Modern Intellectuals' Affinity for Nonsense

It’s a truism that things are not always what they appear to be, often making it difficult to acquire needed information and knowledge. Why then do many who could help us – such as academics, intellectuals, even artists – frequently encumber their messages with nonsense?

Wonderland may have been a mind-expanding experience for Alice but when she returned from her adventures she didn’t start calling a spade a club. Analysts, journalists, artists and other professionals, who don’t look at things as they are but pursue a “message” that isn’t there, are apt to invent curious substitutes for reality and engage in curious symbols and interpretations that in fact interfere with communication.

With skill and humor, this exercise can fill the void with engaging nonsense. But instead of confining such mind-flexing and tongue wagging to – let’s call it “small talk raised to the nth” – mindless authors of visual and audio communications commit their stuff to digital media, paper, or art materials. Their allegorical erections may look impressive but a few of us do sense the hot air in excursions common to sociology, behavioral “science,” and symbol-minded treatises like The Interpretation of Dreams. We notice too  how useful a ploy this can be for selling ideas.

A PBS video essay once pointed out that the details in a Monet painting are triangles combining to form symbols that make political statements. Strange. All these years I thought I was looking at swirls of paint that came together to form images of lily ponds and cathedrals and harbors at sunrise. Was there something wrong with my eyes? Freud must have missed Monet’s triangles too, else he might have called them phallic symbols writhing in a sea of repressed desire. Then came the news (from performance guru Peter Sellars) that Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro was not a comic opera but a cry for political freedom. How did I miss that when I studied that opera in college?

Angling for what isn’t there  is well satirized in Antigonish by Hughes Mearns. The one defense for my general lack of respect for “interpretation” and symbolism is that I’ve learned how treacherous these can be when communications must be accurate and clear. Befuddling it with needless symbols, allegories, or selling points is likely to lead down a rabbit hole.

La-La Land is no place for  the serious-minded. I remind myself, from time to time, that even the symbols in math, physics, and other disciplines that are used to explain the reality of the world are not the actual reality they stand for. A periodic loosening of the grip of symbols on the mind is, I believe, essential exercise for keeping a focus on the world we actually live in.

Although we are born into a world that is complex, it accommodates all kinds. Most people call a spade a spade unconsciously, “not knowing better,” and go through life capably and naturally. The philosophically minded begin by calling a spade a club but soon realize that calling it a spade is saner and more useful, enjoying perhaps the “enlightenment” of such exercise. But professionals who need to impress or be published or “teach” or get paid for their opinions or fulfill their obligations of contract choose to call a spade a club and tangle themselves and others in their webs.

How often do we actually use our own eyes and ears and individual powers of observation? How many think for themselves? True, a great many are either “up to here” in work, too disinclined to think, or boxed in some ideology to think freely for themselves. Yet, without the immensely useful faculty of having a mind as well as a heart, people too easily become agents and playthings of unprincipled leaders.

 “I don’t like to think,” a young man once told me ( his exact words). This stunning confession from an otherwise fine young person was to me direct evidence that his mind was deformed by a defective system of education that dates back to John Dewey. It marked him as an asset of amoral strategists who care more about an agenda than the welfare of their fellow human beings. It is beyond sick that the young in America who, like this individual, “don’t like to think” must depend on “authorities” and “experts” who despise the collective wisdom of people smarter than they, garnered over many centuries, regarding the most important things in life.

The drift from reality in so many young minds today – thanks to the progressive dismantling of intelligence in the public schools – must halt if living in a civilized society still means anything at all.

It is tragically ironic that in America, cradle of freedom, we are losing the most precious freedom of all, that of the mind – specifically, the freedom of the mind to amble through concrete reality and engage in purely original thought. In times not long ago we got hints of that reality from artists and writers and professionals in every field who explored the world beyond labels and symbols and gave us direct and helpful insight into the amazing world we inhabit. But today even artists can’t raise themselves above the fences of labels and symbols that enclose their minds.

Paraphrasing some advice from a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968): The first step toward acquiring true knowledge is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds.

It’s a truism that things are not always what they appear to be, often making it difficult to acquire needed information and knowledge. Why then do many who could help us – such as academics, intellectuals, even artists – frequently encumber their messages with nonsense?

Wonderland may have been a mind-expanding experience for Alice but when she returned from her adventures she didn’t start calling a spade a club. Analysts, journalists, artists and other professionals, who don’t look at things as they are but pursue a “message” that isn’t there, are apt to invent curious substitutes for reality and engage in curious symbols and interpretations that in fact interfere with communication.

The Mad Hatter: “Sometimes I’ve believed in as many as 6 impossible things before breakfast.”

With skill and humor, this exercise can fill the void with engaging nonsense. But instead of confining such mind-flexing and tongue wagging to – let’s call it “small talk raised to the nth” – mindless authors of visual and audio communications commit their stuff to digital media, paper, or art materials. Their allegorical erections may look impressive but a few of us do sense the hot air in excursions common to sociology, behavioral “science,” and symbol-minded treatises like The Interpretation of Dreams. We notice too  how useful a ploy this can be for selling ideas.

A PBS video essay once pointed out that the details in a Monet painting are triangles combining to form symbols that make political statements. Strange. All these years I thought I was looking at swirls of paint that came together to form images of lily ponds and cathedrals and harbors at sunrise. Was there something wrong with my eyes? Freud must have missed Monet’s triangles too, else he might have called them phallic symbols writhing in a sea of repressed desire. Then came the news (from performance guru Peter Sellars) that Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro was not a comic opera but a cry for political freedom. How did I miss that when I studied that opera in college?

Angling for what isn’t there  is well satirized in Antigonish by Hughes Mearns. The one defense for my general lack of respect for “interpretation” and symbolism is that I’ve learned how treacherous these can be when communications must be accurate and clear. Befuddling it with needless symbols, allegories, or selling points is likely to lead down a rabbit hole.

La-La Land is no place for  the serious-minded. I remind myself, from time to time, that even the symbols in math, physics, and other disciplines that are used to explain the reality of the world are not the actual reality they stand for. A periodic loosening of the grip of symbols on the mind is, I believe, essential exercise for keeping a focus on the world we actually live in.

Although we are born into a world that is complex, it accommodates all kinds. Most people call a spade a spade unconsciously, “not knowing better,” and go through life capably and naturally. The philosophically minded begin by calling a spade a club but soon realize that calling it a spade is saner and more useful, enjoying perhaps the “enlightenment” of such exercise. But professionals who need to impress or be published or “teach” or get paid for their opinions or fulfill their obligations of contract choose to call a spade a club and tangle themselves and others in their webs.

How often do we actually use our own eyes and ears and individual powers of observation? How many think for themselves? True, a great many are either “up to here” in work, too disinclined to think, or boxed in some ideology to think freely for themselves. Yet, without the immensely useful faculty of having a mind as well as a heart, people too easily become agents and playthings of unprincipled leaders.

 “I don’t like to think,” a young man once told me ( his exact words). This stunning confession from an otherwise fine young person was to me direct evidence that his mind was deformed by a defective system of education that dates back to John Dewey. It marked him as an asset of amoral strategists who care more about an agenda than the welfare of their fellow human beings. It is beyond sick that the young in America who, like this individual, “don’t like to think” must depend on “authorities” and “experts” who despise the collective wisdom of people smarter than they, garnered over many centuries, regarding the most important things in life.

The drift from reality in so many young minds today – thanks to the progressive dismantling of intelligence in the public schools – must halt if living in a civilized society still means anything at all.

It is tragically ironic that in America, cradle of freedom, we are losing the most precious freedom of all, that of the mind – specifically, the freedom of the mind to amble through concrete reality and engage in purely original thought. In times not long ago we got hints of that reality from artists and writers and professionals in every field who explored the world beyond labels and symbols and gave us direct and helpful insight into the amazing world we inhabit. But today even artists can’t raise themselves above the fences of labels and symbols that enclose their minds.

Paraphrasing some advice from a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968): The first step toward acquiring true knowledge is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds.