gall and gumption

Friday, November 13, 2009

Everybody Peepin'

Now that it's dark early and the gardens are pretty much finished for the year, on my dog walks at night I like looking at the windows of houses. In Iowa, when I lived there, I'd walk at nights with the late lamented Linus the streets with all those lovely old houses and the light inside so warm and it was very evocative for me. I wasn't curious about the people in them, I just liked the light, the color of it. I think the only way I can describe the feeling (I was very alone there, loneliness was the defining experience of that place for more than a few people), is that I would picture myself living an interesting life there--something easy and warm, not like my lonely anxious one. So it was nicer if the rooms were empty, if they had books on the shelves or nice furniture, or interesting objects on the walls and shelves and looked lived in. But then often I'd see the blue glow of the TV set and it would sort of break the little spell I was under.

When I ride public transit, I look at what people are reading. I suppose there, too, I'm looking for something like me. But about half the people I see reading are reading Malcolm Gladwell books. This I find even more depressing than the TV. I remember trying to slog my way through his New Yorker pieces from time to time, and giving up in the face of the unremitting dullness. It was worse than John McPhee, it was like after McPhee, Gladwell stepped up to carry on that mysterious New Yorker tradition of the interminable piece--you keep turning pages looking at the cartoons and ads and glancing hopefully at the text and by God, no, it's still going!--that no one reads except, for your sins, some geezer at a party who corners you and tells you about it at length. And of course if you say you can't read Malcolm Gladwell, when you finally get a word in, they are either wounded or assume you're illiterate and lacking in taste. OK me. That sort of thing happens to me.

Popper says that interesting hypotheses take risks; if they're wrong they'll be unambiguously wrong because they are sufficiently specific to be wrong, or at least specific enough for disagreement or questions to take hold of something substantive. Gladwell's writing leaves me persuaded only that whatever he's saying, the opposite is probably true too, he's going to say so several dull paragraphs later, and I can't bring myself to care much either way.

Here's some Hazlitt meanwhile.

It is only with very vigorous or very candid minds, that the understanding exercises its just and boasted prerogative and induces its votaries to relinquish a profitable delusion and embrace the dowerless truth. Even then they have the sober and discreet part of the world, all the bons peres de famille, who look principally to the main chance, against them, and they are regarded as little better than lunatics or profligates to fling up a good salary and a provision for themselves and families for the sake of that foolish thing, a Conscience! With the herd, belief on all abstract and disputed topics is voluntary, that is, determined by considerations of personal ease and convenience, in the teeth of logical analysis and demonstration, which are set aside as mere waste of words. In short, generally speaking, people stick to an opinion that they have long supported and that supports them.
Literary Remains

Marvin Mudrick taught his students not to be afraid of generalizations; you throw out a conjecture based on your sense of the subject, you are trying to build something, you should not be punished for it. If it's wrong, you change it or abandon it. The aim and end of it was to think better, act better, and find life more interesting. This is something a bit more than being able to do a creditable impression of a respectable dullard.

Sometimes it seems to me that we move through the world sort of paddling through the sludge of what everybody supposedly thinks about everything. I suppose I do too; I know there are all sorts of areas in which I don't think clearly at all, and when I feel incompetent I will probably grab blindly at whatever looks like common sense. Then later I discover that what I thought was common sense was just a reflection of my own temper of mind, the way I habitually think or not-think.

Most of my blind spots are close to me, though. I know I think by habit about those things. That's why my hair looks the way it does, for instance. I don't think clearly about my own feelings about people, so I try not to think about such feelings at all--except when I like the people and the feelings. But even those feelings sometimes just have to be ignored along with the others--and I can only ignore them for a while. I can see them in the corners of the room, holding their breath and blowing themselves up like Thanksgiving Day parade balloons, leering at me. Anxiety, Fear, Irritability, Guilt, Sadness, with their big cartoon faces. Oh, and that hissing noise? That's Infatuation deflating itself.

In other words I don't even pretend to conduct the life of my mind on purely rational principles. People who tell me that their opinions are based solely on objective facts and completely free of bias just give me the creeps. If they really believe it, they've been mis-educated; if they don't believe it but want me to believe it they are liars and bullies, and I can't deal with them for long without risking some sort of Loss of Temper event. There are people in my life who think that because I don't profess this sort of objectivity I must be incapable of it. I do not say that I am completely unsusceptible to self-deceit. I only know that I am not susceptible to that one. It's not a visible skill; it's not like being able to draw superheroes or get my dog to do tricks. This is one of those skills that if you don't have it you are likely to believe that 1) no such thing can possibly exist; or 2) it does exist and only a few geniuses have it and I (that is, me, Kia, your friend, hello! [waving]) do not look like the sort of person who has it; or 4) you have it in spades because you are as reasonable as a human being can or need be.

I am aware that a lot of people are afraid to be seen to be in error, and they protect themselves from this embarrassment by confining what they say to what (they believe) no right thinking person would ever disagree with; that is, tautology. But there's another thing too. When I was at my last job there was a woman who sort of glommed on to me, and considered me her particular friend because I had been kind to her on her first day. She had had some hard hits in life and now she was an editor and she had also just been laid off from a publishing company that, apparently, had an abusive corporate culture, the kind where everyone is kept in a state of terror and anticipation of backstabbing. She was a little frightened on her first day at the place where we both worked, and I just reassured her that she was among the kindest people and she herself came to see that after a while. But after that she would drop into my cube to complain about things or to try to get me to eat chocolate.

Oh, don't go psychoanalyzing people! you say. Listen. We would have these editorial meetings at work, one a week. Once I brought up a style issue that was sort of subtle, about an increasingly common misuse of the infinitive. It's hard to explain this thing because, like a dangling modifier, it's different every single time and you have to find the place where the logic went wrong. At the same time it looks all right, just as a dangling modifier does. So I had collected several examples from the journal I was editing, and brought them. Some people couldn't quite spot what the issue was, and I kept trying to explain it: not everyone in the room was a copy editor, and even among those who were some didn't see it. So I pressed on, fully aware that that even if they did get it everyone might agree that it wasn't worth bothering about, as far as they were concerned. Which would have been all right, you know, that's the editing business: you can't expect to have things all your own way. But while I felt that people weren't seeing the problem I of course kept trying to explain it so they could see it.

And then I began to be aware that someone was, figuratively speaking, firing spitwads at me. It was this woman. She was making these little jokes, these little humorous put-downs of my eccentric behavior in persisting with this matter. Apparently I had crossed some invisible line of decorum that existed entirely in her head. Let me see if I can lay out the thinking: first, she was afraid of the risks I was taking and was, in effect, making these little jokes that were intended to put me in my place and dissociate herself from the embarrassment she was sure I was bringing on myself; second, it was a wonderful opportunity for her to reaffirm her commitment to never departing from the straight and narrow path of acceptable opinion; third, a suspicion, on her part, that I was pressing this point not because I was interested in a thing but because I was making a claim for attention--more attention than I in my position deserved; teensy weensy bit of bully? yes, probably, but only I think because she had been bullied and frightened half out of her wits for all those years at her previous job. That is, I don't think she was evil.

But that's when I become evil. Because I take a deep satisfaction in seeing such efforts fail, so I like to make sure that they do. If she thought I was talking crazy before she started dropping hints...


At 1:20 AM, Blogger lani said...

Overall Gladwell gives me a pain although I did enjoy his story about pit bulls and their owners in the New Yorker.My friend Janis insisted that I read the "Tipping Point" and she was puzzled when I did not think it was anything remarkable.I like your accounts of the everyday battle.

lani in SF( I could not get a free flight)

At 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poor John McPhee- that he has to keep company with the likes of Malcom Gladwell!

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