The Black Swan

I recently read “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, and I just have to say, it’s been a while since I’ve read a piece of literature as philosophically thought-provoking. I am not really here to write a book review on it. Knowing that i have to report on a book or a movie I have just read or seen takes the fun out of the whole experience.

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The reason I write this is because I feel like I have to give back. A good piece of literature was introduced to me and now I want to share a book that I have enjoyed, and I know you will love. The Black Swan is a book about the impact of things which are unlikely. What has no evidence cannot easily be discarded. It has a lot of economics and philosophy. Let me just cite a few quotations from the book, “The Black Swan” and “AntiFragile” both by Nicholas Taleb (I am in love with your mind Nicholas). Here are a few (or maybe more than a few) excerpts from “The Black Swan”:

Everyone has an idea of utopia. For many it means equality, universal justice, freedom from oppression, freedom from work (for some it may be the more modest, though no more attainable, society with commuter trains free of lawyers on cellphones). To me utopia is an epistemocracy, a society in which anyone of rank is an epistemocrat, and where epistemocrats manage to be elected. It would be a society governed from the basis of the awareness of ignorance, not knowledge.

This small blind spot has other manifestations. Go to the primate section of the Bronx Zoo where you can see our close relatives in a happy primate family leading their own busy social lives. You can also see masses of tourists laughing at the caricature of humans that the lower primates represent. Now imagine being a member of a higher-level species (say a “real” philosopher, a truly wise person), far more sophisticated than the human primates. You would certainly laugh at the people laughing at the nonhuman primates. Clearly, to those people amused by the apes, the idea of a being who would look down on them the way they look down on the apes cannot immediately come to their minds – if it did, it would elicit self-pity. They would stop laughing.

Maximize the serendipity around you.

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.

From “AntiFragile”:

In Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up the genius.

So the central tenet of the epistemology I advocate is as follows: we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right, or, phrased according to the fragile/robust classification, negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works). So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition – given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.

It is quite perplexing that those from whom we have benefited the most aren’t those who have tried to help us (say with “advice”) but rather those who have actively tried – but eventually failed – to harm us.

In fact, the most interesting aspect of evolution is that it only works because of its antifragility; it is in love with stressors, randomness, uncertainty, and disorder – while individual organisms are relatively fragile, the gene pool takes advantage of shocks to enhance its fitness.

Let us look at how evolution benefits from randomness and volatility (in some dose, of course). The more noise and disturbances in the system, up to a point, barring those extreme shocks that lead to extinction of a species, the more the effect of the reproduction of the fittest and that of random mutations will play a role in defining the properties of the next generation.

Further, you will never get to know yourself – your real preferences – unless you face options and choices. Recall that the volatility of life helps provide information to us about others, but also about ourselves. Plenty of people are poor against their initial wish and only become robust by spinning a story that it was their choice to be poor – as if they had the option. Some are genuine; many don’t really have the option – they constructed it. Sour grapes – as in Aesop’s fable – is when someone convinces himself that the grapes he cannot reach are sour.

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Eternal Recurrence

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The use of eternal recurrence as a method of psychological healing in Irvin Yalom’s masterpiece “When Nietzsche Wept” continues to fascinate me, I want to expound more about it.

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Click to enlarge

The illustration above is one of the great thought experiments of Friedrich Nietzsche. The concept of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence simply rejects the concept of an afterlife, of paradise and inferno. Eternal recurrence means repeating all the events in our lifetime again and again, from the time of birth to death, consciously, without altering anything that transpired within that lifetime. This sort of reminds me of Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a mythological creature punished by the gods. For eternity He carries a boulder up a mountain aware that it will roll back down. His task is to carry the rock up the hill in all eternity. To rebel against the gods,expecting the misery and futility in such as task, Sisyphus rolls the rock up the mountain with a choice to be happy.

In the novel “When Nietzsche Wept”. Dr. Breuer wanted to eliminate his thoughts of alienation, infidelity and the feelings of purposelessness of his life. Nietzsche urges him to think of the psychological consequences of eternal recurrence.

Breuer: You suggest, that every action I make, every pain I experience, will be experienced through all infinity?

Nietzsche: Yes, eternal recurrence means that every time you choose an action you must be willing to choose it for all eternity. And it is the same for every action not made, every stillborn thought, every choice avoided. And all unlived life will remain bulging inside you, unlived through all eternity. And the unheeded voice of your conscience will cry out to you forever.”

I always want to keep in mind this thought experiment. It will make my choices wiser, regret less and live life to the fullest.

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Review, Passages and Reflections on Irvin Yalom’s “When Nietzsche Wept”

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     I just finished an astounding book by psychotherapist/writer Irvin Yalom which is called “When Nietzsche Wept”. Yalom combines history, fiction and philosophy. The piece is centered on the lives of Josef Breuer, who was a famous psychoanalyst during the 1800s, and Friedrich Nietzsche who is one of the pioneers of existential thought. The story starts with Lou Salome (the intellectual slut during that time, pardon my language but I’ve come to form a great disliking to her values) asking help from doctor Breuer to help Nietzsche cope with his deteriorating health and unstable emotions, while keeping it a secret from Nietzsche. Nietzsche struggles with isolation, distrust and suicidal thoughts in this fiction. The reason being, his love for Lou Salome has been disappointed when Salome refuses his offer of marriage and runs away with Nietzsche’s good friend Paul Ree. The unholy trinity of Nietzsche, Salome and Ree probably contributed to Nietzsche’s distrust in people and company. Breur hesitates at first but soon engages himself in helping Nietzsche when he discovers the philosopher’s great mind. Breuer is fascinated with Nietzsche’s writings and soon discovers that he himself, needs some therapy too. Breuer is struggling with his own thoughts of infidelity and alienation. The story ends in both great thinkers healing their minds from their intellectual conversations; finding solace and peace in each others friendship.

Passages from the book that I love and my little thoughts on some of them:

“Fears are not born of darkness; rather, fears are like stars – always there, but obscured by the glare of daylight.”

Fears must be like stars in that they are far from us and when we look at it we are reminded of something burning and beautiful. Fears should be acknowledged to motivate us but must not be lingered upon for such a long time.

“I have a why of living and can put up with any how.”

This famous saying by Nietzsche was incorporated in the novel when Breuer, wanting to help Nietzsche was rebutted with this statement. Nietzsche knew his purpose as a posthumous philosopher. He was misunderstood and only a chosen few understood his writings. Only years after his death was Nietzsche appreciated by his audience.  Nietzsche believed that living truthfully and discovering the truth was no ride in the park. Hence the saying “the truth hurts”. Yalom says: “Nietzsche held, to look deeply into his destiny. Yes, that incurred suffering, but we must train ourselves to bear the suffering of truth”. This statement just says that if we know what our purpose is in life, anything can be endured. Motivational words for me. Thank you Nietzsche.

“What is the seal of liberation? – No longer being ashamed in front of oneself!”

I think this is self explanatory. Day by day I try to love the person I see in the mirror. I give her a smile, take it easy on her and forgive her.

“For a psychologist, personal suffering is a blessing – the training ground for facing the suffering of existence.”

I’ve finally come to terms with my tribulations. I embrace the sea of muck I’ve almost drowned and swam in. At 25 I still have a far fetched dream of becoming a psychotherapist. I don’t know if I can attain it, although I very much want to and this quote is telling me I needed to go through what I went through to make my dreams come true. Without knowing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of great distress!

“Nothing is everything! In order to grow strong you must first sink your roots deep into nothingness and learn to face your loneliest loneliness.”

“The greatest tree reaches for the hishest heights and sinks the deepest roots, into darkness – even into evil; but he neither reaches up nor thrusts downward.”

This reminds me of Osho’s saying that sadness and happiness are sisters. The stronger and higher a tree grows, the deeper its roots grow. For us to be able to experience happiness we must first learn defeat. Therefore I am thankful for the darkest days of my life for they correspond to the happiest days I will experience.

“Should we not create- should we not become – before we reproduce? Our responsibility to life is to create the higher, not to reproduce the lower. Nothing must interfere with the development of the hero inside of you. And if lust stands in the way, then it, too, must be overcome.”

“To build children you must first be built yourself. Otherwise you’ll seek children out of animal needs, or loneliness, or to patch the holes in yourself. Your task as a parent is to produce not another self, another Josef, but something higher. It is to produce a creator.

“Do not create children until one is ready to be a creator and to spawn creators. It is wrong to bear children out of need, wrong to use a child to alleviate loneliness, wrong to provide purpose in life by reproducing another copy of oneself.

Nietzsche tells this to Breuer when he complains of his children. He seeks the meaning of reproduction. It makes me realize how self actualized we must first be before bringing a life into this earth. I must not bear children in the purpose of eliminating boredom or trying to find purpose from the child’s existence.

“First step in learning to walk is to understand that he who does not obey himself is ruled by others. It is easier, far easier, to obey another than to command oneself.”

“One must have chaos and frenzy within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”

Nietzsche is not only a philosopher, he is a poet! (I love this quote)

“The best truths, he always said, were bloody truths, ripped out of one’s own life experience.”

“A cosmic perspective always attenuates tragedy. If we climb high enough, we will reach a height from which tragedy ceases to look tragic.”

This is a good quote for coping in the mundane-ness of everyday life. We all encounter trivialities such as routine at work, annoyance with a family member, a friend and feeling misunderstood. If we look at our lives like a satellite looks at earth. Our issues aren’t even big enough to be televised in CNN or BBC.

“Joining another is not the same as abandoning yourself!”

“It is better to break wedlock than to be broken by it!”

“Marriage should be no prison, but a garden in which something higher is cultivated.”

Lesson learned after 4 years with a man and 10 months with another. I must build myself, my confidence and my identity and not to forget it when in a relationship. I am the only one I can never lose.

“Only when one can live like an eagle – with no audience whatsoever – can one turn to another in love; only then is one able to care about the enlargement of the other’s being”.