There Is No Such Thing As Intelligence
(x-posted to The Valve)
The abstract personal definition of “intelligence,” reified in our minds thanks to IQ tests and their derivatives, is a source of social ills and should be abandoned. It impedes and confuses pedagogy, underwrites racism and sexism, inhibits culture, and trivializes political debate.
We’ll have to start out by getting a bit technical. The adjectival form, “intelligent” (or “brilliant” or “smart” or etc.), has its uses. Intelligence, as we use the word, refers to the ability to do a good job at complex tasks that require a high degree of abstraction. Thus, a given piece of work can be intelligent if it successfully addresses a complex problem.
To claim that intelligence exists as a phenomenon, but not as an inherent personal quality, is the same as arguing that race or gender exist as social phenomena but not as simple, natural facts. For a long time now, intellectuals have been chipping away at the mythology of race and gender, while leaving the mythical quality of intelligence relatively untouched because they have too much invested in the hierarchies it produces.
I. Memory, speed reading, and vocabulary
Vocabulary is a sub-category of memory: how many words one can remember and use. Memory is a talent with a strange, ambivalent reception. On the one hand, people with good memories are considered blessed and provably intelligent. Professors who can cite difficult works of philosophy from memory are celebrated for doing so; undoubtedly, part of the reason Harold Bloom rarely bothers to cite his quotations is that doing so would undermine his claim to have it all memorized. The phenomenon of memory is often linked to speed reading, as it is with Bloom: Bill Clinton was also renowned for his ability to read enormous quantities of books each day and remember everything, while still fulfilling his Presidential duties. Popular culture attributes far more to memory than it could ever enable. In the television show Heroes, a waitress with a photographic memory learns to speak flawless, unaccented Japanese by glancing at a phrasebook.
These mythic versions of the consumption of knowledge make it very difficult to remember that memory and reading speed both wax or wane according to the use we make of them. Every child who grows up in a culture with a strong oral tradition will have more “text” memorized than an average American child; Erasmus memorized more than professors do today; the Greeks knew Homer by heart. Reading speed depends on reading frequently, and reading for pleasure — a recent study found that people who habitually read for pleasure also read other texts faster. We may not even need to memorize text the way we did before, now that we live in an era of easily accessible archives, which means that the shape of memory itself will change to reflect a different cultural landscape. Unfortunately, there will be nobody there to track this shift, because we will continue to assume either an overall cultural decline, or the presence/absence of an inborn talent, reified by “geniuses” like Clinton and Bloom.
Whether or not we should be concerned about losing mnemotechnics is still in question. In the meantime, the cult of genius also produces a cult of mediocrity. In academia, a tradition that stretches back at least to Montaigne, and arguably to Plato’s Dialogues, valorizes the thinker with a fuzzy memory, who has to work hard and earnestly to make sense of texts that others find suspiciously easy. Rousseau calls his ideal pupil Emile mediocre, and separates him from the race of geniuses. Within the academy, this has produced excruciating overloads of citation (a serious problem throughout Montaigne’s Essays), and encouraged numbingly slow readings of such thinkers as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s bizarre institutional authority is largely constituted by the odd couple of academics who respect him, but don’t consider themselves smart enough to read him (thus letting themselves off the hook), and academics who read him, and feel that his brilliance makes it impossible to ever stop, or even pause, the process of doing so.
Outside the academy, the proud inability to remember has had its most contemptible exemplars in Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom have used it as a way of evading political responsibility, justifying smoke-and-mirrors systems of favoritism and delegation, and communicating folksiness.
The link between vocabulary and intelligence produces all kinds of cognitive dissonance. I’m not suggesting that a large vocabulary is bad — it is plainly a useful tool. However, nobody nowadays would assert that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a more intelligent writer than Ernest Hemingway, despite the fact that Fitzgerald clearly has a larger vocabulary. Hemingway compensated for this impoverishment by using rhythm and repetition to create complex effects with simple materials. The difference between them was a difference of privilege: Hemingway had not gone to Princeton. Privilege is a good word for the triptych of erudition, vocabulary, and standardized usage that is treated as synonymous with complexity; in an earlier post at The Kugelmass Episodes, I argued for the complexity and sense of valley girl talk, hip-hop, and the “broken” speech of anxiety. The more that critics develop ways of reading silences, stutters, inversions, fragmented words, slang, abject or undignified erudition, and so on — all of which, by no coincidence, one needs in order to read Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, or Langston Hughes — the better they’ll be at breaking down linguistic privilege, at which point “intelligence” will suddenly be visible everywhere, not just in the golden hallways of genius, and not just as a vague democratic assumption.
II. Cash Versus Context
It’s worth remembering that one of the most famous prodigies in Western Civilization, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was born into a culture well-prepared to celebrate genius as a species of the grotesque. Mozart’s youth was shaped by the experience of performing his prodigy in order to make his father money, and that continues to be the role of intelligence today. It is a commodified form of intellectual labor, and as such we have come to believe that it can be exchanged anywhere, just like the sweat of one’s brow: if a student does well on standardized tests, then we assume they will succeed in the adult world of skilled labor.
The effects of this belief in abstracted “intelligence” have been so widespread and pernicious that one hardly knows where to begin. Ironically, “intelligence” has made it harder to evaluate whether or not given pieces of work are in fact intelligent in context, and has contributed greatly to dehumanization. The problem of dehumanization is the insoluble problem of realizing one’s intelligence; the problem of judging the intelligence of a work is a problem of the desire for intelligence to inhere in an author.
To begin with realizing intelligence: everybody knows that an intelligent person will get nowhere unless they’re also willing to work hard. In Woody Allen’s film Match Point, Chris Wilton announces that, of course, “hard work is mandatory,” before going on to call privilege a matter of luck. Mandatory is the right word, since every employee and student knows that one must not only work hard, but also appear to be doing so. In fact, it is quite possible to have an easy time fulfilling one’s duties, at least on a given day, but ease is insulting.
Still, let’s grant that a lot of effort is usually required to produce excellent work, regardless of the field. Then we run into the problem of wasted effort: the person who works furiously, but produces mediocre or frankly awful work. In these cases, a supposed lack of intelligence or talent is frequently the alibi for the work ethic itself. How many of these casualties of effort fail precisely because of over-work and fatigue? How many fail because the drudgery of innumerable small and laborious acts, on which another person might discreetly renege, prevents them from doing synthetic and innovative thinking? In business, one tries to compensate by encouraging a “culture of innovation,” but this is fraught with danger. It undermines espirit de corps, and it actually heightens alienation, since one’s ideas tend to become other people’s property.
The relationship between innovation, which requires independence of thought, and manageability, which requires conformism and respect for authority, is not a dialectical relationship. The two modes do not immanently “contain” one another; they sit together uncomfortably, each sapping the other’s strength, with “intelligence + hard work” as the magic formula that is supposed to reconcile them.
To borrow Derrida’s phrase about clinical madness, there is a “terribly trivial” sense in which a given person may not be able to master a given situation: brain damage, developmental disability, physical disability. I call this trivial because all of the most progressive advances in our approach to these impairments and disabilities have involved abandoning assumptions about intelligence. Until very recently, autistic persons were classed as mental deficients. Only recently has it become clear the extent to which developmentally disabled persons can be integrated into “normal” classrooms, hired for paying jobs, and generally accomodated on an individual basis rather than marginalized by evaluations of “intelligence.”
And what of personality? Introversion and extroversion produce different kinds of intelligence. Intelligence is molded by persistent anxiety or its absence, and by tendencies toward manic/depression, schizophrenia, or autism (i.e. Asperger’s). As a result, some of the best critiques of psychiatry and socialization have been made in the name of genius. Sadly, this is a trap. It accepts that difference has to immediately prove, via intelligence and “genius,” measurable social utility, and thus re-affirms the total domination of the social over the individual. It also opens the door for correcting difference whenever it “goes too far” — that is, when a given asocial or abnormal state stops being immediately profitable. Lastly, as little as the defense of introversion has done for actual introverts, it has helped sustain the myth of superficial extroversion. That means fashion, socializing — the extroverted feminine, which lacks the right to create hierarchies of intelligence, except under the ban of severe moral judgement (as cunning, for example).
Standardized tests, IQ tests, and their ilk have been subject to criticism for a long time now. It’s reached the point where every schoolchild knows that the SAT only measures “how good you are at taking tests,” and yet nobody really challenges the role of SAT tests in college admissions. In fact, the SAT isn’t that simplistically useless, but the fact that standardized testing is on the rise (thanks to No Child Left Behind), despite the popular wisdom about such tests, should alert us to the fact that “teaching to the test” is not a side effect of standardized testing, but its real mission. The cynicism of test-takers, like the cynicism of consumers, reinforces the system it seems to oppose. It is fundamentally shallow cynicism, overmatched by an awe of the test through which all the old myths survive. In the film Spellbound, the family members and teachers of the children competing in the National Spelling Bee ascribe their charges’ success to — depending on the child — their own love of puns, meditation, the love of Jesus Christ, the child’s well-rounded existence (“He’s not like those other kids, he has a life,” one sister says), ethnicity, and/or the greatness of America. In other words, the adults are eager to cash in on this success for an affirmation of certain values, while the children focus on the basically mechanical task at hand, with a devastating awareness that all but one of them will lose.
The most famous response to the traditional theory of intelligence, Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences,” creates more problems than it solves. I’ve already implied that Gardner’s distinction between “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal” intelligences reverses cause and effect, by ascribing to an inborn talent what could just as easily be founded in inherited affects or the long practice of certain habits (e.g. solitary reading). Since so many professions involve ludicrous, specialty-coffee–like “blends” of intelligences (let’s see, a poet has some musical intelligence and some linguistic intelligence…), and since the distinctions between intelligences are quite tenuous (e.g. the difference between musical and mathematical intelligence), Gardner is mostly useful as an example of two things: our unified theory of intelligence beginning to unravel upon closer consideration, and our confusion between talent and right. Gardner clearly wants intelligences to be recognized and respected, in order to give children greater freedom to utilize their talents. One wonders why those talents should be codified into an awkward and inadequate sevenfold system that has, in fact, already been supplemented by the laughable category of “nature intelligence,” possessed by gardeners and Charles Darwin.
III. The Problem of Premises
In the previous section, I alluded to the stereotype of the hard worker who accomplishes nothing, a problem we usually attribute to an inherent “unfittedness” or lack of talent. From there, I discussed the problems of innovation and independence, which opens a whole field for the investigation of passivity, resentment, timidity, socialization (particularly in its nastiest forms as silencing or dogma) and despair as contingent conditions that become naturalized in terms of a lack of aptitude. We might describe this as a substitution of the scale of intelligence for the social and psychological problem of freedom. Harold Bloom himself, in the face of his own failure to produce literature, wrote a classic study of psychological obstruction in The Anxiety of Influence.
The problem of innovation also gets at the problem of false premises, which may be the strongest argument for an attack on the cult of intelligence. For dedicated opponents of psychoanalysis, and the legacy of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, it is simply impossible for a psychoanalytic argument to be valid: the writer is spinning his wheels, and that is all. No matter how elegantly scientific citations, anecdotes, literary examples, and so on are woven together, the premise is wrong. In many cases, the very elegance and density of a piece becomes a reason to suspect that the author has filtered out reality and built castles in the air. Over at Sour Duck, Melinda Casino raised this very point with regard to blogging: earnest and awkward can work better as a style.
Nonetheless, even as they are charming us with a Socratic/Rousseauean show of plainness, we expect our authors to be brilliant, which is why most people still have such trouble comprehending the truisms about punk. The punks were not, all the way down the line, brilliant or geniuses. This was true by accident (Sid Vicious) and also by design. If you thought of yourself as a genius, you ended up like the people the punks hated, because being a musical genius meant thinking of music in terms of composition, rather than in terms of reception. The insular premise of virtuoso rock produced insular, useless music: noodling.
Noodling is a good word for the final casualty of false premises: the theory of intelligence as it is applied to political and philosophical debate. I discussed this topic at some length during the Valve book event on Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts?. As long as false premises create opportunities for displays of intelligence, and as long as those displays are worth money, we will never be rid of the falsehoods themselves: we’re just too grateful for them. That’s why liberalism that prides itself on the simple desire for intelligence accomplishes nothing besides staged debates with conservatives. It’s also why “anti-philosophers” turn into philosophers who mix critiques of Kant with paeans to his intelligence.
Intelligence, like all essentialism, is a technology of power. It reinforces privilege and hierarchizes speech. It cuts art and language off from its inspirations, aping capital by circulating language through a series of useless oppositions (e.g. debate shows like Counterpoint, choreographed academic debates between “schools of thought”) and non-signifying refinements of craft (e.g. a certain kind of technical proficiency in music). It obscures the alternation between “innovating” and “doing one’s task well,” an alternation grounded in the contradictions of the modern economy, and one that produces real casualties on both sides: burnouts, drudges, exploited inventors, unemployed iconoclasts. It encourages irrational responses to radical work, by simultaneously putting authors on pedestals and, with a wistful “if I had more time…”, ignoring them. It condescends to madness, puts it to work without further questions, and warns it to walk a fine line. It subtly justifies anti-intellectualism, and creates its own set of simulacra — for example, the simulation of genius in the movies — which are preferable to the real thing, in part because the shrill protests of mediocrity always get a turn. It commodifies young learners and encourages complacent cynicism towards standardized tests. The concept of “intelligence” doesn’t help us accommodate disability, but rather encourages us to speculate wrongly about what a given disability really forecloses.
Once we recover from the genteel, congratulatory paralysis of brilliance, we’ll be able to see what tasks really summon us, and what darker obstacles lie behind the antagonism of Mozart and Salieri — his likeness — his brother!
I’d actually read your entire post, but I’m not smart enough.
I’m just glad the whole “intelligence” myth has been debunked. This means I’ll always have something to say when someone calls me a moron.
I was really interested by the statement “It cuts art and language off from its inspirations, aping capital by circulating language through a series of useless oppositions” but as I read through the paragraph that followed, I was a bit overwhelmed. “It” repeats constantly here, so I looked up for the referent: Intelligence. Hmm — is it really the intelligence that has so much agency here? Can a concept really do all those things (apes, obscures, encourages, condescends, justifies, commodifies etc.)?
I would want to hear more about the actants in this struggle and how they use this concept.
Partly this has to do with the blog medium; I’ve come to believe that it’s worth going for bigger points, possibly in the form of generalizations that I’d avoid in an academic essay, which can be expanded as needed. Otherwise the posts just get too long and laborious, or else too local.
Still, it’s a great question. I was deliberately mirroring a couple of passages on capital from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts;, where he gives capital agency. It’s a rhetorical move, of course: all along, people are doing these things, but attributing their actions to capital in bad faith.
To take one example: “It condescends to madness, puts it to work without further questions, and warns it to walk a fine line.”
Think of the movie A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash is a mathematical genius who has to learn the meaning of love. That’s the sort of condescension I have in mind: listen here, John Nash, all the mathematics in the world can’t solve the problem of the human heart.
Of course we see Nash at work (until he “goes too far” and becomes delusional); another example of madness being “put to work” is the fact that certain people, among them Robin Williams, are medicated to be slightly manic rather than “normal.” Williams needs to be slightly manic in order to do his job; while I’m sure nobody objects to that, it is completely unclear what that is supposed to mean for people with other kinds of jobs, or for people who find that what works best for their job doesn’t work best for them the rest of the time. Equally important, we’re confronted again by the confusion between illness/sensibility — Williams’s manic states, Nash’s schizophrenia — and intelligence, talent, genius.
Lastly, I was thinking of writers like Peter Kramer, who in Listening to Prozac argued that Prozac might inhibit certain kinds of poetic talent. However, by the time of Against Depression, Kramer’s arguing that depression “kills brain cells,” that poets can find something else to write about (that’s his literal argument, sort of similar to Walter Benn Michaels’s claim that a Proust without French would just have written some other masterpiece), and that there’s no justification for depression.
Thus the leopard completely changes its spots — first intelligence is being used to temper prescriptions of anti-depressants, and then it’s being used to argue for the absolute evil of depression, in the oddly physical/quantitative terms of “killing brain cells.” Which, at least for me, is enough to call seriously into question a discourse that can be reversed so easily.
Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post. I find this whole question of intelligence kinda intriguing, for a whole series of reasons.
One, though, is the transhumanism movement, which claims that biotechnology will help us become ‘better humans’ (and animals, incidentally, who will be ‘uplifted’ by being gifted with human intelligence). I actually went to an IEET conference once, where all of these kinds of things were being discussed, and the term ‘intelligence’ circulated as if it were entirely transparent. But if you look into the history of, say, the IQ test (most transhumanists will claim they want to ‘raise IQs’/’raise intelligence’ pretty much interchangeably), you find that it’s distinctly white, distinctly upper middle class, and distinctly male. That is, the kinds of things that white, upper-middle class men were good at counted as IQ. (For a more philosophical take this kind of argument with relation to the masculinity of ‘rationality’, see the short but awesome “Man of Reason” by Genevieve Lloyd). And what this history starts to demonstrate, then, is that IQ is really quite unlikely to be a singular part of our DNA that we can just tap into and max out (if/when we can do such fiddling anyway). That is, even if we wanted to take IQ as a measure of intelligence (which would seem problematic, once it’s exposed as more a measure of privilege), it’s likely to be the result of a whole series of different characteristics which have historically become valued, no one of which dictates IQ.
So in brief I think you’re right in your last comment, Joseph: intelligence isn’t really just a descriptive category, but a prescriptive one, which is deployed to a variety of ends. And lots of them, as you point out in your post, have to do with the maintenance of patterns of privilege and disadvantage.
It seems that if we get rid of “intelligence” as a category, or an effect, or however you want to define it, all we are left with are a number of combinable skill sets which can in turn just be sold to the highest corporate bidder. So what then? What do we replace intelligence with? Couldn’t we instead try to think of intelligence as a bulwark against the tendency to commodify intellectual activity and “knowledge work”? I guess this would look like the “noodling” you describe above, but your assertion that “noodling” creates useless and insular “work” is just that – an assertion and ideological one at that (it’s clear which side of the punk/prog dualism your bread is buttered on) and it implicitly ascribes a use-value to art.
I’m also curious that you don’t bracket “talent” as a term that needs demystifying.
What a great post–where *do* you find the time? I kind of disagree with you about Peter Kramer’s book “Against Depression,” though. At least, what I think I mean by that is that I think that is a very important book for people who really do suffer from clinical depression and need an antidote to the romantic notion that their depression makes them more “intelligent,” artistic, sensitive, “alive,” what-have-you.
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Eileen, thanks! I understand Kramer’s motivation, but I can’t see how it represents progress. In Listening to Prozac, Kramer seemed aware that even in cases of clinical depression, treatment still had problematic elements, because illness stops speaking the moment modern treatment begins. In Listening to Prozac, treatment was a difficult choice. It was a negotiation undertaken despite a fundamental mistrust of social norms. In Against Depression, a mistaken return to the exigencies of treatment leaves us with a message that hardly differs from subway Public Service Announcements, except for Kramer’s eagerness to assure us that he has also read Coleridge.
Brandon! The airport wireless ate my response! I’m so sorry, it was pretty long and cannot be reproduced before I have to board the plane.
In very short:
Intelligence is the “capital” that enables us to acquire specific skills, and the exchangeable return on investment for specific skills. Hence it is like money, whereas skill need not be sold on the market. Plenty of amateur musicians take pleasure in being skilled, as do amateur chess players, and so on. When it is a question of vocation, not avocation, obviously skill and performance have to be the main criteria.
The “intelligence” myth, rather than pleasure in skill, has saddled us with the binary of challenging works of art vs. pleasurable works of art. We feel “guilty” about pop culture because it’s not “intelligent” enough to help us think better, a la the Mozart effect. (Meanwhile, of course, we don’t really feel guilty at all.) I’m not the one arguing for use-value; instead, I’m arguing against the reduction of challenging art to the exercise of intelligence.
Complex immediacy — a busy guitar solo, a frenzied Freudian packing (in the name of unpacking) of some hapless work of art — should not be used as a wedge to dislodge culture or action from its historical context, in the name of supposedly irreproachable intellectual pleasures. Just because the punk/prog divide was a good opportunity for proving the point, does not mean that every prog album failed to have historical meaning.
Sorry that these are mere notes; hopefully you can see where I was tending.
Thanks so much! I wanted to highlight one sentence in particular from your notes, which puts the matter so very well:
If I could just say one thing in defence of IQ testing in contemporary psychological practice (my mother is a practicing psychologist, so I have some vicarious insight): IQ testing is a very limited, partial aspect of intervention and assessment. It is, and should only ever be used, in the sense of a partial tool, which is to a large degree entirely subordinated to other measures such as judgement of emotional state or, for example, concrete behavioral intervention. That is, like any tool, it may tell you something, and open a door to inquiry. Like a specific element of the test, let’s take vocabulary: nobody thinks this is entirely reliable, one may be fond of memorizing dictionaries, but generally it can be an indicator, nothing more. It suggests then, perhaps, certain routes to follow, and produces more questions to ask in an interventionist scenario where more weight will be given to such questions as “In what way do you deal with this or that problem? Why do you choose these particular ways?”.
I just wonder whether we’re not ignoring how some of these pure “tools” are actually quotidianly limited and employed.
I’ve thought about your comment a great deal; I have no argument with your defense of tests of certain kinds of reasoning.
There are, for example, cases where a person who appears to be incapable of “learning the material” is having a different sort of problem, and high test scores bear this out. In some ways, this begs the question, since little else in life resembles a standardized reasoning test. Still, psychologists, educators, administrators, and admissions officers can all use unexpected contrasts to better understand their charges. I would argue that we should understand such contrasts in terms of environmental inhibitors for particular subjects, rather than in terms of “repressed” native intelligence.
Vocabulary is a great example of the Scylla and Charybdis of discussions about intelligence. On the one hand, it’s fairly clear that young people have other skills that sort of “compensate” for their lack of reading skills (including their more limited knowledge of conventional English). They are better at interpreting visual signs, and perhaps also better at navigating different linguistic registers (e.g. using reference and slang).
On the other hand, a decreased vocabulary is not nothing. The ability to be articulate in a variety of different rhetorical situations depends partly on vocabulary. So, again, the point is not to find out where intelligence is “hiding,” but rather to evaluate performance in context, and try to understand what contradictions exist in our processes of acculturation and education.
In the spirit of Carl, here are manual trackbacks from:
I think Nicholas sharpened what might pass as my point much better than I did, though, so you might as well skip the second one.
Nick P.’s blog apparently doesn’t have comments. Therefore, in response to “He seems to feel the A of I was written because Bloom could not create literature on his own (has he wanted to?)”, I should mention Bloom’s The Flight To Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy. This is an SF book that that Bloom wrote and later disavowed. Worse, it’s an SF book that he wrote that was so closely modelled on David Lindsay’s A Voyage To Acturus — which Bloom has read hundreds of times — that it nearly qualifies as fanfic. I immediately felt that a whole lot about Bloom made sense as soon as I heard about this book, and generally think that this self-declared failure at a sub-sub-genre is far more sympathetic than any professed failure to be able to write like Milton would be.
It’s hard to imagine a more passionate defender of “brilliance” than Bloom, so I can see why you you brought him in. But I still think his *The Anxiety of Influence*has a lot to offer.
Some of my thoughts about your essay come out of working as a school social worker in NY for 25 years. I often get the feeling that in schools, and in society in general, the less people recognize the given talents and abilities of others, the more shrewdness is a valued and admired substituted for thinking.What happens when there is no status to be earned by intellectual accomplishments, according to the common sense idea that “if you’re so smart why aren’t you rich?” I just finished reading Gissing’s *New Grub Street.* In part, it seems to me, the book is an indictment of contemporary culture’s inability to benefit from the talents of those who cannot transpose their intellectual abilities into saleable skills. What would Gissing say now? I’ll bet there are not a few poverty stricken bloggers out there; and who can make a living as an adjunct? Edwin Reardon, the main character in *New Grub Street* dies clearly as a result of disease brought on by malnutrition. He had written a couple of brilliant novels and waited too long to take a job as clerk because, if he didn’t work as a brilliant intellectual, how were people to know he was one? In a rational and responsible society, it seems to me, it would be considered unethical to underrate people because the visible results of their talents do not match who they are as persons. People would then appraise others according to what they have to offer, not according to what they have been able to sell in themselves.
I like Bloom’s book; the fact that I consider it to be partly inspired by a creative failure is not a criticism of its content. In fact, I think that Bloom’s description of the virtuosic desperation evident in Pynchon hews very close to my own discussion of “noodling” in this post. Going along with Rich’s comment, I think the idea that Bloom wanted to be a creative writer and failed should be completely non-controversial. Bloom himself notes that he wrote The Anxiety of Influence, ostensibly about creative artists, after a nervous breakdown and depressive period when he did nothing but read Emerson and Freud.
I get the gist of your second point, for sure — keeping faith with intelligence helps prevent us from judging people according to their success on the market. However, it makes so much more sense to describe Reardon as someone who has written two novels he can’t sell, than it does to describe him as someone intelligent. In the former case, society is unjustly ignoring him; in the latter, it’s too bad that the books don’t find an audience, but he could presumably do something else instead.
Ach! The zeitgeist! It has us! From the New York Times (via Justine Larbalestier):
“I can’t help but wonder if perhaps I.Q. is going out of style. Maybe pure intellect, once so revered, is becoming something of a party trick, like double-jointedness, or the ability to sing drinking songs in German.”
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