Another Du Fu poem
Alright, here’s another Du Fu poem which seems to be pretty cool, but factors conspire to make me worry that it’s not…


When they brew up clouds in White Emperor city, the rain drenches everyone below
Up in the high river, they lob thunderbolts back and forth; it blocks out the sun for the poor old trees and vines
The returned horses are wilder than battle chargers now, because only a hundred out of every thousand families are still here
Widows are weeping everywhere, bitter crying on the autumn plain, from village after village…

The coolness comes from the weather metaphor. It just looks very obviously like a complaint about the gods – they have their petty disputes up on Olympus, and we Greeks end up at war for ten years. Up in Baidi the clouds come out, and down in the plain we get pissed on. Up in the high gorges they play with thunderbolts, and the sky is blacked out for the rest of us.

And yet, I’m reading two exegeses of the poem which keep talking about the fucking weather. It’s not impossible, I guess. There is a lot of weather talk in Du Fu. But in this one he seems so clearly to succeed in transforming the weather talk into something else, something with more poetic power.

And it’s not like other critics don’t see it at all. The Chinese exegesis I’m reading at says this:
毕竟,其中的比喻是大家所看到的,比如说 的解析是这么说的:

These two couplets establish the poems key images as cloud and rain, which here serve as a metaphor for the military turmoil of the time. In fact, these lines set the scene for the following description of a country wracked by death and violence.

So it’s clear that everyone can see the rain as violence metaphor; the question is am I reading too much into the upstairs/downstairs metaphor? I dunno, maybe, but just look at that first couplet:


Could it be any plainer? The clouds come out in Baidi, the rain falls on the plain. Cause and effect. Unstated, but clear enough, I think, is that the rain doesn’t fall on Baidi.

The weird thing again is that the commentators don’t seem to be noticing anything different about this poem and this image. Why does the commentator at diyifanwen think that the parallelism in the second couplet is more interesting than the vital, majestic, deeply critical and subversive image that Du Fu has created here of a city up in the heavens, pouring rain and hell down on the people below? Not to mention that great horse image.

About a poem
So there's this Du Fu poem which I think is amazing. It goes like this:


Two golden orioles sing in the green willows,
A row of white egrets against the blue sky.
My window holds western hills, white with snow a thousand years;
Ships tied up at my door have come a thousand miles from Wu.

He is sitting in his little room in Chengdu, and the birds outside draw his attention outwards. The poem starts with a frankly tedious image: two birds in a tree. What colour was the tree, Du Fu? Green? You don't say. Next, we get more birds. What are these ones doing? Flying? Thanks.
But in the second couplet, it all picks up. It helps if you know that Du Fu's smallness in the face of the world was a constant theme. So for him, the white-capped mountains are not for striding about in. But he has them, nonetheless. In his little rural cottage, his window contains them. To me, this reads like an amazing commentary on paintings: he looks at a window, just a few feet away, and it contains infinite depths and landscape, just as a painting can. And when he looks at his door, there's just a boat there, but it's not just a boat. It's a boat which connects to a place a thousand miles away. So I read this poem as being about the power of the mind, the artistic mind, and how it can hold and convey any scale of vision - as Du himself does in the poem.

But this poem is number three of a set of four jueju, and when you place it among its companions, I'm not so sure that my reading is right. Here they are, with very rough translations.

The bamboo grows so thick on the evening side of the cottage that the door won’t open any more
On the shady side, beyond the ditch, the line of pepper trees has completely blocked my view of the village
When the plums are ripe, I may share them with my old neighbour Zhu,
And when the pines grow tall, I'll talk to Mr Ruan under them.
I wanted to make a fishing weir, but the clouds descended on the river,
Then the rain fell, surprisingly cold for May.
There have long been dragons in our little river,
I've piled up bamboo and rocks, but now I don't dare make the dam.

Two golden orioles sing in the green willows,
A row of white egrets against the blue sky.
The window frames the western hills' snow of a thousand autumns,
At the door is moored, from eastern Wu, a boat of ten thousand li.

The medicinal herbs are green and lush now, they have swarmed all around the gazebo and are spilling into the house
But I can't celebrate their growth quite yet: the soil is all cracked, and I am worried that the roots won't form properly.

All of which is lovely, but not quite so inspiring. Thematically, it's a bit dull. Each quatrain starts with an observation of the scenery, and then tacks on a little interesting comment. There's nothing to support the reading of those big themes into the two lines that I like. So I dunno, they may be there, or I may just be over-reading it. Du Fu is a powerful writer, but it's not yet clear that he can really take on the big themes or the bold images that I like. Having said that, I'm definitely not imagining the art image. One of the authoritative commentators agrees with this reading, and in another poem, Du writes: 藩篱颇无限,恣意向江天。Unfortunately neither the text nor the reading of this line are clear, but it might mean: The fences run on unending, Untrammeled as they reach for the rivers and the skies.

On the same day as reading those quatrains, I read a bit of Neruda for the first time. Here's what he says:

Through the dazing splendor,
through the night of stone, let me plunge my hand
and let there beat in me, like a bird a thousand years imprisoned,
the old forgotten human heart!

Perhaps because it's more modern, perhaps I just haven't yet got the Tang thing, but Neruda's images just seem much more vital, more powerful, less conventional. And his themes are human - he writes about landscape and physical textures, but his purpose is political. Just much more interesting than Du's rather anodyne landscape. I dunno. I'm still finding Tang poetry very bloodless.

Two objections to Bostrom things
1. AI. In Superintelligence, Bostrom keeps talking about the motivations of AIs, but I don't see why they would have motivations. Or rather, I don't see why they would turn the full fearsome force of their intellects on some specific goal (and harm humanity in the process). Who would tell them to do it? Who would give them the instincts that lead to such an eventuality? I mean, it's possible to imagine it happening, but it would have to be programmed in. I can't see why it would happen by accident.

2. The simulation argument. It's nice, but I think it's quite simply solved by the problem of evil. Why would a (to us) super-entity create conscious beings with so much suffering? I think the idea would be squished by the ethics committee quick sharp.

Asymmetry in position-determined virtue?
I was arguing the other day that how virtuous one can be is in part determined by the position one find oneself in - in particular, the systems within which you work.

To take an easy example, if you're rich or powerful, you are in a position to do more good than if you're poor. So if you take a consequentialist view, then a rich and powerful person has the capacity to do much more good.

Even if you're not a consequentialist, this could hold. Imagine two people A and B, one of whom has children, while the other doesn't. They are similar in other respects. It seems that A could be virtuous in all aspects of her life, but would still not have displayed the same virtue as B, if B is virtuous in all of A's aspects plus child rearing. Now, one might argue that even though A did not display the child rearing virtues, she may well have possessed them; we should not "mark her down" simply because she didn't engage in that aspect of life. But that seems to me to be a weak argument. Andy Murray is not a top badminton player - he probably could be, but he didn't engage with badminton, and we don't know for sure. So I think that virtue at least can be dependent on circumstance.

Being rich and powerful therefore seems likely to open up more avenues for virtuousness - though of course those avenues could also lead to vice. Also worth noting that the additional opportunities for virtue/vice offered by being rich or powerful may be rather insignificant. Most of our virtue/vice judgments seem to be based on interpersonal relationships, and everyone has those. So the difference between the potential virtue of a poor person and the potential virtue of a billionaire or a US president may only be a marginal 1% or similar.

But what I really wanted to get to was this. It's not obvious that these effects work symmetrically. Think Nixon/Blair. Nixon did something wrong, but in comparison to Blair, his crime was very minor (assuming Blair's was a war crime). But if anything Nixon suffered more opprobrium. On the other side, I at least feel that Deng Xiaoping and Lee Teng-hui deserve credit approximately in proportion to their achievements. That opinion is a bit subjective and harder to measure... perhaps we could compare FDR and Clinton instead? FDR did something great, and is held in enormous respect; Clinton governed reasonably well, and is liked. It seems much more proportionate to me.

This is a spectacularly holey argument. It might be that there is something about the specific minor misdoings of certain leaders which inspire disgust; it might be that we draw clear distinctions between professional and personal misdeeds. I would have to try to tease these out. But it seems to me like this is another example of an asymmetry between positive and negative morality/moral judgments.

其中一个,我觉得可以参考Harold Bloom。他说“a Shakespearean reading of Freud illuminates and overwhelms the text of Freud; a Freudian reading of Shakespeare reduces Shakespeare” 用莎翁去解读弗洛伊德是加亮的过程,最后弗洛伊德的原文淹没在莎士比亚的光泽下,而用弗洛伊德去解读莎翁只是让它缩小受限。
At the CELT we talked about the issue of the translator's interpretation of the text. I said to one of the writers that translators have to interpret. Though we are faithful to the source text, the target we produce is inevitably our own interpretation. We cannot become an extension of the writer's brain. Later on, though, I was thinking about what kind of fidelity that leaves us with. The translator has to interpret, but as a translator I don't allow any interpretation. I judge among my interpretations. But how do I judge?
One way of thinking about it comes from Harold Bloom. He says, "a Shakespearean reading of Freud illuminates and overwhelms the text of Freud; a Freudian reading of Shakespeare reduces Shakespeare."
My view is that the translator should try to avoid reducing the text. Even though we have to interpret, we should avoid blocking off other interpretations that are potentially there in the text. We should accept the right of other readers to preserve their interpretations.

Decision point versus decision process
Was just reading about the compatibilist vs. incompatibilist argument again, and I wonder if a lot of the problem in this argument derives from an incorrect view of decision-making.

First, the four positions:
Incompatibilists: Determinism is true, therefore there is no free will.
Libertarians: Determinism is not true, therefore there is free will.
Compatibilism: Determinism is true, but there is still free will.
Non-deterministic compatibilists: It doesn't matter either way for free will, but determinism happens to be untrue.

Now, I'm not so sure about free will, but I think there is something to say about agency. An incompatibilist says this: the outcome of any decision is fully determined by the conditions under which it is made. You offer me the chance to smell a flower or kill a kitten, and the outcome of that decision depends on only the input conditions. Therefore I do not have the free will to determine which I do.

But I say, this argument depends on the premise that a decision is a point event. In fact, decision-making is more like a process, and if we model it like a process, then we'll get a different result. Let's take the simplest possible kind of process: a two-event deterministic process. In this model, every decision is two events, A and B. Imagine determinism is true. A is caused deterministically by the initial conditions - in this case, me and the choice between flower or kitten. B is caused by deterministically by the initial conditions and A. The decision is complete only after the end of B.

Now, the outcome of a decision is necessarily contingent on A, which is a mental event. Does that introduce agency? Meh, I'm not convinced. A is deterministically caused, so there's no real agency there... We do at least get the introduction of an internal, time-dependent causal element. I guess that's a kind of agency. I mean, it's the kind that compatibilists believe in. Not sure that this gets us to a point where we could persuade the incompatibilists, though.

But I think that all I'm getting at here is an advanced form of the external constraints argument. I think we are free if there is nothing external to me constraining what I do. But the incompatibilist says I'm not free if I can't change the sequence of events that unfolds inside me. I think that the incompatibilist argument is incoherent because it mixes up what the subject "I" is... but that's what I've always thought. This decision sequence thing isn't getting me any closer.

Consumption vs utility
Thinking further about what I wrote about Sumner, it strikes me that he might argue that though one can derive utility from ownership, it's not consumption because the good is not degraded in any way.

Firstly, I don't think this is true. Compare to books and information. In fact Sumner explicitly talks about people consuming their houses, which suffer only minimal or zero degradation. So perhaps I'm wrong and he wouldn't even make the argument.

But I was wondering about the distinction. Firstly there is a quantitative issue. In the past the economy was mostly agriculture, it produced food, and the food was literally consumed. I assume that's where we get the word from. Today, the economy is mostly not agriculture. A large volume of traded goods are not consumed. But in fact the main thing traded is services, which is a funny combination. A service is skill+time, and the time is destroyed in the provision of service, while the skill is not.

In a market, the value of something is the price negotiated for it, so it seems like there's no difference in value between destructive and non-destructive consumption... I dunno. Scarcity, plenty, consumption, utility... and all I think is that we have to wait for the technofix. Is that wrong? 

Eric Schwitzgebel has a great post up about what moral philosophy is for:

I just wanted to think about one issue in it. He writes as though there are basically two motivations for acting: one is self-interest, the other morality. He doesn't make this claim explicitly, but that basic picture seems to inform the post.

I was just wondering if that's true. What other kinds of motivations for action could there be?

Well, there could be emotional reasons: I could lash out in anger, even though it's neither moral nor in my rational self interest. I could act out of love, even though the object of my affections is obviously uninterested.

There are reasons of expediency: Along the way to fulfilling another aim, I could do something that is not motivated by any basic cause. For example, let's say I want to be altruistic for moral reasons, so I go and spend time researching the best way to give money. You can call this a moral action, because it is part of a moral action, but there might be a lot of little actions in the middle which are purely expedient or functional on the way to the moral goal. I might buy a Peter Singer book, for example, not because I want it or because buying the book is good in itself, but because it helps me along the way to my goal.

Could there be motivations which are rational, but neither self-interested nor moral? I suppose there could... how about aesthetics and truth? Could I plausibly deny that beauty is moral, and yet still pursue it rationally? I'm not sure what that would mean. What about truth? A scientist might deny that truth is moral, but if so is he just doing his job for the money? Emotional satisfaction? I'm not sure these are possible. I think if you rationally pursue a goal, then it's normative, and so we'd call it moral.

What about doing things for other people? When it's strangers, that's probably morality, isn't it? If it's family, then I guess it's emotional or some extended definition of self-interest.

So, this ends up being quite interesting. If this is right, then "moral" is more about "non-self-interest" than anything else. But philosophers don't generally think of it like that. Has that introduced systematic biases into moral philosophy?

Consumption and growth
Another area of disagreement with Sumner:

He says: "5. Misers are more altruistic than big spenders."

But this has got to be wrong. Modern economies in the west are consumption-driven. Indeed, they have to be consumption-driven. Why else would production happen?! He doesn't define misers, but they are presumably people who spend less than they earn. Generalise it out: if everyone spent less than they earned, the economy would shrink (er, I think... not 100% certain on this, but as a first approximation, I think it holds). So how are misers supposed to be the good guys?

Big spenders, on the other hand, spend more than they earn. They consume, causing others to produce, and drive economic growth. These guys are the goodies, not the misers. Now, generalise them out: if everyone spends more than they earn, what happens? Well, credit happens, which is usually a good thing. But ultimately the country's debt will increase. That seems to be OK: if the debt increases no more than GDP growth, then you just end up with a stable level of debt, and recent economic history says that that's fine. Problems occur when debt increases relative to the size of the economy, not when it increases absolutely. So some big spending is allowed.

On the macroeconomic level, Sumner's (5) seems just flat wrong. I think he gets it from the microeconomic level, where he is saying that misers leave resources for others to use. But that doesn't seem right, either. I mean, Scrooge doesn't leave resources for Bob Cratchit to use. He hoards.

One final point on this. I suspect that Sumner has a different view of consumption to me. I'm not certain about this, but I view a lot of consumption as forced. It is forced on us by advertising and social pressure of various kinds. My wife puts snail goop on her face. I eat fruit from Mexico. Neither of these things are natural or particularly conducive to our well-being. But we do it because we're as dumb as everyone else.

But this kind of forced culture of consumption may be making our world a better place. That's what capitalism+consumerism magazine tells me. So I'll go along with it for the time being.

I'm not sure Sumner believes this. I think he thinks that all consumption is good and righteous - or rather, that it's all equivalent on the economic level. But the point is that consumption drives production. So if we consume certain kinds of stuff, we will then produce that stuff. If we consume other stuff, we will produce other stuff. If my wife consumes snail goop, people in the world will spend their lives farming snails and extracting the goop. That to me seems like a bad choice. It's bad for them (number of snailophiliacs in the world can't be high). It's bad for her, because in reality snail goop does nothing for her skin, and is only making her stupider.

Why tax capital
Sumner say it is inefficient to tax capital, so we should tax only consumption.
Let's assume the economics is right. There are still reasons not to accept the conclusion.

Ownership of capital is consumption. Imagine two people: one lives from paycheck to paycheck, has no savings and spends all of the 40,000 she makes in a year. The other is well-off, has a million in the bank, but is thrifty, and only happens to spend 40,000 in a year. Under the Sumner doctrine, they would pay about the same tax.

To me this seems pretty counterintuitive. One reason is that the rich woman seems to get some utility from her money in the form of security. As a corollary of this, she is less likely to need government services in future because of unemployment or homelessness, so a government investment in her now is less likely to bring the government savings in the future. So there are human efficiency conditions separate from economic efficiency.

There's also the question of fairness, though this is rather vexed. Does fairness mean the government should acknowledge the truth that one woman is poorer than the other, and give her more support? Or does it mean that the government should reward the thriftiness of the richer citizen? Given how difficult the fairness argument is, it might be better just to leave it out altogether at this stage, because I don't think the economic argument is finished yet, even if Sumner is right about the macroeconomics.

The point is, a) ownership of capital is utility; b) taxation is not just a macroeconomic tool, it is also a microeconomic transaction. 


Log in