Friday, August 28, 2015

Intellectual Stimulation

It is probably true of my readers that, like me, they seek a certain amount of intellectual stimulation. Working and other day-to-day pursuits have always seemed a little repetitious to me; in a way they seem like biding time, and I get a sense that I should be figuring things out better rather than plodding along mindlessly in a routine. There is a tendency in society to reward people for going with the flow and not thinking too much, as in "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous" (Julius Caesar). Life is easier for the employers of docile and compliant workers, and jobs keep people off the streets, where they might commit crimes, join gangs or foment political unrest. I see the American Dream as part of a thought control conspiracy that works better than communist propaganda ever did. In the 1960's, people used to jokingly say "America, land of the home, free of the brave." "Maggie's Farm," by Bob Dylan, has been my theme song ever since I first heard it in 1965. The song ends with these lines:
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

Dylan's old rebelliousness still appeals to me, but I parted company with him long ago when it became apparent that he has no interest in ideas and in every way is an anti-intellectual. Although I didn't end up in a career that required much brainpower myself, I have always been interested in ideas and have found it somewhat of a challenge to get intellectual stimulation. Some of the difficulty had to do with living in places like Terre Haute, Indiana and Dixon, Illinois, but even college towns and urban areas seemed to have their limitations. My friends and acquaintances from college were more mentally alert than my co-workers, but you could hardly consider them stimulating conversationalists. Thus I turned to books, periodicals and trips to Europe for my mental health.

Since the 1980's, besides reading a variety of books, I've gone on and off the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, each several times. Currently, besides the Times Literary Supplement and Nature I get most of my journalistic reading from 3 Quarks Daily. I've now had it with the Times Literary Supplement again and am giving up on Nature because most of its articles have very narrow ranges and are extremely technical. I'm going to switch to Boston Review and Nautilus based on a few articles of theirs that I've read. I prefer reading printed pages to screens, and that isn't likely to change. Although I'm fairly happy with 3 Quarks Daily, it doesn't feature many in-depth articles and doesn't come in print. I've mainly given up on Internet discussions, but may still make posts from time to time. In addition to this I continue to read about astronomy, which is literally and figuratively a huge topic.

I seem to have a love-hate relationship with intellectuals. On the one hand they are the best-read people around and have the potential to enlighten you on a variety of topics, but on the other hand they tend to be careerist hacks who don't have an original idea in their heads and use whatever knowledge they possess to divert attention from the fact that they don't know anything important and in most respects behave like trained monkeys. After reading them for years, I find that the literary magazines consist mostly of obscure articles that function much like reality TV for PhDs, in which you might learn, for example, that such-and-such eighteenth century literary figure had a difficult relationship with his wife, which subsequently led to an affair with such-and-such contessa. Whether the literary figure's writing was worth reading in the first place doesn't often come up, and in most instances it probably wasn't worth reading then and is even less worth reading now. You begin to feel as if these articles are parlor games for the damned living in hell. I am lucky to find one in ten articles in literary magazines remotely interesting.

A topic that I tend to avoid is politics, which is quite popular among educated people. I quickly lose interest in these types of discussions, because, as I've said, I don't think that either democracy or capitalism are viable on a long-term basis, and most of this discussion takes them for granted. The so-called left likes democracy, and the so-called right likes capitalism, and there has been no progress on this in my lifetime. I had hopes that scientific people would be an improvement over humanities people, but, while as a group they seem more honest and more likely to find usable solutions to the problems facing mankind, they are locked into a constraining career hierarchy that limits their ability to effect change for the better. There seem to be stupid turf wars over money in research and academia that inhibit the production and implementation of useful ideas on all fronts. The literary and intellectual magazines seem as if they are offshoots of academia that share its weaknesses while adding some of their own, such as selecting articles that will keep them afloat financially whether or not they contain any good ideas.

My hope is that there are more Tony Judts and Czeslaw Miloszes out there who will one day eloquently address the issues of our time, but finding them now seems more difficult than ever.

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