Write a letter to a friend, mentor, or the smartest person you know. Describe

  • what it is about any essay that we have read together that has “shocked” you,
  • what subject, exactly, the shock helped you to think more about, and
  • how the particular essay clarifies your thinking about that subject.

Dear sweet professional-grade listener and mental calisthenics instructor Henry,

For my “University Writing” class this semester, we've already read a few essays. One of them (Simic's, on how and why he thinks about the world) annoyed the heck out of me. Another (Gornick's, on city life and why it suits her) irritated me nearly imperceptibly, like the dry air on my skin in Arizona this past weekend, such that I'm only realizing in retrospect that it irritated me at all. I think the essays were intended to have been thought-provoking and/or a bit unnerving. Individually, they've been challenging to me principally in their irksomeness rather than in their capacity to edify. (I see you contending, on behalf of an absent Beelzebub, that the two might well be intertwined; I assure you there is a brand of irking which pushes me with a grin toward new knowledge and that this is not it.) The honest self-awareness in Woolf's memoir impressed me, in that on the whole, the essays we've read have indeed been provoking thought: they seem to validate my fear that, for many kinds of art, I make a shabby audience.

The thinking goes: Many intelligent people seem to have been finding this stuff (for various values of the “stuff” that constitutes culture) fascinating and worthy of study and discussion; therefore there is probably some value in it, but I seem unable to see it; there must be a reason for my particular visual limitations, but I don't know what it is and haven't been able to reason my way to it; but there must be at least an observable pattern; thus, keep observing until I can identify the pattern; then the cause(s) may become apparent; and then I can see about getting a new prescription. Or, if it's terminal and inoperable, then I can steel myself for the inevitability of sharpening my other senses.

I'm not sure when the symptoms first appeared. Likely the defect is congenital. I remember having had a short fuse for the sort of literary analysis we used to perform in high school English class. To take one particularly egregious memory out behind the shed, even now the mental mention of “The Scarlet Letter” brings a shudder as I marvel furiously at our repeated use of phrases such as “the use of light and dark” to describe the descriptions therein. My mind at the time would ask: So what? Having established this, what do we now better understand? My mind at the time would answer: how to sound faux-clever and faux-literate. More cynically: how to induce the teacher to move on to the next topic. Most cynically: how to get a good grade in English class.

For my sake, it's fortunate that cynicism never paid the rent or did any household chores and was summarily evicted. It is further fortunate that, while most poetry and visual art are lost on me, music owns me and always has. The selfsame intelligent people who hold that other inscrutable “stuff” in high esteem generally think the same of music, and for the same reasons. Perhaps there is some apparatus which, properly trained, can apprehend any given form of art. If so, then my musical gifts suggest that I'm in possession of one, and then treating my apparent deficiency is perhaps a simple matter of cross-training under the tutelage of the right coaches.

Meanwhile, on the matter of English class, I'm afraid I haven't made much progress reforming my provincial attitude. I have a whole lot less all-around impatience than I did in high school, but I still find most commentary on how something is written to be at best intellectually tepid, at worst faux-literate and (oh, how this frosts my gears) faux-clever. When someone spots something genuinely interesting that I missed, it comes as a small happy shock. When reasoned and expressed clearly, it comes as a big one. When originating from an unknown or unexpected source, it tests my capacity to withstand joy. Thinking of these moments is itself almost overwhelming.

Being around people who are smarter than I am is one of my chief pleasures. Increasing their number and the level and frequency of interactions is one of my chief goals. Gornick might empathize that being in mutual orbit with such people energizes me. But her need is for new unknown and unknowable comrades with which to ”…join the anxiety….[and] share the condition” (9) of survival, to find solace in order to be able to function. I don't generally have trouble functioning; it's thriving that I'm striving for when I seek to stretch my cerebrum, and generally the people that help me do it make fast — in both speed and permanence — friends.

To further distinguish Gornick's case and mine, I tolerate the city only insofar as it's possible to be meaningfully alone in it. Occasionally I might feel like doing something that requires that one be in a city, and then it's awfully convenient that I'm in one. Most of the time, though, I need huge heaping gobs of solitude in order to digest the day, expel its waste, assimilate the nutrients and set them to work. In philosophy, Simic finds that “Meaning is the matter of [his] existence” (136). This continual routine of self-expansion is the matter of mine.

At the moment I'm a snake, because I've swallowed whole the problem of my inadequate performance as a patron of the arts. It'll take weeks to digest. Maybe Simic could recommend some late-night reading material.