Friday, October 6. 2017
About my interruptive/interactive quote/comment compulsion: Yes, it is treating a written text as a real-time conversation (in which you don’t normally hear the end till you reach the end).
Some (many) mea-culpas: Even in real oral conversations, I tend to interrupt before the person gets to finish, sometimes because I have already anticipated the finish or think I have (I’m of course sometimes/often wrong) and sometimes because I’m just impatient to reply (often because I’m afraid I’ll forget otherwise).
In my defence, on my own end, I don’t much speechify; I say my bit with minimal words, so as not to subject the other party to the kind of frustration I feel when someone is being long-winded. (I stop reading novels as well as monographs, too, when it’s obvious (or so I think) where they’re going, and it’s just words).
I think my interruptingness is also related in some way to my indiscretion, my saying things I shouldn’t say, divulging secrets, partly even a Trumpian hyperbole, stating things that I conjecture or wish were so as if they were fact. There is a definite impulsive/compulsive component to these ejaculations.
And of course the failure of open access and skywriting, which was specifically motivated by my belief that everyone was inclined and inspired to real-time interactivity, as I was — but instead turned out to be an olympic event at which I perhaps excelled but for which no one but me had any interest or appetite!
I tell it (or perhaps rationalize it) all here:
Harnad, S. (2003/2004) Back to the Oral Tradition Through Skywriting at the Speed of Thought. Interdisciplines.
(It’s against my nature, having said all this, to refer anyone to chapter-and-verse instead of just restating it simply and compactly on the spot, so I’ll say it: I thought the human brain (and thinking itself) evolved language for real-time, “online" exchanges at the speed of thought, not for the long, offline monologues that later supplemented it across time, space, and generations, in the form of writing and print.)
But it was just a fantasy, based on a compulsive quirk of mine.
‘Nuff said. Since then I have learned what I knew (as we all know) already, but had ducked for 50 years: It’s not about me (unlike this bit of self-indulgent self-flagellation).
Wednesday, October 4. 2017
Amia Srinavasan's critique of "Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference" by William MacAskill
is excellent, pointing out how much Effective Altruism (EA) simply takes for granted (e.g., capitalism itself, and the status quo).
But the worst is that EA is psychopathic -- as psychopathic as Darwinian evolution itself: Evolution's sole criterion is maximizing (“satisficing,” really) net survival and reproduction, and EA utilitarianism’s sole criterion is maximizing net utility. Both turn a blind, "rational" eye on collateral damage, including proximal collateral damage.
That’s not morality, it’s mathematics. And treating emotion as if it were just a vice or a distraction is not a virtue. In fact, it was (ironically) Darwinian evolution itself (the origin of sentience, hence suffering, hence all moral problems) that implanted empathy and compassion in mammals and birds (at least), probably in the adaptive service of reproductive success (in altricial K-selected species, at least, of which we are one). Without those traits we’d all be psychopaths (as r-selected, precocial species may be).
In the trolley problem, any mother who would not flip the switch to save her own child rather than another’s would be a psychopath. If it was for the sake of saving two children of another instead of her own child that she failed to flip the switch then she’d be an EA utilitarian — and a psychopath.
Altruism needs to be compassionate, not just “effective.” And charity begins at home (or it never begins at all). Nor would an uncharitable world be a hospitable one to live in: It would be rather like a zombie world. Surely an (emotionally!) weighted combination of EA and proximal compassion would be better than EA alone.
Sunday, September 3. 2017
The other-minds problem
Monday, August 7. 2017
voulez-vous un RODÉO à MONTRÉAL
ANNÉE après ANNÉE?
Alors que plusieurs villes et États dans le monde bannissent le rodéo en raison de la souffrance animale qui en résulte, se tiendra à Montréal, dans deux semaines, la « première édition » du nouveau rodéo urbain destinée à souligner le 375ème anniversaire de la ville…
§§§ While several cities and states worldwide are outlawing rodeos because of the suffering they cause, in Montreal, in two weeks, there will be the "first edition" of a new "urban rodeo" to celebrate the city’s 375th anniversary…
La réputation globale de Montréal en matière de bien-être animal s’en trouvera assurément entachée.
Montreal’s global reputation in matters of animal well-being will certainly find itself stained…Visiblement, le maire de Montréal ne s’en formalise pas :
Obviously the mayor of Montreal has no problem with this (video is in French):
Et qu’un cheval meurt lors d’une épreuve de monte extrême du même fournisseur de rodéos (St-Tite) trois mois avant son « rodéo urbain » ne le perturbe aucunement...
And the fact that a horse dies in a bronco-riding trial from the same rodeo producer (St-Tite) three months before his “urbain rodeo” does not trouble him either…
Grady, 6 ans, s’est fracturé la colonne vertébrale en raison d’une « zone de faiblesse » qui n’a pas été détectée au préalable, malgré les précautions que disent prendre les vétérinaires mandatés par le Rodéo de St-Tite. Si Grady n’avait pas été soumis au rodéo, il serait encore en vie aujourd’hui.
Grady, age six, broke his back because of a "weak area of his spine" which was not detected in advance, despite all the precautions that the St-Tite Rodeo's veterinarians boast of taking: If he had not been forced to perform in rodeos, Grady would still be alive today.NOUS AVONS BESOIN DE VOUS pour ramener le maire Coderre à la raison -- en démontrant que le rodéo est insoutenable et illégal !
Merci de soutenir notre campagne de financement (voir ci-dessous)
WE NEED YOU to bring mayor Coderre back to reason -- by proving the rodeo is untenable and illegal !
Sunday, July 16. 2017
Relatively speaking, decency is increasing (or deplorability is decreasing) (as Steve Pinker has noted) in the human population.
But alas the human population itself is increasing still faster, and with it the absolute amount of agony we are wreaking.
Otherwise put, we are (so far) becoming bigger faster than we are becoming better.
No solace for those being crushed under our collateral-damage footprint; not even when the only victims left on the planet will be the ones we purpose-breed, all the rest spared their fate only because we have exterminated them.
But the Trumps of this world — rich and poor — sleep soundly, whilst their own tomorrow is still well within sight…
As to climate-change-complacency:
A Chernobylesque comeback
millennia after the Fall
is hardly a consummation
devoutly to be desired
(other than by the daftly devout).
Sunday, July 9. 2017
[Exchange excerpted from Professor Éva Balogh’s Hungarian Spectrum]
Stevan Harnad [To Istvan, a retired US army officer residing in Chicago area]: "Istvan, Do you think there is the sense and the resolve to defy the “commander-in-chief” if he decides to fritter us away with the codes?"
Istvan: "Boy that is a complex question Stevan. This will not be short: Every US officer swears alligence to the Constitution of the United States, not to the president. We are commissioned by Congress and formally our names are read into the Congressional record. However, if Trump ordered an attack on North Korea, arguing that it was preemptive to a launch by the North Koreans, our military would obey that directive, in my opinion.
Wednesday, May 24. 2017
Mme Samson (ainsi que M Coderre) répètent depuis des mois exactement les mêmes phrases: « la santé de l’animal est prioritaire… [on nous a donné] l’assurance que les chevaux seront bien traités… les vétérinaires seront sur place »
On se demande, si la santé de l’animal est prioritaire, pourquoi on leur inflige les conditions qui nécessitent la présence des vétérinaires? Il y aura des médecins aussi, pour les cowboys, mais eux font ça volontairement. Les victimes animales n’ont pas le choix.
Et c’est qui qui a donné ses assurances que les chevaux seront « bien traités »? Ce n’est pas les vétérinaires salariés des rodéos par hasard? et/où le rodéo lui-même? ou l’organisation internationale des rodéos?
Car on sait que l’ordre des vétérinaires du Canada s’est opposé au rodéo; la SPCA de Montréal aussi. Et déjà presque 1000 vétérinaires et techniciens vétérinaires du Québec, du Canada, et de partout au monde, ont signé une lettre à M. Coderre demandant l’annulation du rodéo. Face à ces « différences d’opinion » M. Coderre et Mme Samson, étant des démocrates jusqu’au bout des doigts, ont pondéré les POUR et les CONTRE, et ils ont « tranché » contre la vaste majorité, en faveur des représentants de l’industrie du rodéo.
Voilà pour l’opinion des spécialistes vétérinaires indépendants. Il y a aussi trois pétitions en cours de route et déjà signées par plus de 20 000 citoyens qui ne sont pas convaincus que M. Coderre ait bien tranché.
Mais, grande surprise, Mme Samson semble avoir découvert un nouveau fait rassurant concernant les rodéos, pour renforcer sa confiance que les chevaux seront bien traités: « les chevaux ne seront pas obligés de performer »!
Ah oui? Alors ils ne seront pas mis dans un étal puis un cowboy ne sera pas logé sur leur dos, et un sangle autour de leur ventre, et puis une fois la porte de l'étal ouverte, les chevaux ne seront pas les bénéficiares des coups d’éperons aux épaules jusqu’à ce qu’ils ne se libèrent des coups en ruant désespérément pour déloger le cowboy et ses talons? Les victimes auront le droit de vote?
Tuesday, May 9. 2017
I was seventeen and on a downtown bus headed for my french horn lesson at the conservatory. It was late afternoon, the bus was crowded, as were the streets, because rush hour was just beginning. My anxiety was increasing with the traffic because I had, characteristically, not allowed enough leeway for this unpredictable time of day, and it looked as if I might arrive late for my lesson. As I peered nervously through the windows to gauge the progress of the traffic to see whether I would be better off walking the last eight blocks, I noticed, in the middle of the major intersection where my bus was waiting for the traffic light to change, a small, skinny white dog, running back and forth in panic in the middle of the opposing traffic, which was moving in the irate and unpredictable spurts characteristic of that uncertain hour, hazardous even for beings capable of understanding traffic lights, crosswalks and rights-of-way.
My quick fix on the congestion had told me that things were still moving fast enough to make me better off staying on the bus than trying my luck on foot -- particularly with my bulky instrument in one hand and university books in the other. So my first reaction upon seeing the dog's situation was irritation, perhaps even resentment. Not that she was blocking traffic, for in fact all the drivers, particularly aggressive at this hour, seemed completely oblivious to her plight, and were grabbing whatever territorial opportunities opened to them as if not only she, but the laws of the land, did not exist. No, my resentment was that she had now added a further complication to my prospects for making my lesson in time; I followed her fitful path with as much anxiety for my own welfare as hers: Would she make it to a corner, out of my sight, and hence out of my necessity to continue to be concerned for her? Or would I have to get off the bus and try to guide her out of her jam? I even had time for a self-serving rationalization: Even if I got her to a corner, this was too dangerous an urban location, no place for a dog, and she would soon be in trouble again after I had rushed off to my lesson. In other words, she was doomed, and there was no reason for me to be dragged down with her.
One wonders how many potential humanitarian acts end up still-born because of considerations like these. The thought crossed my mind that if I hadn't been so late, it would have been different; that it was neurotic to be so late; that it was even more neurotic to consider making myself later. I think I even had time to reflect, partly out of self-congratulation, partly out of self-flagellation, that I had been involved in this sort of thing before; that no good had ever come of it, either to the one I was trying to help or to myself; that I had probably (insulated by the very reactions I was then undergoing) turned my back on many more situations like this than the few in which I had prided (and upbraided) myself for having acted; that the world contained infinitely more of them than could be encompassed by my imagination, not to mention my actual experience, or anyone else's. I even -- yes, unrelenting moral memory tells me that even this confession does not exaggerate the momentary resources my mind mobilized to excuse me from action -- I even mentally surveyed my current existential plight, and had time to call up some self-pity to try to exorcise whatever pity the dog might force on my psyche: My horn lessons weren't going well; I wasn't practicing seriously; my academic work was also in a mess; I was miserably lonely.
These moral vacillations, powerful and enterprising as they were, were very fleeting, for they were interrupted by the impatient blast of a car's horn as the lights changed and the dog's immediate source of peril made a sudden 90 degree shift. The horn's blast induced a movement of such human-like despair and terror in that little dog, who disappeared from my line of sight, obscured by the new direction of movement of the traffic, that I moved with reflexive resignation to the exit door, now no longer even inclined to leave it to fate whether the bus, just about to proceed on its course across the intersection, would still honor the bus-stop, which was technically at the corner, and had not yet been reached in the stalled traffic, although several passengers -- the only ones interested in disembarking here -- had already been discharged.
I rang the bell urgently, to make it clear that I was intent on invoking my statutory rights to get off at the official bus stop. The driver looked as if he wasn't going to buy that; the bus hurtled forward, but the traffic didn't give much opportunity for progress. We came to a stop in the middle of the intersection, and at this point I set up such an incessant series of bell-ringings that the driver, not without a curse that drew even more of the unsympathetic and short-tempered passengers' attention to me, released the exit door and I leapt off, rushed in front of the bus, caught sight of the dog, who was close to a panic-freeze between the opposing traffic parallel to the bus, and, by turns, coaxed and chased it toward the corner near which I had disembarked, not without holding up the bus's progress one more time by gesticulating and interposing myself between it and the space that had by now opened up in front of it, until the dog had reached safety. (More curses from the bus-driver, and incensed murmurs from the passengers, no doubt, once they realized the reason for my urgent exit, and my further negative contribution to their advancement.)
My reflexive series of acts had not settled the problem of the sequel. In my mind I was still nervously entertaining the idea of rushing on to my lesson, except that it was apparent that the dog was still in great danger. She was in a kind of daze; she wouldn't let me approach her, and she several times almost ran into the street again. My chasing her back from the street did not increase her inclination to allow me to get nearer, but I had already gotten close enough for a remarkable personal transformation to occur in my attitude toward her.
I don't quite know how to explain this, but I somehow got the kind of feeling you get when you realize that someone you thought or expected to be rather common turns out to give every indication of being from a "good family." I had expected a scruffy stray in this part of town, and not a young one; and, for some reason, I also expected it to be a male. She turned out to be very young (perhaps ten months old), a female, and because she had a collar, perhaps she was not even homeless. On the other hand, she was pitifully thin, and her collar had no license or identification. She was of a medium-sized terrier-like mixed breed, with potentially erect ears and tail, but both of which were (understandably) always down low now. Her hair was longish white and discolored by urban street-life, and -- let the reader laugh, I am still inexpressibly moved twenty years later as I write this -- some sort of infection made her brown, panic- stricken eyes, partly obscured by tufts of her off-white hair, look inescapably as if she were weeping, or, more accurately, as if she had been weeping a great deal, and that its residue had gathered in the corner of her eyes and had moistened and matted the fur along both sides of her muzzle.
I will not dwell on the necessity of such anthropomorphic cues, sometimes illusory, for the elicitation of compassion. A hardened street-wise stray who had adopted an adversarial, exploitative attitude, perhaps a menacing one, toward man, would have been in no less need in this situation than she was, and would perhaps provide the real test of the "goodness" of our hearts. But her human-like startle at the car horn, the tearful look of her eyes, the hint of being (or having been) of a "good family," her emaciated condition, her plight itself, even, I suspect in retrospect, her being a female -- all these conspired to make me incapable, truly incapable, of considering going on to my lesson; and much more than that, for already, I now know, processes had been set in motion -- processes that I did not yet consciously recognize at that time, and that were perhaps not yet irreversible -- that were to intertwine her fate inextricably with mine.
She wouldn't let me approach her. I knew I had to secure her somehow, or else she would be back in the traffic or would disappear in the streets. Although I couldn't get near her, I noticed that she had established some sort of contact with me, because she watched when I spoke to her, and didn't seem about to run off. I tried to get her to follow me at a distance, and I was partially successful, but when I stopped, she stopped, and if I approached her, she would back away. I thought she might approach if I offered her some food, but I was afraid that if I went into a grocery story (which was nearby) she would not be there when I came out. I took the chance, emerging several times during the transaction (I bought a pound of hamburger) to see whether she was still there. She was. I came out with the hamburger, removed it from the cellophane so she could smell it, and tried to get closer to her. She backed away. I threw a piece of hamburger toward her, she jumped back, then approached to smell it, but did not eat it. I tried getting her to follow me at a distance again, slowly, and then, still more slowly, I tried to narrow the distance between us, holding the hamburger in front of me all the while. I had uneasily set down my French horn, whose huge black carrying-case I thought might be frightening her; the rest of my maneuvers were performed with repeated nervous sidelong glances at my instrument, sitting there prominently for any passer-by to grab and run off with. She finally let me approach her, and after a few false starts, during which my objective was to get her to eat the hamburger so I could get hold of her collar -- whereas all she ever did was sniff the hamburger, she never did eat a bite -- I succeeded in securing her collar and gently attached to it the leash of my own dog, Lady, a leash which I always carried in my pocket in those days, even though I rarely used it with Lady.
This story is not about my own dog, Lady, but I must make two pertinent asides here, concerning her. The first is that I loved her very much, and I recall quite distinctly that at the moment I was putting the leash on the white dog (who, since she never did get a name, I will henceforth call "W.") I felt as if I was somehow being unfaithful. The second thing is that I was very worried that W. might have a disease, which I was afraid of communicating to Lady, so all my maneuvers were performed with a minimum of bodily contact. Although W. was very submissive once I got the leash on her (not, I had occasion to reflect at the time, because she seemed used to being on a leash, but on the contrary, because it seemed to frighten her, and her fear was expressed as a kind of dazed submission), I could not reassure her by petting her, because of this fear of contagion. So it was only with words that I could try to console her in her captivity.
Time was passing; it was getting dark; it was very hard for me to negotiate my instrument, my books, and W.'s leash (especially without unduly frightening her) all at one time; I had jettisoned the hamburger.
I decided to call the SPCA -- not, I hasten to add, because I had any intention of allowing her to meet the usual fate of SPCA strays. But I knew that they had a grace period, during which owners could claim their runaways, and a second grace period in which they could be adopted. I called the SPCA and confirmed that it was possible for me to leave my name and number and to reclaim custody of W. if the two grace periods elapsed without success.
A truck came to pick her up. I gave my name and number, and I watched as she, with fateful resignation, was led off with Lady's leash. I did not, from the time the SPCA truck arrived, attempt to look at her eyes.
When I reached home, I asked that Lady be locked in a room while I put all my clothes in the laundry hamper and bathed, because of the fears I have mentioned. Then I called the branch of the SPCA where W. had been taken, confirmed her arrival as well as my intention to reclaim her if the two grace periods passed unsuccessfully. I called them several times, actually, because I particularly wanted a veterinary report, and to keep them reminded of my intentions.
At this point another round of introspection -- like the one to which I subjected my first few instants of reaction upon first seeing W. from the bus -- is in order. I said, and I meant it, that when I sent W. off to the SPCA I had no intention of abandoning her. I was at that moment under two direct influences: that of W.'s existence and presence, with which, as I mentioned, my life was already unconsciously becoming intertwined, and that of my own dog, whom I was very afraid of making ill (and toward whom, as I mentioned, I felt vaguely but palpably guilty of a kind of infidelity). The scenario I feared most, because it coincided so much with my characteristic caprices, was that W. would prove to have had a fatal illness, and that the only consequence of my heroic gesture would turn out to have been that I had missed my horn lesson and communicated the fatal illness to Lady. In this feared scenario there was no room for concern about W.'s fate: if anything, it revived that feeling of resentment at interference that I had had when I first saw her, and frustration with myself for having gotten involved, putting a loved one at risk. If W. was fatally ill, then plucking her out of the traffic hardly justified the effort, and the risk. I passed a very troubled night, in which W.'s own troubles played no part at all.
The next day, upon inquiry, I was informed by the SPCA that W. had been found to be healthy, though undernourished. At this point, aside from relief (on Lady's behalf), my involvement with W.'s fate became mechanical, confined to the periodic telephone inquiries to the SPCA during her grace periods. It is true that, upon first hearing that she was healthy, and realizing that my own dog was hence safe, I again for a brief time visualized her again, her eyes especially, and I had the feeling that she had had a second reprieve, the first having been from the traffic, the second from a hypothetical illness; and I felt that the second reprieve brought me somehow closer to her. But this soon subsided, and I went through the pro forma telephone calls hoping, I suppose, for her sake and mine, first, that her "good family" would turn up to reclaim her, and when I had been informed that that had failed to happen, hoping that someone would adopt her.
I say that these periodic inquiries had become mechanical: as time elapsed -- I vaguely recall that the first grace period was three days and the second a week, or perhaps vice versa -- my inquiries also became less reliable, so that, when about ten days had passed, I suddenly became alarmed that her deadline may have gone by without my intervention and that she had been killed. I called up in something of a panic and they informed me that her time had indeed elapsed, that it was lucky I had called because there had been no plans to keep her any longer, and that I had better go to get her right away.
As I drove to pick her up my mind kept re-enacting what would have happened if I had dragged it out one more day before calling. I felt horrified with myself and my negligence; as W. had, since the sudden upsurge of apprehension that had precipitated the phone call, suddenly become real to me again, I felt how despicable my slackness had been, and how, although capable of rising to the occasion of going through the motions of certain humanitarian acts, I was no humanitarian at all, just a contemptibly irresponsible and unreliable human being. I was also desperately worried that they might not wait until I got to the shelter to do away with her. I pictured the indifferent bureaucracy that must exist there, as everywhere else, whose main function is dispatching these little creatures as expeditiously as possible to their prescribed fates, and I could not understand how I could have been so complacent as to trust the increasingly lax telephone surveillance I had been exercising to ensure her survival.
She was there, and alive, and this time I had no hesitation about touching her and hugging her and kissing her, and -- hadn't I correctly guessed that she was from a "good family" -- she returned my affection at once. The only thing that worried me was that she was still underweight; but, attributing this to SPCA fare, I felt confident that Mason's Animal Hospital -- my own dog's veterinarians since her earliest days -- where I was taking her to be boarded, would soon bring her weight to normal.
I must explain why there had never been any question of my bringing W. home, even when she proved to be healthy. The first reason was that I felt (and still feel) that it would have been an act of betrayal to Lady, who did not in any case have the happiest of lives. (I cannot elaborate on this; it would be a whole other story.) The second reason was that I was living at home; my father had not been too sympathetic to the acquisition of Lady in the first place, and although he was now reconciled to her presence, another dog would have been out of the question. A third, though superfluous reason, since the first two were decisive, is that it is in general unpredictable whether two unrelated female dogs can co-exist peacefully. So I had known all along that boarding at Mason's would have to be the next step. My plan had been to place an ad in the paper, offering W. for adoption, and to pay for her boarding out of some savings I had from summer work until she was adopted.
During that trip from the SPCA to Mason's I must describe another experience I had, because it begins to become a kind of leitmotif of W.'s story. I mentioned that I was not happy that she was still so underweight. She still had her eye infection too, and I wondered that the SPCA veterinarian had not treated, or even mentioned it in giving her her clean bill of health. In the car, though, that tearful look of hers, which had become much more poignant now that I was seeing her not for the first time, and immediately after having feared the worst, brought home to me that this had in fact been her third reprieve: the first from the streets, the second from the threat of illness, and the third from the SPCA's gas chamber. I was at that moment very conscious of the preciousness of her life; but it would not be long before I would withdraw from her again.
We arrived at Dr. Mason's and his son, the young Dr. Mason examined her as I related her story, her three reprieves, and my intention to board her until she was adopted. He did not look very enthusiastic. I told him that there was no problem, I had the money to board her for a month or more, if necessary, and that I was sure that it would be easy to find her a home. He said that that wasn't the problem; the fact was that she was not well; that, in fact, she had "hardpad." The name did not sound ominous, since I knew that the three chief illnesses to worry about with dogs were rabies, hepatitis, and distemper. I thought it might have been something that she had gotten from being on the streets too long; but he shook his head and said that it was another expression for an advanced form of distemper, that it was highly contagious, and that it was almost certainly fatal; he advised me to have her destroyed at once.
My spirit colluded at once. I withdrew my hand and stopped looking at her directly. It was as if her fate was already sealed.
"But what about Lady?" My voice was hollow: "Is she going to catch it through me?"
"Very unlikely. It's mainly a disease of very young dogs."
"Is there no treatment?"
"No. It's viral. All we can do, if we keep her alive at all, is to give her the usual antibiotics against secondary infections and see whether she can somehow pull through. But I don't advise it. She has a cough, which will get worse, and she's going to suffer. She hasn't had an easy life either, in the streets. Even with home-raised dogs we advise against maintaining them if they contract this. They have to be kept in quarantine, and, as I mentioned, they hardly ever make it."
My desertion of her was complete. It was as if she had already died.
"Are you sure there's no danger to Lady?"
"She gets her shots every year. She's three years old. Bring her for another booster if it'll settle your mind, but it's not really necessary. Just wash your hands before you leave in case you run into any puppies, and don't worry about it."
"Do I have to decide -- about her -- right now?"
"No, we can put her in quarantine and you can let us know by telephone tomorrow what you want done."
I didn't look at her directly as the attendant came to lead her away, still wearing Lady's leash. 0 0 Despite Dr. Mason's reassurances, I went through the same laundry and bath ritual when I got home as I had done ten days earlier, and returned immediately afterward for Lady's booster shot. But that troubled night I didn't think about Lady, because W. came back to me, and this time for good. I saw her, as clearly as I see her now, scurrying distractedly back and forth in the intersection, cowering, crouching low, looking over her shoulder, ears down, panic in her eyes, then the horn blast, and that all too human movement of despair; then the chasing and coaxing until I could put the leash on her, keeping her always at arm's length; her departure, morally alone, for the SPCA, my sudden upsurge of anxiety, only that same day, for her neglected fate; then the reunion, and bodily contact at last, only to be abruptly withdrawn soon after, for her second departure, morally alone again.
But most of all, I recalled her face, her sad, moist eyes: Why hadn't I asked about her eye infection? Because, if she was doomed, what difference does it make? Well it does make a difference. I want it treated. Even if she dies, I want her eye infection treated, because I want to see her face again without tears. I want her to feel what it's like to be without tears, even for a little while.
The next day, I phoned Dr. Mason Jr. to tell him that I wanted her to be kept alive and treated. I asked about the eye infection. He said the antibiotics would help clear that up. I said that I would be responsible for her expenses and that I would be inquiring regularly about her condition, and I just wanted to be told if she deteriorated to a point that they felt she was suffering too much to justify keeping her alive.
She got steadily worse. The cough, which I had not even noticed, with each of my visits grew stronger. Her temperature was high. She was losing her hair, and she seemed to be getting even thinner. Her eyes were not improving. The veterinarians were remote and unencouraging. They seemed to be treating it as a pig-headed layman's disregard of sound professional judgment. Only the quarantine attendants seemed to have taken some interest in her fate. It seems the tearful, coughing, emaciated little creature had somehow won them over, despite the many others in their charge, and despite the inevitable hardening of the attitude toward individual cases that such work brings. I think it was a combination of her brave little fight against her increasingly powerful adversary and the manifestations of that personality that had made me so quickly conclude that she came from a good family. I cannot say much about this personality, alas, because I was never to know W. as well as they got to know her then. But gradually -- laugh again, reader, but I cannot call it anything other than what it was -- her courage and character even began winning over the veterinarians, one in particular, who used to spend a lot of time with her, and eventually became the one I always asked for when I called in for a report. He spoke, though not optimistically, as if it was not entirely absurd of me to be pursuing this option.
And then the day came when they thought she might have a chance of pulling through. Her cough, though still very persistent, had lost that alarming, cavernous quality. It seemed dryer and more superficial. She gained some weight. Her temperature went down. Her hair stopped falling out and began to show some lustre. Her eye infection seemed to improve too, but here the effect was the slightest. Her eyes seemed to be there to remind you that there was still something very wrong. Then the day came when they announced that, in their judgment, she had passed the critical phase, and had a good chance of making it. She was no longer contagious. She was taken out of quarantine. I was allowed to hold her again. She was the pride of the animal hospital. Even the most hardened of the vets admired her for her victory.
The search for an adoptive home was less successful. As soon as I was informed that she had rallied, I placed the ad, but no one responded. I wish I could remember the text. It must have been something like "Good-natured young white female dog available for good family."
I say that after that first night at Mason's I never abandoned her again. But perhaps that's not entirely true. Who knows whether greater personal efforts on my part might not have succeeded in finding her a home? I had no intention of letting anything happen to her, but perhaps I was a little too complacent with the optimistic outcome of her illness and the secure (while my money lasted) boarding conditions at Mason's. At any rate, I do recall that there was a friend of my mother's who was expressing some interest in W. at that time, and may even have gone to see her; but nothing had come of it.
Meanwhile, I was having problems at home. That too would be another story. Let me say only that I have a tendency to be overvoluble, verbally, about both my adventures and my avatarres. My summer money was beginning to run out, and that worried me. The adoption search was not turning out to be an easy matter either. The family as a whole was having financial problems. My father, as I had mentioned, was not too well-disposed toward dogs, or what he viewed as senseless expenditures; there were difficulties between my parents, and I was at that age, and my father of the sort of difficult nature, that combine to make father/son conflicts very likely. The actual precipitating agent was a loose word from me to my grandmother (my mother knew about my protegee, my father did not), a word repeated by her, with no evil intent, to my father on a day (a Friday) when he experienced some particularly alarming business losses, a word to the effect that I had been supporting for some time, a stray dog. It was my mother who called me to tell me that my father was angry and had called Mason's. She didn't seem to know the details, and she seemed to have delayed somewhat in telling me, because my father had warned her not to interfere, and he seemed in general to be very upset.
My memory becomes somewhat confused about when, precisely, I acted that day. I know I was furious with my mother for not having told me at once. But I could not swear that I myself acted instantly when I got the information; there is something of the aura of my delay with the SPCA that also surrounds this event. Besides, I wasn't sure, precisely, what my father had said to Mason's. As I thought about it, though, I know that my apprehensions grew. And I clearly recall that when I did pick up the phone to call Mason's it was with immense agitation and a sense of great urgency. And yet I felt some confidence -- or, if not confidence, a sense of defiant expectation -- that even if the worst had happened, even if my father had ordered them to destroy W., they would not have done it, at least not yet, because of the wide support system I knew she had there.
I tried to get the veterinarian I usually talked to about her progress, but I got Dr. Mason Jr. instead.
"Did my father call you today?"
"What did he say?"
"He said that he was your father, that you were a minor, that he had just learned that you had been supporting a dog here for some time, that you were not in a financial position to do so, that he would send a check for the expenses to date but that, as of today, financial support would be discontinued."
"And what did you do?"
"We had the dog destroyed."
(I was no longer speaking with the voice of a seventeen-year old near adult, but with that of a dismayed, breathless child, fighting back his tears.) "When?"
"At once, as soon as we had received your father's call."
I can remember some very distracted attempts at recrimination, and Dr. Mason's attempting to soothe me as one would a child, but against a background attitude that I clearly felt to be a primary allegiance to bureaucracy, authority, business. I think I asked to speak to the other veterinarian, the one that had shown the special interest. I don't remember whether they said he was off that day or whether he actually came to the phone and told me he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do. I hope it was the first. I know that next day I wrote a letter to Dr. Mason Jr. with a very melodramatic title, something like "To the murderers of. . .," in which I, aside from expressing recriminations, enclosed a signed, blank check for W.'s expenses to date and requested that they return to my father any money he had sent them. They returned my check to me.
My relationship with my father was never again the same. I more-or-less "ran away from home" for a day, if one can speak of doing such things at the advanced age of seventeen. I was at that time mixed up with a Yoga Center (something which very much distressed my father), and spent the night there, after walking to its downtown location on foot. I remember that I mentally composed what I thought was a remarkably good poem during that three hour walk, but I cannot remember its contents at all. I know that, although it did not originate then, a general tendency I had toward suspicion and lack of confidence in the written word was consolidated at that time by somehow becoming infused with the strong sense of betrayal that was in the air; and I have not written any poetry, before or since. I told some garbled version of the whole affair to the Swami, who, in retrospect, was probably only humoring me in pretending to take it at all seriously. I must have sensed this, because I did not stay at the Yoga center, but returned home the next day. I wrote my father a letter -- a very bitter letter, to the effect that what he had done was an unfeeling mockery of the scruples underlying my vegetarianism (then of six months' standing, now of twenty years') and that, if there had been any object lesson about financial responsibility intended, it had had the opposite effect, for, whatever my prior tendencies, I would now never, never, hold money to be a greater consideration than the welfare of an innocent creature, that our relationship was irreparably damaged, etc., etc. -- and did not speak to him again for a long time, which, I know, hurt him very much, for he was not to live that many more years himself, and somehow the breach was never mended.
I could not, for a long time, assimilate the fact that she was dead, and especially that they had let her die. I obsessed over the fact that she had had five reprieves (the fourth was from the initial veterinary verdict to destroy her and the fifth was from the distemper itself) in order to be killed by my father and her doctors. But far greater than my desire to lay blame and make reproaches was an unfathomable sorrow that I felt that she was gone; that I, and life, had had nothing more to offer her than that; that she had never even had the chance to gain the freedom to romp and play, far away from traffic; that people never got a chance to reward her for her wonderful little personality or her brave little spirit; that she never had the chance to return to the "good family" where she belonged; that never, in her short life, did her tearful little eyes have the chance to dry.
My love for W. was added to my love for Lady, whom I already loved very much. Indeed, it often happened that when I saw scenes of animals, children, indeed any feeling organism helplessly suffering, in life or in films such as Mondo Cane, Lady, and her own expressive eyes, would touch me as the silent, all-comprehending witness and representative of this collective martyrdom, and I would feel all the closer to her. Strangely enough, however, it was not until Lady's death many years later that I ceased to experience any trace of the occasional pangs of "infidelity" of which I spoke earlier. And I never "replaced" Lady. I think I understand all this better now, but it too is part of another story, Lady's story.
When Lady died, and I requested her veterinary records from Mason's Animal Hospital (to which I had stopped taking her for several years after W.'s death, but to which I eventually returned) it was the critical dates in Lady's life that I primarily wanted to see and relive through the clinical chronology for which I had no counterpart but my own memories. And yet, even then, in formally requesting Lady's records, I know that I must have alluded to W.'s case, too, for here is Dr. Mason Jr.'s brief reply, and some extracts from the records themselves:
(1975 August 22):
In 1975, I added, alongside the entry for November 27, 1962, in Hungarian, "Anyám, csak nem te voltál az?" ("Mother, surely you weren't the one?"), but I now realize that it makes little difference whether she had been intimidated into doing it herself, or my father had simply used the conventional idiom "My wife feels..." The fact is that many more sad events had followed in the wake of this one, among them the deaths of most of the individuals involved. Laying blame restores nothing, and it is only toward the future that one can turn to make reparations. I for my part have taken refuge in my vegetarianism, which is, at best, a quietistic and futile gesture, I know, parodied these days on all sides by look-alikes motivated by food-faddism, health obsessions, ennui in ecological guise, pseudomorality, or just plain cultishness, practiced by self-obsessed individuals freely commuting -- on what I have informally reckoned to be about a nine-monthly basis -- from one superficial preoccupation to another. I even have the sinking feeling that the only ones who will profess any "empathy" with this tale are the enthusiasts of those revolting "Meow-meow-meow" cat-food commercials. That doesn't matter either. I had here something to evoke and expiate, and if it is only for myself that it resonates with those universal features of the irremediable suffering of sentient creatures and our own impotent inertia in its face, then that will be resonance enough.
These last words are for you, little W. Toward whatever "literary" ends I may turn your story, you are unable to object, but even if you could, I know you would not, because it is not in your nature. And yet I apologize to you, because I cannot deny the sense of pose and imposture that pervades what I have attempted to chronicle here. Perhaps that feeling is none other than the sense of the "unfaithfulness" -- to reality, to life -- of all art. And is there not already an element of artifice, of breach of faith, once one seeks to express any impression whatever, be it in speech, writing, painting or any other expressive medium? Perhaps not even the impression itself -- the point in time and space when the outside world, especially in the form of another being, touches us -- is unadulterated, as we appropriate it, assimilate it to other impressions, and to ourselves. We are not, after all, the blank slates some philosophers thought us, but diverse constellations, all, against which life's cumulating imprints are merely juxtaposed, not faithfully recorded. The outcome is no more likely to be in conformity with reality than with our own wills. And yet, as futile as it seems to aspire to fix anything in this experiential flux, let words at least do their formal duty and close this tale by devolving again upon the nameless little creature that has inspired them: You have found a safe haven, in my heart, for as long as I shall live; and perhaps, after all, this story will grant your memory a few more reprieves, in the hearts of others, dear little W.
June 2 1992
This 'sage petite fille'
was not always so sage.
cured her juvenile 'rages.'
"Don't pass pers'nal remarks,"
her Miss Fallows would say;
so safe are our foibles
with her to this day.
As in reading to Papa
she'd skip 'faits divers,'
parts marked 'don't read' in novels
were as if they weren't there.
Not that all one demanded
would she do to please:
to this day she'll sit only
on gentlemen's knees.
From her first glimpse of D'Anunzio,
with his fabled gloves of green,
through the trash-can with Herr Tillich:
much flirtation has there been.
And how often has she chuckled
when we cite some grand persona:
"Ah, comme il était charmant, c'ui-la,
et un Grand Flirt à moi!"
But all these flirtations
count as nothing at all
since that fated tea in Brussels
when Gaby met her Paul.
Ever trusting intuitions,
what she wrote she knew was right
when she resolved they'd "Pass NOT
Like Ships in the Night."
So with the Bruxelle Banque seal
and a sense of certainty
was Gabrielle duly delivered to the
"Forêts sauvages de la Germanie."
There Paul at once discovered,
with a little more than pride,
his prenuptial scientific lecture delivered,
he had married a "verry intelligentt brride."
Their Odyssey to Princeton
now is history:
Sans their goûters and déjeuners,
oh where would we all be?
So thank you, Gabrielle,
for sharing this, your centenaire:
See you fin-de-siecle to
usher in the millenaire!
Monday 25 August 1997
I am sorry I could not say goodbye to you in person, while you were
here. Now that you are everywhere, even this email proxy will reach you
wherever you are. You of course believed -- and were right -- that we
are nowhere when we are no longer alive. But in the same breath, you
would have understood exactly what we meant when we said you would be
You were the vanguard for many, many of us. Our life-voyage always
followed territory that had already been charted in advance and
certified as safe for passage by you. It was reassuring to think
"Gabrielle is ahead of us, and there is no way we can overtake her to
pass! She'll ALWAYS be ahead of us" (as the Tortoise said to
But to think you'd always be ahead of us was perhaps to commit the same
inductive fallacy that the chicken commits, when she thinks there will
always be a tomorrow. For here we are in a world that is -- for the first
time for any of us -- Gabrielle-less. And yet how can it be
Gabrielle-less, if we are here, at 57 Princeton Avenue, remembering,
talking about you?
You used to say, after Paul died, that you wished people would talk to
you about him more. We failed you in this regard, and I'm not sure why.
It's probably because we each had our own side of Paul, one that we
thought was our very own, and that we also knew there was a side of Paul
that was completely reserved for Gaby -- despite those many
flirtations about which the agreement had been that you need describe
them to one another only in "generalities."
You continued your voyage for nearly two decades without Paul, but you
stated clearly from the outset that your heart was not in it. You
continued the dejeuners for as long as your health permitted, and your
gouters continued to the last. If asked, you would have said it was all
"de la tenue," because it would be ungracious to do otherwise. And yet
we know that was not entirely true. You genuinely loved your many
friends, and even some women too. (Lewis Carroll's "I love children,
except boys" has an echo here!)
There was a brilliant, eccentric Hungarian mathematician -- not John
Von Neuman, whom you knew, but Paul Erdős -- about whom it was said
that if you collaborated directly with Paul Erdős [pronounced
"err-dirsh"], then you have an Erdos number of 1; if you collaborated
with a collaborator of Erdos, your Erdős number was 2. Well it turns
out that once you reach an Erdős number of 4, you have exhausted the
ranks of the elite mathematicians -- Fields Medal calibre -- the world over.
We all have a Gabrielle number of 1. You are everywhere because those
Gabrielle numbers will just keep growing and growing.
Bises et adieu, Etienne
Monday, May 8. 2017
verba volant, scripta manent... sanguis fluit
I am not
a failed novelist
a failed poet
When I try
to tell a tale
to sing a song
It's not my consolation prize
but a precious realization
that not orgasms
neither having them
nor giving them
but mercy only
Tuesday, May 2. 2017
The EU has no way to rid itself of a malign, corrupt, incompetent madman, sustained by an evil entourage, who has managed to get himself elected by a minority of deplorables in a gerrymandered electoral system.
The US has no way to rid itself of a malign, corrupt, incompetent moron, sustained by an evil entourage, who has managed to get himself elected by a minority of deplorables in a gerrymandered electoral system.
Sunday, April 30. 2017
Autopilot of my soul
One of the most (morbidly) interesting things
about cognitive aging
is that it is not the things you do deliberately
one by one,
to betray and abandon you:
It’s the things your brain has always done for you automatically,
your autopilot functions
(and there have been so many, you come to discover)
that begin to jump ship,
leaving you more and more on your own,
realizing (too late)
that it's never been you
doing all these things all along:
they’ve always been done for you.
And now -- now -- you’re the one
who has to take over.
Wednesday, April 19. 2017
No, the fear and ambivalence of Hungarian Jewry was not because of 50 years of communism.
My parents left in 1948, when I was three.
I had been baptized in Budapest,
and I didn’t learn that I was jewish till I was nine,
Other jews of Hungarian origin in Canada did not learn till they were adults
— and some are still in denial to this day.
Nor did it start with the Shoah.
Pogroms had been ongoing for centuries.
My father converted when he was 19, in 1919,
because of numerus clausus,
changed his name from Hesslein to "Harnad,"
then my mother's from (Jüdin) Süss to "Simoni".
(Nor did it save them from having to go underground with a false identity in 1944.
And forty members of my family on both sides were exterminated.)
No, the fear and ambivalence of Hungarian Jewry was not because of 50 years of communism.
One lifetime in Hungary will do that for you,
or even just its aftermath.
Many years ago, in the 1970s, when I lived in Princeton and my brother was visiting, we went to a Hungarian bookstore in nearby New Bunswick (NJ) where there has been a Hungarian emigré community since the early 1900s). We shook hands with the owner, a Mr. Somodi, who immediately began to address us “per du” (tegezés), delighted to hear that Hungarians who had emigrated at a young age so long ago (1949) still spoke Hungarian.
Well, we got around to inquiring about Hungarian restaurants in New Brunswick “because there are quite a few Hungarians living in Princeton.”
He asked: “Really? Who are these Hungarians?”
I cited, as an example, Eugene Wigner (Wigner Jenő, a Nobel laureate).
I can still remember Somodi’s words, from 40 years ago (no need to translate them into English):
“Wigner? Hát az nem Magyar, az Zsidó!”
(Enlightened, by inference, about our likely ethnicity, I think he suspended the “per du,” and we suspended our browsing…)
Monday, April 17. 2017
Some interesting features of the “post-truth” time-warp that we’re all finding ourselves in:
1. The web empowers anyone to start rumors.It’s a kind of a perverse side-effect of what Karl Popper pointed out about scientific theories: Unlike mathematical theorems, you can never prove they’re true, only that they’re false (with one piece of negative evidence). And evidence is subject to interpretation.
It reminds one also of the malleability and mutability of laws and constitutions: They too depend on interpretation. And interpretation depends on authoritative opinion. And authority is conferred on the basis of… take your pick: popular opinion or authoritarian diktat.
Online-era populism may be the soft underbelly of democracy.
Let’s hope the US labyrinth of checks and balances can weather the post-truth storm. Hungary’s is already a shipwreck.
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