Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Final thoughts on randomness


Here’s an encouraging thought. Actually, I jest. Or rather, I ironise. Because this thought is not encouraging at all; it’s potentially depressing.

In his book Fooled by Randomness (about which I have been posting for some time, hence the number twenty attached to this initial pensée of the day), Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells us that purely rational behaviour on the part of humans can arise from a genetic defect in the amygdala, which blocks the emotions of attachment. This means that the subject is, literally, a psychopath.

Taleb does not give us any figures for the proportion of all rational actions which arise from this defect, and in the nature of things such figures are impossible to obtain; but, from the examples he gives, I certainly get the impression that, in his judgement, truly rational thinking without such a defect in the amygdala is rare.

Taleb goes on to say that a common characteristic of emotional humans, as opposed to psychopaths, is that they tend to be married to ideas. For example, an academic who has become famous for holding a particular view of, say, history, is not going to change his opinion any too readily, because he has invested many years in propagating that view – and since it has made him famous he is rather attached to it.

Consider the unfortunate implications of this for writing and publishing. A psychopath is, I suspect, incapable of writing a novel. A writer is therefore, pretty much by definition, an emotional and hence relatively irrational creature. She will, moreover, have invested a vast amount of time and energy in creating her novel.

Not only has our posited writer made an irrational decision in the first place (i.e. the decision to write a novel), but she is more than likely married to the idea that it is a pretty damn good novel (the view which she expresses in public), if not actually the greatest work of literature that the world has ever seen (which is her private view).

This situation, I was going to say, could have unfortunate consequences. But we don’t have to say ‘could’, do we? Because the evidence that this combination of circumstances has unfortunate consequences is all around us: in the shape of bitterly disappointed and frustrated writers. And we all know a few of those, don’t we?


Taleb tells us that he starts every meeting with his colleagues by convincing all those present that they (himself included) are a bunch of idiots who know nothing and are mistake prone, but that they happen to be endowed with the rare privilege of knowing what they are.

I recommend this procedure to the chairmen of the acquisition committees of every major publishing house.


Henry de Montherlant was an aristocratic French writer. When told that he was about to lose his eyesight to a degenerative disease (a disease which strikes at random), he decided to take his own life.

Taleb makes the point that, faced with the effects of randomness, you always have a choice – even if it is an extremely difficult and painful choice. There is always something you can do. It may be something small, or something extreme, such as committing suicide; but there is always a choice which can influence or deflect, to some extent, the ravages of chance.

In the end, of course, chance (randomness) will always have the last word. But, says Taleb, we are left with dignity as a solution.

Stoicism, says Taleb, means following the dignified path. And a stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage.

Well, I persist in holding the view that a truly wise person would not get involved in the writing and publishing business in the first place. But, given that we are unwise, emotional, irrational creatures, it is inevitable that many of us will become so involved. And a writer’s only defences against the workings of randomness in our chosen madhouse are dignity and courage.

Do your best on your execution day, advises Taleb. Shave carefully (or substitute an equivalent female activity). Try to leave a good impression on the death squad. When, diagnosed with cancer, try not to play victim; hide the information from others. And try not to blame others for your fate, even when they deserve blame.

I’m sure that you are quite capable of working out the writing/publishing equivalents of this strategy for yourselves.

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