O comrades, dear comrades, thank you for keeping this meeting-place alive in my absence – with special thanks to gentle @Suzan Abrams for her encouragement, and for the reappearance of two of you I’d given up for lost, @Captain Ned and @Hazlitt, with wonderfully thoughtful posts that set my head skipping.
I found those comments on my way to saying this: . . . that I’d bet anything on a hunch that only a smidgen of a fraction of a minority of you know who it was who said, ‘The more underdeveloped the country, the more overdeveloped the women,’ — and that ‘Being Ambassador to India is the nearest thing yet devised to a male chastity belt. But one can still gaze wistfully.’
That’s because members of our group share a love of language used well, and have far too much sense to look to an economist for proof of any such talent. But John Kenneth Galbraith — who served as the US ambassador in Delhi under Kennedy in the 1960s — was that rare economist who refused to take the secret vow I long ago guessed as the price of admission to the profession: to churn out only the flattest, most mind-bendingly dull and jargon-infested prose.
What reminded me of his existence was a scrap of paper that fell out of an old clippings file of mine last week. It said:
Artists who would once have sought patrons, writers who would once have sought readers, managers who were once primarily concerned with the production of goods and services, are now dedicated to shaping market response.
— J.K.Galbraith in The Economics of Innocent Fraud
I marvelled, as I re-read that sentence, at how consistently a capacity for any form of high aesthetic accomplishment seems to go with contempt for the unbridled pursuit of mammon, and for setting this chase as the highest goal.
An economist, you might suppose, would be among those least likely to disagree with the ‘Marketing über alles’ creed of the MBA degree-holders who have rudely shoved literature-lovers out of the corridors of power in corporate publishing. But Galbraith, a fierce critic of corporate gigantism and capitalist excess, was an economist with the soul of an artist. Time rightly praised his Indian diary, when it was published in 1969, for its ‘first-rate prose’ – though when I was at university, it was for his complex, playfully verbose and quirky sentences on economics that I could have kissed his feet in gratitude.
The cartoonist and deadly critic of managerial obtuseness, Scott Adams, is someone else I’d put in Galbraith’s class: another illustration of how enslavement to mercantilist calculation — known as marketing — and true artistry appear to be mutually exclusive. Never mind if his talent has made him a kazillionaire. It’s clear from his work that that’s a lucky side-effect of his dedication to relentless mockery of corporate serfdom.
But why are artists so consistently disgusted with manipulation? Well, you might say, the work of ‘hidden persuaders’ – as Vance Packard labelled the media-manipulators known as advertisers – obviously conflicts with the highest aim implicit in all great art, which is revelation. Or, as the crotchety old – ‘famous but reclusive’ — painter in the 1991 Jacques Rivette film, La Belle Noiseuse, puts it, ‘We want the truth in painting. It’s cruel.’
With that question rattling around upstairs, I wondered about the possibility that neuroscience might supply the answer some day. That led to wondering whether true vocations will be found to correlate with particular brain structures, in the future – and, looking backwards, whether there might have been at least partially genetic components to occupational caste specialisations in very old civilisations like India’s and China’s. I jotted down on the back of an envelope, ‘Would caste divisions by profession map to brain structure – above the level of outcastes, who were simply people who happened to be powerless, therefore bullied?’ Then I looked at the note and scoffed, ‘What tripe!’
But in a break in the mindless and exhausting physical chores that have kept me from this site lately, there came a jaw-dropping coincidence. I stumbled on a headline from last Tuesday’s New York Times: ‘Single Gene Shapes the Toil of Ants’ Fighter and Forager Castes‘, which said in part’:
The new study is important because it shows how ants have developed a new use for the PKG gene, that of shaping the characteristic behavior of their different castes, said Gene Robinson, an expert on insect behavior at the University of Illinois. In fruit flies, a DNA difference in the gene changes behavior, but in ants it is a difference in the gene’s activity that makes the soldier caste fight and the foraging caste forage.
Now, no one should get too excited by that, since – far from being mutually exclusive — the ants’ caste specialisations are flexible . . .
because the foragers can recruit the soldiers to food gathering duties when they need extra help. When presented with a live meal worm, within a few minutes the foraging ants can induce the soldiers to help them cut the worm up and take it home.
Then, of course, not even the experts know the extent to which ant behaviour is useful as a guide to human beings. The article mentions medical research that has been inspired by findings in the ant kingdom, but that only amounts to legitimised speculation.
So all we’ve got is a train of woolgathering that some might find as interesting as I do and others will dismiss as undiluted bunk. Still, I’d be fascinated to learn what genetics and neuroscience could have to tell us about the biological differences between Ray Kroc, who made MacDonald’s the mega-monster it is, and the magnificent Jean Cocteau, who wrote:
Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.