The Human Condition
Of the five books I read in July, unusually three were novels. I tend to reserve reading for learning and not for entertainment so I read mostly non-fiction. I regard reading fiction as play with the exception of short stories from the New Yorker magazine. Since I usually read them after I’ve read one or two of their highbrow, esoteric, long form articles on topics such as timber skyscrapers, state surveillance and how animals see the world, all in paper form with tightly packed small text, I figure it counts as work. But seriously, I actually learn a lot about writing and the power of imagination from reading their short stories . However, it had been so long since I read a novel that I had forgotten the power of novels to educate us on the human condition—if the writing is good.
The first of the two novels I read that left a lasting impact (I ditched the third novel half way through) is Donde mueren las nubes by Oscar Tejero Tojo. The novel is about Lucia, a young woman determined to make it as a top ranking executive in the pharmaceutical industry in Spain. At the start of the book she was a junior executive with just two years working experience, going for her first senior role as product manager. She got the job and within a short few years she became the country head of a major multinational pharmaceutical company. It appears that her achievement is because she is highly capable and hard working. However, each step up the career ladder came about due to some unfortunate incident–death–that happened to executives she replaced. Was she just lucky–being in the right place and at the right time? It turned out luck had nothing to do with it, she meticulously planned and executed each career move with dead bodies and all.
This novel was so entertaining I finished it in two sittings. But days after, I kept asking myself what was the point of all that killing just to run a pharmaceutical company? Wasn’t Lucia very smart and capable? Wouldn’t she have gotten to the top anyway? Fortunately, for me I could put this question to the author since we have a friend in common. The response I got was that the author, also a medical doctor, has observed from his long experience of treating all kinds of people that we humans are capable of committing the most devastating acts on others for the most trivial of reasons and at times, for no reason at all.
The novel A Man by Keiichiro Hirano is my attempt to broaden my reading of Japanese literature beyond the works of Haruki Murikami. The book is about Akira Kido, a lawyer hired by his client Rie Takemoro to investigate her dead husband. She discovered after his death that he wasn’t who he said he was. We follow Kido as he attempts to find out who the husband really was. As I was reading this book I kept asking what kind of a man lies to his wife and the mother of his child about his identity. It turns out, the kind that wanted to rid himself of his family history. How he did it within the Koseki system, the Japanese family registry (that consists of all records of birth, marriage, divorce and addresses of all persons), makes for an intriguing read. By the time I got to the end of the book, my question had changed to: if I could take on a new identity to rid myself of my past would I do it? And what type of new identity would I take on instead? The manner in which the author examines the concept of identity from individual, societal and legal perspectives is very clever and can only be done by an adept storyteller. I promptly bought his next novel, At the End of Martinee, and I can’t wait to read it.
A Dissenting Voice
I’ve also gotten a non-fictitious schooling on the human condition from the journalist, author, minister and teacher Chris Hedges, via the book Unspeakable: Talks With David Talbot About The Most Forbidden Topics in America. I was familiar with Hedges’ work from his podcast On Contact and articles but I had never read any of his books. I knew that he spent a big part of his career–over two decades–covering wars, and I’ve always been curious why and what type of person would do this. And I’m struck by how hopeful Hedges comes across even though he has witnessed the worst of humankind–he still has faith that we can do better. I’ve wondered why he isn’t despondent. I get depressed and dejected just reading the headlines about wars. When I saw that in the book Unspeakable he answers questions put to him by David Talbot on topics ranging from his background, electoral politics, capitalism to climate change, I thought here is my chance to have my questions answered. I started with the audio version of the book. To my surprise, Hedges narrates his own answers, which I felt made them even more heartfelt.
I discovered that Hedges, though he trained to be a minister and nearly was ordained, chose instead to be a writer. Because like James Baldwin, he left the pulpit to preach the gospel. He says: “I consciously put myself in places where I could amplify the voices of the oppressed.” And on covering wars specifically, “War correspondents—because the work is so dangerous—are not usually prima donnas. If you take yourself that seriously, you’re not going to put yourself in that kind of risk. I don’t take myself that seriously. When you’re around that much death, you are aware of how finite and insignificant life is. You’re more in touch with your tiny place in the universe… When you are around that kind of suffering, you feel a commitment to those who are being persecuted. You want to get their story out” (Unspeakable, pg 126-127).
As to how he retains his humanity, he explains: “I have another goal, to be a moral being. This puts me at a severe disadvantage. Julien Benda in The Treason of the Intellectuals says we have two options in life. We can serve justice and truth or privilege and power. The more we make compromises with those who serve privilege and power, the more we diminish our capacity for justice and truth. Better, as an intellectual or an artist, to always be a heretic (Unspeakable, pg 126-127).” Further, he believes that resistance and rebellion are a moral imperative, even if you’re doomed to fail. Which explains why he is such a principled dissenting voice. And it is very much a voice worth listening to.
Hearing the breadth and depth of Chris Hedges’ intellect in Unspeakable really made me wish to be smarter. As the psychologist Richard Haier pointed out, “Life is one long intelligent test” and “more intelligence is better”. So I listened attentively to the conversation between him and Lex Fridman on human intelligence. I was keen to find out how I or anyone else can become more intelligent?
The first thing I learnt is that an IQ (intelligence quotient) score is just an indication of one’s general intelligence (also known as the g factor). The g factor refers to different cognitive abilities such as spatial, numerical, mechanical, and verbal abilities that allow us to acquire knowledge and solve problems. It seems that we don’t know exactly what determines the g factor beyond genetics. Nor do we know why IQ levels increased during the second part of the 20th century and have started declining in the early 21st century. So what is known? That higher childhood IQ is associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality in both men and women based on numerous studies. One particular study reviewed 68 years later the childhood results of IQ tests taken in 1947 by 94% of all children attending Scottish schools at age 11. There were a total of 70, 805 children of both boys and girls. The study traced the survival rate of the children up to age 79. It was found that higher childhood IQ scores were associated with a lower risk of death by age 79. I couldn’t believe what I heard. I had to go and read the study myself.
Perhaps the most surprising and disappointing thing I heard was that there is no neuroscience research on how intelligence may be enhanced. According to Richard Haier all solutions proposed and implemented thus far have been based on blank state suggestions that enriching the environment and removing barriers will improve reasoning abilities. They have not. There is reluctance to do real scientific research on this. Haier, who is now retired, believes this is because scientists are put off by fear of their work being misinterpreted to be racially biased as was the case of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray with the Bell Curve. Furthermore, it is an area that is incredibly hard to get funding for. How am I supposed to be smarter if scientists won’t broach this topic? I was miffed by this. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I should stop reading non-fiction books that I think are going to make me smarter. I am already as smart as I am ever going to be. Then I remembered that science isn’t static, it is constantly evolving so just because we don’t know yet how to enhance intelligence doesn’t mean that we won’t know in the near future. I might as well hedge my bets and keep striving.