Consider the following thought experiment (based, I believe, on work by the philosopher Warren Quinn):
A surgeon implants a dial into your bellybutton, with numbered settings ranging from 0 to 99. Each setting represents a level of permanent and irreversible discomfort, with 1 being scarcely noticeable and 99 being utterly agonizing. However, the difference between any two sequential settings is imperceptible. The dial can only be turned up, never down; once set to any given number, the discomfort will remain at that level for the rest of your life (unless you turn the dial up further.) The scientist who did this to you is not totally unkind, however. He offers a deal: you never have to turn the dial; it can just stay at 0 for your whole life. But if you do turn the dial, he will pay you $10,000 for each setting you reach. What do you do?
The crux of this question is that consecutive settings differ only imperceptibly. So once the dial is set to 1, there seems to be no reason not to turn it up to 2 and collect the additional money. And because the difference between 2 and 3 is imperceptible, why stop at 2? And so forth all the way up to the excruciating 99th setting. Eventually you may find yourself in constant and terrible pain, having crept to that point by imperceptible degrees.
Beer of the week: Devils Backbone Vienna Lager – Based on the reading of the week, one might have expected a beer from Sierra Nevada, but that’d be too obvious. Instead, I’ve chosen a beer named for a different mountain. This amber lager has a delicious, bready aroma. This Virginia beer is loaded with lots of toasted malt flavor with hints of caramel. It is a very nice brew.
Reading of the week: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada by Clarence King – The theme of imperceptible gradual change is explored in this reading. King describes how the the forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains transition gradually from “a great, continuous grove, on whose sunny openings are innumerable brilliant parterres” to “a dismal thicket, a sort of gigantic canebrake, void of beauty, dark, impenetrable, save by the avenues of streams, where one may float for days between sombre walls of forest.”
Question of the week: Would you turn the dial? If you do, is there any way to keep yourself from eventually working your way to 99?
This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Cole toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. EDIT: Now that the campaign is no longer live, I have removed the links. I still encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.
Natural affinities exist between dogs and men. We love them, they love us. They are our companions, our pets, and–as in the case of sheepdogs or bird dogs–our colleagues. But what about dogs makes them our friends?
Spiritedness, according to psychotherapist (and dog-lover) Gary Borjesson, is central to friendship. In his book Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters, Borjesson writes that our spiritedness, the “feisty, domineering part of our souls… makes us friendly.” It is, he claims, the spiritedness of dogs and their owners that links the two in friendship. But I wonder if Borjesson’s insight is as universal as it seems. He relies heavily on Aristotle, Socrates, and his own experience, resources that are exclusively and unapologetically masculine. It makes sense that male-male friendships (like friendships with dogs) are characterized by spiritedness–and the play-fighting and competition it engenders. But is that also the case in friendships with and between women?
Little boys seem to exemplify friendship through spiritedness. They are forever going on small adventures, fighting mock battles, and inventing new games. Their spiritedness leads them to compete, and their competition breeds friendship.
All of my closest male-male friendships from childhood through college were characterized by competition and play-fighting. At college, my friends and I played every intramural sport on offer, stared at video game screens until our eyes were dry and strained, and even tried to “keep score” in our classes.
(Very rarely, we also played drinking games. More often than not, we simply drank while discussing great books and great ideas. Arguably, such conversations were more competitive than any drinking game.)
Every male-female friendship of mine, however, has lacked any prevailing sense of competitiveness. And it is my sense that spiritedness is not at the heart of female friendship the way it is for men. It is widely acknowledged that girls are generally more cooperative and less competitive than boys. And while boys who dislike competition often have a hard time making friends, I never observed that that about girls. Tug-of-war and such mindless competition may be enough to cement friendship with a boy or a dog, but I get the sense that friendship with girls is more nuanced. Perhaps something less aggressive than spiritedness is at the heart of girls’ friendships.
Spiritedness is not a uniquely masculine trait; don’t get me wrong. As Kipling famously recognized, “the female of the species is more dangerous than the male.” I’ve known and admired many very spirited girls and women. It merely appears to me that the friendship of women is less spirited (though no less ardent) than the friendship of men. But, like Aristotle, Plato, and Borjesson, I am out of my depth in opining what makes women’s friendships tick.
Reading of the week: Eulogy of the Dog by George G. Vest – This famous oration was actually part of Vest’s closing arguments at the end of a jury trial. His client was suing the man who killed his hunting dog. The argument was evidently persuasive; the jury returned a verdict in favor of Vest’s client. Borjesson, “with all due respect to” Vest, claims that if dogs were truly as Vest described them, they would be “too undiscriminating, too foolish and lacking in self respect to be friends.”
Beers of the week: Castaway IPA – Kona may have started as a Hawaiian Brewery, but this particular bottle was brewed in New Hampshire. Castaway is one of Kona’s delicious IPAs. It pours with a creamy head, and smells of bready malts and prominent, but not overpowering hops. Very well balanced, very delicious.
Question for the week: Is spiritedness the lynchpin of friendship?
One of the best known of Aesop’s fables is The Fox and the Grapes. The fable goes like this:
ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”
“IT IS EASY TO DESPISE WHAT YOU CANNOT GET.”
Naturally, The Fox and the Grapes is the origin of “sour grapes”, an expression that is endlessly useful. However, I am not aware of an expression that signifies the opposite of sour grapes. That is, if sour grapes refers to convincing yourself that something is bad simply because you cannot get it, there should be a turn of phrase for convincing yourself that something is good simply because that is all you can get.
People who can’t afford filet mignon might say, “SPAM is actually pretty flavorful.” Those to whom BMWs are beyond reach might claim, “my old Geo is actually a really smooth ride.” While the fox focused on disparaging what he could not get, a more positive individual might extoll what he has (even if it really isn’t that great.)
I’d propose the expression “sweet crab apples” after the story Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson. In that story, Anderson talks about the gnarled little apples that are left in the orchard after all of the “good” apples have been picked and sold. Despite their appearance, the narrator claims that these twisted apples are actually sweet and delicious. But I can’t help but wonder whether the people who eat the rejected apples are just deluding themselves.
The SPAM eater may genuinely enjoy canned meat product. The Geo driver might get a lot of joy out of his car. And Anderson may really love the gnarled leftover apples. But have they discovered genuine quality that everybody else overlooked? Or have they just convinced themselves to be happy with what they can get?
Beer of the week: Natural Light Naturdays – I’d be willing to bet that a substantial number of college students would claim that they genuinely like the taste of Natural Light. Whether this preference is genuine, or merely self-delusion based on what beer they can afford, we may never know. Naturdays is a “light lager with natural flavor” meant to approximate a shandy made with strawberry lemonade. Basically, it comes off as a strawberry alcopop. What little head it has dissipated before I could snap a photo. The color is so clear and pale that I would guess that nothing resembling a strawberry came within a mile of the brewery where this was canned. The aroma is like a strawberry candy, but with hints of beer. Honestly, Naturdays is actually pretty good for what it is. It has a nice lingering tartness, and only a little bit more sweetness than I think would be ideal. I suppose it could also have more beer flavor, but it’s refreshing and different.
Reading of the week: Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson – I actually think that Anderson is serious in his claim that the gnarled, rejected apples actually are delicious. However, in the story, a young woman has bad luck with suitors and ends up marrying an eccentric doctor. Her appreciation for this third-choice mate is likened to an appreciation for the rejected apples.
Question for the week: Does the world need a phrase like “sweet crab apples”?
This is the thirtieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXX: Scientific Papers
In 1911, a mere two years after the Harvard Classics was first published, Douglas Mawson (later Sir Douglas Mawson) led an expedition to map the coastline of Antarctica. He was an adventurer and a hero, but he was a man of science first. The great proof of this is not only in his scientific achievements, but also in his very attitude toward his objectives.
In 1912, Mawson was part of a brutal race against time and weather to get back to the base camp. He was part of a three-man surveying party that had pushed over 300 miles into (quite literally) uncharted territory. Suddenly, one of the dogsleds disappeared into a crevasse. With it went one of the men, B. E. S. Ninnis, the better half of the dogs, and most of the rations. Mawson and his remaining companion, Xavier Mertz, with little food (and no dog food) turn back to camp faced with the very real possibility that the weather and lack of supplies would thwart their attempted return.
Frostbite was a problem for them. But even worse was a condition called hypervitaminosis A. When humans consume too much vitamin A, they can suffer from adverse mental effects, hair and skin loss, and a slew of other nasty effects. And it just so happens that husky livers are chock-full of vitamin A. Of course, Mawson and Mertz did not know that; vitamin A was not even named until 1920. So when it came time to eat the sled dogs, they ate them liver and all. The results were deadly.
After nearly a month of trudging, eating stringy dog meat, and deteriorating health, Mertz succumbed. With the wind howling outside of the tent, his team members dead, and his own collection of physical ailments, Mawson considered just staying in his sleeping bag. It would be easy to just stay in the bag forever. But instead, he remembered this poem by Robert W. Service:
When you’re lost in the Wild, and you’re scared as a child,
And Death looks you bang in the eye,
And you’re sore as a boil, it’s according to Hoyle
To cock your revolver and… die.
But the Code of a Man says: “Fight all you can,”
And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it’s easy to blow…
It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.
“You’re sick of the game!” Well, now, that’s a shame.
You’re young and you’re brave and you’re bright.
“You’ve had a raw deal!” I know — but don’t squeal,
Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.
It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,
So don’t be a piker, old pard!
Just draw on your grit; it’s so easy to quit:
It’s the keeping-your-chin-up that’s hard.
It’s easy to cry that you’re beaten — and die;
It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;
But to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight —
Why, that’s the best game of them all!
And though you come out of each gruelling bout,
All broken and beaten and scarred,
Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,
It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.
(Service, by the way, is known as the Bard of the Yukon. How appropriate for someone struggling for life near the South Pole to get strength from a poet of the far north.)
And those words inspired Mawson to break camp and trudge on. The day he buried Mertz in the snow, Mawson wrote in his journal: “I read the Burial Service over Xavier this afternoon. As there is little chance of my reaching human aid alive. I greatly regret inability at the moment to set out the detail of coastline met with for three hundred miles travelled and observations of glacier and ice-formations, etc.; the most of which latter are, of course, committed to my head.” See what I mean about Mawson’s attitude toward his geographic work?
Over the next thirty days, Mawson made his way back toward base. At one point, he fell through the ice. However the sled, what was left of it, wedged in the opening of the crevasse, and Mawson dangled from a rope above the abyss. Despite his weakened state, he hauled himself up, only for the edge to break away beneath him and leave him hanging once more at the end of the rope. He summoned all of his strength for one final attempt and dragged himself from the gulf in the ice.
Eventually, Mawson made it back to base camp. He returned without his companions, without his dogs, and without much of his skin and hair. What he did bring back was a great deal of geographical information, including names for two large glaciers on the Antarctic coast: Ninnis Glacier and Mertz Glacier.
Beer of the week: Alaskan Amber – Alaska has many nicknames, including “The Last Frontier”. But Mawson’s account of Antarctica makes Alaska seem relatively tame. And at least Alaska has breweries. From Juneau comes this delightful amber ale. It pours a clear dark amber with a good head. It smells mostly of roasted malt. The beer is smooth and malty, with hints of marshmallow and apricot. Delicious.
Reading of the week: Geographical Evolution by Sir Archibald Geikie – At the beginning of this essay, Geikie writes, “From the geographical point of view… we must rank an explorer according to his success in widening our knowledge and enlarging our views regarding the aspects of nature.” In this respect, Mawson ranks very highly among the great Antarctic explorers.
Questions of the week: As great a story as it is, is it even possible that the information gathered by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was worth the human suffering and death?
This is the twenty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXVIII: Essays English and American
Spoiler Alert: If, by some miracle or defect in education, you know nothing about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, do not proceed. Rather, find a copy of that book, avoid reading the cover or any introductory material, and read it alone, preferably in one sitting.
I suspect that nobody will have cause to heed the above warning. Jekyll and Hyde are so engrained in our culture that one could hardly reach drinking age without knowing the gist of the story: mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll, by means of a chemical concoction, transforms himself into the evil Mr. Hyde. But what people often fail to realize if they only know about the the story secondhand is that the fact that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person is a shocking twist ending. Unlike in the adaptation The Nutty Professor, where we watch the scientist transform, in Jekyll and Hyde, the titular characters are introduced in a way that conceals their relationship. Throughout the story, the narrator slowly untangles the mysterious connection. The slow build and dramatic twist made the book immensely popular, and ironically, its popularity spoiled the story for many future readers.
With the common understanding of the plot comes a common misunderstanding: the idea that Jekyll and Hyde are two sides of the same coin, one good and one evil. Though Hyde is the evil side of Dr. Jekyll’s being, Dr. Jekyll is not merely the good side. He is the composite of Hyde and some unidentified good side. Jekyll and Hyde are not, as in common metaphor, opposites. Rather, Hyde is just an isolated part of Jekyll.
Jekyll’s own account of his transformation contributes to the confusion on this point. He refers to the struggle between “these polar twins”, the good and evil parts of his soul. But we never see Hyde’s twin. For some reason, Jekyll is able to unbind his evil side, but not his good side. How different a story it would be if Jekyll’s experiment transformed him into his angelic, pure good version rather than the demonic, evil Hyde.
To push even further from the notion of Hyde and Jekyll as opposites, the character of Jekyll suggests that he is more than a simple dichotomy. Despite his reference to “these polar twins”, Jekyll opines that “man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.” So at most, Hyde is likely just one facet of Dr. Jekyll’s immensely complex soul.
Stevenson, like Plato before him and Freud after, seems convinced that the human soul (psyche?) is either multipartite or, at least can be most readily understood by means of such a metaphor. It seems to me that the soul is too complex for such analysis. There is no “good side” and “evil side”; no desires or appetites that can be neatly and perfectly divorced from reason or affection. We are whole beings, not a mere assemblage is parts. We are all Jekyll and no Hyde.
Beer of the week: Shiner Bohemian Black Lager – Calling Spoetzl Brewery’s Shiner Bohemian Black Lager the Hyde to Shiner Bock’s Jekyll would fly in the face of the analysis above. Yet here we are. This, Spoetzl’s schwarzbier, is a pretty nice offering. It is very dark brown, with a quickly diminishing tan head. The aroma is of dark malt. The flavor is is a bit smoky, but quite light and refreshing.
Reading of the week: Truth of Intercourse by Robert Louis Stevenson – As is evident in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson was very interested in how people represent themselves and their true natures. In this essay, he discusses the ways in which people can be habitual liars, but honest in their relationships, and vice versa. “Truth to facts is not always truth to sentiment;” he writes, “and part of the truth, as often happens in answer to a question, may be the foulest calumny.”
Question for the week: Do you perceive multiple parts of your own soul?
This is the twenty-second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXII: The Odyssey, Homer
Everyone has a memory or two that he’d rather not. But, as the saying goes, “some things cannot be unseen.” We are blessed and cursed with our powers of memory, but what would result from the ability to chose what memories we retain or erase?
On the tv show Arrested Development, there is a character who takes pills that he calls “forget-me-nows”. The pills are, in fact, Rohypnol: commonly known as roofies. He drugs himself to forget decisions that he regrets. Predictably, by wiping out his memories, he dooms himself to make the same mistakes again, unable to learn and grow from them.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Helen prepares a draught of nepenthe to help Menelaus and others forget their sorrow over comrades lost during and after the Trojan War, particularly the then-missing Odysseus. Nepenthe literally means “anti-sorrow”, but Homer tells us that it worked by bringing forgetfulness. The characters continue to reminisce, however, and ultimately resort to sleep to ease their sorrow. “But come,” says Telemachus, “bid us to bed, that forthwith we may take our joy of rest beneath the spell of sleep.” Perhaps the drug induced the sleep, and in sleep the heroes could forget their melancholy, but it is not clear at all that the nepenthe delivered on its promise of forgetfulness.
Nepenthe is also mentioned Poe’s The Raven. The narrator exhorts himself, “Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget the lost Lenore.” The raven predictably replies, “nevermore.” The narrator has no literal nepenthe, and, as is clear from the raven’s reply, none exists. He is doomed to remember his lost love. There is no nepenthe to forget sorrow and no balm in Gilead to cure a broken heart.
Whether we learn from our memories as GOB fails to in Arrested Development, or we put our memory aside only while we sleep as the characters of The Odyssey do, or whether our memories drive us mad as in The Raven, we cannot really cannot chose to forget. Our only real option is to turn our memories to our advantage, lest they destroy us.
Beer of the week: Tell Tale Heart IPA – Happy Friday the 13th! By all rights, this beer should be paired with Poe’s story The Tell Tale Heart. But that Poe is not included in the Harvard Classics, and I had no interest in sitting on this review for a year until I am through with this Harvard series. So here it is. RavenBeer makes a whole line of Poe-themed brews. This is an orangish IPA with a nice, creamy head. There are nice floral hops in the aroma and a well-balanced combo of malt and hops. Tell Tale Heart is a good East Coast IPA.
Reading of the week: The Odyssey by Homer, Book IV, lines 184 – 314 – After Helen has poured the nepenthe, she tells the company how Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, once sneaked into the besieged city of Troy.
Question for the week: What would you forget if you could?
This is the seventh in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
INDUSTRY: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
It is often discouraging to observe how much work has yet to be done. There are papers to write, dishes to wash, bridges to build. And the sheer quantity of work that will remain undone at the end of each day can make one despair of every really making a difference. This pessimism must be combated.
According to Helen Keller, Charles Darwin’s ill-health made it impossible for him to write for any more than half of an hour at a time; “yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy.” In fact, it seems that Keller vastly undersells Darwin’s illness. According to Wikipedia, “Darwin suffered intermittently from various combinations of symptoms such as: malaise, vertigo, dizziness, muscle spasms and tremors, vomiting, cramps and colics, bloating and nocturnal intestinal gas, headaches, alterations of vision, severe tiredness, nervous exhaustion, dyspnea, skin problems such as blisters all over the scalp and eczema, crying, anxiety, sensation of impending death and loss of consciousness, fainting tachycardia, insomnia, tinnitus, and depression.” Chronic vomiting is bad enough, but to have to find the puke bucket a bucket with blurred vision and vertigo must be a special kind of hellish. Yet somewhere between the cramps and sensation of impending death, Darwin was still able to change the world.
Helen Keller herself was no slouch in the overcoming adversity department. Unable to see or hear, she still learned to read, write, and speak(!) several languages. She also became a noted political advocate and lecturer. But international fame was not her primary ambition. “I long to accomplish a great and noble task;” she writes, “but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfill the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.”
So when the mountain of work seems unclimbable, follow Franklin’s advice and waste as little time as possible. Remember Darwin and let nothing, even yourself, prevent you from achieving your goals. Be like Keller and take pride in even the most humble tasks. And heed the exhortation of Thomas Carlyle:
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”
Beer of the week: Sublime Ginger – This hazy, straw-colored offering from Forbidden Root is really good. The base is a dry wheat beer, with ginger, key lime, and botanicals. And those additions all make themselves known. The aroma is dominated by the ginger and citrus. The flavor is bright and limey. The ginger and herbs are also in the flavor, but without as much bite as one might expect. Overall, a nice refreshing drink.
Reading of the week: Optimism by Helen Keller, Part I – Keller’s optimism must be among the most sincere examples in history. For seven years, she lived in a totally isolated world of darkness and silence. Then she learned language, and the inertia of that “first leap out of the darkness” carried her forward for the rest of her life.
Question for the week: Recreation and relaxation are productive to a point; they improve our state of mind and reinvigorate our bodies and souls for the tasks ahead. But is there any clear line between relaxation and idleness?
The night before Thanksgiving, I visited the Lutheran church where my friend’s father is the pastor. His sermon, as one might expect, was about giving thanks. Specifically, he argued that one of the principle advantages of giving thanks is to prolong enjoyment of the blessing. Taking the time to enunciate what one is thankful for effectively draws out the enjoyment of it. Giving thanks beforehand allows one to enjoy the anticipation. Giving thanks afterwards allows the enjoyment to linger. Giving thanks during forces one to focus on what is enjoyable. The sermon really rang true to me. Also, there was a pie social after the service.
The desire to extend enjoyment indefinitely is a constant factor in my day-to-day life. I have watched countless re-runs late into the night rather than go to bed and “give up” on the day. I also have looked for reasons to have another beer rather than stop drinking. The bulk of this blog post, in fact, was written late at night as an excuse to stay up and have another beer rather than go to bed and end my enjoyment of the day.
I not only attempt to drag out time; I am a great hoarder of consumable goods. Halloween candy lasted for months in my childhood because I was keenly interested in prolonging my enjoyment from it for as long as possible. When there is good beer in the house, I ration it carefully. As I mentioned in an earlier post, an elderly Australian man once mocked me for how slowly I consumed a glass of Coopers. He was not a beer drinker himself, so my efforts to explain the purpose of savoring a good beer were wasted on him.
Attempts at prolonged enjoyment are not always successful. I have also let things go to waste rather than accept the finality of their enjoyment. I have let my tea grow cold rather than finish it and accept that it is gone. When I was little, I had toys that I would hardly play with for fear that they would break and thus end my enjoyment. I grew out of nice clothes that I had barely worn since I did not want to risk staining or tearing them. When I was small, I would use my roller-skates only occasionally to minimize the chances that they would get scuffed or damaged. One day, they no longer fit. I had tried so hard to preserve them for future enjoyment that they had become no use to me at all.
No pleasure can be extended indefinitely, but there is usually the option to prolong the enjoyment somewhat by patience and focus and thanksgiving. In the end, a fine touch is required. Neither let the beer grow warm and unpleasant, nor gulp it down without savoring.
Beer of the week: Troegs Perpetual IPA – If only this beer could be enjoyed perpetually. Troegs Perpetual is a lovely golden IPA with a nice foamy head. The aroma is dominated by sweet floral hops, but the bitterness of the hops is very well balanced with nice malt body.
Reading for the week: Gorgias by Plato, lines 493d-495b – A crucial question that this post does not address is whether prolonging pleasure is actually a good thing. In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates makes his interlocutors squirm by forcing them to address whether even the most base and immoral pleasure seeking can be considered good.
Question for the week: Are efforts to prolong pleasure at odds with an ideal of “taking life as it comes”?