It’s amazing how completely The Guns of August can suck you in spite of knowing how World War 1 ends.
A letter that demands Belgium not oppose Germany’s armies as they march through her territories is read aloud, setting the scene in Brussels.
An “unequivocal answer” was demanded within twelve hours.
“A long, tragic silence of several minutes” followed the reading, Bassompierre recalled, as each man in the room thought of the choice that faced his country. Small in size and young in independence, Belgium clung more fiercely to independence for that reason. But no one in the room needed to be told what the consequences of a decision to defend it would be. Their country would be subjected to attack, their homes to destruction, their people to reprisals by a force ten times their size with no doubt of the outcome to themselves, who were in the immediate pathway of the Germans, whatever the ultimate outcome of the war. If, on the contrary, they were to yield to the German demand, they would be making Belgium an accessory to the attack on France as well as a violator of her own neutrality, besides opening her to German occupation with small likelihood that a victorious Germany would remember to withdraw.They would be occupied either way; to yield would be to lose honor too.
“If we are to be crushed,” Bassompierre recorded their sentiment, “let us be crushed gloriously.”
Later that night, the German ambassador visits his Belgian counterpart, in hopes of convincing the Belgians to let the Germans pass on through.
He informed van der Elst who received him that French dirigibles had dropped bombs and that French patrols had crossed the border.
“Where did these events take place?” van der Elst asked.
” In Germany” was the reply.
“In that case I fail to see the relevance of the information.”
On the eve of war, many of the belligerents are seen maneuvering for advantage. Germany seeks to avoid a two-front war, France seeks to do everything in her power to bring in Great Britain on her side, while in Great Britain the PM tries to hold his government together for a united front. In Belgium, with their backs to the wall, the defiance rings out loud and clear.
Jane Austen is really sharp:
Within a short walk of Longbourn lived a family with whom the Bennets were particularly intimate. Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly.
It had given him a disgust to his business, and to his residence in a small market town; and, quitting them both, he had removed with his family to an house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and, unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world. For, though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to everybody. By nature inoffensive, friendly, and obliging, his presentation at St. James’s had made him courteous.
“The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly” is such a fun sentence, and the profile of Sir Lucas turns so well on it. Austen has no hesitation cutting into her characters and serving them to the reader, and she does it with such great understatement. And then she can go and write Mr. Darcy in love:
I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.
Austen’s style takes a little bit of getting used to, but it is so fun to read. I’ve only actually read Pride and Prejudice, and I really need to read more Austen. But, I’m starting on a different track for now.
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gather in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was a sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
The first paragraph of The Guns of August. I’m spoiled with good books right now.
Daniel Kahneman makes the same point above in Thinking, Fast and Slow (he actually talks about the same experiment scene in the habit loops link):
For most of us, most of the time, the maintenance of a coherent train of thought and the occasional engagement in effortful thinking also require self-control. Although I have not yet conducted a systematic survey, I suspect that frequent switching of tasks and speeded-up mental work are not intrinsically pleasurable, and that people avoid them when possible. This is how the law of least effort comes to be a law. Even in the absence of time pressure, maintaining a coherent train of thought requires discipline. An observer of the number of times I look at e-mail or investigate the refrigerator during an hour of writing could reasonably infer an urge to escape and conclude that keeping at it requires more self-control than I can readily muster.
Thinking, Fast and Slow dives a lot deeper into how the mind works. It starts off describing two systems, the automatic System 1 and the attentive System 2, which make up the mind. One of the main points Kahneman makes is that while we think of ourselves as System 2, System 1 does a lot of the work, and does a lot of it well.
System 2 articulates judgements and makes choices, but it often endorses or rationalizes ideas and feelings that were generated by System 1. You may not know that you are optimistic about a project because something about its leader reminds you of your beloved sister, or that you dislike a person who looks vaguely like your dentist. If asked for an expalation, however, you will search your memory for presentable reasons and will certainly find some. Moreover, you will believe the story you make up. But System 2 is not merely an apologist for System 1; it also prevents many foolish thoughts and inappropriate impulses from overt expression. […] However, System 2 is not a paragon of rationality. Its abilities are limited and so is the knowledge to which it has access. We do not always think straight when we reason, and the errors are not always due to intrusive and incorrect intuitions. Often we make mistakes because we (our System 2) do not know any better. […]
System 1 indeed is the origin of much that we do wrong, but it also the origin of most of what we do right – which is most of what we do. Our thoughts and actions are routinely guided by System 1 and generally are on the mark. One of the marvels is the rich and detailed model of our world that is maintained in associative memory: it distinguishes surprising from normal events in a fraction of a second, immediately generates an idea of what was expected instead of a surprise, and automatically searches for some causal interpretation of surprises and of events as they take place.
Two other metaphor pairs are used in the book. Econs and Humans are used to illustrate the many ways people do not act perfectly rationally.
“The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish, and his tastes do not change.”
To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable. […]
Unlike Econs, the Humans that psychologists know have a System 1. Their view of the world is limited by the information that is available at a given moment (What You See is All There Is), and therefore they cannot be as consistent and logical as Econs. They are sometimes generous and often willing to contribute to the group to which they are attached. And they often have little idea of what they will like next year or even tomorrow.
The last is the conflict that can arise between our remembering self and our experiencing self.
The possibility of conflicts between the remembering self and the interests of the experiencing self turned out to be a harder problem than I initially thought. In an early experiment, the cold-hand study, the combination of duration neglect and the peak-end rule led to choices that were manifestly absurd. Why would people willingly expose themselves to unnecessary pain? Our subjects left the choice to their remembering self- preferring to repeat the trial that left the better memory, although it involved more pain. […]
The rules that govern the evalutation of the past are poor guides for decision making, because time does matter. The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource, but the remembering self ignores that reality.
Thinking, Fast and Slow is really comprehensive, and at times it can be a slow read. If you are interesting in your own mind, it is more than worth it.