This is the October 2019 edition of the
gwern.net newsletter; previous, September 2019 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.
- Nothing completed
- Envisioning Information, Edward Tufte (not a sustained presentation but rather a set of clippings of particularly nice visualizations Tufte has come across, roughly grouped by a theme, such as use of color, highlighting examples like Byrne’s Euclid or the use of rubrication)
- Web Typography, Rutter 2017 (review)
“Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers. Natural selection cannot directly ‘see’ an individual organism in a specific situation and cause behavior to be adaptively tailored to the functional requirements imposed by that situation.”
Tooby & Cosmides 1992, “The Psychological Foundations of Culture”
Manon opera Jules Massenet; 2019 Met HD, 26 October 2019. Manon follows a naive & beautiful young French girl from the countryside to ascending the heights of the Parisian demimonde, akin to but earlier than Moulin Rouge! & more contemporary to the Edo-period Japanese “floating world”.
While being shuttled to a convent for storage, presumably before an arranged marriage, Manon is propositioned by a rich lecher, and then meets a young aristocrat who falls in love on sight and convinces her to run away with her; excited by her glimpses of a wider world, she does. His father is opposed, and arranges for him to be kidnapped away from their love-nest, while Manon is seduced away by promises of great wealth, that her paramour could never offer her after being disowned. She is an enormous success as a courtesan, becoming a queen-bee, twisting rich men around her finger (and incidentally spurning the rich lecher despite his best efforts)—until she hears that her old lover, embittered by her infidelity, has shaken off the dust of the floating world and cut his hair to become a (Catholic) priest, vowing to renounce the world, and women specifically. Naturally, she immediately rushes there to seduce him back and succeeds. Alas, she still lusts after a high-class lifestyle, and how is he to provide? Well, he can risk his good name & credit by high-stakes gambling, particularly against the rich lecher who sees an opportunity to finally take Manon; surprisingly, he is not ruined by bad luck or cheating, but wins enormously, so enormously that the rich lecher calls the police in for revenge. Both are eventually released, but Manon’s health has been ruined by prison, and she dies in his arms.
The settings and costume are bland, especially compared to Turandot, but I liked the music overall more, and the plot/characters are far better and interesting to consider. For example, Manon says repeatedly how “wonderful” it would be to live only for “a life of pleasure”—but what ‘pleasure’, exactly? There are so many kinds, and it is worth interrogating this further.
In the first scene, when looking in at the rich man dining with his courtesans (on an equally rich dinner of many courses described earlier to the audience), Manon does not ever mention the food, nor the fine wine, nor the conversation; she mentions only how beautiful the courtesans look with their “gold” jewelry. Later, queen of courtesans herself, where does Manon take her pleasure? She demands her lord bring the ballet opera to her hotel (but what aesthete would demand such a thing, compromising the performance?); she promenades during a drinking party, but never drinks herself; we can safely assume that she was deflowered by her chevalier while living in sin together but this is only implied, and everything is consistent with her not even prostituting herself (which might sound improbable but in other milieus like contemporary escorts or supermodels or the Japanese pleasure quarters, the highest ranking women prided themselves on rarely or never having sex with clients, much less in any kind of explicit quid pro quo, unlike common harlots); she doesn’t engage in any visible fine dining, either, lets her men do the gambling and merely collects the winnings, and certainly there is no dabbling in high-level business or politics or such sordid recreations as drug use. Manon’s one visible pleasure is that of dressing up to the nines and accompanying rich powerful men in public, singing the praises of (giving her) “gold” and pleasure.
What ‘pleasure’ seems to mean primarily to Manon is the pleasure of prestige and social status climbing—of being seen by all and sundry as the most desirable woman in the room, and knowing that she is being seen as such, and is the “queen”, with perpetual proof provided by the male attention & gifts of costly tributes. The fact that the courtesans at the beginning were wearing a relatively shiny yellow metal or eating delicious food was of no importance; the importance was mimetic, that gold is a costly signal, proof that a rich man had chosen them out of all their competitors, and everyone could see the gold & fancy clothes and be impressed (even if they would otherwise be contemptuous of courtesans). What Manon craved was social status, and her fall in the introduction is learning that she by sheer luck and simply looking pretty, can seize high social status by manipulating men. (The attention from the rich man and the Chevalier, while ‘sexual harassment’, provide her with the external assessments that her country life & sheltered upbringing had—deliberately?—deprived her of.) By exploiting her beauty, Manon, an obscure country girl with no particular talents or connections, can vault straight to the top of Parisian life (and thus, France). And her alternative, going to the convent, would be a “living tomb” not because of its architecture or because religious life is worthless, but because the social order of a nunnery is designed to crush a pecking order based on beauty: nuns would have to shave their heads, wear habits, isolate themselves completely from men, and a new pecking order based on seniority would be ruthlessly enforced, putting Manon, as a novice with uppity opinions of herself, at the lowest possible level. This is a compelling motivation. Prestige is a high more addictive than any drug, and men will certainly fight & die for a piece of ribbon; how much more so women?
The price, of course, is that her shortcut to the top means her time at the top will be short. Like fine art, the objects of desire are desirable not for their traits themselves, but for the fact that others want them, with a distant weak anchoring in some objective, and in her case, highly perishable, quality. (Nobody actually enjoys any piece of fine art to the degree of $500 million, much less a tenth or a hundredth of that; fine art is expensive because it is expensive, just a bubble that doesn’t pop. Being a beautiful piece of art is merely a starting point, and often an unnecessary one.) Just as Manon wants gold and dresses because other women want them and so getting them becomes a costly signal, men want Manon because other men want Manon. Her beauty is insufficient; as Manon the country girl, she attracts notice, but no one in the opening scene is going to kill themselves over a girl off the train, however cute she may be. But, after trading in her beauty, and accumulating social proof, and bootstrapping her way up through a succession of progressively more elite men by raising her standards ever higher and demanding more and more (like Carmen, Manon doesn’t want any man she can have), she becomes Manon the courtesan, scourge of chevalier and chef alike, accompanied by lords and sought by the richest of men, and now she is worth dying for. The equilibrium, however, is fragile, as Manon’s fading beauty must inevitably intersect with a young new thing bootstrapping her way up, and unlike fine art, her bubble can pop—an epidemic of undesirability can erupt, and suddenly there is no one who wishes to bestow gifts of hundreds of francs on Manon for the pleasure of her company in public in order to be seen with her (“Manon who?”). All that is left is a terrifyingly high burn rate to ‘maintain appearances’ in the hopes of a dead cat bounce, no long-term relationships (having repeatedly burnt bridges to trade up), revulsion from respectable men & women, and no career or salable skills. Such a story, like Sunset Boulevard or countless aristocratic families, may terminate in homelessness or dire poverty, with the protagonist living off fumes from the faded memories of having once been high status (more addictive than any drug…).
This may not sound like it is all that great a choice. But it’s not that great for the men either. Paying for courtesans tends to be an older man’s game, because younger men are still building a career and have not amassed the resources necessary to compete. They must throw away the best decades of their lives, and risk their lives, to even have a chance to compete. Since there is a limited number of such elite courtesans, who are well-known enough to be ‘desired because they are desired’, they are short-lived monopolies, and can extort the maximum possible from their suitors, who are subject to the winner’s curse: the man who most overpays is most likely to win. There are no refunds of gifts or gestures, so it constitutes an all-pay auction. Because things like diamonds or fine wines are in fixed supply, their cost can increase without bound, creating ruinous negative-sum competitions. And because these prices are completely unrelated to any intrinsic quality and said qualities are subject to steeply diminishing returns and low resale value, enormous value can be destroyed. (Paying 10,000 francs for a large diamond to give to Manon does not provide 10 times the aesthetic beauty of a 1,000 franc diamond, induces wasteful diamond mining and retailing, and Manon cannot even sell it for 10,000 francs so it is a terrible way to transfer value as well. Truly, tertius gaudens.) And should they blow so much money as to win Manon (rather than concentrating on finding a good wife, harming prospective wives as well as themselves), she may soon leave them for a higher bidder, and even if she does not, within a few years, she will likely no longer be ‘Manon’ anyway and merely a pretty woman past her prime. The men would be far better off if they could instead organize a cartel and suppress runaway competition; it would still be an improvement if they could settle matters with a second-price auction and at least then only the winner has to pay; it would even be an improvement if they could instead literally light bonfires of cash to compete (as that would not waste resources on low value but costly signals and would simply redistribute their wealth to the rest of the population via deflation).
Seen from a far enough distance, the demimonde (past the basic tier of straightforward entertainment/prostitution) looks like a coordination problem: it is an infernal machine for manufacturing inequality while also immiserating society as a whole. Social norms (such as intrasexual competition or sumptuary laws) typically suppress both the buying & selling of sex & prestige, channeling energies into monogamous marriages while young with relatively small sunk costs (eg dowries rather than lavish events or costly signals), but a few defectors (male & female) can initiate a different ecosystem: females can aim at the top of the social hierarchy rather than settling for more modest middle or lower-class statuses in a stable long-term relationship, while the most elite males can hope to maintain polygamous relationships with the most beautiful and desired women, with bubble-like dynamics. If you’re one of the lucky ones, the highs are high; but the lows are low indeed: all of this comes at the cost of destroying long-term prospects, creating runaway negative-sum competitions, and removing individuals from the marriage market (since the sex ratio is 50:50, how does a rich man have many concubines or courtesans without depriving less-wealthy men of women?).
I am reminded of contemporary online/mobile dating. It has been a breakthrough in logistics, allowing (especially urban) users to find each other out of millions of people, conveniently and quickly. Why then does everyone seem to hate it, and point at OKCupid or Hinge or Tinder data? Why are there complaints that young people are not having sex or that there appears to be a shortage of ‘good’ men/women (eg Bruch & Newman 2018/2019, Lichter et al 2019)? Why do polygamous societies seem rather worse off than monogamous ones (Henrich et al 2012) when such dynamics appear to be what women gravitate towards given the opportunity by circumstances or technology?
Manon offers food for thought on all of these, despite being set centuries ago in Paris. In this regard, Manon is infinitely more satisfying intellectually than Turandot. There’s potentially something to the dynamics in Turandot but it’s so farcical and the psychologies so hollow that whatever truth there is to Turandot’s scheme is lost. Manon’s and her suitors’ choices are, on the other hand, all too understandable and well-motivated and interesting to watch.
Turandot largely stands on the strength of its pageantry, as the plot and characters follow a fairy-tale logic: an exotic princess demands princely suitors answer her riddles or forfeit their heads. She is, apparently, revolted by the fact that some other princess centuries ago didn’t get to marry for love, although the real reason seems to be simply being so stuck-up that no man could possibly be good enough for her. A disguised prince does answer her riddles (they are not good riddles), and challenges her to find out his name overnight (his counter-riddle is even worse); she fails, despite driving their loyal servant to suicide to safeguard the secret from Turandot’s torturers, and he tells her anyway (as a show of strength, presumably); she then (somehow) falls in love and decides to lose on purpose. The End.
The plot is thoroughly ridiculous and Turandot is worse: I don’t expect a detailed geopolitical exposition of how she could execute dozens of princes without starting a war, but her reason is flimsy and there is not a trace of remorse from her or concern by anyone else afterwards about behavior more reminiscent of a serial killer than a sovereign. And why should she fall in love with the prince at all? What redeems it as an experience is the pageantry: the executioner’s initial scene is magnificent spectacle, and the Met must be proud of how absurdly over-decorated the throne room & everyone’s costumes are for the imperial scenes.