Monday, January 14, 2008
"In short, anything can be said of world history, anything conceivable even by the most disordered imagination. There is only one thing that you can’t say–that it had anything to do with reason."
In a recent post, economist David Berri writes about books applying economics to other subject, and discusses the idea (as expressed by Tim Harford) that
"Rational people respond to incentives: When it becomes more costly to do something, they will tend to do it less; when it becomes easier, cheaper, or more beneficial, they tend to do it more. In weighing up their choices, they will bear in mind the overall constraints upon them: not just the costs and benefits of a specific choice, but their total budget. And they will also consider the future consequences of present choices."
In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky raises an objection against (among other things) the belief that human beings will behave according to their own best interests, if they could only be taught them. The man from the underground suggests that human desire cannot be easily quantified, and further suggests that "reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s intellectual faculties, while volition is a manifestation of the whole of life, I mean of the whole of human life including both reason and speculation."
It again strikes me that the mode of thinking Dostoevsky argues against is precisely the mode of thinking in economics. The man from the underground seems to suggest that people's desires transcend simple definitions of "incentives," that humans can and do behave against their own incentives or best interests (primarily in order to assert their free will, to prove they are not sprigs on a barrel organ), and that humans can't really be expected to act according to reason (as they often don't).
I'm chasing after windmills.
Finishing a book
I've been carrying Dostoevsky's The Idiot around with me for about a month. I'm a horrifyingly slow reader (ah, but I remember what I read fairly well, better than most, I think), the timing has been bad (finals week grading, Holiday visiting, lots and lots of football), and frankly taking care of a one year old limits reading time.
As I've been in Dostoevsky's world, it has felt to me as a world without beginning (since I started it at a Final, associating it with last semester, which seems worlds away by this point) and no end. And now, I'll soon be leaving this world. It's a bit...disorienting. In my thesis on John Fowles' The Magus, I argue that Nicholas the narrator's suicide attempt is inauthentic, because the weight of the pages after this chapter convince the reader that the attempt will fail. And the weight of pages of The Idiot has seemed interminable, as if the events could carry on forever (Dostoevsky's seeming lack of structure contributes).
But now I've got less than 90 pages, and it's terribly obvious that events will end. I know they soon must. And yet nothing in the book is occurring as if any denouement is on its way.
But the next book I plan to read is Dostoevsky's The Adolescent, so I won't be out of his world for long. I've really be working through the master's major works. Dostoevsky is my desert island novelist--I don't think I would need any other novels but his.
(and if you're curious, my desert island playwright is, of course, Shakespeare, and I do not have a desert island poet, as the infinite varieties and beauties of poetry cannot allow me to limit myself to but one poet).
Here's what I've been watching over winter break:
Day Watch. OK.
The Big Lebowski. Very funny.
Superbad. Very funny.
The Brothers Solomon. This is the sort of movie my wife and I frequently watch and often love: it's not technically "good," and it's low budget and unknown, but it is filled with genuinely creative, funny moments.
I've also been rewatching season two of The Sopranos, and occasionally rewatching episodes of season nine of Seinfeld.
And lots and lots of football. Miserable, miserable football.