Monday, August 06, 2012

Jonah Lehrer in the Whale

The most dangerous sentence ever written: I think, therefore I am.

The Cartesian cogito (in Latin, the sentence reads Cogito ergo sum) is a fundament of the modern era. But it is also an expression of radical subjectivity. It’s not we think, therefore we are. Or you think, therefore you are. Or even, I think, therefore you are and you think, therefore I am—which, though wacky, would at least indicate the improbable, oddball and interdependent nature of life.

Instead, existence is all about the self. As Popeye had it, I yam what I yam, and that's all what I yam. Honest, maybe, but where does that leave Olive Oyl and Wimpy and Swee’Pea? Talk about egocentric.

I started thinking about the ‘cult of the self’ implicit in the cogito when I read that science writer Jonah Lehrer had been caught fudging and fabricating a bunch of Bob Dylan quotes—and, just maybe, a bunch of other stuff.

I don’t presume to be able to psychoanalyze Lehrer, and I don’t want to universalize his predicament. But it does seem that some authors care more about themselves and the fact they’ve got something to say than about the things they are saying and the people they are saying them about. They’ve got way too much me tied up in their memes. I mean, if Lehrer cared about Dylan and wasn’t just using him to make his own mark on the creative process, would he want to mash-up the Master’s words?

Of course, we all have conflicted and ego-driven roots for our desire to say stuff in print. So here's a kind-of anti-cogito--five principles, all based on humbling experience, that help rip apart any ridiculous desire I may have to make myself the hero of my work:
  1. I am no better than the people I interview and write about and come in contact with as I’m reporting. Indeed, I am frequently worse than them—not as honorable or hard working or consistent or hospitable or open-minded or intelligent.
  2. I learn more from the people I interview and write about and come in contact with than they will ever learn from me.
  3. When I am the story, I have failed. This doesn’t mean no first person reporting. It means that any tales that are primarily designed to call attention to me -- Jonah tweets a jpeg of himself from inside the whale:here I am in the belly of the beast!’ -- are suspect.
  4. Write what you know is self-involved and, far too often, self-congratulatory. Rather, write what you don’t know about what you know. Or, what you know about what you don’t know. Or, perhaps even better, what you know you don’t want to know.
  5. I will never have the answers—but I may have bumbled onto some relevant and potentially meaningful questions.
For more on these points, here, so simple and sensible it makes me want to cry, is The Envoy of Mr. Cogito, by Zbigniew Herbert. And here is another touchstone—Roque Dalton’s Tense Conversation:

What would you do if your worst enemies
were infinitely better
than you?

That wouldn't be anything. The problem comes
when your best friends
are worse than you.

The worst thing is to have only enemies.

No. The worst thing is to have only friends.

But who is the enemy?
You or your enemies?

See you later, friend.

1 comment:

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