Then again…

I was talking recently with a friend who roasts coffee. He pointed out that the best coffees are grown under stress in poor soils at high altitudes. Yield is low but concentration and complexity are great. Valley-grown coffee from well-watered, fertile soils is the bulk crap that fills out low-end consumer coffees like Folgers.

The same is famously true of wine grapes. The best are grown in poor, rocky, badly-watered soils on vines that have been severely pruned. Bigger yields from happy vines produce bland, watery extract for the supermarket plonk.

A few months ago there was an interview in Tennis magazine with Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach. He was asked about Rafa’s motivation and talked about deliberately creating stress in his training to toughen him up. “We practiced with some bad balls, bad court, bad bounces. So he learned. When something goes wrong for him, he doesn’t blame the court, the bounce or the strings. He always blame himself for not doing better. So now he’s a very tough person” (Jan/Feb 2009). I seem to remember reading something years ago about Penny Hardaway learning his superb handling of the basketball by playing on very bad dirt courts with terrible bounces. Father Earl Woods is renowned for training son Tiger’s focus by yelling at him, jingling keys and otherwise distracting him while he swung the golf club.

And of course, Michael Jackson ruled the world of pop music before flaming out. Would he have had that same drive and focus without the adversity of his childhood?

My friend was toying with names for this observation about the positive function of stress. I suggested the “Dune” theory, after Frank Herbert’s science fiction novels in which the desert people, the Fremen (modeled after 7th century Arabs), end up ruling the galaxy because of the superior toughness and intensity their hard, marginal lives have cultivated. Actually, much of Herbert’s oeuvre is devoted to exploring the effects of extreme stress and hardship on fully developing human potential. The same could be said of C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union novels. More comically we could call it the “Star Trek” theory after all those times the Enterprise finds an idyllic world of contented people and Kirk violates the Prime Directive to destroy their stultifying happiness and liberate their full potential through exposure to healthy misery. Nothing new to ascetics from various traditions and pursuits about the idea that salvation comes through suffering, of course. No pain, no gain.



I’m struck sometimes by the bind that members of oppressed groups are in as they struggle for recognition. On the one hand the narrative of exceptionality nurtured in shared hardship is affirming and plausible. On the other hand, if what makes you special is your trials and challenges, what happens when those are overcome? Who will you be then? What will you think of your happy, complacent, drifting children?

My own happy, complacent tendency to drift attunes me awkwardly to this question. I admire the edge and drive of the hardlifers, but don’t envy their angst. The costs of this process seem acceptable with beans and fruit, not so much with people. It’s probably the rare human who thrives under extreme and arbitrary stress. You’ve got to be prepared for some waste and breakage if that’s your game. As any drill sergeant knows there is a system to toughening up a batch of slackers without ruining them, and even then there will be some loss. Often stress just beats us up and breaks us down.

It’s probably important that Rafa, Penny and Tiger were all otherwise well-loved and nurtured, and that the best coffee bushes and grape vines are tended with great care. Wouldn’t it just be too boring and stupid if it turned out yet again that the key is mindful moderation and balance?



  1. Carl: “I was talking recently with a friend who roasts coffee. He pointed out that the best coffees are grown under stress in poor soils at high altitudes. Yield is low but concentration and complexity is great…”

    Kvond: It seems you have not included the most expensive (best?) coffee in the world, Kopi Luwak, which is produced through another kind of “stress”

    Here we have the tender, animal knowledge of just the right time to pick the berries (not even an illiterate or impoverished third worlder could have such “instinct”), then a certain kind of mysterious process of maturation within the gut, then the eagle-eyed pursuit of these natural deposits, and lastly the cultivative “stress” of the marketplace, which can drive the price upwards of $600 a pound (now, THAT is stress).

  2. Which is why “Brave New World” has always struck me as the most challenging of the dystopic narratives. The people who live there are, generally, happy, productive, guilt-free, well-fed, etc. (It’s also still patriarchal, which is a different complaint, but that could presumably be removed as well.) And what’s so bad about that, really? It becomes difficult to give a coherent answer.

    It might function as an interesting critique of capitalism, in that that BNW is the one that capitalism ostensibly promises but does not provide (and cannot provide, IMHO), but if you take the world as it is given in the novel, it’s difficult to point to exactly how it’s bad/wrong/oppressive, because most of the markers of those things are missing.

  3. Narya, I agree. In fact, if soma worked as described it’s not clear why patriarchy would be any more a problem than all the other ways people’s lives are out of their own control. Then the question is whether autonomy is an end or a means to ends (contentment); and if you can get those ends by other means, whether autonomy would be well-sacrificed.

  4. Kvond, I just found your comments in the spam filter. Not sure why they went there but I’ve set them free.

    Great call and analysis on the luwak coffee. I’m not sure how I could possibly have let that one slip, since I’ve been a fan ever since I read Dave Barry’s brilliant review.

  5. Thanks Carl (you can delete comment 3, since I just was reposting something that seemed like it had been lost). And thanks for the review.

    There is something so interesting about coffee. I can’t remember the social critic who said something like, “Can you imagine that somehow “management” got the “labor” to negotiate breaks during which they would consume stimulants designed to improve their efficiency, under stress. The “coffee break” is largely the demand of labor that they be able to medicate themselves”. Starbucks, and then civet coffee then of course have take it (and otherwise once consider Platonically monolithic Labor), to an entirely different level.

  6. Right. This is another place where a pure conflict model elides the affinities and accommodations of mutually-dependent relationships.

    Coffee’s interesting too because like many other ‘tasteful’ consumables, there’s nothing obviously pleasing about it at first go. It requires an initial suspension of distaste and then the development and refinement of a dedicated taste. Obviously that first suspension is historically related to the stimulant properties, but after that the taste for coffee takes on a life of its own, even becoming a kind of cultural second nature so it would no doubt be possible to find many people who think they liked coffee from the first sip.

  7. Hmmm. I certainly see what you mean, in general, about coffee. But then, perhaps, you would have to say the same thing about chocolate. Some people’s first sip may have been from coffee with cream, highly sweetened coffee, or even coffee icecream.

  8. p.(p.s.) I love this idea of having Spinoza’s excommunication read aloud in class. Damn, heaven forbid that we realize that ideas have consequences (some of them quite harsh), that we never think “freely”, which is to say immuniologically, there is always a context.

    Again, thank you for the link.

  9. I’m surprized that no one pointed out that the Fremen didn’t end up ruling the universe. Muad’Dib, the assumed name of Paul Atreides did. He was the privileged son of House Atreides, the aristocratic rulers of Caladan slumming with the proles but not too stuck up for their massive orgies and hawt wymmins. Because you know, fuck democracy and everyone knows the lower classes need their betters to show them the way.

    Someone should write a radical history of Dune.

  10. My bad, Noen, I worded that poorly. The Fremen weren’t in charge any more than the Sardaukar were, or the Janissaries, or the Mamluks (at first), or the Marines. But the early Muslim Arabs were, and the Mongols. In all cases, however, some kind of unifying and motivating leadership was required, which ended up being Lenin’s and Mao’s and Ho’s conclusion as well. So what does this mean for democracy?

  11. “So what does this mean for democracy?”

    I wish I knew. In the sense of actually knowing and not guessing. There does seem to be this conflict between a true egalitarian society, what I imagine the democratic ideal to be, and our “natural” hierarchical social structure, our preference for an alpha male as a leader. I don’t see a final resolution to that. Maybe, like many things, the good stuff is found in the chaotic boundary between the two, but what do I know?

    I don’t have answer to these things. I’m just a poor person with a lot of time who hangs around academic blogs like yours, Crooked Timber and several others. Who has learned enough to shut up mostly but can still make the occasional off color snarky remark.

  12. I guess muscular hierarchy could be natural, but if nothing else it’s expedient. One of the reasons communism didn’t work as an experiment in radical democracy is that it kept happening in countries that didn’t have enough material buffer to absorb the efficiency costs of real collective decisionmaking, so right quick they had to choose between a command structure and survival. This suggests that democracy is a luxury, perhaps even a ‘privilege’, as also seems to be getting demonstrated in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe right now. How to square this with the usual progressive refrain about political autonomy as a human right is perplexing, to say the least.

    Fortunately the global information infrastructure that makes blogs possible (not to mention the lot of time we have to hang around them) also enables cost-free experiments in democratic process. I treasure your contributions to this one, the more off color and snarky the better.

    And although Kvond’s right about Palestine, I think that idea of a radical history of Dune has legs. Any chance some of your blog time could go toward that?

  13. Carl,

    Isn’t the luxury of democracy a luxury of representation? That is, one must have the luxury of having “the people” as representative of “where the power and direction comes from”. This seems to stem from the very conception of individual determination, which requires a market place. In order to praise democracy, does one not also have to praise “choice” itself. I wear this brand of jeans, I vote for this kind of candidate. Are these not two parallel products? I see your point about material buffer, but there also has to be a conceptual buffer, the luxury of luxury so to speak.

  14. Hey Kvond, I’ll buy that! ;-)

    What you say is true of representative liberal democracy, but at least potentially not true of a more comprehensive willed community based not on individual rights but collective duties and virtues, as imagined with some important differences by communists and anarchists.

    I suppose the obligatory source for a well-imagined anarchist polity is Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I recall liking that the anarchists (unlike, as I recall, the citizens of More’s utopia) are just as petty, stupid, shortsighted etc. as anyone else. What distinguishes them is a different fundamental ethic – really, more a matter of basic habits of mind – about how things should work. So they take obligation to the community as an ordinary matter of course, and can’t make any sense of people who don’t.

  15. Carl: “What you say is true of representative liberal democracy, but at least potentially not true of a more comprehensive willed community based not on individual rights but collective duties and virtues, as imagined with some important differences by communists and anarchists.”

    Kvond: The question is, would that be called “Democracy”? And what would be the importance of labeling it as such?

  16. Well, you could call it democracy, sure – rule of the people – or republic – res pubblica, the public thing. The terms are elastic enough to fit. What’s at stake is how the people/public are actually involved, whether they are the nominal and mostly passive source of sovereignty that is represented by an elected de facto ruling elite, or whether they are substantively active participants in ongoing deliberative decisionmaking.

    You know me, man, I’ll call it Bob and put a tassel on it if it will move the conversation along. But ‘democracy’ has accumulated remarkably little pejorative baggage over the centuries and sports an immediate rhetorical appeal, so it’s usually worth seeing if it will fit.

  17. I get the over-simplistic but still powerfully true thought that almost all of the difficulties in the Middle East came from the importation/synthesis of Capitalist values (identities, freedoms, etc.) with the relative absence of Political freedoms. That is, culturally, people were brought to value and self-determine commerically, but denied the corresponding political fantasm of identity. This was due to rift in a very large way. The Islamo-Fascist (as Capital-fascists like to call it) impulse seems like the backlash of this rift if determinations. Commercially freed individuals cut off from ideological registry – their “freer” identities were not represented – in a demos sort of way, organized to affirm the mythological unity that a Capitalist/Non-Democracy tore asunder. In a certain sense, Democracy without Capitalism is not Democracy. It might be a very good thing, but the name would be something more like a historical metaphor. Democracy requires the desiring, Capitalized subject.

    I disagree with the etymological argument “rule of the people” = democracy.

  18. “I think that idea of a radical history of Dune has legs. Any chance some of your blog time could go toward that?”

    I’m not the writerly type, more the visual type. I can barely remember people’s names but I could draw their faces after meeting them. As far as my blob time going to re-imagining Dune… there are a host of things I ought to be doing. I ought to be teaching myself something useful so I can become a productive member of society again. And so I can feed myself in the coming Apocalypse. ;)

  19. Pingback: Why I hate David Foster Wallace and all he stands for | Dead Voles

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