I fell asleep again on my bus ride to work this morning – this time listening to an audio version of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic, “Molloy.” That I dozed off is no slight against Beckett. In fact, “Molloy” was always one of my favorite books.
When I was younger, and still given to reading these kinds of complicated books (books?! who has time for those today?), I made it a habit to keep a ballpoint pen handy and to mark all the funny or gnomic passages as I went along, so that later, when my memory failed me (often even before I got to the end of the book), instead of having to reread the whole thing to make sense of it, I could simply examine my own scribblings and fashion a kind of understanding out of the choice bits in the marginalia. That way, even if I still couldn’t tell you exactly what the books were about, I could nonetheless quote a few salient lines; and as any Catholic can tell you, a catechism is a handy substitute for understanding. And of all the tattered paperbacks in my vast, if half-read, library, none is as heavily annotated as “Molloy.”
My copy of “Molloy” – actually, the Grove Press collection known to undergraduates everywhere as “the trilogy” – disintegrated long ago under the duress of my affection. And yet, before the covers disintegrated and the spine broke and the pages came unglued, it would have been hard to find even a paragraph in my copy of “Molloy” without a clever passage underlined, a difficult word circled, or brace of asterisks marking a particularly funny or pithy line. Absent these visual clues, I was a little worried about how well I would enjoy the audio version of the book. After all, I was never a particularly good reader, even when I did the reading myself; how could I expect to descry the secret meanings of Beckett through the lilting Irish accent and glib interpretations of a narrator? My Nano doesn’t even have a reverse button, let alone marginations, to help me narrow in on the critical passages and assist my addled understanding.
I needn’t have worried, though. All my favorite lines managed to make themselves known as they passed and I’m sure I laughed aloud and grinned foolishly, alarming my fellow passengers on the bus. Nevertheless, I fell asleep and missed my stop so I had to walk back several blocks to get to work.
I did manage to stay awake, though, through the famous sucking stone section. In this satiric set piece, the old man Molloy, whom today we would call “homeless,” expounds on the organization and management of his collection of sucking stones. With a madcap display of ratiocination, Molloy describes how he solves the problem of rotating the 16 stones between the two pockets of his overcoat and the two pockets of his trousers in such a manner that he can be certain to suck each stone in succession. The scene is meant to be a criticism of Cartesian logic and philosophy (so the literary critics say), but anyone who’s ever spent time among the truly neurotic knows there’s more than a little realism to Beckett’s description. But there’s no denying Beckett’s fascination with logic and logical fallacies; and earlier today when I came across something called the Simpson Paradox, I thought of Molloy and his sucking stones.
The Simpson’s Paradox is a demonstration of the problems of merging data sets. The simplest example I know of looks at how Republicans and Democrats voted on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the House, 94 percent of Northern Democrats voted for the Act (145 out of 154) compared to 85 percent of Northern Republicans (138 to 162). Less than 7 percent of Southern Democrats voted for the Act (7 of 94), but no Southern Republicans voted for the Act (0 out of 10). So, a larger percentage of Democrats than Republicans voted for the Act, regardless of whether they were from the North or the South. But if you combine Northerners and Southerners, the story changes. In this case, 152 out of 244 Democrats, or 62 percent, voted for the Act, compared to 138 out of 172, or 80 percent of the Republicans. The reason for this, of course, is that the tiny number of Republicans in the South skews the data. But that doesn’t prevent the example from being counter-intuitive.
In fact, statistical anomalies like this crop up more frequently than you would think. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted the effect of Simpson’s Paradox in a comparison of unemployment levels in the recession of the early 1980s and today. A related paradox goes by the rubric: the Will Rogers Phenomenon. This Depression Era aphorism goes like this: “When the Okies left Oklahoma to go to California, they raised the average intelligence in both states.”
Now there’s logic that would make Molloy laugh.