In 1981, Bucharest was a capital of stupidity. A series of grandiose Five Year Plans had industrialized the once-agrarian nation, with new factories obsolete on completion. The faces of the poor souls on the streets of this city were bloodless and gray from slight but sustained malnutrition.
From time to time, plainclothes policemen — easily recognized by the long black shiny leather overcoats they all wore — would line up along the wide boulevards of this paris of the east, a sure warning to the able-bodied and clear-witted to make themselves scarce. Soon a phalanx of black limousines, bearing one or more members of the Ceausescu family, would come hurtling down the road at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, stopping for neither traffic-light nor hapless pedestrian in their way. It was not uncommon for the latter to be run over by several cars in succession — the security rule for these motorcades was never to slow or swerve for any reason whatsoever.
On winter nights, energy shortages would stop all the escalators and extinguish three of every four lights at the central square transit station (unirii), deadening what was meant to be the hub of the city. At the Intercontinental Hotel, which loomed overhead nearby, prostitutes would hunt for foreign businessmen in the bar, but such catches must have been few and far between in those lean years. Even so, in a northern district where Party officials had their residences, one evening I spotted a bright red lobster claw discarded on a cobblestone street.
At the time I was in love with a marvelous Englishwoman employed at the British Embassy. The price I paid for the intense sweetness of her company was participation in the unending round of social events that she was obligated to attend. This social life was informally but rigidly enforced by the Embassy, apparently standard practice after the scandalous defections to Moscow of Philby, MacLean, and Burgess back in the 60s. The idea was to minimize social contact with anyone outside the trusted circle (to which, as a yank and diplomat’s son, I’d been readily admitted).
Especially for unmarried members of the Embassy, this meant night after night of boring chitchat with a restricted number of souls who’d long since exhausted their repertoire of stories, opinions, and jokes. It was also an unwitting parody of English life, with dart and badminton contests, refreshments of shandies and crisps, and, on the occasion that now comes back to mind, stag nights.
Any small circle is bound to trade in melodramas and gossip, which human nature supplies all too readily and abundantly.
It so happens that a new addition to the British Embassy staff was a young accountant, rather tall, rather thin, rather bland, with aviator glasses and sandy hair that was starting to recede a bit from his bony forehead. In his previous post somewhere in central Africa he’d taken up with an Australian secretary, to whom he’d place long distance calls late every night. On one such occasion, lonely no doubt, or perhaps bored, he’d proposed and she’d accepted, with the wedding planned for London.
So on the eve of his departure I was pressed into service for the obligatory stag night, which gathered our circle’s five bachelors in a nearly deserted beer hall somewhere in Bucharest. We had very little in common. In addition to the accountant and myself, there was a silver-haired gentleman with impeccable but reticent manners who, for all I knew, could well have been the mi6 head of station there (as Graham Greene would have cast him); a burly young Londoner who brought a more common touch, fond of beer, the Buzzcocks, and football matches; and a red-haired Scot from Edinburgh whose unconscious use of the word jew as an epithet had earned several rebukes from me on past occasions.
If only I could recover the napkin I doodled on that night! For as we downed one glass of beer after another, I had finally hit upon a solution to my ever-growing boredom and despair.
With all topics of interest seemingly depleted long before, I’d taken it for granted that the structure of our conversation would be equally impoverished. But now I resolved to simply note down the chain of associations that we were pursuing in so desultory a fashion, and as I did so, I was startled to find an intricacy to our idiocy, which came to me with the force of a revelation. I can no longer recall its exact pattern or contents, but it wove together the unlikeliest of elements along the most improbable of paths — a salacious joke giving way to a commonplace piety, a patchy reminiscence of a distant location evoking a more vividly recalled movie scene.
I can remember my blue ink blurring into the cheap paper as the nodes of my diagram kept revealing new interconnections & defining a new pattern, but no other particulars remain, other than the sad denouement of the human story here. It turned out that the fiancé had started cheating on his betrothed just before he’d gone to wed her in London, and when he brought her back to Bucharest, he persisted in his folly, the marriage unravelling before it was much past its honeymoon.
Edgar Allan Poe, who was fascinated by chains of association, once wrote:
There are few persons who have not, at some period of their lives, amused themselves in retracing the steps by which particular conclusions of their own minds have been attained. The occupation is often full of interest; and he who attempts it for the first time is astonished by the apparently illimitable distance and incoherence between the starting-point and the goal.
Illimitable distance and incoherence apply equally well to the steps of a conversation, as I’d discovered in the course of the episode I just recounted.
But introspection — the conscious study of your own thoughts — is a much harder task than Poe implies, as anyone who tries it discovers. The mind has a mind of its own, you know, and its web of distractions soon has you losing track of the very resolve you made to keep track!
Poe, however, makes an even bolder case for the potential to retrace steps — or rather his character does, C. Auguste Dupin, literature’s first detective.
In a tour-de-force of reasoning, Dupin reads the mind of a friend during a silent 15-minute span of their walk across a very busy fictional Paris, at the conclusion of which Dupin responds out loud to what he has successfully deduced to be the latest line in his friend’s long internal monologue.
I had wanted to summarize for you the long chain of associations that Dupin managed to trace in this passage, but on re-reading the story, I find that their abstruseness resists compression, as is suggested by the opening line of Dupin’s own summary: > > The larger links of the chain run thus — Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer.
So best for you to read the real thing in its entirety, which you can find [here ].
Poe’s Dupin has innumerable descendants in literature, most famously Sherlock Holmes, who appropriates not only his logical method but also his melancholy.
But it strikes me that a more important successor lies outside the field of literature altogether — or so he would have had us believe, convinced as he was that his field was science.
I am speaking of course of Sigmund Freud, who was as confident in real life of his infallible analytic abilities as Dupin was in Poe’s fiction. Freud’s associative method is the same as Dupin’s, and what suits our purposes especially well here is that in 1898 he diagrammed an example of it: the psychical mechanism of forgetfulness.
For anyone interested in diagramming sentences, as I’ve shown myself to be, this is a delightful specimen of something similar: diagramming thought. Although Freud’s associations are just as esoteric as Poe/Dupin’s, and are in German rather than in English, they’re still well worth taking a brief stab at deciphering (for a full account, see the first chapter of his Psychopathology of Everyday Life).
Freud recounts that on trying to recall the name of an Italian painter, Signorelli, two other painters sprang to mind instead: Boticcelli and Boltraffio. As you can see, these three names thus constitute the upper row of his diagram.
Freud’s circles and squares tell us that his word associations operate not only on the whole word but also on its parts (and not the phonetic parts, but simply letter groupings). The right-hand column is easily deciphered: signor is man in Italian, which translates into herr in German. And a little further knowledge of German — that tod und sexualitat means death and sexuality — confirms our suspicion that as usual with Freud, this diagram will trace another example of sexual repression. But beyond these obvious clues, it’s difficult to fathom the rest of the diagram, the intricate workings of which become clear only in Freud’s written account.
A simplified version of the account goes like this: in the course of a polite conversation, Freud had remarked on the trust that Bosnian Turks were said to place in their doctors and on their resignation to fate. He reports that he was about to add that for the Bosnian men, life without sex isn’t worth living, and it was this inappropriate remark that he had self-censored. But meanwhile he’d already associated this suppressed pairing of sex and death with Trafoi (a town in Italy), where he’d recently received news of a patient’s suicide. So when he wanted to move on to an unrelated remark about an Italian painter, his subconscious turmoil blocked his word recall, generating the two false candidates as surrogates for his suppressed thoughts.
With these basic clues unmasked, the mechanism of associations that the diagram traces so ingeniously becomes clear.But the real question to ponder is what bearing this might have on the truth.
Poe’s Dupin, like Sherlock Holmes, is confident in the infallibility of his deductive reasoning; so too is Freud. — What arrogance!
Whether their logical method is to argue from general law to specific instance (deduction) or vice versa (induction) may be beside the point, for in fact they necessarily employ a third, more error-prone procedure, which Charles Peirce called abducton: <div style="margin-left: -25px;width:150px; text-align:right; float:left; font-size:80%; line-height:130%;padding-top:5px; color:#555;"> See this useful webpage for Pearce on abduction. </div>
A mass of facts is before us. We go through them. We examine them. We find them a confused snarl, an impenetrable jungle. We are unable to hold them in our minds. We endeavor to set them down upon paper; but they seem so multiplex intricate that we can neither satisfy ourselves that what we have set down represents the facts, nor can we get any clear idea of what it is that we have set down. But suddenly, while we are poring over our digest of the facts and are endeavoring to set them into order, it occurs to us that if we were to assume something to be true that we do not know to be true, these facts would arrange themselves luminously. That is abduction.
Or, more succinctly:
The surprising fact, C, is observed;
But if A were true, C would be a matter of course,
Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true.
It’s hard to conceive of any other means by which to make sense of a mysterious web of associations. But by the same token any sense we do make of such a web can never be more than conjectural. Whenever we’re seduced by such brilliant conjecture, we should immediately try imagining the presumably innumerable alternative explanations that must exist side by side.
This uncertainty shouldn’t dismay us — it springs us into wide-openness.
But look: I’m not sure why elementary math is never applied to the analyses of Freud, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, and any number of other bold thinkers — not to mention to so many other fascinating conjectures and predictions in such areas as history or politics or crime or (of especial interest to us) conspiracy.
Probably because the odds are so discouraging.
Take any chain of association, and first of all admit that your confidence in the correctness of each link, no matter how cleverly derived, will never be 100%. Well, then, what will it be? Ninety-five per cent? Ninety? Eighty? Seventy? Aren’t Freud’s brilliant inferences likely to fall within the lower range?
Remember that a chain of associations is a stepped sequence: a single misstep throws off all remaining ones too. We can illustrate this with the steps in Dupin’s speculation, which can be pictured like this:
Since there are seven steps in this sequence (even the first item in an inference), the odds are easily calculated. If our confidence in each link is as high as ninety-five per cent , then 0.957 = .70 — that is, the whole chain has a seventy per cent chance of being true.
With ninety per cent confidence, however, it’s only 47% likely. With eighty per cent, it’s only 21% likely. And with seventy per cent confidence, we’re down to an eight per cent likelihood of our end result being correct.
That’s why Poe’s a fantasist — and Freud too.