Monday, January 25, 2010


You really are going nowhere.
I wish I was going with you
(Gary Snyder)

There is a certain insincerity in cleverness. In writing, in interactions with others, in public presentations—we always want to be “clever”, we want people to be astounded by our wit, wisdom, and overall sophistication. The more education you have, the worse it gets. Standing in a room with lots of educated people becomes an intellectual pissing contest. Everyone wants to look smarter than everyone else. Because everyone is so insecure about where they fall on the “smartness” scale, they lie. Or maybe “lie” is too strong—they “exaggerate” how much they actually know.

Socrates was put to death for exposing the “clever”. Ask enough questions about someone’s alleged knowledge of something, and they’ll eventually be revealed for what they are—full of shit, or at least not as all-knowing as they claim. The reason for his death sentence was “corruption of the youth”. Honesty is a social liability. We all claim to want honesty, especially from our elected officials. We act horrified when we realize they’re not honest. As if we didn’t know.

Lest this turn into a rant against the socially dishonest, I would point out that everyone does it without even realizing it—myself included. The unconscious urge to be part of society, to be accepted by a group, is usually stronger than the urge to be honest, especially about ourselves. Ironically, we look for group acceptance by asserting how individual we think we are. We want to be part of the crowd, but also stand out from it. The urge towards conformity is directly proportional to our own feelings of self-confidence and insecurity. The more insecure we feel, the more desperately we need to fit in.

Honest people are often viewed as simpletons or idiots. Playing poker and showing everyone your hand. Walking around the streets naked. No one wants to expose what lies underneath their persona. We consider our hopes, dreams, fantasies, feelings as precious cargo. If we expose them to others, we risk them getting damaged or torn apart. That poor art student at the Met that nearly destroyed a Picasso is an apt metaphor. She got too close to something valuable, and almost destroyed it, though it was accidental. Most people hurt us accidentally, not willfully. And we think that if we let others get too close to what we value, we’ll lose it forever and have nothing.

So, being clever is one of many social tradeoffs that we make to protect ourselves. “A defense mechanism”, to use psychoanalytic lingo. It seems to be perfectly natural, but what’s odd is that our “inner” being is probably much stronger and more desirable than the image we present to others. The most interesting and desirable people are the ones that act naturally without pretense. Pretense is about as attractive as a Tammy Faye Baker makeup job. But we fool ourselves into thinking we look good with it.

I am bored with cleverness and clever pretenses, especially my own. Mine are incredibly artificial, as I am frequently no better at being clever than I am at doing Calculus. But maybe my act isn’t so bad, as no one seems to be able to figure me out. Or, they can’t figure me out because they’re not used to anyone laying it out for them honestly. They think that I can’t be telling the truth, because no one does, but my lies are not contained in what I say, they’re contained in what I don’t say. A friend once told me that omitting details does not constitute lying. That’s pure bullshit, but I like to believe it anyway.

The other part of my trouble with cleverness has to do with respect. If you’re too concerned about how you appear to other people, you’re not giving the other people enough credit. They may not think the way you do, and it’s not likely they view you the way you view yourself. People will either accept you or reject you based on how you fit in to their own perception of the world and themselves; it really has nothing to do with you at all. And I’ve noticed that people like you best if you don’t shove your own worldview on them. It is possible to respect someone even if you don’t agree with them, or even necessarily like them all that much. But if they don’t like you, that’s nothing to worry about either. We can’t like everyone, and not everyone is going to like us. If that is your goal, it will be a frustrating one at best.

The social reality is that many of us hope to “get somewhere”, to be noticed. But, like everything else, there’s nowhere to really go. You move from one imaginary position to another, and you’re never satisfied with where you end up.

I think I prefer to go nowhere. There isn’t anywhere else, after all.

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