75: George Orwell, Poverty, and the Art of Writing with Whimsi

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Will Jarvis

In this episode, we talk about George Orwell, his book Down and Out in Paris and London, and what we can learn about what policy interventions seem to work for poverty. Additionally, we talk about the art of writing well, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, and David Foster Wallace. You can find Whimsi’s blog at: https://substack.com/profile/25790234-whimsi


Will Jarvis 0:05
Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways that is worse than the past towards a better, more definite vision of the future. I’m your host, will Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com.

Well, wimzie How are you doing today?

Whimsi 0:44
I’m doing great. How are you? Doing? Great.

Will Jarvis 0:46
Thank you so much for taking the time to come on. I want to get started. Can you give us kind of a brief bio and some of the big things you’re interested in?

Whimsi 0:56
Yeah, so basically, I’m pretty new to writing on substack. But I’ve been interested in topics relating to social issues. Even a little true crime, but mainly history, philosophy, a lot of the stuff that’s adjacent to what is written about on a CX and less wrong, it’s always interested me. But I definitely have more of a background in like literature in the classics than than math. And I’ve kind of gotten my education there through the rationalist community. But I’m 24 and I’ve been writing a lot quite a long time, but I hadn’t really published much until I submitted to the A CX book review contest.

Will Jarvis 1:40
And I you know, we’ll jump right in. I really love that book review. It was truly excellent. And it for the listeners that might not have read it. It’s a it’s a Down and Out in Paris in London, one of Orwell’s books. Oh, what do you think is most misunderstood about Orwell?

Whimsi 1:58
Hmm. I think the primary thing is that he’s a writer of dystopian fiction novels, because every high schooler reads Animal Farm in 1984. Yes. And they miss out. Yeah, on the rest of his body of work, which is really not nothing like that, in the sense that he’s those fiction novels kind of came later in his career. And he done a lot more really interesting and groundbreaking journalism. Long before that. The most famous are probably the road to Wigan pier, which is about Northern coal miners. Homage to Catalonia about serving the Spanish the great book. Yeah, it’s fantastic. And then the book I reviewed town out in Paris in London, I think what people misunderstand about him and his views on a personal level is he’s not a very ideological writer. He’s a famous socialist, right, but actually rarely comes up. And that’s something I admire, like and we can Pierre he divides his books, in a very, like, almost artificial way that actually serves his cause, well, I can go do it in here. There’s half of the book, discussing what’s happening with the coal miners. And then there’s the second half, talking about what he thinks might be reasonable socialist solutions. But he divides them cleanly and is completely upfront about the failures of like socialist movements up to that point to deal with the issues, the failures of the ruling party to face this issue. So I think his self awareness is underrated. Definitely. Yeah.

Will Jarvis 3:31
I think that’s, that’s super well, put, do you think any of his his political worldview is painted by the fact that you know, he was, uh, you know, quite poor living in Paris and London, and for this this time during his life?

Whimsi 3:45
Yeah, um, you know, reading the book, I felt like, he was definitely not yet formed his political view at the time of writing. Gotcha. But by the time of sort of finishing the book, I guess, after living that life, he’d start to come to a few ideas about what it was like to be poor. But again, he does a great job of limiting his conclusions to very reasonable things. He doesn’t say, because the homeless in Paris and London are living this way. We need a socialist state in England. He says because they’re living this way, we should get rid of these workhouse programs that are run so horribly, like, It advises like, instead of giving them toast and coffee, which is such a meager diet, it actually is like, making your mental faculties so bad. You can’t hold a difficult job. So he just recommends crate gardens to give them better food. So he does these very, like small incremental suggestions of policy that I think make him a lot more like trustworthy. No way.

Will Jarvis 4:50
Gotcha. He’s not like burn it all down. It’s like on the margin, you know, actually giving people better food etc.

Whimsi 4:56
Right and he keeps his if he does go into ideas of policy, he keeps it like he earns it by saying, Here’s what I observe at, say a workhouse, you’re the worst parts about it. And here’s why they should obviously be changed.

Will Jarvis 5:14
You know, when I read the book review, and I haven’t read the actual book, I got the sense that the experience of poverty in Paris was very different from that of his experience of poverty in London. Can you talk about like, any broad lessons you drew from that, and kind of the situation there?

Whimsi 5:33
Yeah, that’s I was actually just rereading the review just to prepare for this talk. And that’s how I opened it is talking about how it’s the story of using social services that are horrible. And then of living in a state with no access to social services, but working like a slave essentially, to survive. In Orwell pulls no punches and expressing that living in Paris, as like a poverty wage restaurant worker is a far better life than living as a sort of subsidized transient homeless person in England. And so I think the broad takeaways were that kind of a classic self help takeaway, which is, I guess, somewhat controversial to talk about in this context that subjectively you’re not made miserable, just by the fact that you’re working all day. Not that it’s a good thing at all. But Orwell is saying in that life, yeah, he comes home exhausted, but at least he has social relationships and bonds, he goes drinking every Sunday, and there are 1000s 10s of 1000s of other people in Paris living this life, that’s reasonably okay, and can at least be said to be a life. Meanwhile, in England, where there’s this class reliant on these really strange, like workhouse places where you can actually work. He called they’re called the spike, where you basically get food, and you just have to sit in this big cell all day. It’s not any kind of life. And it’s actually like, making these people get locked in a cycle of moving from spike to spike to spike. So I guess the broad takeaway was that, even what seems like a really robust, like infrastructure for, for giving, like homeless people a place to stay, can actually create way more subjective misery.

Will Jarvis 7:22
I think that was I think that’s the best point you can pull out of that. And it’s really, it’s almost counterintuitive, right? It’s like, you know, you’re trying to help people, and you’re giving them something to give them. It’s a more robust safety net than existed in Paris. And yet people are somewhat worse off, which is a it’s almost counterintuitive conclusion. But I think does make sense in the context of what you just talked about, you know, having these community bonds, you’re not forced to move around all the time. It was very, very, very interesting. Yeah. What were the situations that led Orwell to live in this manner?

Whimsi 8:02
Yeah. Okay. So that was kind of an interesting, hazy part of the book that I tried to like pick apart. Yeah, there’s definitely this thought that I believe he was upper middle class, like, on the very edge of upper class where his dad worked in India, which was an upper class thing, but pretty much the most, the least respect respectable upper class thing you want to do. And so he basically moved to Paris, and like, with a small amount of money, and then he was robbed. He was essentially trapped. But I’m pretty he kind of alludes to the idea that he wanted to try this anyway. Interesting. Well, he kind of says, Well, I’ve had an idea of trying this. Now, I’m just going to settle into this life for a while. Where is in London, he’s again, kind of trapped where he has a connection that can get him a job taking care of a mentally handicapped person. But the job is then delayed. And so they said, Well, you we actually can’t get anything for you for three months. So you just need to stay in London and wait, essentially. So in in that case, he does openly say, I could have gone back to my parents. I could have finagle my way back to them. But I do believe in what he says the humiliation of that made it worth it, the humiliation of going back to his parents at that age. Plus, his interest interest in the social issues kind of added together to him kind of resigning himself to it for a while. Yeah, so I think those were the main the main factors that led to it. I’m just I wish I knew how self consciously he knew. I’m writing a book. Right, right. But I don’t know that unfortunately.

Will Jarvis 9:48
And how old was he at the time?

Whimsi 9:51
I believe he was around somewhere between 23 and 25.

Will Jarvis 9:55
Gotcha. Gotcha.

Whimsi 9:57
I believe right out of one of my favorite Things oral wrote Shooting an Elephant about his time. And the Indian Imperial police. He hated that job served there five years from like, 18 to 23. And I think right after he came back from India is when all this happened.

Will Jarvis 10:13
I say I say, well, and I, I was really interested in when I read the review, because there’s a great British TV show which name escapes me right at the moment. But they talk about, you know, doing the Orwell which is pretending to be poor and like going out and about, and and so it’s your sense that he was truly forced to be poor, or did he have kind of as a safety, right, like, you know, a hidden injector See you in some sense.

Whimsi 10:37
He definitely had an ejector seat when compared to the people he’s associating with. It’s night and day. But I don’t view him as a tourist

Will Jarvis 10:47
at all. He’s not like a true tourist is one that

Whimsi 10:50
is trapped there. And it would be very difficult for him to escape without facing, like, untold humiliation by returning home to his parents, at least in the case of London, in the case of Paris, because of transportation costs. I mean, he might have been truly stuck, truly stuck. Yeah. But in either case, it’s definitely he’s fairly upfront about it, that he could escape from it if you really, really wanted to, but it’s not a matter of starvation. And that he is sort of making a conscious choice better to live like this than to go back home. Got it.

Will Jarvis 11:24
Got it. Another portion of view, I thought was was quite interesting was, you know, you talked about how he was in London and one of these houses, and how he was often treated much better than everyone else. Because when when, you know, the officials there suspected he was of some higher class. Did you draw any takeaways from that?

Whimsi 11:47
Yeah, it’s something that’s difficult to understand as an American, I think, on an intuitive level. Even now, in England, I think it’s not quite as strong as it was. But he’s, he speaks about what’s interesting is he he’s treated better only by other upper class people. So like when he’s at one of these spike work houses. One of the like, bureaucrats hears his voice and is like, Well, what happened to you, sir? How have you fallen to this position and give some extra food and will interestingly points out that the tramps don’t care at all the other tramps awesome. They really don’t react he actually goes into that was his primary fear going into this experience was that I’m going to be found out, people are going to just see I’m a tourist, that I’m doing some weird, like, almost cosplay or something. Yeah. And it’s not the case at all. As soon as he has a dirty face and dirty clothes. He disappears into the mass and the tramps don’t care about his voice. People on the street don’t care or even notice. It vanishes for everyone except he says like military men in a few chosen like, upper middle class bureaucrats do favorite him a little bit? I see. Which is interesting. You would think that the other tramps would think would treat them differently, but

Will Jarvis 13:10
right they don’t thought it’s quite an interesting kind of sociological critique there and an exploration. Could you talk about the skid houses a little bit because I think it might be useful to listeners just just understand what it was like living in the UK if you were quite poor in Orwell’s time.

Whimsi 13:27
Oh, that’s sort of flop houses were anchored to a room Yeah. Oh, man. I think that’s I remember signing might be my largest quotations or view because of how horrible Your son is. Well, he’s got like 370 year old pensioners with hacking cough sleeping next to you. You know, no one is bathing. There’s like an old woman like banging the pots and pans in the kitchen preparing breakfast at three in the morning. You, it’s basically him again, that’s what’s so interesting to me in this review is how the conditions build into you being unable to escape them, which is the cycle we imagined. But we we get it in really concrete terms when he talks about how the food makes your mental faculties deteriorate. And the lack of sleep from living in a place like that makes you useless. You can’t like get anything done. And he kind of just wanders the streets in this kind of haze, as we see homeless people do today, in many cases, and not actually because of mental illness like we might imagine, but because of these material, like deficiencies in their body and health and things like that. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I definitely remember his focus being on how horrible it smells, how many people are packed in and how it’s basically impossible to sleep unless you have a job. So backbreaking that you’re just destroyed at the end of the day. And it kind of works

Will Jarvis 14:51
right. And there’s there’s a bunch of interesting rules as well right where people had to move around at a certain some Kate Is that correct?

Whimsi 15:01
Okay, yeah. So two separate ideas, I guess it’s good to separate. So there’s the sort of like flop houses, which is basically just like a really horrible hostel. Gotcha. For older for you mainly for older men that are on the brink of homelessness that can pay a few quid a day to stay there and get like one meal. And then there are the spikes, which are more like homeless shelters that yeah, you have to move at a certain cadence, which he described is very destructive. And I think that’s the part of the book, I realized this would be a great candidate for people that read ACS, because it’s talking about how system design has created this sort of English image of the wandering transient tramp, right wandering like that because they have to move daily from spike to spike. The conditions in there are I describe it as Kafkaesque because they sit in a big white room with a cup of coffee, and they’re not allowed to do anything. They can’t play cards, they can, they don’t really have an energy to just talk and chat. So they just kind of are in this white box, just sitting there all day, and then they get to leave. It’s about as bizarre as Yeah, it’s like living just to live another day. And in this, like clinical lightbox, it’s very, very strange. And it’s surreal to read. And I think I include a picture I tried to find a picture, but these are actually kind of overshadowed by the history of the British workhouse, you know, like, we think of Ebenezer Scrooge and Charles Dickens, yeah. And across where they’re actually laboring where the spike that was more 19th century, whereas the spike was like late 19th century, early 20th century. And it it’s much more of like a prison, a 24 hour prison where you get food, you don’t do any work, or anything like that. And it’s not widely discussed. I’d never heard of it before. People in my family who love British television, they’d never heard of it. Yeah,

Will Jarvis 17:05
it’s, it’s, I really enjoyed it. Enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy these people suffering. But I enjoyed thinking about how, like you said, the incentives designed created like this, this, this image of this, this wandering homeless person suffering from homelessness, who, you know, is kind of driven to move from place to place because of the way the system’s designed, even though it’s meant to help them. Yeah, it’s very classic Bhagwat case.

Whimsi 17:32
It’s fascinating. Also, how it relates to like the day to day problems of the tramp, like one thing he focuses on his shoes, and how because you’re forced to walk so much, your shoes and socks were out first. And so there’s this great sequence where the seasoned homeless person shows them how you can use ink to fill in the holes on your shoes and socks. So you can go in for a job interview. And it’ll be just enough that they won’t notice for the job interview. So you’ll be able to get it so they’ll know you’re poor, but not bad for right. So the wages are caught up in like our archetype of this of a poor person is really interesting.

Will Jarvis 18:10
Yeah, the societal expectations. And you contrast this with an oral Deus. And in the review with Orwell, working in this hotel in Paris, can you talk about that a little bit? It seems like this really this crazy, chaotic environment with a but but it does seem to be at some level, like at least sustainable.

Whimsi 18:32
Yeah. So that’s when I first fell in love with the book because that that section has a weird cosy aspect. Yeah, he’s working. It’s almost like something out of like a Miyazaki movie like Spirited Away or something in my mind, where he walks in, and there’s like roaring fires. He’s in like, a sub sub basement over this grand hotel. It’s almost like a dungeon underneath this Grand Hotel, where they prepare this food in horrible conditions. Everyone’s like, chained smoking, it’s filthy. They’re pouring sweat all day, surviving off tea, and then sending up the fancy looking food up on a dumbwaiter.

Will Jarvis 19:07
It was a solid, fancy looking.

Whimsi 19:09
Yeah, there’s a great sequence. And I talked about it a little bit about how it’s, especially back then, they probably didn’t have robust methods for even testing real cleanliness. So it’s really a visual appearance. Which is even shakier because the people in the hotel are tourists usually American. They have no idea how French food is supposed to look. So they he talks about like dropping cooked chicken in sawdust, and they just walked it off and send it on up once it looks okay. It’s deemed healthy enough or clean enough. But so his situation there was as a Scullion basically uses a different word for it that escapes me but basically a Scullion where he’s not a chef, he’s like on the lowest rung of the totem pole. He like brings the chef’s what they need It’s this horrible game show ask situation where he’s trying to like time the toast with preparing the wine with pulling the chicken out of the oven with bringing the ice to the person making drinks. And we could relate it to flow state in that he talks about those hours is just a void, you know, he’s gone because it takes so much focus, and not at all the kind of intelligence, Orwell’s practice throughout his life. Right? It’s that really visceral, just almost athletic intelligence of like timing in spatial awareness, navigating this horrible space. I think visually, it’s like the best describe section in the book. And it’s what I like to show people if I’m trying to get them to appreciate Orwell’s nonfiction because you can feel the heat of the ovens as you read it, and also feel that the desperation that has now been so widely glamorized and like these cooking reality shows, right, like Hell’s Kitchen, and it’s, it’s the same, it’s the exact same cooking culture that exists now in the 21st century, the chef is screaming at everyone cursing, there’s a lot of reliance on drugs to exist in the space so that you can see I’m going on a little bit because that section of the book, I just love might be my favorite.

Will Jarvis 21:15
I thought it was quite quite powerful. When I read it review. I want to move on a little bit and talk about Kafka is Kafka, overrated or underrated?

Whimsi 21:24
Okay, yeah, I have a post on Kafka and I think he’s, he’s underrated and that the best parts of him are almost what’s the least discussed? People talk a lot about the horror of Kafka. Yeah. Like how it’s about navigating a bureaucracy and how like, mind numbingly soul destroying that can be like literally soul destroying, where you cease to be a human being, because he’s trapped in the system that has no human quality. But what they miss is his humor, his sort of strange, OCD humor. And what I talk about in my review, is status obsession. A hilarious status obsessions for what we see in like comedy, you know, like, a lot of comedy is based on like, people that think they’re great in art, like arrogance is hilarious. Yeah, analog. And Kafka loves to get into that he loves arrogant characters who put down others and like lower status characters who like puff themselves up, like he really like, likes to sit back and laugh at just this sort of adolescent status obsession that all of us are guilty of. And then he relates it to the bureaucracy. So I like that. He brings sort of our minuite status obsession with like how someone phrase something and how it kind of makes us feel like we’re less. And then he builds that in this larger system of bureaucracy that’s also built on status. And so we can imagine how these tiny little status interactions have resulted in these like, mindless systems. I like I love that and it really is comedy. David Foster Wallace, the famous writer talks about this a lot that you’re supposed to laugh at Kafka but so so few people do.

Will Jarvis 23:10
Oh, I love that. I love that and it does remind me of a the pale King you know where he said like this IRS bureaucrat and David Foster Wallace Wallace goes and takes all these classes and learns about how to become you know, his his last book he never finished. But yes, I love that interaction between comedy and status and the beer helped me rockers bureaucracies can squeeze the humanity out of out of everyone.

Whimsi 23:35
Yeah, I actually just recently read the pale king for the first time. And the Kafka influence is so strong there. He takes it to a more extreme level, almost. I feel like Americans, like translate that comedy into our terms, because like, he’s easy for anyone to laugh out loud at whereas with Kafka, it’s a little more subtle in you definitely get that feeling of like, Is this a joke? Am I supposed to be laughing at this? Which, once you realize that is what he’s trying to do. It’s really enjoyable. And in fact, one of the most famous stories about Kafka is people living around him hearing him laugh uproariously whenever he’d write. He’d always be laughing when he wrote, which is really interesting.

Will Jarvis 24:20
I love that I love that. You know, speaking of, you know, crazy bureaucracies and people like, you know, and the hilarity of status and status games. The Emperor How did you first find find the book and and how did you first get interested in how do you pronounce this first thing? I’ve only ever read it?

Whimsi 24:42
Oh, the writer is a lossy.

Will Jarvis 24:46
The Emperor himself.

Whimsi 24:47
Yeah, I think so lossy. I’ve heard it’s a lossy i but it’s like a Rastafarian pronunciation with Gotcha. thinks a lossy is okay. But I was I’m actually I had an interest in ROSS to foreign ism. The sense that it’s like this really this large cult basically that thinks this Ethiopian Empire Emperor is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. But because of Bob Marley and reggae music, it’s got this mainstream acceptance. And I don’t even know that that’s what they believe. So that was a sort of seated interest a long time ago. But then Matt Lakeman, who has a blog, he reviewed another one of caparison skis works that’s about, I think, more wide ranging memoir of all of his travels in Africa. And he mentions the Emperor. And I was just instantly sold the idea of a modern journalist, reporting on a basically ancient empire that only fell in 1974, you know, after the Beatles broke out. That’s just fascinating to me. And I tend to be like a sucker for that anything that’s like displaced in time. And let’s say North Korea, I think the attraction of North Korea, for a lot of people is the same thing. Anything that seems like it should have been in a grainy black and white photo and history textbook that is still elite living, breathing society. It’s just fascinating. And I just want to learn more. So once I read his book about caparisoned, skis life or his post on capstan skis life, I knew that I had to read that book, especially because it’s all an interview form. It’s at least presented as just the various people from the court telling their stories,

Will Jarvis 26:28
that it’s so cool. And, you know, how did you, you know, what were the biggest takeaways you got from the book about philosophy?

Whimsi 26:36
Hmm. That’s difficult, because that book is a big can of worms. But I guess what fascinated me most was, is St. It relates back to Kafka. And I was so happy this resonance, that what I wrote about Kafka had with this is the sheer pettiness of power and status at every single level. And it’s a joke young adults like to make that like high school never ends. It’s a cliche at this point. But seeing that expressed at the highest levels of power, where the decisions actually affect millions of lives, is both funny and bone chilling. I think I open with this story of like, the person whose job for years was to wipe the pee off people’s shoes. So lost his favorite dog, like who we’d let run free and would pee on dignitary shoes. And so someone’s job was just to clean the pee off. So seeing human whim, expressed at that level, is really fascinating. And I think is why studying dictators is so interesting is because when someone has that much power, they’re in like their deep psychology is, is like actuated in the world, because they can get away with anything. So you get to see like, human failings, like act actualized in the world, in decisions in physical monuments, and policy. But as for the takeaway, I guess, I guess it was that, for me, I related it actually to the sort of the Enlightenment in the Founding Fathers, thinking that that movement was kind of a, a direct resistance against court life is that enlightenment political thinkers realize that court life is the default mode of human organization. And the only way to fight it is to live in a sort of egalitarian tribe, which is pretty much out of the question, or to put in place like strong checks on human incentives, so that you can do what you want your personality cannot be expressed through your policy. And basically, that there, there’s not the entrenchment of people like philosophy and his cronies. And so I really saw almost a, a weird angle of, of the founding of democracies around the world as a fight against the millennia long default to court life.

Will Jarvis 29:06
You know, I get this feeling and one of the most, one of the parts I really liked about your review, I think, as a reminder, you know, to me, I feel like the zeitgeist is very, and the political philosophy Zeitgeist is very pro monarchy at this point. And I don’t know if you felt this. But and I’ve always wondered, like, you know, there’s, there’s a reason we tried to escape that. And I think this was a great painting of me and the reasons why you

Whimsi 29:34
we did, yes, absolutely. And I do shut it up briefly. I didn’t want to get into it. But I’ve read a lot of Neo reactionary stuff by mold bug, I think I’ve read all of it. And it does fascinate me quite a bit, the idea of the sort of corporate monarchies where you vote by moving but how there’s basically like, full authoritarian power in the like localities. It’s fascinating. But reading a book like this, it’s just clear how the incentive structure of absolute rule transforms the personalities, not only of the leader would have every single person around them, and in a sense, every single person in the country, I guess, more appropriately every single person in the Capitol. But when, when power is arranged and doled out by such a small amount of people, it changes it, it changes the dynamics of every single social interaction in every resource transaction as well, because there’s no like ladder to status outside of the political will of the Emperor. I think it does kill something in people in in a society as a whole. And I think the Neo reactionary movement kind of misses that. That Oh, go ahead.

Will Jarvis 30:51
And perhaps there’s some kind of trade off? Yeah, I mean, that you have a, you know, it’s your sense. salasi was a, you know, I haven’t reviewed enough like kings or dictators or anything like that to know. But, you know, was he fairly effective, ineffective, like, Where does he come down? Or is he just the median, you know, King or dictator? What do you think, in terms of competence?

Whimsi 31:13
Yeah, it’s, it’s difficult to compare almost apples to oranges, if you compare him to say, a Charlemagne, who in terms of the court life, it’s not that dissimilar, like surely might be from the seven hundreds, but it’s really not that dissimilar of an organization. But the geography of Ethiopia does present a lot of like serious challenges. And I do try to be as charitable as possible when talking about his track record as a leader, because these famines have been going on in Ethiopia as far back as history records, basically, these periodic devastating famines. But as for effectiveness, I see him as not so much different than a lot of the other African strong men were once his cronies were entrenched around him. His goal was a self serving, keep me in power. And loyalty to me is like the primary virtue, the people are accustomed now to this level of suffering, we should not really strive to change it. Beyond a few modernization things. What I can say most charitably for him is he, he wants to apparently progress the country quicker, but there are other entrenched forces that are stopping him is what he claims. And I do want to charitably say that that might actually be true that if he started laying down more railroad, democratizing stuff, certain institutions that he might have been overthrown much earlier. And there’s a trade off there as well. But I would say, his sort of austere image in the eyes of the West is purely because of Mussolini’s like invasion of Ethiopia, outside of his speech for the UN, in his conduct in World War Two, which he does project, a lot of like, a power that I think a lot of people in the West at that time really could respect. Like, here’s an old fashioned authoritarian leader who loves his people who isn’t an actual European fascist. But meanwhile, during that World War Two, I mean, he fled to England, us. So in terms of effectiveness, I think there’s a lot of trappings around him, but he’s really not much different than the other African strong men.

Will Jarvis 33:31
Gotcha. Like said somebody falls along the median or something, as far as those things go,

Whimsi 33:36
right. And I think to make a competent assertion of his effectiveness, I would need to study Ethiopian geography a lot more, because it’s hard to say, how much of a problem it really is, like, I would have to know, rainfall and like how the agricultural system that works, you know, to be confident that

Will Jarvis 33:55
gotcha, gotcha. Oh, to move on a little bit. Now, it talks about another thing. You’ve started riding on Columbine. So the Columbine Massacre, it seems like it was the one of the first at least to me, and perhaps it was because I was very young at the time, and it was the first one I encountered, but seems like the first, you know, Inc, you know, time there was a large mass shooting. And there’s been many kind of copycats, and like, you know, past that, and perhaps it was just like the first one it was really televised and, and everyone saw, but how did you get interested in it in the first place?

Whimsi 34:32
Yes, so I’ve had a passing interest in it for a while just because it’s one of those tragedies similar to like the Las Vegas massacre, where I felt like it was kind of made publicized and then abandoned before any important questions were answered, as to motive as to the underlying root causes of what had happened. And so it was kind of like a nagging thing. As long as I can remember wondering like why did That happened because I had enough information. I knew that the kids were not mentally ill in terms of disassociated from reality. They had good parents, they lived in like upper middle class community. So why would this occur? It’s a really strange question, I think, a really interesting one. And then when I was actually looking for books to review, I saw this really popular Columbine book that was in New York Times bestsellers, authoritative, and sort of rewritten the narrative. in an interesting way, it asserts that bullying played basically no role, and that the healers were not bullied whatsoever. They were popular, even with girls. Yeah, it makes no no way. Yeah, really strong assertion, it’s kind of rewritten the narrative. It’s funny, because in this research, I see in 2001, there’s a wave of talking about bullying. And now in 2009, when this book came out, there’s a wave of actually there was no bullying, they were popular. And so this guy with this book is kind of rewritten the history of Columbine, which in itself, I don’t think is important, but what’s important is actually what happened where they actually believed, what what would cause this to happen. And I think, what has really driven me to actually say, I’m going to read 10 books about this and go into, like, uncoupling the different causes and seeing what can make this happen, because anytime you talk about violence is extreme coming from seemingly normal people. You want to say they were bullied, but millions of kids are bullied, right? Psychopaths will the rate of psychopathy is like 1%. So there are a lot of moral, right, high school, violent video games, movies, millions of kids watch those, even if you say abusive parents, which they did not have millions of kids have those. So what is the finding the cause between these things that actually can’t be separated as a cause is really fascinating to me. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out is, where have we gone wrong? In talking about these issues, where it’s such a naughty, impossible mess to figure out why they happened?

Will Jarvis 37:06
Bad, what’s your sense on that, you know, if you had to had to peg it, and like, why is authen ever determined, but it does seem like almost like a unique phenomenon in the US. And it may just be access to weapons is more readily available. But it does seem like it seems to happen a lot in general. And there’s other places that have access to weapons and to, you know, get think of like Sweden or Germany, etc.

Whimsi 37:30
Yeah, and these things have begun to happen. At a quicker clip all over the world, there have been just recently one in Russia, Germany. And I think you can kind of group even if it doesn’t happen with a gun, if the person’s intentions are roughly the same. They’re basically the same phenomenon, because a lot of people can still die. But as to why this sort of idea I’m getting at in in the article is that I think we have underrated the power of ideology, and I think it’s an issue in how we infantilized teenagers in the West, are really, if the two killers had been, like 22 years old. They would have been talked about in a much different way. And another thing that really got me thinking was actually this documentary called Path of blood, where they recovered the home videos of al Qaeda from certain terrorist cells in Saudi Arabia. And so these are young kids like 17 to 22. Yeah. And they speak and act exactly like the Columbine killers did. And yet, don’t hesitate to label them, terrorists motivated by an ideology. And so what I’m trying to get out is that, beyond psychopathy, and violent video games, and all of that, I think we’re not we underestimate the power of an ideology to take a disturbed person, and have them actualize whatever, whatever the rage might be from bullying into violent action, because it’s, I think, to me a very similar scenario, you take, say, teenagers in the Middle East who have also been humiliated in various ways in their lives, they may have some underlying mental illness, and importantly, they perceive the West as a corrupt world order that’s trying to sort of take over their world. In much the same way the Columbine killers saw the world itself as like corrupt and irredeemable. So I’m trying to almost take a devil’s advocate approach and thinking about them a bit more like domestic terrorists, and going through their journals and seeing that they actually did have philosophical ideas that they took very, very seriously. And I see that taking a few dangerous ideas very, very seriously is enough to take someone from disturb a teenager to terrorist or school shooter.

Will Jarvis 39:58
ideas, ideas, really matter.

Whimsi 40:00
Yeah. And I think what I’m trying to point out most of all is that we know this, when it’s a teenager in another country in an impoverished country, maybe. But when it’s a teenager in Colorado, we think they must be bullied, they must have bad parents, it must be mental illness, they can’t possibly have any kind of structured ideology, a belief system that would make them do this, when in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that they did. One of the killers talks about loving Thomas Hobbes, Friedrich Nietzche, really, they talk about a very like, in loving Stalin in Hitler, because of just their ability to exterminate humans, basically. Yeah, I know, it’s very dark, unfortunately. It’s exhausting to read about. But I think it’s a kind of stone that’s been left unturned, that America we’d sort of see people before the age of 18 as incapable of being shaped by ideas on the level of becoming violent terrorists, so long as they’re in the Western world. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to get out. I’m still, that’s still a work in progress. But I hope to have that post out in the next couple of weeks.

Will Jarvis 41:13
I like it, I like it. I like it. Well, Lindsey, I guess more generally, as we, as we wrap up here, you know, what led you to writing, you know, as if this just been something that’s been a thing in your life, you know, since you were a kid, or has it been something recent, where you found like, you know, like, Man, I’m pretty good at this, if you’re quite good at it, and you want to kind of proceed a little bit more.

Whimsi 41:35
Writing has been a thing for me for a long time, I definitely come from a family of readers. I participate in even in like competitive writing and reading stuff in elementary school. It started to I really first wanted to be a fiction writer. And I still spend a lot of time doing that. But I found that there’s a certain a bit of tedium in fiction writing where to get it to make a story, a vessel for an idea, you kind of risk being a bit of a hack. Even if you’re a talented hack, like iron Rand or something, write books, I have enjoyed the idea that it’s a very inefficient delivery system. I think if you want to write a great story, you should write a great story. But if you have a philosophy or an idea that should be translated to the world. I really do, I deeply believe, and I think Scott’s writing an ACS has shaped disbelief that, you know, two to 10,000 word blog posts are the best way to communicate to people. I think the essay is the most efficient. And it’s a cliche at this point that most nonfiction books should be an essay or a five or 10k word essay. And that’s actually in a really good way sort of killed. Dreams I used to have of being a wreck writing these, Malcolm Gladwell esque books. Because when I’d sit down to write them, I’d feel like this is too long. It doesn’t need this, but it needs to be this from New York to publish it. So actually, I I owe a lot to the community of bloggers, around Astro Codex 10 for making me realize that my instincts are right. And these shorter pieces delivered through like an independent blogging sort of ecosystem, is I think the best way to get ideas out there at a quick rate. The hard part now is determining level of polish. And I guess level of controversy I’m willing to broach right?

Will Jarvis 43:35
Yeah, it’s a difficult thing to balance. How do you go about, you know, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, with my writing, which I don’t do much, but you know, how do you go about determining Polish level, and like, when something’s ready to shoot out there?

Whimsi 43:51
I, for me, I have a lot of an easier time with nonfiction. For sure. With fiction, I pick it apart, and I have no idea but I have attentive it, if it’s any good, but with nonfiction with the post I’m writing now. It kind of is a very visceral, I need to polish it until I don’t cringe when I read it. Interesting. My eyes don’t catch on a certain phrase. I also tried to, I really try to pull out any sort of like, I know, the word isn’t candor. I hate bombastic writing. And I really am trying not to ever have a ranting tone. And so I think that the biggest things for me are finding out what your biggest sort of sins are as a writer, and screening for those. Got it. On my first draft, I can sort of write in a ranting style just to get it all out. I’m sometimes not rigorous enough and explaining what I mean and what led me to this or that vision. And so screening for my biggest flaws has helped me so much.

Will Jarvis 44:55
I’d like that, who are who are the big nonfiction writers you look up to

Whimsi 45:01
I’ll certainly Orwell, I think he might, he might actually be number one because I admire his choice in subject matter, being in the right inserting himself into the right place at the right time to write things that have a way broader resonance. I also love David Foster Wallace, who we just mentioned. He has a great essay about life on a cruise ship. I love that essay. Yeah, it’s fantastic.

Will Jarvis 45:28
Yeah, I can’t remember the title. But it’s great. It’s so good.

Whimsi 45:31
I think it’s a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do. Yes, yes. He’s really great for me. If I want to go really older, I really like montane actually, sort of essayist, he’s very dense, he can be difficult to read. But if you get at what he’s trying to say, beyond the sort of archaic language, he his goals and ideas he’s writing is really no different from any of these people on substack, or the modern blogging community. He’s, he’s usually starting with a very difficult but distinct question in investigating it by looking at historical examples, failures in his own life. interesting ideas that were in the air at the time, he’s really doing nothing different than what’s being done now. So I really like him as well. Those are the three that really leaked to mind. I like Hunter S. Thompson a lot, too. But I think mainly for his more as a fiction writer now for journalism.

Will Jarvis 46:32
I got it. David Foster Wallace, you know, he feels you know, you have all this always. I’m always saying this discourse about David Foster Wallace books, you know, have you read Infinite Jest? Yeah. Yeah. You know, do you think his fiction writing is overrated or underrated? At this point? I really enjoyed the essays. I haven’t really gotten in the fiction as much, but I really enjoy his essays. I think he’s kind of a master essays. But yeah, do you think it’s like fiction? Right? What do you think about his fiction writing?

Whimsi 47:02
Yeah, Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books. So nice. I have critiques of him. But I think I really do think that’s probably the best book for the last 20 or 30 years. And I think, if it came out today, it would have a much larger impact even than it did in 1996. Really? Yeah. Because what he’s, he’s basically writing a book about social media before it existed. Because he’s really looking at the ways that we feel somewhat meaningless, modern lives, yeah. with addictions, basically, it’s really at its heart, a book about addiction. And the two main stories are about a tennis academy. And they have a halfway house for people coming back from drug addiction. And I think that what he is getting at with those two stories, is really, really important. And I sometimes wish the book didn’t have this massive size in the foot, right? And all these sort of bells and whistles that distract from what the book is actually about. And how it important is how important it is for right now. Also on top of all that, he’s extremely funny. And he is very funny. Yeah. He also a funny thing about him is that he self consciously kind of panders, I think, to the American reading public in a strange way. He writes the book and like, most of his books in this episodic, highly entertaining style, were kind of a leaping from I almost want to say Seinfeld esque, like shenanigans of these characters, and they can be deeply, deeply serious. Yeah, the conversations are always have almost like TV comedy level, line by line entertainment value. And so I feel like he, at some point, had a dark night of the soul and realized I need to make my writing so entertaining that any American would pick it up. And except that it’s 1600 pages, except that it’s about addiction, and hedonism and not be able to put it down because of the pace at which it’s written. And the sort of wackiness, a very American wackiness injected into a lot of the characters.

Will Jarvis 49:15
What? What was the key message you took it took away is that we should be careful about addictions? Is it that, you know, like, this new virtualized world is dangerous, and it you know, washes away our human connections? What was the big, big takeaway for you?

Whimsi 49:30
Um, so, I want to take credit for this because I think he might have said it himself in interview. But I will say it’s a book where I actually don’t think it’s an overreach to say it’s about the sort of Nietzsche and death of God because it’s really a book about worship. And I think he said this himself is that every human being is wired to worship in one way or another, and you are going to find something to worship. So you need to find it sounds kind of Jordan Peterson ish, actually putting it this way. You need to select something to worship, that is actually going to help you construct a workable life. Otherwise, you will worship something like a drug, which becomes an addiction that will actually rewire your brain chemistry and kind of ruin you for the rest of life, the rest of life in that, like, it’ll ruin you for the normal spectrum of like, pleasurable experiences. So I think, looking at sort of most a cultural hollowness, sort of unique to America, where people are strangely, untethered, they live in suburbs that are fairly anonymous, they might they go to church at a lower and lower rates. They don’t have such strong identifying features or cultural mores. And so there’s this vast emptiness that’s being filled with entertainment, and drugs. And so I think, if I could bubble it, or simmer down to one small message, it would be, you have to be careful with what you worship, and how you form your identity around that.

Will Jarvis 50:59
Definitely. And it seems like, you know, I like his work a lot, because, you know, the man himself is very, you know, it’s very troubled. But, you know, he’s trying, he’s like, trying to tell you like, here are the problems, and this is how you deal with them, which is a it’s a noble thing to try and do but very difficult at the same time.

Whimsi 51:22
Yeah, I, I respect him so much. And it’s a shame that he passed away in 2007. Because he kind of his career then ended on the cusp of everything he cared to write about. Really. That’s right. And it’s strange. I’m actually reading a short story by him this morning. And I feel like he’s, he’s trying to write about the sort of plugged in social media experience, and the kind of weird cyborg relationship, we know how with our phones, or like, our social network, and like, a, like a part of our brain is wired to a relationship with the phone. Yeah. And he’s trying to write about that, but it hasn’t happened yet. So he writes about it in these really weird ways, like, this short story. One that I really love is he’s writing about focus groups. It’s like an 80 Page short story, it basically only takes place in a focus group room for like a Twinkie style confectionery sweet, nice. And he’s it’s all about the people’s reaction to it in the way they pick apart the sort of marketing messaging of the sweet like, he’s trying to get at this sort of cynical relationship we have now with marketing and social media, but he has to invent the sort of structures himself in his stories. It’s really interesting to read, I think.

Will Jarvis 52:43
I’d like that. I like that. I’ll have to check that one out. I’ve got one last big question. You know, we’ve been talking about David Foster Wallace. Do you think great writers are born? Or are they built? Or you know, is it just like something that just takes constant practice, even for the best?

Whimsi 53:00
That’s interesting. It’s a big question. I, I guess the route I like to take with it that I think people don’t talk about enough is what writing unlike other art forms, I think isn’t a skill that exists at all, independent of the rest of your personality in your life. Like we can imagine a sort of virtuoso savant painter. Yeah, who even has like a limited mental faculty, but can paint a colorful image of a bird or something. Whereas you can’t really imagine a savant writer with like a limited mental faculty. Because writing is genuinely like a reflection of like the sort of really complicated experiences we have in the world. So I think anyone can be a good writer if they design their life so that they’re in the midst of something interesting. That’s worth writing about and talking about, I think a good example is certain celebrity memoirs are actually I think, really, really good. Not all of them by any stretch, because they’ve lived a life. That’s at sort of the crossroads of interesting cultural currents. As long as they write clearly, and simply and have some idea of what’s interesting about their lives. It will be great writing. I’m trying to think of an example, I guess. One that’s fairly good is this memoir by the tennis player, Andre Agassi. I open and so he happened to be it’s funny. This repeats the Infinite Jest, a drug addicted, tennis player. Oh, wow, that is relevant. Yeah, who is driven by his father to be this he’d know inborn love for tennis, but his father would take ping pong paddles to his wrists as an infant. And when he hitting balls, yeah, and so not to glorify that at all. But by virtue of having a life like that, he’s become a good writer, because he instantly has interesting experiences to draw on. I don’t want to just say interesting, I guess. Profound experiences that reflect larger problems in society that have resonance with other people. And I think that kind of makes you a good writer. As long as you express yourself somewhat clearly,

Will Jarvis 55:11
it seems like a broad thing I’ve gotten from us. And it’s something I had not thought about before. And then the context of writing. But having something interesting to say, and having a good eye for that seems to be really important. It’s something you definitely have, you know, just in reading your selection of book reviews, it’s, you know, you’re definitely on the right track, which is super exciting.

Whimsi 55:31
Thank you. And to bring it back to the earlier review, actually, I ended on that, which is what I like most about Orwell, and I think is missing in modern journalism is all Orwell had to do, to write this amazing book that I think will be remembered a long time, was have the courage to live this way, and write about it honestly. And you don’t have to be a genius to do it. And I think it’s might be Harold Bloom, or some famous literary critic, likes to hammer on the fact that Orwell is not a literary genius, in any sense. He is no special way with words. He’s a competent writer. But it’s his selection of subject matter that no one else dared to select at that time that makes him special. And I think that’s something missing now is in journalism, especially as people write about the same topics over and over again, and try to create controversy when there’s enough controversy out in the world already. Interesting. And you simply need to like inject yourself into it in some meaningful way. And so I think that’s what I admire most about Orwell and the other writers I listed is their ability to identify an interesting problem. I think that’s probably the most important thing for a writer.

Will Jarvis 56:42
And that’s a, that actually goes back to your saying about, you know, David Foster Wallace, you know, these things are so virtualized now, and I think people miss that, you know, when I look at modern journalism, this is what I think people are missing. And I think, you know, we probably shouldn’t say on the podcast, because then we’d be letting the secret out. But that’s kind of the $20 bill on the sidewalk I see for for writing today is that you could really, really, it’s kind of inadequate equilibria where you could really get ahead and very well science and get to the preta frontier, which is very exciting.

Whimsi 57:12
Yeah, I totally agree. I think because journalism has grown so competitive now with your novel. It really limits what these large newspapers and other media outlets can do. They have to usually have something that can easily like be proven to bring in a lot of clicks. Yeah. It has to be a name journalist. And then the sort of really special interest pieces are determined by the whims of those few big name journalists. That’s right. Yeah, absolutely.

Will Jarvis 57:47
Weird instead of bottle I have you heard of default friend Catherine de by any chance? I don’t think so. Okay, you should look her up. She we had on the show recently. She talks a lot about these models of how you know, journalism. So bottom up now and these things filtered out from these online communities. Anyway. Well, wimzie Thank you so much for taking the time to come on. Where can people find your work? Where should we send them?

Whimsi 58:12
Thanks. I had a great time awesome conversation. So they can find me on some substack at whimsy like W H. I m s I like whimsical without the coal at the end. And I don’t have too much up there yet. I have a few articles. Next one coming will be about why did Columbine happen? I think that’s my working title. It’s very, very simple. And that’s the only place I’m at right now really online. And for the time being, I’m choosing to remain anonymous, because I don’t want to censor myself by choosing something crucial. Because unfortunately, I have supporting friends who if they knew they would all read it. And if I wrote something controversial, you know, that might be bad. So for now, I want to remain anonymous. But I hope people check out the sub stack and find something interesting on there.

Will Jarvis 58:59
And there’s, I want to tell audience, there’s there’s a ton of good stuff on there. I highly recommend you check it out. Well, thank you very much Wednesday at a great time. Thank you.

Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of narratives.

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