Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sen and sensibility: Detectives Beyond Borders schmoozes three Nobel Prize winners

The number of Nobel laureates with whom I have exchanged pleasant words grew to three this week when I attended a lecture by Amartya Sen, who won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1998 for his work on poverty, famine, and welfare economics.

"You can't have a humane society without considerations beyond your own interests," Sen told his audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and if that's a surprise from an economist, consider Wikipedia's summation of the economics classic with which Sen began his lecture. That book's author
"critically examines the moral thinking of his time, and suggests that conscience arises from social relationships. His goal in writing the work was to explain the source of mankind's ability to form moral judgements, in spite of man's natural inclinations towards self-interest. [He] proposes a theory of sympathy, in which the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves and the morality of their own behavior."
If you know as little as I do about the literature of economics, you may be surprised to learn that the economist in question is Adam Smith — you know, the invisible-hand, self-interest guy (The book is The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the Penguin Classics edition of which comes with an introduction by Sen.)

I won't bore you with statistics and numbers, because Sen didn't bore me with them. Rather, he made the simple case that social factors, ethics, and indices of social well-being and misery all have a place at the economist's table, and he did so without turning preachy or dogmatic. In short, he's the kind of professor who might have made me an economics major had we crossed paths when I was in college.

Sen moves beyond the traditional purview of economics when he talks and writes about India, where he was born in 1933. His essays in The Argumentative Indian make the case that dissent, heterodoxy, and respect for opposing viewpoints have been integral to Indian culture at least from the time of Arjuna's debate with Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and constitute a touchstone of India's present and its future. And that constitutes his rebuttal to the chauvinist, nationalist Hindutva movement in Indian politics, whose apparently organized campaign on Amazon has done so much to generate interest in Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History.

"Oh, yes! They have attacked me!" Sen said as he signed my copy of The Argumentative Indian.

"Be proud of your one-star reviews!" I replied. If the line of autograph-seekers behind me had not stretched a fair way down a hallway, we'd have high-fived.

 (My previous most personal contact with a Nobel winner came in 1986, when I sipped coffee with Dario Fo, the Italian actor/playwright, who ordered decaf because he needed sleep. He regarded his envelope of Sanka with suspicion before tearing, pouring, stirring, and sipping. Then he made a face, shook his head sadly, and said in the one language we could speak with something approaching mutual comprehension, "Détestable!"

(My third Nobel encounter was more memorable for the beautiful, philo-Semitic water polo fan in line behind me as we waited for Isaac Bashevis Singer to sign our books.  "Tell him something in Yiddish!" she said. Alas, the moment did not mark the beginning of a torrid fling.)
Sen's dynamic view of the Sanskrit classics sent me in search of The Mahābhārata. To my delight, the opening of that ancient book suggests that it may be as glorious a celebration of storytelling as The Thousand and One Nights.  I doubt if I'll write a complete review any time soon, though. The Mahābhārata is variously said to be seven, 10, or 11 times as a long as The Iliad and The Odyssey put together.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The William Buck retelling of the Mahabharata is a good alternative to the idea of reading the whole thing, which actually does not exist in English anyway, because of the curse.

There is a tradition that anyone who reads the entire book will be cursed, so a complete translation is a no go.

The R. K. Narayan retelling is shorter than Buck's, and how could Narayan not be good, but I have not read it.

Your Singer story is better than my Saul Bellow story. I stood in line behind him at a library, not knowing it was Bellow until he left.

April 26, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I came across Buck's retelling. I think the first translation I'll spring for will be the Penguin Classics edition, which looks entertaining and readable. For now, I printed a few chapters of this older translation, available free online. The translator is delightfully unrestrained in his assessment of previous translations.

Bellow taught at my university when I was there, but I don't remember ever running into him. I did not know a curse about reading the entire Mahabharata. All the more reason not to believe anyone who claims to have read the whole thing.

April 26, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Congratulations! You have garnered attention through linkage at Frank Wilson's blog, Books Inq. That is a prestige achievement.

April 26, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's who you know. Frank is a former colleague who helped me out back when I got this blog started,

April 26, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

And he is a first class gentlemen with whom I have chatted now and then in the past several years.

April 26, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That he is. He also lives near me, and he drops into the office from time to time, most recently this week. It is heartening to find someone so interested in books, ideas, and reading, not to mention lines of thought other than his own.

April 26, 2014  

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