Saturday, July 30, 2016

Connecting Ideas

I have been conscientiously avoiding any discussion of my book, The Fifth Man.  Not to worry.  I am working on it.  It is a grind, I'm not enjoying myself - and the only reason I don't talk about it is because I can't talk about it.  Spoilers, you know.  I don't want to talk about a specific problem in the book because of spoilers.

Yet I had a run-in with serendipity yesterday that will at least allow me to talk about why the book is a grind and why I make it a grind.  It has to do with Cezanne, Hallelujah and Malcolm Gladwell.

Now for those who have been reading my blog for awhile, it is already clear that I very much like Gladwell. I like him because he's interesting - and he's interesting because one of his things is to discuss why something we think as a culture or something we supposedly know is wrong.  He steadfastly chooses things for discussion that fit that priority for him.  He hunts for misconceptions and then he explodes them.  He doesn't, as many other pundits do, find documentation or evidence to support things for what we already believe.

This makes Gladwell a challenge.  First, the listener is made to think about something that is normally taken for granted: that a football team should kick on the fourth down, that having great food at a university cafeteria is a good thing or that having more information about something promises greater accuracy.  Then the listener has to accept, as Gladwell demonstrates with facts, that this isn't just untrue - that continuing to think this way is potentially self-destructive, whereas accepting the facts could lead to ground-breaking, potentially system-shattering improvements.  It is usually such a brain twist for people that they either a) don't accept it and hate Gladwell; or b) find themselves overwhelmed and so infatuated with Gladwell's intellect that they apparently lose the point of what he's just said.

Here's an interesting point.  Gladwell refuses, in interview after interview, to accept the label that he's some sort of genius.  This isn't modesty.  Gladwell is a journalist.  All the stories he tells, all the circumstances he discusses, all the associations he makes, are the words and research and brain sweat of other people.  Gladwell just describes it.  This is so constantly misunderstood by the media, by the public, by virtually everyone discussing him on the internet, that it must be a source of tremendous frustration for Gladwell.

Take the most famous association: the 10,000 hour rule.  Googling it, I find this headline front and center: "New Study Destroys Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule."  It isn't Gladwell's rule.  It never was.  The rule was Swedish psychiatrist Anders Ericsson's proposal that was part of a study that happened in 1993.  Gladwell made it famous.  Gladwell has never claimed that it's a 'rule' - he presents it in his book Outliers as a curiosity, an apparently consistent pattern that seems to hold for the time it takes to become an expert.  In his book, Gladwell cites examples - examples that still hold water, regardless of what another study shows.  Because it was never presented as a "rule."  It was the media, and particularly the internet, that gave it that title.

The reason I like Gladwell is because he is a window to hundreds of people that Gladwell takes the time to write about.  Not because Gladwell is a celebrity or a genius.  Now I can put that on a shelf and move on.

I have always preferred Paul Cezanne to other Post-Impressionist painters - Van Gogh, Manet, Pissarro and so on.  I can't explain it.  There's something about his work that pulls at me and that's all the justification that I've needed.  With that, however, I had learned a long time ago about Cezanne's frustration with his own work and his tendency to paint the same subjects over and over again, struggling to get them just so (search Google for "Cezanne's Wife") - even painting the same landscape every day, less to represent the landscape than to hammer his own mind or his skill into a shape that came closer to satisfying him.

I've done this, I've done exactly this - and I've always felt a kinship for Cezanne in this particular regard, feeling that I could understand the fierce arguments between him and Pissarro's infatuation with pointillism . . . how I would love to sit in and sop up that kind of passion.

In the media, Cezanne is so rarely mentioned - I am always pleased to hear anything about him, that expands my knowledge.  Let's put that on a shelf, too, and move on.

I'm Canadian, so I know who Leonard Cohen is.  In Canada, there has always been an agenda to force "famous people" that no one as ever heard of - so if you listen to the CBC, the Canadian version of the BBC, as I did in my teens, its impossible not to pick up knowledge of obscure people who happen to be from Canada.  This means that I first heard the song "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen when it was first released in 1984.  For those who don't know, one of the versions that Cohen did was used in the movie Watchmen during the much-despised sex scene.

I have always liked this song - and of the song I can make the joke, "How many musicians does it take to sing Hallulujah?"

"Apparently, all of them."

Unfortunately, I've never found a version of the song that I like.  Cohen himself has the right tone for the song (after about six tries at recording it), but his actual voice is shit and as much as I try to like it, I don't.  John Cale's version is passable but it suffers from way too much expressionism in the song, while the extremely popular Jeff Buckley version sounds like a cat being stretched out as a guitar string.  I've never understood how it got to be popular, nor why every other gawddamn singer feels that they have to sing the song the way Buckley sang it and NOT the way Cohen sang it.  Its a beautiful song!  Just sing the fucking words with the number of syllables the words have, without having to warble, infuse with cheap emotion or stretch the vocals out in some tortured, horrible way.

For a long time I have wondered what the hell it is with this song that compels musicians to ruin it.  Yesterday, however, I found my answer.  Straight out of Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell has started a series of podcasts called "Revisionist History" - and in episode number 7, released yesterday, he talks about the song Hallelujah and about Paul Cezanne (along with what happened with Elvis Costello).  In all cases, he answers questions that have been plaguing me for decades.  And he explains why I am banging my head on the desk, trying to get the book written properly.

I have said it again and again on this blog.  I like to be proven wrong.  I like it so much, I spend hundreds of hours trying to find people online who are writing, speaking or arguing in forums about things I think I know, so that I can feel myself torn down and demonstratively proved inaccurate, so I can adopt the new model and move forward.

I am surprised to find that I am often the only person in the room that feels this way about knowledge.  How is that possible?

1 comment:

JB said...

Oh, you know...something about the usual ego and insecurity issues. We don't look for disagreement, we seek out folks and info that justify our own positions as a way to feel good about ourselves. So at least we don't feel bad or stupid or wrong.

Look at the popular appeal of Donald Trump among a certain segment of the's like he's giving permission to folks to carry all sorts of terrible, wrong-headed positions. Not only does he agree with their opinions, but he's showing that he's a winner, beating out establishment types and career politicians to put himself one step away from the White House. The evidence of his lies and complete unsuitability for the position is easily available for those who'd like to seek it out, but the only folks who care about that information are his detractors (who wouldn't vote for him anyway)...his supporters won't read it and even if they did they wouldn't believe it. If they did, what would it say about themselves? That they are wrong, bad, small-minded? That they are terrible Americans and terrible people? Most people's ego recoils from that kind of self-evaluation.

It's the same with all sorts of things, not just politics. Even for folks who are driven to compete at the highest level in their chosen arenas (sports, politics, science, whatever) and who are willing to seek knowledge (and self-knowledge) in their specialization as a way of rising higher in their particular field are willfully, deliberately ignorant in other areas of their lives. Even philosophers who embrace the old Socratic creed of "I know nothing" have areas where their ego won't allow them to go...areas where they think they actually "know a little something about such and such." And they probably DO...doesn't mean they couldn't still get better, learn more, transform their thinking into the next level.

There's a part of delay or procrastination that can be attributed to irrational fear and untamed pride.