Thrown’s Kit’s Self-Deception

Back in July 2010 Kerry Howley published a nice New York Times Magazine article on the tensions between my wife and I resulting from my choice to do cryonics. The very next month, August 2010, is the date when, in Howley’s new and already-celebrated book Thrown, her alter-ego Kit first falls in love with MMA fighting:

Not until my ride home, as I began to settle back into my bones and feel the limiting contours of perception close back in like the nursery curtains that stifled the views of my youth, did it occur to me that I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of this, my own skin. … From that moment onward, the only phenomenological project that could possibly hold interest to me was as follows: capture and describe that particular state of being to which one Sean Huffman had taken me.

I’ve read the book, and also several dozen reviews. Some reviews discuss how Kit is a semi-fictional character, and a few mention Kit’s pretentiousness and arrogance. Some disagree on if Kit has communicated the ecstasy she feels, or if those feelings are worthy of her obsession. But all the reviewers seem to take Kit at her word when she says her primary goal is to understand the ecstasy she felt in that first encounter.

Yet right after the above quote is this:

And so naturally I began to show up places where Sean might show up— the gym where he trained, the bar where he bounced, the rented basement where he lived, the restaurants where he consumed foods perhaps not entirely aligned with the professed goals of an aspiring fighter. I hope it doesn’t sound immodest to say that Sean found this attention entirely agreeable.

Kit does the same to another fighter named Eric, and later she gets despondent when Erik won’t return her calls. She tracks him down to a fight, hugs him in front of the crowd, and is delighted get his acceptance:

My moment of embarrassment had already transformed into a glow of pride. The entire room saw that I was his, and he mine.

While Kit only feels ecstasy during an actual fight, she spends all her time as a “groupie” to two fighters, Sean and Erik. (She says she is a “space-taker”, not “groupie”, but I couldn’t see the difference.) Kit mainly only goes to fights when these men fight, even when such fights are months apart. Kit’s ego comes to depend heavily on getting personal attention from these fighters, and her interest in them rises and falls with their fighting success. The book ends with her latching on to a new fighter, after Sean and Erik have fallen.

It seems to me that if Kit had wanted mainly to study her feeling of ecstasy while watching fights, she would have gone to lots of fights, and tried to break her feelings down into parts, or looked at how they changed with context. She could have also talked to and studied other fighter fans, to break down their feelings or see how those change with context. But Kit instead sought to hang with successful fighters between fights, when neither she nor they felt this ecstasy she said was her focus. She didn’t even talk with fighters much about their ecstasy feelings. What mattered most to Kit apparently was that fighters associated with her, and that they won fights.

Kit quits her philosophy program:

I knew what they would turn my project into, these small scholastics with their ceaseless referencing of better men would, if they even allowed my explorations as a subject of dissertation, demand a dull tome with the tiniest flicker of insight buried underneath 800 pages of exegeses of other men’s work. Instead of being celebrated as a pioneer of modern phenomenology, I would merely be a footnote in the future study of Schopenhauer, whom, without my prodding, no one would study in the future.

It seems to me that Kit is self-deceived. She thinks she wants to study ecstasy, but in fact she is simply star-struck. The “ecstasy” feeling that hit her so hard was her subconscious being very impressed with these fighters, and wanting badly to associate with them. And she felt very good when she succeeded at that. By associating with their superiority, she could also feel feel superior to the rest of the world:

I would write my fighterly thesis, but I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.

Of course Kerry Howley, the author, does not equal Kit, the voice Kerry chooses to narrate her book. Kerry may well be very aware of Kit’s self-deception, but still found Kit a good vehicle for painting an intimate portrait of the lives of some fighters. But if so, I find it odd that none of the other dozens of reviews I’ve read of Thrown mention this.

Added 21Oct: Possible theories:

  1. Most reviewers read the book carefully, but are too stupid to notice.
  2. Most reviewers are lazy & only skimmed the book.
  3. Reviewers hate to give negative reviews, & this sounds negative.
  4. Readers crave idealistic narrators, and reviewers pander to readers.
  5. My reading is all wrong.

Added 27Oct: Note that at the end of the book Kit articulates no insight on the nature of ecstasy. You might think that if understanding ecstasy had been her goal, she might have a least reflected on what she had discovered.

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  • Sam Dangremond

    Oh lordy, first Tyler flirts with The Red Pill guys… now Robin too?

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      This is nothing unusual for Robin. He believes academia itself is mainly about associating with impressive people.

    • whatever

      Robin used to link to Roissy. He was there first.

    • guest

      Tyler flirts with The Red Pill guys

      Source, please!

    • Cahokia

      Sorry, but this book falls into every Red Pill cliche.

      But then women so often do.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    It seems to me that Kit is self-deceived.

    You don’t say!:

    Schopenhauer, whom, without my prodding, no one would study in the future

    All are “self-deceived.” The lady has delusions of grandeur.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      The Schopenhauer bit sounds like a joke.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        True, but on whom is the joke? I take the book to be in part satire (of the narrator, Kit–but then I haven’t read the book, as I suppose Robin has; but he asked). Kit’s narcissism and self-delusion seem to be the joke.

        No, I don’t think Kit was making a joke, although the author was. Checking out the quote in Amazon for context, I find the following line in the same paragraph:

        “I had dared to make the unknowable show itself, and I was in my investigations resurrecting old works of philosophy thought irrelevant by their contemporary critics.”

  • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

    I just added to the post.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    I’m thinking the last theory might be true. I don’t think the reviewers were oblivious to Kit’s narcissism. Lydia Kiesling, Salon, for example, wrote:

    “The nearly hysterical circumlocutory gymnastics of the narrator, and her dual position as a predator and supplicant to her fighters”

    This suggests that Kit’s narcissistic mentality was blatantly obvious.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      That doesn’t address if she is trying to understand ecstasy.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        But it does suggest you’re mistaken to characterize the narrator’s intended persona as “idealistic.”

      • Silent Cal

        It doesn’t address it directly, but it suggests that in general, Kit’s stated reasons for doing things are not her actual reasons.

        Kiesling’s review mostly speaks in generalities, comparing Kit to a bunch of other celebrated literary characters. I haven’t read any of the works she mentions, but they don’t sound like idealistic portrayals of rational investigators.

  • stevesailer

    The most natural feeling for a young woman in that situation would be to want the two fighters to fight each other, with the winner getting her. From Lerner & Lowe’s “Camelot:”

    Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

    Where are all those adoring daring boys?

    Where’s the knight pining so for me

    he leaps to death in woe for me?

    Oh where are a maiden’s simple joys?

    Shan’t I have the normal life a maiden should?

    Shall I never be rescued in the wood?

    Shall two knights never tilt for me

    and let their blood be spilt for me?

    Oh where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

    Shall I not be on a pedestal,

    Worshipped and competed for?

    Not be carried off, or better st’ll,

    Cause a little war?

    http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/camelot_soundtrack/the_simple_joys_of_maidenhood-lyrics-75457.html#ixzz3GqIh00wN

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    ‘Literary’ novels about broken people becoming more broken (whose phrase is this? I don’t remember it, but it’s so very apt) are by authors who reject the character ideal of a character that makes an effort to optimize their life choices. It seems sort of futile to try to ask why a reviewer who chooses to review a book like that would fail to notice the book’s character doing an incorrect self-analysis. Of course stories about broken people becoming more broken aren’t going to ask why the character doesn’t pursue a more optimal path to her stated ideals! You’re trying to import your own spark of inner life and optimization into a book that rejects your entire way of cognitive existence. Well, okay, but don’t be surprised when the ‘native’ reviewers of that book don’t do the same.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I guess I didn’t see the reviewers indicating that they saw this book as in a “broken people breaking more” genre. Yes of course if a reader wants to wallow in a random broken world full of broken people they might not be interested in asking why a character doesn’t pursue their stated goals effectively. But what signs would tell me this book is seen as being within that genre? Is it that most ‘literary’ novels are in that genre?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Is it that most ‘literary’ novels are in that genre?

        The scare quotes around “literary” so suggests.

        I suppose that what we should prefer is superhero fiction. No “broken people” there!

    • Jason Young

      I wonder if there are rationality groupies that pretend they’re super into optimizing themselves just so they can be seen hanging around the sexy superstars of rationality. I bet the sexy superstars of rationality would reject such phonies if they baldly stated their aims, but maybe I’m wrong.

      • patrissimo

        Yes, but this is neither a peculiarly female phenomenon nor a peculiarly rationalist one. In general, people in any group pretend they are more interested in, accomplished at, and devoted to the values of the group than they are in order to increase their status within the group. Since the aim is to deceive, of course they don’t “baldly state their aims”.

        Rationalists are probably more rational than average and may do this less than most, but they are far from 100% rational, so naturally they do it some.

        All groups attempt to detect and punish such hypocrisy since doing so is another way people can increase their relative status within a group (by diminishing that of others). Rationalists may judge such false presentation as being more anti-group values than other groups, but I think they are also more naive and less likely to detect it, so I don’t know that they police it any more or more successfully than other groups.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      whose phrase is this? I don’t remember it, but it’s so very apt

      Your amazing memory for the apt phrase (of forgotten origin) hasn’t deserted you!

    • http://www.enlightenmentvalues.com/ Jake Witmer

      I think I saw this phrase on a review of “The Catcher in the Rye” at Reason.com

    • brendan_r

      Being force-fed the Broken People genre as a 9th grader by delusionally sentimental 60 year old women- who resemble these reviewers- was an efficient way to turn me off from learning. As a 14 year old you can’t articulate the thoughts Eliezer does above, even if you feel them. The best you can do is: why am I reading about these psychotic losers; I don’t get it; Sparknotes it is, this time, next time, forever! Literally unlearned a love for reading instilled in me by Michael Crichton when I was 8.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Children (if they go to schools anything like mine, years ago) read Charles Dickens in the 9th grade. The experience disinclined me to read Dickens until recently; you can’t appreciate Dickens (or I couldn’t) without some life experience and intellectual maturity.

        Was it a to a Dickens novel that you think E.Y.’s strictures apply?

        [I sense that, by way of novels, E.Y. restricts himself to fan fiction. Frankly, I think those who simply detest reading about the deranged can’t (subconsciously) tolerate seeing the deranged in themselves, which is the real insight obtained from such works.]

      • brendan_r

        Uh, not Dickens I don’t think. I recall The Catcher In the Rye and The Color Purple (or some other depressing Oprah bookclub fiction) being particularly painful.

        Being forced into Siddhartha in 9th grade was similar to your experience with Dickens: just too young. I enjoyed recently reading Sam Harris’ Waking Up, so I assume I’d like Siddhartha now too, but c’mon, they gotta be realistic about what normal 14 year olds can grasp. And that’s true outside literature too: 9th graders below the 99.5th percentile can’t grok geometry, yet it was standard in the school I went to. [Good for inculcating learned helplessness.]

        Hm, I dunno about it being a self-defense mechanism. I just think some of us are more excited by dinosaurs, and spaceships, and by admiring heroes like Feynman and Franklin and John Galt and astronauts than we are by perverted psychopaths.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        by admiring heroes like Feynman and Franklin and John Galt and astronauts

        The last is more uplifting.

  • http://sprachlogik.blogspot.com/ Tristan Haze

    I really like this post aesthetically, and the quoted passage about Kit quitting her philosophy programme really resonated with me to an almost uncomfortable degree (I’m a late stage philosophy PhD student who has suspended studies for a year).

    I also really like that this blog has posts like this sometimes, where the references are more literary than scientific. I’m not saying there should be more, just that I like them and that they’re here.

  • efalken

    When an intelligent, educated, person tries to find their purpose in competitions, ideas to be discovered, or a political movement, it always ends in disillusionment. The take-away, is in Catcher in the Rye, is on what doesn’t work or isn’t real.

    Satisfying purpose comes from loving something that loves you back and the stoic virtues (eg, see Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics). Be a mensch, love something worth loving, and you won’t have existential angst.

    • brendan_r

      Milton had David Friedman, and Paul Krugman has a cat. Explains a bit about their personalities.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Resignation, stoicism, and above all the avoidance of all disillusionment, are not virtues befitting Dream Time.

    • Jason Young

      There are plenty of intelligent, educated people who continue to devote themselves to competition and politics even after they’re disillusioned to the fullest extent possible. Maybe they aren’t satisfied when they ruminate on life over breakfast, but for most of their day they’re too busy trying to get ahead or pull one over to ever feel the luxurious gloom of philosophers. To put it another way, I think most intelligent, educated people are too busy pursuing the purposes they’ve ended up with to ever undermine them with self-questioning.

      Your answer is fine for displaced members of the priestly class, which a lot of the people around here seem to be, but for most people I don’t think the stoic virtues have any value at all.

      • efalken

        Courage, temperance, liberality, magnanimity, patience, politeness, gratefulness, prudence (which involves lots of ‘techne’ or state-of-the-art craftmanship in one’s comparative advantage), openness, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, discipline, and perhaps others. Pursuing moderation in all these virtues, which are contextual and have trade-offs, is a life’s work. Doing our best is all we can do, and it’s easy to go to an excess or deficiency out of anger or laziness in any of these dimensions. That’s what I mean by stoic virtues: it’s taking what you have and maximizing it, not trying to achieve any end, just doing your best.

        By themselves this can leave one empty, why Kierkegaard suggested one love Christ because he can return one’s love infinitely and will appreciate that love and one’s virtues. I’m not a Christian, though sympathetic, but your child, mate, or good friends can return love and act as Christ does to Kierkegaard, so every day you feel earned appreciation: you are a good person and deserve societal approval for being virtuous, and you have a good other self that sincerely and rightly appreciates you as an individual. Perceived earned success, as Arthur Brooks would say.

        In that sense, the stoic virtues, with love, or necessary parts of a happy, fulfilled life. If you can point to another way, I’d like to hear it.

      • Jason Young

        Good reply. I misspoke.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      When an intelligent, educated, person tries to find their purpose in competitions, ideas to be discovered, or a political movement, it always ends in disillusionment.

      And loving something that loves you back never (even usually) doesn’t result in disillusionment?

      I don’t think it wouldn’t be easy to prove the claim that people who find meaning in their personal lives find more meaning than those who find it in a cause. (Personal competition is an altogether different matter.)

      Folks typically think their solution is best. (But secretly envy, hence deride, the psychological advantages of other solutions.)

      • efalken

        per finding good love objects:

        1) Love God, who is near-perfect and loves you when you are virtuous and love him. If He doesn’t exist the comfort from this relationship can still work (if you think He does exist).
        2) Get a dog, as they were bred to love and obey humans.
        3) Choose good people, but if they betray you remember the Serenity Prayer (very stoic) and find another.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        “Near-perfect”? There goes the ontological argument! How do you figure near?

        [I love dogs but they have often disappointed me. They aren’t as loyal as folks think, their affection easily won by anyone who feeds them.]

      • efalken

        I conceive that nobody’s perfect…therefore God must not be perfect. Proof: 1/0 = #NA. QED.

  • burger flipper

    Hmm, sounds like the books is much more about female sexual attraction than understanding ecstasy. I suspect that the self deception of the main character is intentional, in large part because MMA is the perfect sport to make that point.

    MMA is deceptively complicated. At face value it is very close to the “human chicken fighting” its detractors call it. But the sport can be very strategic and the brazilian jiu jitsu element makes it very difficult for newbies to tell what the heck is going on half the time (though the guy on top is usually winning).

    No one who fell in love with MMA could learn much of anything watching a few events a year their favorite fighters participated in. Also a good chunk of any fight that goes to the ground takes place in “full guard,” not much different than the missionary position.

    I would be a little apprehensive were I a nebbish boyfriend character (Bill Bilkerson?) in this tale.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Kerry Howley published a nice New York Times Magazine article on the tensions between my wife and I

    Sarcasm?

  • Will

    In everything I’ve read about Cryonics (not that much admittedly), I’ve never seen any discussion about what incentives future humans/robots/ems would have to unfreeze you. Why would they want to mess around with a frozen body/head? What’s in it for them?

    • Cahokia

      What would make this especially challenging for any legal system to handle?

  • Foxhuntingman

    Will you ever learn that the object of a preposition takes the objective case: me, not I?

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Steven Pinker has recently complained that this is not necessarily so. His argument is that because the whole phrase is the objective case, that doesn’t mean that the two component conjuncts necessarily are. (The phrase is “between my wife and I [sic].”) He provides supporting examples.

      Perhaps Robin might be more persuaded to do it the conventional way by pointing out that “between my wife and I” sounds pretentious.

  • burger flipper

    This book is available for a buck-99 on kindle today only. Bought it myself