Friday, February 22, 2013

Death Watch

Two deaths worth noting this week.

One: Donald Richie.   I don't think I had ever heard of Richie until just after the return from my first trip to Japan in 2006, when my friend Suzanne did me the courtesy  of taking it for granted that I knew Ritchie's inimitable travel memoir, The Inland Sea.  Don't go telling Suzanne but I did not, and I do now, and I am the richer for it.  

And aside from the book--I don't think I had seen any Japanese movies before 2006 either, save only two or three Kurusowas.  Inspired by our travels, Mrs. Buce began to stock the Netflix queue with Japanese offerings-Tokyo Story and Ugetsu and some lovely animated offerings.  It was only on reading his obituaries that I came to understand that I owe all this to Richie too: apparently aside from (or more important than) his role as a writer, he apparently made it his project to help Westerners understand this treasure trove of culture.  Interesting to learn also that he was never that great at spoken or written Japanese--only conversation.  Maybe that is why he fell so naturally into work with film.

And two: Armen Alchian.  My friend Ed and I once amused ourselves with a thought game in which we considered what would happen if the charity solicitor tried to cadge funds from any of three great free-market economics.  We agreed that X would probably throw him out and call the cops.  Y would say, "well, it's against my principles, but if you won't tell, here's $50."  And Alchian would say: "no, my friend, you are a nice man, thank you for asking, but no."

A factoid that will scandalize some: Armen Alchian was my teacher.  No, not in school, exactly, rather in the notorious "economics boot camp," where law professors (and others) imbibe free market doctrine science at the hands of an expert.  There are those who say that Armen and his co-conspirators tainted out minds, the same way the guards did in the North Korean prison camps.  These critics are, I suspect, not entirely wrong: I came from boot camp believing some things I had never believed before, and disbelieving some things I have never believed since.  I don't think I ever drank the full beaker of Libertarian Kool-Ade (indeed there are a lot of ways in which I think the presuppositions of free-market economics are pathetically naive).  Still on the whole, I think I am the better for the experience and so I am in his debt.

As a classroom presence, Armen was a virtuoso--relaxed and informal in manner, yet always clear-headed and never at a loss as to where he wanted to go and what he wanted to say.  He brought the same of easy mastery to his legendary coursebook (with William A. Allen), University Economics, and I half regret the fact that I let my copy go in a cull.

In his manner, I found him somewhat like what I tried to capture with Ed in  our thought experiment, above: clear-headed, purposeful, civil but perhaps just a tad robotic, seemingly a bit too indifferent to the suffering of others.  Still I have to say I enjoyed his company (he flattered me by seeming to remember after a hiatus of 20 years).   I don' suppose it would be easy to find any two men more unlike than Richie and Alchian, but on the whole I'd say the planet is a better place for having enjoyed their presence.

Undocumented extra:  thanks to Larry for the epitaph of the week: "... he was not afraid to mingle with the wives of other musicians."  Link.

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