Wednesday, November 30, 2016

That Obscure Object of Desire

One of the side effects of studying the material of W. B. Yeats's A Vision is that you do notice echoes of its categories in some fairly unexpected places. These may have nothing to do with the Yeatses' system, yet they show how elements of it are natural distinctions.

Reading David Brooks's column "Does Decision-Making Matter?" in the New York Times last Saturday, I was struck at the end by how clearly he had described the role and importance of the Mask, and then looking back through the article saw elements that corresponded to Body of Fate, and then to Will and Creative Mind.

I'll summarise the article here, even though it's brief, but I'd recommend that you read it—maybe even read it first. The article starts as a preview of a forthcoming book by Michael Lewis The Undoing Project (2016), which examines the life and work of the Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Kahneman's book outlining some of their research Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) has been a recent best seller, and Lewis has previously written such books as Moneyball, The Big Short, and Flash Boys). Brooks then moves on to some thoughts provoked by this double biography.

After describing Kahneman's background in France under Nazi occupation and then Israel, and Tversky's childhood in Israel, and their meeting, the article notes the intensity and closeness of their partnership and how their research "revolutionized how we think about ourselves". Kahneman and Tversky showed that, rather than being the rational creatures of traditional economics,  we are biased and in predictable ways.

Though their research has analysed decision-making, Brooks pauses to ask how much of these two men's lives depended upon decisions that they made:
The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions.
....Their lives weren't so much shaped by decisions as by rapture.
....when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?
Have you ever known anybody to turn away from anything they found compulsively engaging?
....Now that we know a bit more about decision-making, maybe the next frontier is desire. Maybe the next Kahneman and Tversky will help us understand what explains, fires and orders our loves. 
Brooks's subject here is the Mask, the goal and focus of desire, what beckons us onward. Yeats's approach is mythic and symbolic, not the scientific and psychological study that Brooks asks for, but it is the same drive and compulsion that they identify. This is how I summarised Yeats's descriptions of the Mask in an essay a few years ago:
The Mask is... the ‘object of desire or moral ideal’ and ‘idea of the good’ (AVB 83), ‘the image of what we wish to become, or of that to which we give our reverence’ (CW13 15, AVA 15), ‘the Ought (or that which should be)’ (AVB 73), and ‘in the antithetical phases beauty’ (AVB 192). It is chosen but involuntary, taking ‘a form selected instinctively for those emotional associations which come out of the dark, and this form is itself set before us by accident, or swims up from the dark portion of the mind’ (CW13 24, AVA 27), so that it is the object of willed choice but comes before us without conscious selection. It is intrinsically at the limit of reach, ‘that object of desire or moral ideal which is of all possible things the most difficult’ (AVB 83), and vulnerable to chance and external reality.
("The Mask of A Vision", Yeats Annual 19) 
To follow through with a Yeatsian anatomy, the circumstances and historical events that Brooks notes might be seen as connected to the Body of Fate, while decision-making is the function of the Will—the natural bias (cf. AVB 171; CW13 85; AVA 105)—presumably with input from Creative Mind in more rational aspects.

One could even speculate on Phases for the researchers, but there is such a thing as taking the Yeatsian approach too far.