"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Immaturity And The Soul Of The Artist–Lord Jim And Son’s And Lovers’ Paul Morel

Lord Jim is a story of fantasy, naïveté, and stubborn idealism; but also one of strength, moral purpose, courage, and atonement. As a young man Jim felt he was marked for bravery, heroism, leadership and courage; and invented fantasies that, despite actions that suggested that he was far from this ideal vision of himself, remained.  In his dreams he was a child of destiny.  The world, no matter how intrusive, mean, desperate, and destructive, could never touch him.  He was an idealistic dreamer – immature, naïve, and hopelessly outmatched in his attempt to achieve the greatness he envisaged even as a boy.  He would lead men with courage, discipline and compassion.  They would look to him and depend upon him for their well-being, their wealth, and their safety.  He would be respected by officers and admired by the men beneath him. He would be heroic, brilliant, and strong, captaining ships from England to the South Pacific.  He would become legendary for his skill, his acumen, and his leadership.

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Parallel rulers with a pair of dividers reposed on it; the ship’s position at last noon was marked with a small black cross, and the straight pencil-line drawn firmly as far as Perim figured the course of the ship—the path of souls towards the holy place, the promise of salvation, the reward of eternal life—while the pencil with its sharp end touching the Somali coast lay round and still like a naked ship’s spar floating in the pool of a sheltered dock. ‘How steady she goes,’ thought Jim with wonder, with something like gratitude for this high peace of sea and sky. At such times his thoughts would be full of valorous deeds: he loved these dreams and the success of his imaginary achievements. They were the best parts of life, its secret truth, its hidden reality. They had a gorgeous virility, the charm of vagueness, they passed before him with an heroic tread; they carried his soul away with them and made it drunk with the divine philtre of an unbounded confidence in itself. There was nothing he could not face. He was so pleased with the idea that he smiled, keeping perfunctorily his eyes ahead; and when he happened to glance back he saw the white streak of the wake drawn as straight by the ship’s keel upon the sea as the black line drawn by the pencil upon the chart.

Marlow describes Jim this way:

At that moment it was difficult to believe in Jim's existence--starting from a country parsonage, blurred by crowds of men as by clouds of dust, silenced by the clashing claims of life and death in a material world--but his imperishable reality came to me with a convincing, with an irresistible force! I saw it vividly, as though in our progress through the lofty silent rooms amongst fleeting gleams of light and the sudden revelations of human figures stealing with flickering flames within unfathomable and pellucid depths, we had approached nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery.

There was indeed something tragic and grand about Jim, something beautiful and unique.  He was indeed someone of courage, defiant morality.  Stein admires Jim for his romance and illusions; because he knows that the world has too much ordinariness.  Jim was an artist, a philosophical painter; and like tortured geniuses died for the sake of his art.

Yet not only did Jim’s fantasies betray him, but the reality that existed behind them destroyed him.  Not only was he unable to heroically save anyone on board the Patna, he jumped ship as it sank with a cargo of 800 pilgrims.  He was derelict of duty and a coward; and for the rest of his life he tried to expiate his crime and to seek a redemption which eluded him.  His death, although caused by a former ally and admirer, was in fact suicide.  Facing him was the only honorable thing to do and a final end to his search for atonement.  He went to his death not only out of a desire to take the punishment that was due him; but in a final act of illusion.  He might  not be the hero that he had imagined; but the courage to do the right thing even if it meant his death was heroism enough.

Paul Morel, the main character of D.H.Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is no different from Lord Jim. He is a dreamer and a fantasist.  He dreams that he will become an artist, respected not only for the quality of his art but for the imagination and intellectual discipline and insight behind it. He will make his way far beyond the raw life of his miner’s family, he believes, achieve his mother’s ambitions for social status and recognition, and become recognized.

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Morel is Lawrence’s hero despite his illusions, prevarication, weakness, cruelty, and dependence. There is something to be said for the artist and the artist’s soul, one which has only visionary clarity as a means to staying alive. ‘There was no Time, only Space’, writes Lawrence. The final passage of the book is a poem of final epiphany.  Morel, after his mother’s death, can no longer intellectualize about place and belonging. He no longer has the patient ear of Miriam and the existential touchstone of this mother. All his intellectualism, spiritual quest, existential questions about love, belonging, and purpose are indeed part of his character but they have finally become relevant and frightening and not simply ways to deflect the issues of loving and belonging.

The town, as he sat upon the car, stretched away over the bay of railway, a level fume of lights. Beyond the town the country, little smoldering spots for more towns—the sea—the night—on and on! And he had no place in it! Whatever spot he stood on, there he stood alone. From his breast, from his mouth, sprang the endless space, and it was there behind him, everywhere. The people hurrying along the streets offered no obstruction to the void in which he found himself. They were small shadows whose footsteps and voices could be heard, but in each of them the same night, the same silence. He got off the car. In the country all was dead still. Little stars shone high up; little stars spread far away in the flood-waters, a firmament below.

Everywhere the vastness and terror of the immense night which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom. There was no Time, only Space. Who could say his mother had lived and did not live? She had been in one place, and was in another; that was all. And his soul could not leave her, wherever she was. Now she was gone abroad into the night, and he was with her still. They were together. But yet there was his body, his chest, that leaned against the stile, his hands on the wooden bar. They seemed something.

Where was he?—one tiny upright speck of flesh, less than an ear of wheat lost in the field. He could not bear it. On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core a nothingness, and yet not nothing.

What to make of Lord Jim and Paul Morel? It is easy to be antipathetic to both characters. Jim’s dereliction of duty was a crime against British law, an unconscionable dereliction of duty and moral authority, and an unforgivable lack of concern for the lives of hundreds of pilgrims left on board ship. It makes no difference whether he spends his life in search of atonement, he committed an unpardonable crime.

On the other hand he was victim of his own immaturity.  His exotic and unrealistic dreams prevented him from doing his duty, blocked the very courage he sought, and doomed him not only to a life of repentance but of lost illusions.  One should at least pity him if not admire him for his persistent efforts to redeem himself.  The artist will always fall afoul of himself, Stein – the only character who understood Jim and more importantly valued dreamers in an all-too-matter-of-fact, legalistic, and moralistic world – believed.  An inevitable tragic flaw. Even when Jim was so close to final redemption – saving Patusan from a brutal dictator, restoring tribal order, and vindicating himself – his immaturity and naïveté resurfaced once again.  No one but Jim would have trusted Gentleman Brown – an irremediably evil profiteer, slaver, and murderer – but he did; and in an act of misplaced tolerance and generosity, doomed the tribe and himself.

Does this final act increase our sympathy for Jim, recognize him – like Stein – as a tragic figure? Or condemn him finally for having been twice a betrayer? Can we forgive his immaturity or at least use it to excuse his most fatal derelictions?  Or should we be as harsh and unforgiving of him as we would be for any coward or self-centered blunderer?

The same is true of Paul Morel.  Many critics have seen him as a heroic character and use the last paragraph of the novel, quoted above, as their reason.  He finally rejected the selfish, importuning, demanding women in his life – Miriam, Clara, and his mother, all of whom cared less about Paul than they did themselves – and achieved the spiritual insight and emotional maturity that had for so long escaped him.

Others have had no patience with this self-serving, immature young man who refused to grow up and who demanded maternal love, care, and attention from all the women in his life.  He used Miriam, forced her to listen to his inchoate ramblings, to keep him company through his confusion and timidity; and saw Clara only as a convenient and simplified outlet for his sexual urges.  Miriam called him a baby, refused to care for him after his mother had died, and had finally had enough of his infantile dependency.

The most or best than can be said of both Paul Morel and Lord Jim is that an artistic temperament – heightened sensitivity to one’s feelings and the ability to transform them into creative expressions of more general truths – and immaturity go hand in hand.  Artists cannot be expected to be practical, responsible, disciplined, and right. For all their failings, moral lapses, and ignorant actions, they still contribute more than they take. Without Jim’s and Paul Morel’s fantasies, emotional tangles, and moral ups and downs, life would be flat and undemanding.

The Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov tells Ivan that a world of uniform goodness and truth, faithfulness and honesty, would be painfully boring indeed.  I am a vaudevillian, says Ivan’s devil, out to make life interesting.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Can Men And Women Be Friends, Or Is Sex Always An Issue? Lessons From D.H.Lawrence

The post-modern canon says that men and women can be friends.  Sex while important is at best a distraction from real intimacy, and that more aware men will understand and appreciate women for their character, values, and beliefs more than their sexual allure. Traditionalists disagree and suggest that unless a relationship is incestuous, sexual dynamics must always be in play.

Paul Morel, the main character in D.H.Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, prefers to think of Miriam as his friend and never his lover; but his demurral has more to do with his sexual immaturity than any higher order of intimacy. He thinks that such a Platonic friendship is not only possible but desirable; that the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual communion they have is the apotheosis of love.  

This asexual conviction, however, has more to do with his Oedipal conflicts than any realistic, rational reasoning.  Paul cannot leave his mother.  He is duty- and love-bound to her.  She is his protector, his sexual shield, and his devotee.  His demurral, his sexual diffidence, and his cruelty to Miriam are guards of his maternal sexual privacy.  He wants Miriam as a woman, desires her, and wants a ‘normal’ relationship with her, but he cannot because of his stunted sexual growth and his overweening guilt, compassion, and responsibility for his mother.  He is an emotional and sexual cripple.

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Nevertheless he eventually has sex with her – an uneasy and selfish affair.  He feels that he must have sex to validate his independence from his mother; and Miriam is willing because she is tired of his intellectual prevarications and her own sexual reticence.

“We are but friends”, he insists; and in his immature delusions is convinced that such friendship can indeed exist. It cannot, of course; and Lawrence goes on to say in this and later novels (The Rainbow, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley’s Lover)  that not only is Platonic love an impossibility but an intellectual chimera.  Final sexual bonding, the simultaneous coming together of lovers, is the apotheosis of being – the be-all and end-all of one's life – and any suggestions that it can be otherwise are vain, self-serving, and ignorant.
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Platonic love – in this case between Paul and Miriam – is fraudulent.  It is only a convenient cover for his sexual insecurity.  He cannot wholly commit to Miriam while he still has more permanent affections for his mother.

Miriam sees through his diffidence.  She knows that his reserve has less to do with her than with his mother.  She wants him –intellectually, physically, and spiritually –and has no barriers to their communion; but realizes that his adolescent attachment to his mother will always prevent a more mature relationship with her.

Paul leaves Miriam for all the wrong reasons. They are well-suited to each other, each with his own pretensions, convictions, and faith which temporarily impede normal intimate relations – but neither one can stop the inertia. Friendship was never enough. 

Paul takes up with Clara, a married woman with no sexual inhibitions, moral compunctions, or social ambitions.  A sexual relation with her could be satisfying and emotionally conclusive.  She is the woman he has been looking for.

Yet this too is an unsatisfactory union.  Sexual desire distorts his view of women, just as idealistic celibacy has finished his relationship with Miriam.  He is back where he started – a boy with no hope or recourse except in his mother's arms.

Sons and Lovers, among other things, give final lie to the notion of friendship between man and woman.  If sexual desire is so limitless, so insistent, and so potent, then how can a tepid, disinterested, respectful friendship ever take its place?  How, given the nature of sexual desire and the complex factors that determine it, can friendship ever compare? In Lawrence’s view there is no way that a simple friendship between man and woman can possibly suffice.  No matter how old the correspondents may be nor how sexually indifferent they might have been in the past, there can be no denying sexual attraction.
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In Lawrence's view a man will never look upon an attractive woman as anything other than a woman.   For all her much appreciated intelligence, insight, and competence, he can never overlook her laughter, her sexual ease, and her feminine grace.  Friends of friends, distant cousins, relations by marriage can never be looked at asexually

Lawrence believed that the essential, fundamental, inescapably existential moment of life is that of simultaneous sexual climax, a Tantric perfection.  It is the union of sexual, spiritual, emotional, and historical purpose.  Given that conviction and that perspective, it is no wonder that he dismissed any notions of Platonic love.

Lawrence is hopelessly outdated and irrelevant in an age of female eminence, say feminist critics.  Sexual union is meaningless per se and is but an adjunct to necessary political/economic unions.  Romanticized sexual love has no place in the post-modernist world.  Marriage, mating, and sexual partnership is only governed by dominance, submission, and complaisance in a world which values secular values.  Without procreation, and without the momentary pleasure of orgasm, the heterosexual union has run its course.  Friendship, camaraderie, and sisterhood are far more important and relevant than any sexual union.

However, if one removes political lenses, leaves sexual deconstructionism aside, and steps back to take a dispassionate look at ordinary sexual relationships, one is still left with a final truth – sex, sexuality, and sexual desire will always trump social reformist politics.

No matter how politically invested a man or woman might be in social justice; no matter how technically unique they may be, sexual interest can never be ignored or dismissed. While professional competence and ability will always come first, sexual appraisal, approbation, and initiative will always rule.

Sons and Lovers has much to teach – the emasculating nature of overweening, selfish maternal love; the deformation of arrested sexual development; the saint-whore fabrication that distorts the reality of women; and the perils of the natural infantilism of men – but above all it is about sex, its universal imperative, its centrality, and its saving and redemption power.  There can be no such thing as friendship between a man and a woman.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Bad Management–What Do You Expect From Human Beings?

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Bad bosses are everywhere.  Everyone has had one and knows about a hundred more; yet there will soon come a day when offices are managed by software; and bad managers – myopic, insular, arrogant, and as blindered by human ambition as anyone – will be things of the past.  Decisions concerning financial performance, employee productivity, information flow, and interdepartmental collaboration will be finally taken out of the hands of managers who, like all other people, manage by instinct, hunch, personal rivalries and affections.  Already offices rely more and more on computerized information.  Keystrokes are recorded, employees’ movements tracked, and distribution of time worked monitored.  Time sheets are things of the past when such surveillance permits objective clocking. Managers no longer need to rely on employee information and judgement, for the data stream from cubicle to corner office assures a far greater degree of accuracy.

More importantly negative trends can be anticipated long before they become problems.  Financial review meetings where spreadsheets are analyzed; data matched, correlated, and corroborated; and reasons for poor performance discussed are becoming increasingly unnecessary.  Managers no longer have to add up the columns, listen to staff defensive positions, and set revised performance goals for underachieving staffers.  Not only will elaborate software identify the problems by office, department, and employee, but suggest improvements.

Most employees resent office meetings which are inefficient, poorly-designed, and ineptly-run.  They are arranged more to encourage participation, collaboration, and mutual respect than to resolve problems, set goals, or agree on new procedures.  Some meetings are of course necessary.  There is no way that a mid-level manager can make reasonable decisions without inputs from Accounting, Personnel, Finance, Contracts, and Networks. Using advanced intelligent voice recognition software and sophisticated algorithms all meetings can be monitored electronically and analyzed for key factors – efficient flow of information,;appropriate, quality, data-based interventions; time management; and rational decisions give company policy, objectives, procedures, and guidelines.

Eventually middle-managers – the ones who run these divisional or project meetings – can be replaced since electronic management will generate data, process it through company directive portals and filters, and suggest avenues of improvement. For the time being employees and meetings are still necessary, but only until the software is able to manage networks of information.  It is easy to monitor individual output, productivity, and performance; but another, more complex task to assess network operations (i.e. cross-discipline ‘sharing’).

None of this should be either surprising nor particularly disturbing.  Most phone conversations between help centers, banks, medical offices, and government departments and clients/customers are routinely recorded ‘for quality purposes’ and of course they are monitored and analyzed to determine how well (courtesy, professionalism, technical competence, efficiency, etc.) the service provider performs.  While in some instances there may be a real person listening to these recorded events, more than likely it will be a software program.  Such electronic monitoring makes eminent sense, for all conversations can be reviewed not just a sample.

Affective software – programs designed to pick up affective clues about service or product satisfaction – is already monitoring s0cial media.  A young woman in Detroit messaging her friend on Facebook about her experience at the Marriott in Palm Beach will give subtle clues as to how she liked the food, the service, reception, and facilities.  Customer satisfaction surveys are never useful because few people complete them and if they do may arbitrarily assign values.  Such software can easily be deployed in offices which monitor voice traffic as well as written, and managers can pick up on developing frictions between employees and managers, managers and senior management, etc.

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Privacy issues? In principle there are many, but the Internet Age adage, “We love our cookies’ – i.e. we don’t mind surveillance if it leads to more individualized and personalized consumer choices – has never been more appropriate.  We all know that all email, texts, social media messaging, Internet searches and purchases are being recorded.  We know that we are being tracked online, by traffic cameras and security surveillance equipment, but have accepted it for its benefits and not its risks.  Police cameras slow speeders and reduce accidents.  Security installations keep us safe.

Checkers at major supermarket chains know that they are being monitored.  Every item is scanned and recorded by the company thus improving inventory control and stocking.  At the same time the company knows how fast a checker processes consumer purchases, knows when she slows down or speeds up, and which items cause her difficulty.

The story of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance is taught in business school because of the lessons of management learned from the experience. Nancy Koehn, professor at Harvard Business School, and the author of a book on how Shackleton accomplished this remarkable achievement, writes (New York Times, 12.24.11):

“Shackleton’s sense of responsibility and commitment came with a great suppleness of means. To get his men home safely, he led them across ice, sea and land with all the tools he could muster. This combination — credible commitment to a larger purpose and flexible, imaginative methods to achieve a goal – were the key elements to Shackleton’s management of his expedition”, and are the essential elements of good management today.

She points to five factors of Shackleton’s management: 1) he was flexible and adapted easily and well to changing, unexpected conditions; 2) he understood human nature and how despair and weakness could result from idleness and lack of purpose; 3) he maintained a strict routine, both a way of keeping his men focused and emotionally stable and maintaining cohesion and order; 4) he focused on the future, always giving his men a goal, a hope, and a purpose; and 5) he managed his own ‘emotional intelligence’, for he knew that any sign of weakness, despair, or hopelessness in him would infect the crew.

Although the Shackleton voyage indeed makes a good management case study, in another way it is most certainly not.  Managers like Shackleton come along once or twice in a generation if that.  Few men or women have the innate confidence, intelligence, will, and sensitivity to accomplish what Shackleton did.  After a brutal Antarctic winter, a sea voyage in a small boat over hundreds of miles in the worst conditions, a climb over an uncharted mountain to get to a British outpost, and the trip back, not one life was lost – neither in the boat nor on land where most of the crew was sheltered.

Most managers have been promoted for one particular reason – high corporate earnings, sales, productivity, or financial oversight – but when they inherit a large department with many employees, they find it hard to match their political ambition and unique technical skills with personnel management.  They are often impatient, intolerant, even abusive in their attempt to right the ship or to set it sailing in their own new direction.

In an extreme example of such myopia, a departmental manager in a large private firm, relied on a popular affective assessment test to provide insights on how her employees might perform.  It would help, she said, to know if an employee were outgoing or reserved, people-oriented or work-focused, generous or private, etc.  A good manager would have already known the answers and known her employees, yet this one, confident of her ‘higher-level’ management skills (finance, economic performance, contract and legal affairs) but concerned about growing dissension in the ranks chose this discredited but popular parlor-trick to figure out what to do.

There are thousands of examples of managers who stumble over their own feet, who have no clue about social dynamics nor about individual aspirations and concerns, and who ultimately fail and leave many wounded on the corporate floor before they are dismissed.

So the sooner managers are replaced by intelligent software the better. 

The workplace, however, need not necessarily become robotic in an algorithmic environment.   As long as there people still manning the post and as long as they still spend eight hours a day together, they need to have ‘emotional time’ – time to be friendly, warm, humorous, or engaging.  Yet there is no reason why such water cooler camaraderie need disrupt the business of production.  It too can be factored, understood, controlled, and managed. 

The electronically-managed workplace is not a Brave New World.  It is most definitely a new world, but one which should be far more satisfactory than the old one run by bad managers.

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