In 2002, Seligman spent three hours at Naval Base San Diego, lecturing on torture and interrogation. But his lectures, he protests, were flipped on their head: he told the group of military men and women how to resist torture and interrogation by an unscrupulous foe. According to Mayer, the military used his insights to learn to induce in victims a condition of “learned helplessness” — a type of forlorn passivity that Seligman first observed in randomly electrocuted dogs 40 years ago. He hasn’t collaborated with that group since the lecture, he says, and he strongly condemns torture. “My career has been devoted to finding out how to overcome learned helplessness, not how to produce it.”
Endzone, Disch’s blog, was one of the Web’s cheeriest and one of its darkest. It derived its cheer from a reckless, desperate wit, often expressed by ridiculing, lampooning, or harassing enemies and professional associates who had crossed him. The ancient blogger wisdom about counting to a thousand before posting a personal attack seemed not to have reached him, and the effect was amusing and bracing. When an editor at FSG rejected an introduction he had written to the poems of Allen Tate, Disch responded with a short verse-cycle, childish and pissy, denouncing the editor, quite unfairly, by name. (Disch could write well about other people’s poetry, but he was an eccentric choice for a Tate introduction.)
This book is really the story of two eccentrics. The first is Gould, easily the most finicky in a strong field of stubborn kooks on the concert-pianist circuit. The second, and more interesting, is the collectively eccentric industry of concert-piano builders, as epitomized by Steinway & Sons and the peculiar men (they are all men, at least in this account) who keep their products in tune. Other books have documented Gould’s eccentricities better — this one wastes a great deal of space reprising tired anecdotes about his summer overcoats, his extreme sensitivity to touch, and his diet of Arrowroot biscuits and ketchup — but the Steinway thread reveals an unfamiliar and fascinating side of the classical-music industry.