The AntiFragile (Not to be Confused with the AntiChrist)

February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment


I got a call from an old friend today, which was not important, but left me feeling fragile. This is hardly a new state of mind, and as the cats remind me, even a rent-regulated Greenwich Village apartment is a jungle. But I’ve been reading Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, which explores the idea that most things and systems can be put in three categories: the fragile, which are wounded or broken by volatility or disorder; the robust, which can weather shocks; and the antifragile, which benefits from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. A china teacup is fragile, a cannonball is robust, evolution and art are antifragile. Human beings are fragile in some ways, antifragile in others: all life forms need insult to stay fit.

I’m not happy to admit this. I have courtesans, hermits and sloths in my ancestry. “In most mammals hairs grow toward the extremities, but because sloths spend so much time with their legs above their bodies, their hairs grow away from the extremities in order to provide protection from the elements while the sloth hangs upside down.”—Wikipedia.

I wait too long to do things and then I walk into trucks. Maybe you’ve made the same mistake.

Taleb’s expertise is finance and he is one of those whose insights about non-linear change seek to explain the unpredictability of markets in general and the vulnerability of investment banks, large corporations, and modern nations. Efficiency is fragile (more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions). Increased international trade and interdependency invites the butterfly effect. The more complex our systems become, the less we’ll know about how they operate and what dangers accumulate from small pertubations. And speaking of weather, as I haven’t been doing enough lately as I try to figure out which way Obama’s going (nowhere, but he can fake it?), ignoring climate change is like borrowing money to short stock; if you’re wrong, the disaster is far greater than the benefit if you’re right.

I enjoyed the book, even though Taleb is egotistical, boastful and unfailingly self-indulgent, because I crave intellectual stimulation and it’s hard to come by. There’s an infinite amount of things to learn but really chewy, lightbulb ideas are hard to find, especially for those like me who are not in the sciences and can’t understand the details of the discoveries in biochemistry, genetics, robotics, AI, etc.

The humanities have not been offering up a lot of interest lately. Though perhaps I’m not looking hard enough. And the looming destruction of human society is more of a spectacle than whatever may pass for new in the arts.

Taleb puts obsessive love in the antifragile category, since it thrives on disappointment and woundedness. It’s an interesting idea—not about the nature of obsessive love, which we all know, but because it makes me wonder whether this emotion offers any payoff beyond injecting excitement into the veins of those whose lives have been lived too meagerly. I always felt that it gave me data, which I needed as a writer and armchair psychologist, and certainly writers and artists abandon themselves to hopeless love at an alarming rate, but they are hardly the only ones. If it substitutes for creative expression or career satisfaction, does it offer any of the fruits of those?

This question is irrespective of psychoanalytic ideas about attempting to mend the broken hearts of our childhoods. At a certain point, one has to ask: why do we attempt to mend these breaks?

I don’t know the answer. I used to have ideas, and now I have experience, but I can’t put them together. The abyss of toothy emotion still separates my brain’s provinces.

Taleb writes a lot about the importance of failure, but the benefit is not necessarily to the individual. He celebrates the restaurant business, which never dies no matter how many establishments bite the dust. The allure is such that people keep trying, and even the failures are honored participants. As well as revealing what not to do, they provide a bridge. People can always get something to eat. They don’t give up and stay home, never noticing the new place on the corner, the one with the dark pink flocked wallpaper, the fancy corkscrew candles (the exact shape and size of a boar’s penis), the neon sign of the Willendorf Venus.

Now go apply this lesson of failure as social glue to the rest of life, or buy the book.

I looked for a poem on the theme of fragility—through hamfisted search—and found this, which is quite a bit more than I wanted to think about. Still, it’s a beautiful poem.

Chosen by the Lion

I am the one chosen by the lion at sundown
and dragged back from the shining water.
Yanked back to bushes and torn open, blood
blazing at the throat and breast of me.
Taken as meat. Devoured as spirit by spirit.
The others will return quickly to drink again
peacefully, but for me now there is only faith.
Only the fact that the tall windows I lived
with were left uncovered halfway up.
And the silence of those days I lived there
which were marked by your arrivals like
stations on a long journey. You write to say
you love me and lie awake in stillness
to avoid the pain. I remember looking
at you from within at the last moment,
with faith like a gift handkerchief, delicate
and almost fragile. This is the final thing.
Purity and faith, power and blood. Is there
nothing to see? Not memory even of forgetting?
Only the body eating the body? What of faith
when it meets death, being when it is hard
to account for? The nipples you bit
and the body you possessed lie buried in you.
My faith shines as the moon in the darkness
on water, as the sky in the day. Does it hover
in the air around you? Does it come like
a flower in your groin? Or is it like before
when you were alone and about to fall asleep
saying out loud in the darkness, “Linda,”
and hearing me answer immediately, “Yes!”

–Linda Gregg


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