Monthly Archives: March 2012

Achievement Gaps

In A Mathematician’s Apology G.H. Hardy estimates that only five or ten people in a hundred can do something “rather well.” Considerably fewer are really gifted. We do not each have a valuable talent waiting for discovery. We may dream of making names for ourselves, but most “talents” are talents only by inflation, and many true talents are never valued. The influence of the cult of achievement extends even beyond its membership. Those who renounce the pursuit of worldly accomplishment often do so with other (more comfortably nebulous) goals in mind: sainthood, perhaps, or self-realization. They’re chasing the same fox by another tail.

Hardy’s calculation is stark, and depressing. I’ve been working on a novel two nights each week for the past four years. I’m well into my third draft and hope to shop it around to agents this summer. Re-reading and re-writing it is a bruising, infuriating, ego-punishing business. What I’ve created is, I think, better than a lot of what gets published today, but that’s saying awfully little when 99% of what gets published is an unjustifiable waste of both writer’s and reader’s time. Almost every book ever written more than deserves its inevitable oblivion.

My book surely will too. Though I’m bold enough to say that it’s “better than many,” I’m not going to fool myself and say “better than 99%.” It may beat fifty or even sixty percent of the schlock printed these days, but I won’t bluff any higher than that. Even if I succeed in getting it published, it’s not something to be too ridiculously proud of. If writing it has taught me anything, it’s that I am no Herman Melville or Henry James. Tonic as it may be to fess up to that inadequacy, my sickness is such that I plod on anyway. I’m even making notes for a second book. Ambition isn’t going to let lack of genius stand in its way.

I may be neglecting avenues for achievement that are better suited to me. Hardy writes that “poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry.” I know nothing about cricket or Bradman, but I’ll agree that you don’t give up on a first-rate talent merely because it happens to be for a second-rate activity. I manage to make a living in the business world without much effort. What might I achieve if I focused my ambitions in that direction? But most days it’s a struggle even to fake a tepid enthusiasm.

According to Hardy, first-rate minds care only for creation. If second-rate minds care for it too, so much the worse for them. They would do better, he says, to restrict themselves to the very second-rate tasks of criticism and appreciation. “Appreciation.” The term, as he utters it, drips condescension. But I want to say that Hardy gets it wrong here. He shows his scheme of values to be debased. It may be that I’m too democratic-minded, or just plotting myself an escape from Hardy’s sentence, but I hate the idea that the worthiest of human endeavors is beyond the reach of most people. Surely it’s not only scarce things that can have ultimate value?

Appreciation, in the sense of pure enjoyment, seems to me a better candidate than creative accomplishment for the title of “man’s true work.” It may sound Jeffersonian (“pursuit of happiness”), or Epicurean, or bourgeois of me to say so. I don’t mean that people with leisure are morally superior to those without it. But though it’s not an idea that lends itself to proof by argument, I do believe that, other things being equal, there’s no nobler human aspiration than simply to enjoy and delight in things. To appreciate a particular face, a meal, a tree, a note, a book, a fact, an idea is something available to most of us. To enjoy something to the limit of one’s capacity is better than to create it.


Filed under Misc.

“No one dared ask a beard like that for its academic credentials.”

Print by Charles Hart, 1891.


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Marginalia, no.250

My cat does not know me when we meet a block away from home, and I gather from his expression that I’m not supposed to know him, either.

~ Guy Davenport, Geography of the Imagination

Even humans have a hard time recognizing what they don’t expect to see. When I worked at a bookshop in Seattle there was a homeless man named Mark who came in almost every night. We spent hours talking together but if I saw him on the street and called his name he’d flash a look of unrecollecting horror at me and run away. Later that same evening he’d step into the shop as amiable as ever without any memory of our earlier encounter.

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Los Angeles and Back

Work – at least my work – is the kind of carnivorous, grasping beast that will only require more from you the more that you feed it. It’s important to sometimes neglect the thing, like a human child. Having been with my employer eight years now, I earn days off faster than I can practically use them. The company discourages the long absences necessary to really unwind, but a day now and then isn’t a problem. I recently took a Friday off and drove south to Los Angeles.

There I joined my rather impressive brother, the PhD, at a hotel in Santa Monica where he had holed up to finish a book on deadline. He lives in Atlanta but was in the area to give a keynote at a university conference. My brother was a gymnast when younger and on scholarship at Stanford when he broke his neck in competition. It was one of the big tragic-comic moments of our family life, almost a relief to him since he was ready for a more academic focus. Luckily there was no paralysis. I’ll never forget walking into the hospital room to find him with a metal halo drilled at several points into his skull, smirking the way he does. My sainted brother.

Next morning we met our sister at the airport and after an acceptable plate of huevos rancheros we walked to Venice Beach together. I’d never been, but it was quite what you’d expect. We paid five dollars apiece to see a freak show. Inside was a menagerie of live and pickled animals, two-headed, five-legged, some just skeletons. There was a girl who ate fire and bent her arms backwards. There was a sword swallower too, shirtless in an unbuttoned lab coat, with his eyebrows shaved off. For an encore he twisted a large metal hook up his nose and out of his mouth. I took a photo.

At a bookshop not far from the medical marijuana dispensary I picked up a 1952 Modern Library edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson in a still-pristine dust jacket. On my way out, the proprietor (who also sells jazz records and discs) encouraged me to “save the world one book at a time,” and I promised to do so. In the car next morning I listened to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and found it a perfect sonic compliment to the fever-swamp freeways, the yellow floating sun-glare, and the temblor-jumbled strata of the desert mountains that throw themselves at you while driving north.

Hours later, in the San Joaquin Valley, I saw a circling congregation of eight or ten American white pelicans, massive unearthly birds. Like warlocks stirring spells of air, they traced the shape of their invisible floating cauldron two-hundred feet overhead. Tilting at each turn, the bone-white wings would flash and vanish, flash and vanish in staggered succession like daylight fireworks visible from miles away. In the flowering orchards below, mating pairs of ravens built their nests and picked at road kill.

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Marginalia, no.249

Every man chooses to be present at the shaving of his own beard (though there is no rule without an exception)…

~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

I’ve had this beard for more than two years, though I keep it fairly short. I might have shaved it off a hundred times already except that when my children see fresh-faced photos of the former me they point and laugh and tell me I looked “ridiculous.” I think it was Meister Eckhart who said that desiring something was the same as possessing it. I doubt he counted smooth cheeks among his own desiderata. But I believe that somewhere in the mind of God or an alternate universe I’m contentedly shaving my beard this very minute. I may even be humming ‘What a Wonderful World’ …or ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top.’ I can’t be sure which one because I’m not present for it.


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“The pigeons, of course, never suspected what they were eating.”

Feeding the birds. Boston, 1915.

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Marginalia, no.248

The animals in Winnie-the-Pooh are lacking in genitalia, they seem to have no activity in life other than calling on one another and eating snacks – but the experienced critic need not be fooled.

~ Frederick C. Crews, The Pooh Perplex

The unexamined life may be the one worth living after all, but that conclusion is only available to someone who’s done some examining already and spoiled it for himself. One summer afternoon when I was eleven or twelve I remember feeling a sudden regret that so much of my childhood was over with. That was the moment I ceased to be an artist and became a critic. As every critic knows, there’s no return to the Hundred Acre Wood and the clique of asexual snackers.


Filed under Marginalia

Sympathetic Imagination

Sympathy, according to Dr Johnson, is “fellowfeeling; mutual sensibility; the quality of being affected by the affection of another.” That’s a lovely, generous definition, broader than we commonly allow the word. Today sympathy is often used as a synonym for pity, which at least in American usage has come to have a negative connotation (“I don’t want your pity!”). Empathy, a word which doesn’t appear in Johnson’s Dictionary, is sometimes employed to do the work that sympathy once covered, but it’s not as musical a word to my ear.

I think a lot about the idea of sympathetic imagination. By sympathetic imagination I simply mean the mental work of putting oneself in another person’s place, imaginatively entering someone else’s perspective. It’s the stuff of cliché (walking in another’s shoes, seeing through another’s eyes, etc.) but without it life and art, I think, become unbearable. Exercising sympathetic imagination means withholding judgment, extending charity, allowing (either by stepping forward or by not retreating) the gap that separates us from others to close at least a little, for a least a little while.

Lack of sympathetic imagination is a prevailing flaw of our civil discourse. It’s a negative temptation for international relations. The partisanship of perspective is total. We’re not only uninterested in the way our intellectual or political opponents view things, we’re doctrinally forbidden from granting their basic premises even for the sake of argument. We don’t dare allow ourselves to believe they can have anything other than hateful, destructive intentions. This is nothing new, I’m sure, but it has consequences.

If only we could learn to be better readers.

It’s strange to reflect that sympathetic imagination can be extended to fictional persons but it can. As readers we’re asked to do it all the time. Of course it helps when the prose is pleasant and the story a good one because characters can disappoint. Not all perspectives deserve sympathy (nor all books reading) but the effort is rarely a total waste. As an exercise of sympathetic imagination the reading of a book, no less than the writing of one, becomes a moral action. How well we read books can affect how well we read people. The library is a school for sympathy.

I recently read The Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman’s autobiographical story of the summer of 1846, which he spent in part with a band of Oglala Sioux in the Black Hills. For all his professed fascination with the “savages,” it’s remarkable how little curiosity he exhibits. He considers them occasionally amusing, physically impressive, but mostly stupid, cruel, stubborn, backward. There are a hundred questions we wish he’d asked or, if he did ask them, that he’d bothered to report the answers.

In his review of the book, Herman Melville gave Parkman some righteous chastisement for his lack of sympathetic imagination. In his own masterpiece, Melville largely avoids the pitfall. His Tashtego and Queequeg, among others, are equal possessors of earth and sea with Ishmael and Ahab. This is not to say that the things people share in common trump their differences. Quite the opposite; difference is always enlightening. But I suppose I believe, as Melville did, that human nature is one and that the accidents of culture and civilization can accrue or melt away in a mere few generations.

As Melville acknowledges after he’s put the stick away, The Oregon Trail is a wonderful book even so. It’s a rich, detailed, companionable travelogue, expertly written. Parkman has blind spots, but he still manages to see an awful lot. And though there’s less sympathy than we might have hoped for, there’s even less sentimentality. To my mind this illustrates the point I’m clumsily trying to make. Parkman’s limitations don’t let us off the hook. In enjoying the book it becomes necessary for us to exercise our sympathetic imagination, as readers, for the benefit of Parkman, who sometimes failed to exercise his own.


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