I recently wrote a post called “Modern Literature is nothing more than an Anti-Intellectual Word Salad” about trends in literature that have made books almost unreadable.
Putting aside stylistic preferences, the other glaring problem of modern literature is that it is incoherent.
Clear, evocative writing is a dying art. Similarly clear, sound thinking and speaking is also hard to find. Despite the many cries from the left that that conservatives in the political right are “ignorant, stupid and uneducated” the lack of clear thinking, logic and reason is mostly coming from the over-educated, cerebral left.
It’s no wonder our educational institutions are becoming madhouses with the need for safe spaces to protect students from scary ideas or challenging, dissident opinions. Decades of standardized tests, fundraising slash PR campaigns to enrich the schools instead of enriching the intellects of the students and a culture that intimidates and ostracizes free-thinkers and dissidents have created ideological echo chambers that resist thought.
I attended one of these institutions. When I was in school, I was intimidated by my peers. They all seemed more together and more experienced than I was. They came from prestigious families, attended prestigious schools, took prestigious vacations.
Education was important in my family but it wasn’t the only thing. Our vacations were spent visiting family, spending time outdoors, screaming down West Virginia whitewater on buoyant rafts, getting sunburned laying out on rocks and mosquito bitten in leaking tents. We ate soggy bologna sandwiches pulled from plastic coolers in camp grounds with community pools that stank from too much chlorine. We weren’t strolling through museums in other countries. We were road tripping through the states.
I remember an “A-ha” moment in my humanities class my freshman year that meant less to me then than it does to me now. There were fourteen or so students seated around a rectangular conference table. We were discussing, The Illiad and The Odyssey, two books that served as the foundation for our coursework, against which we compared all other reading material that semester.
The other students in my conference spoke so eloquently about Homer, Greece, history and philosophy. Not only had they read the classics on the syllabus before getting to college, they had traveled with their parents to places like Greece and Rome. They’d seen the Colosseum and wandered through the Acropolis museum. The places and things in the books were as fantastical to me as fairies and goblins.
Talking about the books and history, my classmates were speaking another language from the English I was familiar with. They used words like, “deconstruct, chiasmus, allusions, doppelganger, and hubris.” The only time my everyday grasp of the English language embarrassed me more than in that class was when my senior year anthropology teacher invited a group of us out for Tapas and I had never heard of Tapas. I’m sure you can imagine what happened. I made off color jokes the whole way there to an unimpressed audience of my peers, excitedly thinking we were going to a “Topless” bar.
I was determined to do well in college. I took furious notes in my classes, not only on what the teacher was saying, but also what the students were saying.
When I got back to my dorm I would look up the strange words (portmanteau, verisimilitude, so many big words …) they were using. To my surprise, when I looked up the words had just used with confidence and authority, I found they were using them incorrectly. And the teacher wasn’t correcting them. These students were merely posturing, acting smart, talking smart but full of shit.My reaction then was not the best. I didn’t ignore their intellectual charades and do my own thing, like I should have. I was young and wanted to do well, so I tried to join the crowd. Fake it until you make it.
Thankfully it didn’t stick, or I lost the knack after twenty years dealing with the daily grind of a job and kids. But I still remember my shock at learning that those around me, including my teachers, who were given the most credit and admiration based on their appearance of being better than the rest, were spewing nonsense.
I also remember how excluded it felt to not be able to talk about books and storied, that I loved, without an arsenal of sophisticated, intellectual words. Whether you used them correctly or not, you still needed to use them.
In my literature class, I remember trying to be impressed with White Noise by Don Delillo. I wrote a self-important essay linking themes and ideas throughout the book, looking for metaphors for life in the static of a TV set as if reading a book were a treasure hunt and my job as a student was to dig through the words to find the gems.
The overthinking required to make these stretched comparisons in order to write an impressive essay to prove to my teacher that I could have deep thoughts literally made me feel high. Thinking — serious, deep, intense thinking; connecting ideas within a book, without a book, with other books — was actually making me feel so “heady” I was getting high on reading. (Incidentally, it was at this time that I found new interest in my academic career.) In the sophisticated libraries of academia, I was getting intellectually stoned but I wasn’t really learning anything. I was being indoctrinated to think like everyone else, believe what everyone else believes in order to succeed and then perpetuate this by mimicking the behaviors and celebrating agreement over dissent.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who noticed this trend. After sharing this story with a friend she came upon a personal post from a friend in her circle. With permission, I am sharing:
Twenty years ago I was engaged in the futile pursuit of a graduate student at the London School of Economics, and so it came to pass that I found myself at the London School of Economics, sitting in on one of her seminars, which she invited me to because the lecturer on this day was former U.K. foreign minister Douglas Hurd. I don’t recall much about his talk, but I do recall one — and only one — of the student questions, which went something like this:
“Minister, you espouse X and Y principles for action in the diplomatic sphere, but I am wondering how this contrasts with the observations of [Frenchman’s name] — “
He then proceeded to quote the Frenchmen at length, entirely in French. I looked about the room. Everyone was intent upon displaying an attentive and comprehending face.
“ — or even [German’s name], who was more of the opinion that — “
Here a much shorter passage in German. Several of the students here nodded with grave expressions.
“What would be your response to them in light of [a hitherto unmentioned conceptual framework]?”
Hurd, expressionless throughout, proceeded to answer a completely different question. None of the attendees, including the questioner, seemed to notice.
This was my first — although alas not my last — exposure to the atmosphere and ethic of elite academia: an endless exercise in rhetorical peacocking, a participation in a general conspiracy of mutually displayed approvals, an elaborate system of class signaling designed to rapidly signify in- and out-groups.The kind of place, in short, where good and decent people arrive as normal individuals, and leave as the sort of persons who will strive to display command of three languages in one question — or the sort of persons who will pretend to understand all three.
The chaotic and pointless storytelling that has besieged modern literature — just like the misused words in my humanities class — have another purpose: to signal who is in and who is out.
There must be something wrong with you, is the implied message of the pretentious book reviews, if you don’t appreciate the mind numbing word salad of modern writers. Your mind must not be up to par. You must be lacking. And therefore, you can’t be part of our crowd.
Never-mind, that no one understands what the hell they are talking about. The important thing is “do you go along with it? or no?” Are you with us or are you against us?
Is this why, when a teacher does not agree to play by the modern rules of trigger warnings and safe syllabuses, the student body rises up to have them removed?
In college, I tried to go along with it. I put effort into cramming my simple sentences with similes, my straightforward story-lines with tangents. If my words were too short I would plow through the thesaurus looking for longer variants to use to show everyone that I belonged in the club. I was smart, too. I was creative, too. I learned how to make a nonsensical word salad that sounded great but said nothing.
Meaning is everything and everything is nothing and therefore nothing has meaning.
You’d have to be baked out of your mind to find sense in that sentence! The more garbage I wrote, the higher my grades went.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who learned that the more meaningless your papers the higher the recognition. Joseph Rago, Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the Wall Street Journal who passed away this week discovered and wrote about the same phenomenon.
After reading his work, I was struck by how clean and clear both his writing and thinking were. Despite being the self-proclaimed “most democratic writer” he knows personally, the progression of his thinking from his early career up until his death, presented in the article “Joseph Rago’s Wit and Wisdom” show a clear libertarian and even conservative streak forming.
“I’m very democratic,” he says after a time. “I think I’m the most democratic writer whom I know personally, though I don’t know all writers of course.” Silence. “I also believe in the United States. I think this is the greatest nation that ever existed, still is. It’s really the only really democratic country in the world.” . . .
The second to last essay quoted in the article is about the irony of leftists going out in hordes to buy 1984 while crying about the police state created by Trump.
“ If Americans who buy “1984” actually read and think about it, maybe the irony will be that U.S. political fevers start to break. Any literate person can recognize that the analogies between Mr. Trump and Big Brother are, not to put too fine a point on it, preposterous.”
But it was this post that struck me most. In it Rago described completing his education to be “like filling in a Mad Libs.”
“ just patch something together about “interrogating heteronormativity,” or whatever, and wait for the returns to start rolling in.”
“I once wrote a term paper for a lit-crit course where I “deconstructed” the MTV program “Pimp My Ride.” A typical passage: “Each episode is a text of inescapable complexity . . . Our received notions of what constitutes a ride are constantly subverted and undermined.” It received an A.”
Unlike Rago, who was aware of both the game being played and how to play it, I was more naive, less confident and got pulled in like willing cult member, happy to be included in something, it didn’t matter what.
What Has Happened to Thinking?
Literature today is terrible because it discourages us from thinking. Institutions of higher education appear to be doing this as well.
They want to numb our minds with nonsense or do the thinking for us.
This is also happening politically. You are simply dismissed and ridiculed if you can’t participate in a conversation about politics without understanding the current usage of intersectionality; the three phases of feminism, whether you are heteronormative or not and more importantly if any part of your existence is oppressing your conversation partner- another reason for immediate removal from the discussion.
We experienced more than a year of “Trump isn’t even trying to win,” “Trump is a buffoon,” “Trump voters are stupid,” “Trump voters are ignorant” dominating media airwaves and social media conflict.
There are hundreds of articles on “stupid,” “crazy,” “ignorant,” Trump supporters.
Then Trump won and the hysteria started. How did this happen? Very few questioned if perhaps they were wrong about the intelligence of Trump voters, instead they were saddened that there were so many stupid people in their country.
Then the research started to support their claims of stupidity. States with higher educated voters went for Clinton.
Again the focus was on education as if it were the barometer of intelligence. Even though income was not an indicator of how someone would vote.
But if higher education is the anti-thinking, hotbed of conformity and nonsense that it appears to have become, is this really any triumph?
They hysterics of the left and their unrelenting obstructionist attempts to have Trump impeached mimic the hysterical tattling to the administration to have teachers with challenging, unconventional classes removed from the school.
The complete lack of self reflection and inability to even identify the reasons, eight months later, why people voted for Trump should be an embarrassment of intellectual inquiry.
The utter unwillingness to even engage with anyone who doesn’t rattle off five dollar words while at the same time spouting platitudes about inclusion and diversity makes them seem so wacko the term “Trump Derangement Syndrome” has been coined to describe the mental flailing of the sore losers on the left.
But of course, thinking and finding answers aren’t the priority in these matters. It is all intellectual signaling.
Once again, this quote describes both our left leaning academic institutions and the left leaning non-thinkers it produces.
“the atmosphere and ethic of elite academia: an endless exercise in rhetorical peacocking, a participation in a general conspiracy of mutually displayed approvals, an elaborate system of class signaling designed to rapidly signify in- and out-groups.” — ANON