the Kennedy and MLK assassinations, Chinagate, and many others.

This book’s story is a long one, of myriad overlappings of the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, and pro-Castro Cubans, organized crime, and political operatives who conspire and commit assassinations, and achieve business and foreign policy manipulation.

And the investigations don’t go anywhere, because they can’t go anywhere, because in all directions compromise is to be found.  Indeed it has all been engineered that way, to block the truth.   The good guys do some good, and some bad, and the bad guys do mostly bad, and maybe some good, and the whole story gets partially aired in a ‘limited hangout’ that hides the collusion of government and crime.

A mansion has many rooms, and there were many things going on during the period of the [antiwar] bombings.  I’m not privy to who struck John.”

James Jesus Angleton, 31 year veteran of the CIA and Chief of CIA Counterintelligence, New York Times, December 25, 1974

“Mr. Angleton did not deny, however, that he had been named and identified by a British counterspy, Kim Philby, in “My Silent War”, a book published in 1968 after he defected to the Soviet Union.”   New York Times, December 25, 1974,  Helm’s Disavows ‘Illegal’ Spying by the C.I.A. in U.S, Seymour M. Hersh.

Das Kapital, A biography

Karl Marx has convinced generations of western intellectuals that capitalism is evil.  He witnessed capitalism during its early and ugliest stage, in 19th century England, and made the case that capitalism was an unavoidably diabolical exploitation of the many by the few.   Alas, over the next 150 years, capitalism lifted the material well being of the working masses to a degree unimaginable by Marx in his time, sparing mainly those who decided to follow him.  And yet Marx lives on.

In Das Kapital, A biography, by Francis Wheen, 2006, we meet Karl Marx the man.  He is a polymath, a voracious reader, an energetic, ideophoric thinker.  He is a very unappealing person.  He is angry, grandiose, self-loathing, eccentric, obsessive, argumentative, distractable, litiginous, compulsive, sickly, mean, sarcastic, a severe procrastinator, and unkempt most of the time.  He would not have succeeded on TV.

Das Kapital, his major work, was never finished. It is ponderous, full of literary reference, circuitous, and contradictory. It may be the most unread but revered book ever written.  His most enduring point was that history had a logic, history was not just ‘one damn thing after another’, it was humans exploiting humans in an dynamic process (heretofore not understood until by him).  We can all relate to that.

Marx predicted that Capitalism would degenerate into crisis.  Capitalism fosters technological innovation, which increases productivity. But this has precarious effects on employment.  Sometimes increased productivity creates new markets and new employment, at other times, it does not, or not soon enough.  In the Great Depression, the tractor destroyed farm labor faster than the industrial economy could create new employment.  Marx would have expected the Great Depression.  He wouldn’t have expected its recovery with the modern social welfare capitalist state.

As the economist Joseph Schumpeter famously said:  “Marx asked all the right questions, but got all the wrong answers”.

Marx revelled in his apocalyptic vision.  He enjoyed the devilish, sinister story of history he was convinced that he uniquely discovered.   ” Das Kapital can be read as a vast Gothic Novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created“.

One of Marx’s favorite books was Frankenstein.

Das Kapital is a passionately condemns western enlightenment.  He was one of many who would deride the very kind of society that allows people like him to do with such relish what they love to do – – independently think, read, and philosophize.

“one can argue that the most truly Marxist achievement of the Soviet Union was its collapse:  a centralized, secretive, and bureaucratic command economy proved incompatible with new forces of production.”

Today, Marxist ideas linger on in the shadowy background of cultural studies.  Here, diabolical, unconscious exploitation carries on in language, in words, in mores, in texts. Culture, now, is the exploiter.  And so Marxism lives on in issues of education, religion, psychology, and family – ironically, all areas Marx considered ‘bunk’.

About Bob

I fought with my twin, that enemy within, ’til both of us fell by the way

Human minds herd, mentally, the way animals herd in movement.   A few will start off in a certain direction, and then, at an accelerating pace, the rest follow.  There is wisdom in the crowd.  There is madness in the crowd.  We do GroupThink.  We seem made to believe something when others do too.

Rare individuals, it seems, are immune to this.  What everyone else does automatically, they won’t do at all.  They need to be different.  They don’t follow the crowd, they don’t follow fads. In fact, they often start fads. They set themselves apart.  Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, calls them Innovators, and describes  how fashion marketers search for these types to foresee future trends.

All personality is strategy for social success.  Being stubbornly different can be a way to avoid comparison.  Combine this with a special talent or intelligence, and you can have a cultural creator, a ground breaking artist. Bob Dylan may be one of them.

Forty years on, he is still with us, still producing unpredictable, original, compelling music.  A star in his 20’s, he’s a star in his 60’s. Relentlessly unique, his first act was to create his own name.  He felt “born to the wrong parents”.  And in all these years he has resisted explaining himself, resisted defining himself, resisted being categorized.  He won’t let us have him.

To many, this has seemed contrived, a publicity stunt.  It doesn’t help that he often performs badly.  It seems purposeful.  He almost seems compelled to now and then produce a lousy album.   He accepts honorary degrees without saying anything.  Those who have recorded with him will say that he is a highly practiced and skilled craftsman of the song writing, phrasing, guitar playing, and, yes, singing art.

Of all our cultural stars today, he will be the one, from our time, to enter the pantheon of singular american creative artists – artists like Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Steinbeck, Frank Lloyd Wright, Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keefe.  Someday we will be quick to say to our grandchildren or great grandchildren: “when I was young I saw Bob Dylan”.

From the very beginning, he seems to have been precociously aware of the essential artistic imperative to stay fresh, stay true, unaffected, uncontrived.  All of his evasions, and dodgings have served to prevent the self consciousness that can kill the art engine, steal the muse, stop the flow, make the work mechanical or predictable.  Art isn’t art, after all, if it comes from the brain rather than the soul, from the head rather than the heart, from theory rather than experience.

How did he know this so young?

“They say every man needs protection, They say every man must fall, Yet I swear I see my reflection, Some place so high above this wall”


New York Review of Books,  March 25, 2010, “The passions of Vincent Van Gogh“, Richard Dorment.

Vincent Van Gogh is the archetype of the troubled artist, the insane person whose insanity empowers creativity in his art.  Craziness is part of being creative, so it goes.  Yet, does it?  In Vincent’s case, his art was a compensation, it helped make him sane, and when it was assaulted, his sanity and art were broken.

Vincent Van Gogh was eccentric, and socially very difficult.  His social failures haunted his life.  Life is a search by the self for effectiveness, a niche, ‘something that works’.   People are driven to find a sense of mastery, a feeling that they can accomplish what they need.  Vincent was no different.  But he failed at teaching, at preaching, at romance, and at friendship.  His only enduring connection, his brother, encouraged him to do art.

Once he focused on art, he became an ardent learner and self teacher, and he spent hours drawing, painting, and studying other artists, in circumstances of destitution and despair. And then by chance, he went to Arles.  There, with his skills developed, his gifts of concentrated perception could match the rich, visual beauty of sunny southern France.  He found artistic flow, and produced great works of intensity and power.

In the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a small side room, with a silent babushka attendant in the corner, one comes upon Landscape with Carriage and Train in the Background, painted the year of his death, 1890.  One is drawn to faint brush lines, along side the wagon wheel of the carriage, crude strokes of dark color on the whitish road.  One slowly realizes they are shadows. . . on water, and the road is . . .wet! . . . And then, with a jolt, one sees that the green fields are wet, it has just rained and there is the smell of wet grass.

It is no mystery that during his time in Arles, he did many self portraits and portraits of others.  He was literally building a personal self.  His growing confidence led him to seek artistic and personal connection from other artists.

Unfortunately, it was Gauguin who came to visit.  A misanthrope and narcissist, Gauguin had little inclination to feel sympathy or regard for others.  He left his wife and family without support, to do what he pleased.  Far from engaging Vincent, he relentlessly criticized him, and questioned his methods and his work.  He tried to change Vincent’s expressionism, his manner of painting what he saw – the very essence of his art.  Gauguin wanted egotistical symbolism, nihilistic sentiment.

After nine weeks with Gauguin, Vincent drew a knife towards him, but then retreated in panic and later cut himself. He cut off his own ear. Gauguin left Arles. Vincent eventually committed suicide.

Did the vain Gauguin need to undermine a superior talent?

In Vincent’s last painting, Wheat Field with Crows, menacing black crows descend on the yellows, reds, and blues of southern France.

Lincoln Economics

In October, 1959, Abraham Lincoln made his way to Milwaukee, on horse back, and gave a remarkable speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society.  He went there to respond to charges that northern wage earners were no better off than southern slaves.  This was a time when American industrialization was just beginning, when the entire economy was based on small farms.  People with land had pretty much what they needed to take care of themselves, but this was beginning to change.  Available land was running out.

Something about the southern charges bothered Lincoln.  He may have sensed, as perhaps only he could, that something terrible like the Civil War was coming, and the southern charges would need full rebuttal. He likely had read the Communist Manifesto, with its thesis of wage earner slavery, it was published in English in 1850.  An industrial worker society was already underway in England.  He had been a farmer himself.  Was he answering Karl Marx?

He spoke with great prescience.  He foresaw the application of scientific knowledge to the problems of farming, and the coming of something like the tractor.  He sensed how this would liberate farming from its drudgery and low return and greatly boost its production.  But would this be progress?  Would farm laborers be victims of their own success?  Would they be more and more trapped by the low prices induced by their increased production?

Lincoln rejected what he called the ‘mud sill theory’:

By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital – that nobody labors, unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow, by the use of that capital, induces him to do it. Having assumed this, they proceed to consider whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent.   Having proceeded so far, they naturally conclude that all laborers are necessarily either hired laborers or slaves.  They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer, is fatally fixed in that condition for life: and thence, again, that his condition is as bad as, or worse than, that of a slave.   This is the mud-sill theory”.

Labor creates capital, he reasoned, and in America laborers can own their capital, they can be both laborers and owners.  In this way, they can avoid serfdom.   In addition to the return from their labor, they can also receive return from their capital, thus avoiding the low wage effects of increased productivity, and maintaining independence from the power of capital.

Property is the fruit of labor – property is desirable – it is a positive good in the world.  That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.  Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another;  but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”     March 21, 1864    Reply to New York Workingman’s Association