Friday, September 27, 2013

On Sense and Pretense

As the Richard’s Pretension title of this blog site suggests, I enjoy intellectual affectation as much as the next fellow. It is much less strenuous than sporting the real thing. So, my eyes instantly were drawn to a book on a “recommended for you” list (Amazon knows me) titled How to Become an Intellectual: 100 Mandatory Maxims to Metamorphose the Most Learned Thinkers by Nick Kolakowski. It’s an enjoyable work, with a couple pages of explanation attached to each maxim. Fair warning: if you follow all 100 – hell, if you follow 50 – you will not be posing as an intellectual; you will be one. Be sure you want to be one of those. There are drawbacks – or so I’m told: I comply with scarcely more than 40, so I might be unqualified to say.

A fair minority of the maxims are about presentation rather than substance, it is true. In case you are almost an intellectual and want to pass, they may help. Promisingly for my own efforts at dissemblance, I have several of these nailed. For example, #46 tells us that it is pedestrian to care about owning a fancy automobile. “Remember: your car’s not crappy – it’s bohemian.” I regret to say that my purpose in driving a jeep with 178,000 miles on the odometer is not to show the world I care more about my mind than my wheels; I merely care more about my wallet than my wheels. Nevertheless, the old steel beast apparently subtly delivers the first message, too. Cool. #11–“Enjoy popular culture.” In the bag. #78–“Abstain from using Google in front of other people,” is easy enough for me, since I may be one of the few people left in the world without an internet-connected iPhone, which fits nicely with #48: “Resist the temptation to show off your phone.” #3–“Cultivate a few choice idiosyncrasies.” Done. Never mind. If you meet me you’ll notice them. #4–“Learn some truly enormous words.” I’ve always tended to floccinaucinilipilificate sesquipedalianism, but maybe I should tergiversate on that one.  #9–“Tell jokes only 0.05% of people will understand.” I frequently obey this one, but I suspect the reason my jokes often evoke puzzled frowns has little to do with them smacking of intelligence. #17–“Become comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know.’” With age, I’ve gotten better at this one.

Given the list so far, I know what you’re thinking: posing as an intellectual is a snap. Unfortunately, the largely atmospheric maxims above are the easiest. The substantive meat-and-potatoes maxims are tougher. By luck, I conform to some of these, too. #88–“Familiarize yourself with the ancient Greeks.” My degree is in history and classical humanities, so a few baubles of information linger about those fellows. #19–“Passionately hate one classic author.” This relates to #88 again: Plato, but one has to love him before one can hate him properly. #81–“Know these books.” Every list of “must read” books is idiosyncratic, and Kolakowski’s is no exception. While my top ten list would be nine different from his, all of the books on his are certainly good: Ulysses, Lolita, The Stranger, Democracy, Crime and Punishment, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Anna Karenina, The House of Mirth, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man. (I’ll even grant him Nabokov, who still is a controversial pick.) Kolakowski loses me on many (OK, most) of the other maxims, though. #14–“Play at least one classical instrument.” Sorry, I barely can keep a beat when slapping my thigh. #12–“Know your Monet from your Manet.” Hey, they were contemporary impressionists who both painted fuzzy pictures, sometimes in the same park. Cut me some slack here. I know one tended more to landscapes and the other more to people, but I’d have to look up which vowel corresponds to what subject – which would violate that “no Google” rule. Then I’d probably forget again, to the amusement of any art historian at the table. #49–“Remember the names of certain designers.” I do know most of the names he lists, but further reading reveals that I should know something about what each did, too.  Mostly I don’t. (There are similar maxims involving directors, philosophers, and opera composers, among others.) #74–“Cultivate rivalries with other intellectuals.” I’d rather not.

There is much more. Once again, my score is in the 40s. A few more of the “atmospherics” maxims might tip me over the halfway mark though. #89 looks simple enough: “Mix these historically famous drinks.” I can learn to do this – and learn to recite why they are famous. #76–“Lose a debate graciously.” I try, dudes, I try. #98–“Learn one new thing from everyone.” Good advice, actually, though it’s even better (with a nod to Lewis Carroll) if it’s an impossible thing. The final maxim #100 is “Know when to say nothing.” Very sensible. I’m still working on that one.

Clip from My Dinner with Andre, the quintessential intellectual conversation that means so much less than it seems


  1. That book sounds like a fun read. I'm right there with you when it comes to the car and the phone. I've got an old flip phone still which my wife calls pre-historic. :)

    1. My phone flips, too. I suspect variants of Google Glass (presumably less dorky than than the current version) are the near future. I wonder if the heads up display will be safer (as people cease looking down at their phones) or if the constant distraction will make them even more likely to walk (or drive) into poles.