Creating, Thinking, Deciding
Supplementary notes on recent Ruffians
What an intellectual looks like.
A different kind of Ruffian this week. On Monday I’m travelling to Portugal for a holiday, hurrah. We’re going to Lisbon and Porto - if you have any must-do/see/eat recommendations let me know (some great suggestions in response to my Twitter request, if you’re interested). Before I go, I want to share a few notes on the last three Ruffians. When I write a longer piece I almost always come across something the next week that I wish I’d been able to incorporate because it hits on the same theme or adds a new angle on it. Well, here’s three examples. In each case I’ve linked to the original post in the headline, so you can refresh your memory of it before getting to the supplement.
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I recently (re-)read U and I, Nicolson Baker’s book about his obsession with John Updike, writer and man. It’s trivial, self-obsessed, rambling, but it just about works because Baker is ruthlessly funny about his weirdness and insecurity and hang-ups (the nearest British analogue to Baker is Geoff Dyer) and because he is, like his literary hero Updike, a prodigiously talented writer of sentences, with the observational power of an electron microscope. There isn’t a paragraph without some crazily gorgeous analogy, fine-grained image, or audacious choice of verb or adjective. And he’s also, of course, quoting Updike a lot. So even when you find your attention wandering, which you may - although it is a very short book - you’re never bored, since no page is bereft of interest or delight.
U and I is essentially about creative influence and how to survive it. In my post How To Be Influenced I mention Harold Bloom’s idea of ‘the anxiety of influence’ - the struggle that artists undergo, early in their careers, to separate themselves from those they start off by imitating. Baker mentions it too. He lives it. He desperately admires Updike but also wants to avoid getting crushed by his love for him. He needs to find his own way of being a great writer. At one point he quotes from an essay by the eighteenth century English poet, Edward Young. It turns out that Young hit upon the same thought as Bloom, three hundred years earlier.
Young’s essay takes the form of a letter to his friend Samuel Richardson (Clarissa etc) about the nature of originality in ‘composition’ or literary writing. It’s verbose but fascinating because Young is thinking through what it means to be original, what it means to be a great artist - a ‘genius’ - almost from first principles. It’s got some nifty aphorisms: “Ambition is sometimes no vice in life; it is always a virtue in composition.” It also contains some straight-up good advice - for instance, he says it’s OK to imitate great writers, but instead of imitating their writing, imitate their method; their approach to the work, rather than the work itself.
The bit that anticipates Bloom’s theory is this. Young asks, why are there are so few original writers? It’s not because there is nothing new to say or because the human mind has become less powerful. It’s because the writers we admire most “engross, prejudice, and intimidate”:
”They engross our attention, and so prevent a due inspection of ourselves; they prejudice our judgment in favor of their abilities, and so less the sense of our own; and they intimidate us with the splendor of their renown, and thus under diffidence bury our strength.”1
Anyone engaged in a creative endeavour will recognise every word of that.
Oh and bonus quote on influence, from a young up-and-coming British footballer called Jamie Bynoe-Gittens: “You’ve got to take stuff from other people to make the best version of yourself.” That just about says it all.
’ACTIVISM ISN’T FOR EVERYONE’
Last week’s piece was about whether we should encourage more academics and journalists take up the mantel of an activist. A closely related question is, what should the goal of a thinker or intellectual be? Should it be have a positive impact on the world? Another book I’ve been dipping into is a collection of Susan Sontag essays and articles, called Where The Stress Falls. Sontag has reputation for icy intellectual hauteur, somewhat deserved (when she’s on form the iciness is quite thrilling) but there’s tenderness and romanticism in her writing too, most evident in a lovely piece on the paintings of Howard Hodgkin. She was, above all, an ardent lover of truth and beauty.
The passage that made me think about the piece I’d just written is from a set of answers Sontag wrote in response to a questionnaire, sent by a French magazine, on intellectual life. Here it is, in brief extract:
By intellectual I mean the ‘free’ intellectual, someone who, beyond her professional or technical or artistic expertise, is committed to exercising (and thereby, implicitly, defending) the life of the mind as such.
A specialist may also be an intellectual. But an intellectual is never just a specialist. One is an intellectual because one has (or should have) certain standards of probity and responsibility in discourse. That is the one indispensable contribution of intellectuals: the notion of discourse that is not merely instrumental, conformist.
So, I was writing about academics and journalists, who are, of course, specialists, but in a deeper sense, I was trying to get to what Sontag articulates brilliantly here: that we need people who see their job as being to observe, report on, question or ponder reality, rather to change it. Thinkivists, rather than activists (sorry). Note how Sontag almost casually groups ‘instrumental’ with ‘conformist’ at the end there - as I say in my piece, the two tend to go together.
Finally, on this theme, I just read this superb post by the novelist and short story writer Mary Gaitskill (who has a Substack). It’s about political fiction and why it only works when it resists an entirely political view of the world. In her words: “stories about political systems or social struggle are most poignant and effective when they acknowledge that we are all up against such harsh mystery whether we are a powerful statesman or a poor child.” Literature may be political, but it’s fundamentally about resistance to the idea that everything is about politics, which is why whenever I see a novelist describing their novel with great clunking sociological words like ‘class’ or ‘capitalism’ I become sceptical. Philip Roth said: “Politics is the great generalizer and literature is the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship with one another - they are in an antagonistic relationship.”
’THINKING VS DOING’
This piece was about what we get wrong when we conflate rationality with analytic, or ‘computational’ reasoning. The latter is about taking a clearly defined problem and breaking it down into a series of smaller problems which can then be solved by following rules and using basic reasoning. This is the kind of thinking that computers are getting very good at. But, as the psychologists I quote in the piece argue, that’s actually the easy part, relatively speaking. The hard problem is defining the problem in the first place, and that require a deeper kind of rationality - the kind that is more like wisdom or insight.
Subsequently I came across this long, thoughtful and fascinating post by an experimental psychologist called Adam Mastroianni. Adam makes a similar case, drawing on a range of evidence, even if he talks about ‘intelligence’ rather than rationality. He starts by observing that multiple studies suggest that there is no or very little correlation between intelligence and happiness, and that this is odd, given you’d expect intelligent people to make better decisions and therefore live happier lives. You can also be a genius-level mastermind like Bobby Fischer (pictured above) and still get a lots of stuff very wrong and make bad life decisions.
So this leads Adam to question the way we’ve been measuring intelligence. He doesn’t just rehash the naive critique of IQ, which is that it doesn’t measure anything ‘real’ - it clearly does, because there are well-evidenced correlations between IQ and success in different areas of life, including education and work. But it only measures the ability to solve well-defined problems. IQ tests are a series of precise questions with one right answer.
That’s not what life is like! Most of life is not like a quiz or a game of chess. Questions like what to study, what career to choose, who to marry, where to live, how to raise a child, how to be decent, do not, for the most part, come in neatly wrapped packages. They’re vague and cloudy and messy: poorly defined problems. But solving them is fundamental to living well. No wonder there’s no correlation between IQ and happiness. Here’s how Adam puts it:
There is, unfortunately no good word for “skill at solving poorly defined problems.” Insight, creativity, agency, self-knowledge—they’re all part of it, but not all of it. Wisdom comes the closest, but it suggests a certain fustiness and grandeur, and poorly defined problems aren’t just dramatic questions like “how do you live a good life”; they're also everyday questions like “how do you host a good party” and “how do you figure out what to do today."
One way to spot people who are good at solving poorly defined problems is to look for people who feel good about their lives; “how do I live a life I like” is a humdinger of a poorly defined problem. The rules aren’t stable: what makes you happy may make me miserable. The boundaries aren’t clear: literally anything I do could make me more happy or less happy. The problems are not repeatable: what made me happy when I was 21 may not make me happy when I’m 31. Nobody else can be completely sure whether I’m happy or not, and sometimes I’m not even sure. In fact, some people might claim that I’m not really happy, no matter what I say, unless I accept Jesus into my heart or reach nirvana or fall in love—if I think I’m happy before all that, I’m simply mistaken about what happiness is!
Anyway, read the whole thing. In short: intelligence (or analytical rationality) is important. Being good at it is going to improve your life in multiple and significant ways. But it’s not the only way to be smart, and it won’t tell you how to live well. That requires a different kind of intelligence; a kind we’re still nowhere close to being able to measure, or to replicate algorithmically - even DALL-E needs a prompt.
See you next time. Oh and please buy my book about how to have productive disagreements, which touches on some of the above and much more besides. It’s called HOW TO DISAGREE (in the UK) and CONFLICTED (in the US).
Note how Young spells ‘favor’ and ‘splendor’. I’m not sure at what stage it became proper, in Britain, to add a fancy Frenchified ‘u’ to words like that. Maybe I could write a whole book about my obsession with this question, call it ‘U and I’.