April 30th, 2010
Hot rocks.

Chandru Rajam is a business school professor here at George Washington University.

He manages a business — a grading outsourcing business.

Rajam stands ready to take all of my students’ papers and exams and send them to India for grading, thus relieving me of the burden of reading my students’ work. Which in turn removes the burden of my worrying about whether they’re learning anything.


When I think of Chandru Rajam, I think of a spa. A spa where I lie down on one of those narrow firm beds and get a nice long hot rock treatment. The rocks feel funny when they first set them down on your back, but gradually — with the help of softly piped in music — you feel an all-enveloping warmth… Your muscles begin to relax… And somehow — it’s hard to put this into words … plus maybe it’s not the prettiest thought … But somehow your total relaxation is intimately related to your knowledge that while you are lying on this quiet table, breathing in smoke from gently guttering lavender candles, a harried Indian housewife is sweating through thousands of papers and exams — among them yours — that have been emailed to her from America.

And you think, “I deserve this. I deserve the guest lecturers who teach my classes for me, the ghostwriters who write my papers for me, the PowerPoint slides written by someone else that I read to my students, and all the other “edupreneur” innovations that allow me, as an American university professor, to be treated in the way I should have been treated all along. I’m a citizen of a wealthy, successful, first-world country. Since when should someone like me dirty her hands with grading? … I know my students understand this, because while I sit back and read the PowerPoint slides to them they sit back and watch films on their laptops… Bottom line: I really don’t need to teach; they really don’t need to learn. We have servants for that. At some point the students will check the slides, just as I’ll … you know… maybe scan the grading the Indians have done for me… Make sure they’re doing a good job. Meanwhile… ah. Another rock….”

May 16th, 2009
In the Spring, UD’s Thoughts Turn to…

… anything but happiness.

On the matter of happiness, she’s with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst. Here are some Phillips snippets:

Sanity involves learning to enjoy conflict, and giving up on all myths of harmony, consistency and redemption… A culture that is obsessed with happiness must really be in despair, mustn’t it? Otherwise why would anybody be bothered about it at all? It’s become a preoccupation because there’s so much unhappiness. The idea that if you just reiterate the word enough … we’ll all cheer up is preposterous… The cultural demand now is be happy, or enjoy yourself, or succeed. You have to sacrifice your unhappiness and your critique of the values you’re supposed to be taking on. You’re supposed to go: ‘Happiness! Yes, that’s all I want!’ But what about justice or reality or ruthlessness – or whatever my preferred thing is?”

“The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people. It’s not a mystery. There is a presumption that there is a weakness in the people who are depressed or a weakness on the part of scientific research and one of these two groups has got to pull its socks up. Scientists have got to get better and find us a drug and the depressed have got to stop malingering. The ethos is: ‘Actually life is wonderful, great – get out there!’ That’s totally unrealistic and it’s bound to fail.”

“Darwinian psychoanalysis would involve helping you to adapt, find a niche and enable you to reproduce. Freudian psychoanalysis suggests that there is something over and above this. There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. Freud is saying there is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project. That seems to me to be persuasive.”

“One of the things I value about psychoanalysis is that it acknowledges that there are real difficulties in living, being who one’s going to be, and that no one’s going to be having a lobotomy. There isn’t going to be a radical personal change, which doesn’t mean that people can’t change usefully, but really that psychoanalysis is against magic. Ideally it enables you to realise why you’re prone to believe in magic and why you shouldn’t, because to believe in magic is to attack your own intelligence. [S]uffering is not essential. It’s just unavoidable. All forms of suffering are bad but some are unavoidable. We need to come to terms with them or be able to bear them. …[Y]ou really did have those parents, you really did make of it what you made of it, you really did have those siblings, really did grow up in that economic climate. These are all hard difficult facts. Redescribed, they can be modified, things can evolve. But it isn’t magic.”

Happiness is fine as a side effect. It’s something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism. [H]appiness is the most conformist of moral aims. For me, there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing — the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.”


All of which is why reactions to the decades-long Harvard Grant Study, which followed a group of Harvard undergraduates throughout their lives in terms of their happiness, have been like this:

♦ The lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.”

♦ Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.

♦ Education, marriage, moderate alcohol intake, and exercise are fairly reliable predictors of happiness; so are certain “mature adaptations” taken in responding to challenges, such as maintaining a sense of humor and channeling aggressive feelings into more healthful channels like athletics. As for offering any definitive answer as to how to live the good life, no convenient elixir is forthcoming. To deny the Grant Study its ambitious objective to pinpoint the causes of happiness has a whiff of the wet blanket about it. But there’s something even more miserable about thinking that our happiness can be defined by the jobs we choose, or what we eat for breakfast, or how many miles we run each week. Freud himself pointed out that the only thing normal is pathology, which makes applying a bell-curve-style prescription for joy more than a little reductionist. Even if all the indicators in our lives point to success, a craving for something indefinable may persist.

Here’s an example of how weird, strange, disturbing, and difficult we are:

[P]eople tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day.

In fact, [explains one of the Harvard Grant Study researchers], positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs — protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections — but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Amen, brother. Some of UD‘s most difficult moments in life involve her confrontation with extremely high appraisals of UD.

Don’t get her wrong. She wouldn’t trade these beautiful appreciations — often written as if after lengthy consultations with UD‘s most embarrassingly grandiose narcissistic fantasies about herself — for the world.

But since she knows herself to be much less impressive and much more unpleasant than what she’d like to think she is, part of her responds to beautiful appreciations with fear. “If you only knew,” she wants to say to the writers. “If you only knew, you’d be so bitterly … so vengefully? … disappointed.”

I think that’s why we cross the street.

May 11th, 2009
Trash a Guy’s Writing Style, Get a Free Book.

Remember when I went after Mark McGurl, author of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing? I quoted Charles McGrath’s citation of a cryptic sentence from the book, and went to town on it here.

But note the updated correction to the piece. A reader, this morning, pointed out in the comment thread that McGrath had gotten part of the quotation wrong.

And now I’ve heard from the author of the book himself, who points out that “what McGrath describes as a sentence is in fact only half of the sentence,” and who asks if he can send me the book, so I can judge its writing for myself.

UD‘s delighted – not merely by the prospect of receiving the book (she has more than a passing interest in creative writing programs), but also by the gallantry of its author, who responds to snarling SOS with forbearance.

April 19th, 2009
Life Imitates Art

From an interview with Emily Haines, Canadian rock star.

Interviewer: In [a recent] documentary you said that you were unhappy and you weren’t sure where your life was headed. I’m sure a lot of people must have heard that and been like, “What is she talking about? She’s a rock star, how could you be unhappy? There’s no direction? What is she talking about?” What would you say to people who would react like that?

[Haines] I’d say, has nobody read Great Jones Street, by Don DeLillo? [Laughs] That’s what I’d say. You should read it.

[Interviewer] What’s it about?

[Haines] It’s about this rock star who just disappears from the whole reality that he’s in because he just can’t handle it any more. And for me, it wasn’t like a particularly dramatic thing. I think I was just being honest, that the idea of what a life is supposed to be like for a successful musician is such a trap, and it’s a trick. We’re really determined as people to not have our lives be something that we’ve lost control of, and that’s the trade off, you know? Like, that’s the cost of success—that you never have time for anyone but yourself, you’re constantly exhausted, you don’t have a home, your relationships are always in shambles. Like, no fuckin’ way. I’m not doing that. So when we came off of the last run, it was like, we’d been touring for 3 years before Live It Out—you know, 300 shows a year, literally—and then 3 years after Live It Out, and then I put out a solo record, and then I did that for a year, and the day I get home and drop my bag it’s like, ‘Okay, time to write a new record.’

… [Interviewer] Why did you choose Buenos Aires as the place to kind of escape to?

[Haines] Because nobody knew us. I didn’t know a single person. I didn’t know anything about it except things that intrigued me historically, and architecturally. But more importantly, I was just looking for a room that had a piano, and it was literally like a search engine thing, like, ‘PIANO, ROOM, CITY, RENT’.

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