Rhapsody upon a theme of stupidity

When I first read something, I’m left with a sense of blank incomprehension. I have no idea what the writer was on about. Yet if you asked me questions about it, I might get the answers right (if they, and the text, were simple and straightforward). When I talk about a book, the meanings can sometimes seem to fall into place. This is why I was able to teach English literature. Teaching enacted understanding[1]. It felt like I was blagging, making it all up, but what I made up often seemed to be true.  On good days, as I asserted my instantaneous judgements about Othello and Macbeth, they would be simultaneously dawning on me for the first time. I’d be thinking, “Oh my God! I think that might actually be true!” But, Jesus, did I feel like a charlatan[2], careering out of control, over the pedagogical landscape, only ever one step ahead of the students, verbiage spewing from my lips!

Some texts are easier than others. Anything with a narrative or characters is easier than raw, unrefined facts and concepts. Philosophical overviews of things, full of abstruse terms, are a foreign language to me, unless substantiated with concrete examples[3].

I also can’t follow recipes, invariably leaving out whole chunks of instructions because I simply don’t see them. Meals are always late and missing one umami-ish element. Even the simplest Instruction manuals are completely beyond me. They literally mean nothing. After reading all the instructions on how to connect up to the superfast fibre-optic broadband service, I still don’t know the first thing about connecting to the superfast fibre-optic broadband service.

Of course, doubt dismantles thought itself. Understanding, especially of difficult, conceptual stuff, relies on a sort of trust. If you question meanings, meanings slip from your grasp.

That’s another advantage of anorexia: When you are starving, you don’t have the energy to doubt fiercely, or resolve those doubts . Although you gently, anxiously, endlessly dither, in the end, you just have to tolerate being in two minds about things. In fact, duality of mind is our default setting, as I’ve said A MILLION TIMES before. (Sorry guys!)

Ironically, though, this leads me away from popular novels. The writers employ great intelligence and skill to make their books enjoyable to read, but they’re no more easy, for me, than any work of abstruse philosophy. I read a sentence and instantly doubt and review it and discover I’ve already forgotten the meaning of it. How is this different from philosophy? Both are so opaque that the provisional understanding I hoped for, that I hoped would sustain me until it all became clear at the end, turns out to be no more than an optimistic recognition that the words were in English and in recognisably grammatical/ syntactical sentences.

That’s why I’ve “read” Ulysses and Kierkegaard, recently (or, at least, my eyes have laborious scanned every sentence.) My sense of urgency, intensified by aging, insists on meaningful and edifying texts: if it’s not edifying, what’s the point? A little amusement? I haven’t got time for that! I even get impatient with Tintin! (I know!)[4]

  • Footnotes

[1] I guess this is unsurprising. The art of analysis is the ability to break your engagement with a work into a series of manageable, answerable questions: “Is this writer using the sort of ordinary everyday language that I’d use in conversation? If not, in what ways is it different? Why might this be?” “what sort of mood does this speaker appear to be in? How can you tell?” From such humble beginnings spring all great penetrating and rigorously argued analyses.

[2] Still do!

[3] Although metaphors and similes are distracting. I start to think the metaphor is the subject, rather than an allegory of it. Reading that someone is going to vote for the American president again, because “You don’t change horses in the middle of the river”, I can’t get it out of my head that the American presidency has something to do with horses. (Maybe there’s a presidential ranch.) If you said this to me, I think I’d get it much more easily.

[4] Looking back, I always did as a child, too. I loved them and tried to dwell on every panel and each speech bubble, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to flick through.

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