Thursday, December 08, 2016

Judging Iowa, Part II

“By allowing us to survive, the efficiency of intelligence also offers us the possibility of complexity without foundation, thought without usefulness, and beauty without purpose.”
- Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Thought without usefulness is almost an oxymoron to me. But not to everybody, apparently.  I was recently startled by a question posed to me by an Iowa native. I mentioned that I would like to learn a bit more about regional geography, specifically where the city of Ottumwa, Iowa is in relation to Des Moines. I said casually that I ought to know this now that I live here.

“Why?” she asked. “Why would you want to know that unless you needed driving directions?”

Why indeed, squander one’s finite cerebral activity on a matter beyond the city limits? Or even beyond the parking lot outside the window and the road leading back home. Although not inclined to gamble, I would be willing to bet my best pair of shoes that she couldn’t tell me where Aleppo is. Or why we should care. Such lack of curiosity - or even interest  - stuns me.

Or, perhaps this is simply what Barbery’s protagonist meant when she said this side effect of intelligence is some kind of flaw. After the sentence quoted above, she goes on to say “It’s like a computer bug, a consequence without consequence of the subtlety of our cortex, a superfluous perversion making an utterly wasteful use of the means at its disposal.” I don’t get this any more than I get why I shouldn’t want to know more about where I live.

To me, any thought is useful in that it means my brain is functioning. I get Barbery’s point that searching for truth and beauty doesn’t necessarily elevate us and make us somehow more than thinking animals - with a brain perhaps a bit bigger than necessary to find our way to Ottumwa if our life depends on it. We can find our way to Ottumwa just for the hell of it. Sorry, I’m judging that as failure of imagination if not intelligence. To me, an absence of curiosity about what’s around the corner makes for a claustrophobically small universe. I’m curious, therefore, I am.

Then again, this woman did ask me why. She was curious as to why I’d be curious. That’s something. She’s probably going to the Trump thank you party tonight. Thank goodness it’s here in Des Moines, and not wherever the hell Ottumwa is. In any event, I wasn’t invited.