Saturday, April 4, 2009


I feel that I should disclaim this post, and all my posts, by saying that I don't take myself very seriously. Also, I'm really tired. But then I also feel that disclaimers are the moral equivalent of scare quotes, so I shouldn't disclaim at all. And then sometimes, albeit rarely, I envy people who take themselves very seriously. It is oh so easy to ridicule, to excoriate, to belittle. It is much harder to stand for something, and it's harder still when you believe that the only things worth standing for are platitudes such as "Be good to your children" and "Il faut cultiver notre jardin." I don't suppose there's any hope of persuading anyone, most especially myself, that my understanding of what lies beneath the platitudes is exceptionally profound.

Exceptional profundity may be a worthy goal, but there is always the problem of numbers. When I was in high school, I was a Merit Scholar, and the first step towards becoming a Merit Scholar was (and perhaps still is: who knows? who cares?) scoring in the top one-half of one percent on a standardized test. This was considered a significant achievement, and I was the only one in my class (of about 250) to qualify, but if there were, say, four million high school juniors taking the test that year (maybe a reasonable estimate, maybe not: who has time for research?), that would make me one of the twenty thousand brightest people of my year. Whoopee shit. And that's just raw IQ-type intelligence. Having suffered my way to a bachelor's degree at MIT, I can assure you that there is no correlation between intelligence and profundity. It may be that highly intelligent people can more easily achieve profundity (it may not be), but most of them don't think they have to bother. Most of them are more the all-I-really-needed-to-know-I-learned-in-AP-calculus type. Such people are insufferable as a class, though many of them are quite pleasant as individuals. Much like conservative Christians.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure profundity is an illusion, and if it's not, it's beyond me. Sometimes I fake it pretty well, though. I do that mostly through silence and a vacant stare. This gives my face a very thoughtful aspect, even when my internal monologue consists of nothing more complicated than "Even old New York was once New Amsterdam/Why'd they change it?/I can't say/People just liked it better that way" at various tempos. But if people want to think that I'm having a profound moment, I'm certainly not going to tell them otherwise. It's nobody's business but the Turks.

I used to be troubled by the limits of my intelligence and by the impossibility of profundity, but I'm not any more. It's a valid question whether a) I'm not troubled because I don't believe in profundity, or b) I don't believe in profundity because that's how I avoid being troubled about my lack of it, but I'm probably not smart enough to discern the answer, even with a 50% chance of guessing correctly. Learning to accept one's lack of profundity, i.e., one's ordinariness, is a fairly common artistic theme, and I enjoy the books, movies, etc. about it. Two of the three examples that currently leap to mind are The Sorrows of Young Werther (more about the failure to come to terms with one's ordinariness, alas) and The History Boys. Or at least, I'm pretty sure that the film version of The History Boys was about the so-called tragedy of being ordinary. I'm not sure what the play was about, but it was very entertaining, which raises (but does not beg!) the question of whether I'm fond of books and movies about accepting one's ordinariness because they so often feature attractive young men.

I suppose I was an attractive young man when I first read Ulysses. Ulysses is about a lot of things, or perhaps about nothing at all, but it's not about the difficulty of accepting one's ordinariness. I mention it mostly because I spent half of the semester in my last undergraduate literature seminar reading and discussing Ulysses, and I really didn't care for it. We spent the rest of the seminar discussing other works that had been influenced by Ulysses, and the first author we read after we had (barely) survived Joyce was Virginia Woolf. Some people find Woolf impenetrable, but after seven weeks of, oh, I can't even bring myself to look up any quotes from that piece of crap, (No, seriously, I told my professor that I thought of Ulysses as manure: it's very unpleasant in and of itself, but it fertilized a lot of good work. He laughed. He laughed at me a lot, but he gave me an A, and I think he enjoyed hearing a contrary perspective.) To the Lighthouse seemed about as difficult as Goodnight, Moon. I will always be grateful to Ms. Woolf for that. Also for Mrs. Dalloway.

Anyway, To the Lighthouse has my favorite passage about the difficulty of accepting ordinariness, and about how people much smarter than I have to accept it, too:
It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q. Here, stopping for one moment by the stone urn which held the geraniums, he saw, but now far, far away, like children picking up shells, divinely innocent and occupied with little trifles at their feet and somehow entirely defenceless against a doom which he perceived, his wife and son, together, in the window. They needed his protection; he gave it them. But after Q? What comes next?

After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q--R--. Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. "Then R ..." He braced himself. He clenched himself.

Qualities that would have saved a ship's company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water--endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help. R is then--what is R?

A shutter, like the leathern eyelid of a lizard, flickered over the intensity of his gaze and obscured the letter R. In that flash of darkness he heard people saying--he was a failure--that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R--

Qualities that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the Polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counsellor, whose temper, neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity what is to be and faces it, came to his help again. R--

The lizard's eye flickered once more. The veins on his forehead bulged. The geranium in the urn became startlingly visible and, displayed among its leaves, he could see, without wishing it, that old, that obvious distinction between the two classes of men; on the one hand the steady goers of superhuman strength who, plodding and persevering, repeat the whole alphabet in order, twenty-six letters in all, from start to finish; on the other the gifted, the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash--the way of genius. He had not genius; he laid no claim to that: but he had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter of the alphabet from A to Z accurately in order. Meanwhile, he stuck at Q. On, then, on to R.

Feelings that would not have disgraced a leader who, now that the snow has begun to fall and the mountain top is covered in mist, knows that he must lay himself down and die before morning comes, stole upon him, paling the colour of his eyes, giving him, even in the two minutes of his turn on the terrace, the bleached look of withered old age. Yet he would not die lying down; he would find some crag of rock, and there, his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to the end to pierce the darkness, he would die standing. He would never reach R.

This would be an apt place to note that I make fun of people who include long quotes in their blog entries in order to avoid having to do the analysis themselves. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Anyway, if there's anyone who has a legitimate claim to profundity, it's Virginia Woolf, and look where it got her. This opens (but DOES NOT BEG) the question of whether brilliant people are more likely to be seriously depressed than others. I don't know the answer to that question. There seems to be some evidence to support a connection between brilliance and despair, but I can't help thinking that the people most likely to believe in the connection are people who want to feel better about their own depression. I can remember a time when I was severely depressed, and it certainly didn't make me brilliant, but perhaps that's because my depression was situational rather than something more constitutional and/or Woolfian. In any case, brilliance seems like small recompense for depression, but maybe there's a link. Or maybe the people who get all the way to Z look back and say, "Is that all there is?" And then maybe they're overcome with regret because they spent so much time and effort figuring things out only to learn that there was nothing to figure out, so they could have spent all that time drinking wine and watching reality television. Things might have turned out very differently if someone had traveled back in time to Bloomsbury with the season one DVDs of Project Runway.

Or, to put it another way, let's consider one of my favorite passages from the Bible:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

People generally interpret this passage (and Plato's allegory of the cave, which says more or less the same thing) to mean that to see things as they really are is something unachievable in this life but promised in the next. But, you know, the Bible doesn't say that when you can see things as they really are they're going to look any better. Who hasn't experienced a stab of regret upon seeing someone in the clear (aka harsh) light of morning and realizing that they looked a lot better in the dark and perhaps through smoke and after a not insignificant amount of alcohol?

St. Paul (and what a douchenozzle he was: why couldn't he have filled his pockets with rocks and walked into whatever body of water was at hand?) doesn't even delve into the question. He just moves right along to one of his even bigger platitudeshits: "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." Which is pretty much the same thing as saying "be good to your children." Not, obviously, that there's anything wrong with that, but why torture yourself to reach that conclusion when you could be out picking tomatoes?


  1. Remember that Woolf, as a reader for the Hogarth Press, rejected the manuscript of Ulysses, calling it, privately, in her diary, coarse; the official reason given was that the press did not have the resources to publish so long a book. The book IS coarse, also vulgar and obscene. And long stretches are very tedious (even Nabokov, in his lectures on it, recommends skipping an entire very long chapter.) Brilliant? I am unwilling to say that. Let's call it groundbreaking. But To the Lighthouse is indeed a brilliant, a beautiful book, rich, moving, not in the least coarse or vulgar. I remember reading it on a spring day, back against the sun-warmed stones of the bridge at the northern end of Beebe Lake, pausing from time to time to watch a breeze shimmer across the surface of the water, and thinking: I cannot bear the thought of having to listen to what that fool of a T.A. has to say about this book. So I never went to recitations, nor wrote a paper. (I had no interest, either, in anything I could say about the book myself.) I want to recommend to you the Joanna Russ short-short story "It's Important to Believe" in the collection The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987, St. Martin's Press).

  2. I had not, anon, remembered "coarse." I had remembered my professor saying that Woolf had written about it in her diary and had called it something, but I couldn't bring to mind the word. The best I could come up with was "common," but of course "coarse" it was, and it's a very apt description of Ulysses. I don't really have a problem with either vulgarity or obscenity, but then there are obvious reasons why I'd be more forgiving of writers who don't know when to quit. "Brilliant" is so broadly defined these days that I can't agree or disagree with your assessment. There are definitions of "brilliant" that fit Ulysses, and there are others that don't. I reckon we should be grateful for books that break ground, even if we'd prefer to read the more refined works that follow in their wake. It's really hard to have this discussion without mixing metaphors.

    I was never tasked with writing about To the Lighthouse, but I can see that it's a case where literary analysis is pointless. If memory serves, in that seminar I mostly had to write about Ulysses, which was easy. It may be a nightmare to read, but from a hermeneutic perspective, it's a dream.

  3. Hi, I really liked what you have mentioned about Virginia Woolf, but just for my own curiosity, what did you really get about that famous quote (It was a splendid mind....). I am having a bit confusion in order to absorbency!!!!