Thursday, September 07, 2006
Fictions of Intelligence
Lee Oser, the ALSC board member who got me involved in The Valve, just sent me the text of his forthcoming novel, Out of What Chaos. This book is more or less what one would expect if Walker Percy wrote about a cynical rock musician who converts to Catholicism, and then Nabokov added some of his verbal pyrotechnics, and then Buster Keaton and the Marquis de Sade and Lionel Trilling inserted a few extra passages. It is a loving and yet appalled description of the underground music scene in the Pacific Northwest. And it is a convincing representation of someone very, very smart. This is not so easy to achieve: I can’t count the number of times I have been told that a character is a genius and yet not seen the subtle workings of an actual intelligence.
Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Proust all excelled at the representation of intelligence so intense it becomes a kind of madness. Stavrogin and Feste are fine examples. Let me now offer a reckless and irresponsibly broad assertion: Sherlock Holmes casts a long shadow across modern representations of braininess, and his influence has not been entirely salutary. Holmes is a quasi-autistic character who reconstructs motives from clues and inferences because he has at best a deficient version of what the psychologists call a theory of mind: he compensates with his powers of detection for his lack of ordinary empathy. In The Case of the Dog in the Night, Mark Haddon brilliantly exaggerates this dynamic, giving us a detective who is an actual autistic and completely misunderstands the adults around him. Mr. Spock and Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man and and Gaddis’s J.R. are close relatives. These characters are quite compelling, but I wonder if we haven’t become a bit too attached to the idea they embody: that cognitive power displaces ordinary emotions.
Thanks Matt for this interesting post and I look forward to picking up a copy of Oser’s “Out of What Chaos” when it becomes available.
Perhaps the difference between your examples of Stavrogin and Feste genius differing from modern genius is because of a modern clockwork view of intelligence. Performance of logic and intelligence in general is something we now assign to machines and I guess we assume that we become more machine-like and less empathetic as we become more logical.
Reading your post I thought of the underrated film Dark City which featured evolutionarily advanced beings, The Strangers, which keep human beings in a virtual reality type human zoo. These Strangers want to find out what makes humans tick because they lost their soul somewhere along the way toward figuring out the architecture of the universe. But this may be a generalization and not true. Think of Einstein who had unmatched intellectual strengths which did not damper his commitment to civil rights or his passivism. And he certainly seems to have had a way with the ladies so the dispassionate “Spock” cliché goes right out the window. I think that an autistic’s ability to focus on performing calculations is certainly an epiphenomenon of a particular way of thinking. In a sense, humans making brute calculations are acting machine-like. However I do not think that as intelligence scale goes up, the emotional and empathetic scale is required to dip down. They could, sometimes, rise together.
Good post, Matthew. Where do narrators fit into this, I wonder? Eliot’s, Austen’s, James’s. Mark Haddon’s book is called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by the way. I agree with you about the problematic influence of Sherlock Holmes. For some reason (probably a combo of head cold and dissertation fatigue) I read eight or nine Poirot mysteries last month, one after the other, each one more depressingly faux-clever than the last.
Sherlock Holmes casts a long shadow across modern representations of braininess, and his influence has not been entirely salutary.
I agree with the latter half of this sentence. I simply don’t know about the former. I suppose, yes. It’s a question of making the case, historically. Are there any other contemporaneous models? Is Holms lurking behind all subsequent fictional brains?
In not sure about your explication: ...he compensates with his powers of detection for his lack of ordinary empathy. He’s certainly presented as an eccentric loner. But it’s not obvious to me that his detecting skills are presented as compensatory. After all, he’s set among people—Lestrade and Watson primarily—who have social skills he lacks, but those skills don’t give them any useful insight into the criminals they’re pursuing. If theory-of-mind style empathy is at issue, it’s presented as a handicap in the detective game, as something that misleads you.
If there’s compensation going on, it seems to me that it’s directed at the reader. “Yeah, Holmes is bright, but he’s a loner and does drugs.”
Given all the chat about how literary characters are not “real”, but more or less constructed during the reading process, it would seem a Valve-informed reader of Conan-Doyle might question whether Holmes was a representation of an actual human. I tend to think Holmes is closer to a grotesque or comic-book hero (British Uebermensch?) than straightforward lit. realism, tho that’s not to deny his sublimity. Holmes needs Watson’s more plodding types of thoughts anyway: Holmes the cerebral, platonic logician, and Watson the sturdy if obvious inductivist and indeed medical doctor (and I do recall Watson sort of leads to a few resolutions as well). And a story such as Baskervilles demonstrates this sort of process combining Holmesian deduction with Watsonian inference/observation, with the (spoiler ahead) supposed supernatural beast de-mystified at the end: just a mutt with some phosphorus on his snout.
Feste, however clever and witty, is a sort of grotesque as well: and there are more than a few hints that Feste is getting off on a certain Iagoish or Hannibal Lector type of sadistic destruction, that probably made more than a few Lords and Ladies squeal with delight.
There was a fascinating documentary on the CBC the other day called Stupidity. Among other things it discussed the definition of stupidity: is it merely the absence of something (i.e. intelligence) or is it an active force in its own right? Not wanting to go any further in the philosophy of stupidity than I already have, perhaps we can leave that question right there. Bringing it round to this discussion: perhaps intelligence is merely the absence of stupidity. Or, is “intelligence” one of those concepts we all assume we understand but is in fact just a short-hand for all sorts of different things?
I don’t think I am suggesting that intelligence is unrepresentable—no, I’m not. But it is probably no accident that Sherlock Holmes is the example here: a character with little else than that much-vaunted intelligence. Intelligence distilled.
“I can’t count the number of times I have been told that a character is a genius and yet not seen the subtle workings of an actual intelligence.”
Maybe I’m just in one of those moods but it seems to me that this is not only the case in literature. Why, in my own circle of friends [rest edited]