falling asleep in/on the bed of Procrustes

Frankly, I must admit I bought this new book of Nassim Nicholas Taleb out of sheer perversity, as I am quite prejudiced against the author’s stance as a cynic (in the philosophical sense), delivering drops of antique wisdom to the modern World from his ivory tower… Having made a living from the financial system he despises so much. The description of himself “as a flâneur, meditating in cafés across the planet” found on the flip-cover of the book did nothing to decrease this prejudice. (Nor did the fact that the editors thought relevant to quote the magazine GQ in support of the book!)

The book is a collection of aphorisms on themes dear to Taleb like randomness, religion, capitalism, culture, media, love… At 100 pages of roughly 4 aphorisms per page, this makes the cost of an aphorism in the bed of Procrustes a par with the one of a fortune cookie, with the difference that you can at least eat the cookie if the message does not suit you. (Hence an easy pun on cheap philosophy sold dear.) Indeed, the art of the aphorism is a subtle one and very few can reach the depth of Pascal, Nietzsche, or Cioran…  I do not think Taleb comes any near this level: his aphorisms fall flat and dead, having none of the impact that could drive one’s life or even one’s current day-life. Take for instance “There is no intermediate state between ice and water but there is one between life and death: employment” (p.8). What does this sentence convey? That being employed by a company, which is the case for most of our contemporaries, is a semi-death. Or a form of modern slavery. (There are other aphorisms with the same underlying idea.) Great: Now what should we do about it?! Turn all people into self-entrepreneurs?! Tag employees as suckers and members of the lower class or cast and despise them from our lofty ivory tower or a trendy boulevard Saint-Germain café?! Take again “Marriage is the institutional process of feminizing men—and feminizing women“. Even though I presume this pearl of wisdom considers solely heterosexual marriage, I have serious trouble understanding what this means and in which sense this is a criticism of marriage… Does this imply we should switch to the more macho tradition of bride rapts?! (Again, there are other aphorisms with similar sexist undertones, e.g. p.38,  p.95, p.99 or p.103.) I could go on like that for almost every entry in the book…

Hence this unsubtle title to the post: while I realise how dangerous it is to fall asleep in Procrustes’ bed, I sort of fell asleep on the bed of Procrustes, at least figuratively!  I (again) see no point in this collection of aphorisms as they only serve to illustrate both the huge ego of the author and his aristocratic views on life and society. And to surf on the editorial success of the Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. In conclusion, I got just what I was looking for! However, I see no point in recommending a book where the author scorns with “polite disdain” at least 99% of his contemporaries…

3 Responses to “falling asleep in/on the bed of Procrustes”

  1. Bed of locusts Says:

    “If you want people to read a book, tell them is overrated.” NNT

  2. I was thinking in buying the new book that will be released on november 27 (Antifragile). There was some discussing at The Crooked Timber that makes me curious about it. On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about Taleb’s thought. I do agree with you that he has aristocratic views about the world, he’s sexist etc. and those don’t fit my taste.

    Also, the two Bayesian Blogs I follow (your and Gelman’s blog) have diverse thoughts about Taleb (Gelman seems to like his thoughts, mostly due to the link with the work of Kanehman and Tversky, I guess).

    All in all, I’m not decided yet. Maybe you can review it in the future and may help me to decide!

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