thoughts

The Romantic Logician

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As a logical, sensitive, systematic and passionate person, no dichotomy irks me quite like the one between reason and emotion. Since the enlightenment and beyond, these two human capacities have been viewed as diametrically opposite. Of course, reason—with its allegedly “masculine” temperament—has traditionally come out on top.

The opposition still exists, but it’s been reframed in terms of “heart” versus “head,” “feeling” versus “thinking” and so forth. These days, people self-identify with a particular hemisphere of the brain. “I’m a right brained thinker,” someone might say, “so I’m no good at math.” Our values have also undergone a shift. In our largely anti-intellectual times, the long-venerated Head—formerly the focal point of unbenighted rationality—now carries connotations of parochialism, aloofness and irrelevance. Think: “egghead.” (more…)

On Pretentiousness

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After reading Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, I was both shocked and disappointed to learn that many Goodreads users found the book to be utterly and unforgivably pretentious. What follows is a brief harangue directed against that dreaded p-word, with which I prefaced my own review of Auster’s mind-bending novel.

I can’t help but notice how often the word “pretentious” has been thrown around in the reviews for this book. What a bothersome word: pretentious. It’s a lot like the word “boring,” in that they both seem to fool the user into thinking that they mean something objective, when in fact they’re highly subjective. For nothing is inherently boring, just as nothing is inherently pretentious. On the contrary, these words say a lot more about the speaker than they do about the thing they’re supposedly describing.

What does it mean, then, when someone calls a book “pretentious”? Let’s dissect it. What they really seem to be saying is this: “I didn’t find meaning in this book, therefore anyone who claims to have found meaning is not telling the truth.” And this boils down to the following syllogism: “I am an intelligent reader; therefore, anyone who is also an intelligent reader will share my opinion of this book; therefore, anyone who doesn’t share my opinion isn’t an intelligent reader.” A valid inference, no doubt, but hardly sound. This is because the entire argument hinges upon one unavoidable fact: that by using the word “pretentious,” one is implicitly assuming that they themselves are intelligent. And as Socrates demonstrated time and time again, only dumb people think that they’re smart.

So hate on Paul Auster all you want. Say that you found his plots to be shallow. Say that you found his characters to be unsympathetic. Say whatever the **** you want. But don’t call his writing or his fans “pretentious.” Because that’s just being lazy. And beyond that, it only makes you sound pretentious.