On Being An Educated Philistine

I’m an uncultured bumpkin with little taste for the finer things in life. My list of failures is long and undistinguished. I do not like opera: God knows, I’ve tried; I’ve attended a few performances–thanks to some free tickets sent my way by discerning friends and culture consumers–but no dice, it didn’t catch. I cannot abide ballet: I’ve attended one performance, that of Don Quixote, right here in New York City at a beautiful recital hall, and despite admiring the athleticism of the performers found their choreographed pyrotechnics did not touch me emotionally; indeed, I do not like most dance, have never attended a modern dance recital, and have only briefly viewed a few performances of classical Indian variants like Kathak, Odissi, Bharatnatyam or Kathakali, and as a result never developed a taste for them, despite the fact that one of my paternal uncles was a distinguished choreographer in that tradition. My tastes in poetry are restricted to the usual suspects like Yeats, Bishop, Rilke, Auden (and some of the older romantics) et al–the stuff that almost any educated layperson can lay claim to. Like your true denuded post-colonial I have not developed any taste in Hindi poetry and have not read a  novel in Hindi since my high school days. I do not like reading reviews of poetry–indeed, I find these almost impossible to get through, despite gamely struggling with Helen Vendler‘s essays in the New York Review of Books. I’ve discovered recently that I do not like reading the standard literary review of a novel either. In fiction, I struggle to read short stories, and prefer novels when I can get to them.

Perhaps, most embarrassingly, I do not like spending time in museums–and oh, dear Lord, believe me, I’ve tried and tried to summon up enthusiasm for this excruciating social and cultural ritual but I’ve been found wanting. There are certainly times when I’ve played the part of a connoisseur of art reasonably well in these settings but it’s not an easy appearance to keep up. I’ve visited cities in foreign lands and dutifully trooped off to the Famous Museum Which Houses An Amazing Repository of Famous Art by Famous Artists, the one I’ve been told is a must-visit, but no dice. Most of it didn’t catch–perhaps because of the venue, as trooping around, popping my head into one room after another to gaze at art wrenched out of its context failed to do it for me.

I consider myself interested in art and music and culture and literature but my tastes have not developed or become more refined over the years; they seem to have become narrower despite my game attempts to push them further. Though this state of affairs has often caused me some embarrassment–especially because I’m an academic in the humanities–it has also started to offer me some reassurance. Life is short, time is limited; I will never read the all the books on my shelves (and in my digital stores); better to have fewer things to serve as diversions. More airily, I’ve come to know myself better; I’ve tried to like the things I was ‘supposed’ to, and I couldn’t. That’s me, for better and worse.

Note: In a future post, I will make note of the many philosophical and literary classics which I have not read and seem unlikely to read.

On Seeking Out The Unpleasant For The Subsequent Relief

This past Saturday afternoon, after I had completed my abortive attempt to scale Mt. Washington, I returned–exhausted, bedraggled, and freezing–to my motel room in North Conway, NH. It was about 3:30 PM; I had stopped off on the way to pick up a cup of coffee (and had my car get stuck in the parking lot snow for a while; some good samaritans pushed it out for me.)

Once inside my room, I began peeling off my various layers of clothing, all inflicted with varying degrees of wetness from sweat and melting snow: a pair of soft-shell climbing pants, a pair of hiking pants, a ‘base layer’ of long-johns for the bottom, and then, up top, a heavy fleece jacket, a mid-weight jacket, a lighter jacket, a wool sweater, another lighter jacket, then a matching ‘base layer’ for the top. Off came the two pairs of gloves, one light, one heavy, and then, two pairs of ‘smart wool’ socks. I had planned to shower once I was indoors, but all I did was slip into a pair of shorts and get into bed. And there I lay for several hours, reading Nicholas Howe‘s Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, (a superb read, which I finished that night itself) and occasionally checking the news on CNN and MSNBC; later, for dinner, I ordered in some pizza. My fingers and toes cramped repeatedly; four fingers and two toes still burned and tingled and ached, showing signs of incipient frost-nip/bite (a diagnosis grimly confirmed now by blisters on two fingers); my throat was parched and I drank water by the liter.

It felt awesome.

And I couldn’t wait to subject myself to the same grim business I had subjected myself to earlier in the day: the rising at 530AM, the ‘gearing up,’ the exhausting plodding through deep snow, the freezing cold on my face and fingers and toes, the biting wind, the clumsy climbing and slipping, the constant reminders of my lack of co-ordination, the persistent doubt and fear about the venture I was undertaking. And I was willing to do this again because I knew that at the end of those trials and tribulations would lie the pleasurable recovery, the basking in the glow of aching muscles and a slowly warming body. I had ‘failed’ to reach the summit; I had been beaten back down by a combination of bad weather and my own weaknesses. A stronger, fitter, more skilled climber might have made it to the top; I hadn’t. But that didn’t stop me from ‘enjoying’ that late afternoon and evening of recovery.

Very often, we voluntarily subject ourselves to the painful and the uncomfortable not just because we can, because we want to find out whether we can endure those states of being, but also because we know that the relief station at the terminus of the unpleasant is especially salubrious. The ordinary pleasure becomes extraordinary within those precincts; we enjoy a form of sensory and perceptual enhancement there quite unlike any other. We have altered our state of consciousness radically; pain is understood differently now. It signals not trauma now, but something else altogether.

The prospect of such relief might be compelling enough to make us want to subject ourselves to the trials required beforehand; that pleasure is sweet enough is to draw us on, upwards and onwards through zones of persistent discomfort. And to make us want to go back again for seconds.

Honey And Me And Quining Qualia

I grew up loathing honey. I preferred jams: plum, orange. apple, ‘mixed fruit,’ gauva, mango, marmalade. Toasted bread with thick white cream and jam; never honey. Honey was just a little ‘sickly-sweet;’ its taste was a ‘little off.’ It crossed some permissible boundary of ‘sweetness’ and became cloying; it sent shudders through me. I couldn’t wait to get a drink of water, washing out the offending affect. My taste was inexplicable; I could not make sense of it when I made my reluctance to consume honey known. I stood by, a mere onlooker, as others around me sang paeans to its glory.

But then, just as mysteriously, shortly after I moved to the US, I began adoring honey. The ‘taste of honey’ was now a glorious treat, the right attribute of a nectar of sorts. I liked honey with crackers and cheese, on toasted bagels, in iced tea, lemonade–all of it. Sugar seemed a crude sweetener, its ‘taste’ not ‘complex’ enough; honey gave off the right airs of sophistication. Had I, in ‘growing up,’ finally found, in this new maturity, the right apparatus to process honey’s ‘taste’? Or was the honey just ‘better’?

Time rolled by; I found myself growing distant from honey again. Its ‘taste’ lost its standing on the pedestal I had erected for it, and now mingled with the masses. I grew suspicious of sugar and sweeteners and things that gave you insulin spikes; like many men north of the forties, I possessed a new-found rectitude at the dinner table, the salad bar, the diner counter. Honey’s ‘taste’ acquired connotations and allusions; honey entered the precinct marked ‘treats,’ its contents to be pilfered with care. The contrast with all else I ate grew, marking every encounter with honey with a distinctive shock of sorts. The ‘taste of honey’ ain’t what it used to be, no sir.

A curious business then, this ‘taste’ of honey.  Talking about ‘the taste of honey’:

presumes that we can isolate [it] from everything else that is going on….What counts as the way [honey tasted to me] can be distinguished , one supposes, from what is a mere accompaniment, contributory cause, or byproduct of this ‘central’ way. One dimly imagines taking [my tasting experiences] and stripping them down gradually to the essentials, leaving their common residuum, the way [honey tasted to me] at various times….The mistake is not in supposing that we can in practice ever or always perform this act of purification with certainty, but the more fundamental mistake of supposing that there is such a residual property to take seriously [Daniel Dennett, ‘Quining Qualia‘, in Consciousness in Contemporary Science, edited by A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach, Oxford University Press, (1988)].

If such thoughts are correct, then there was no ‘taste of honey’–always indexed by ‘to me’–there were only various experiences: ‘tasting-honey-during-my-childhood-years;’ ‘tasting-honey-after-I-migrated;’ ‘tasting-honey-as-a-forty-something’–the ‘taste of honey’–the way honey seems to me–is not something that can be drawn apart from these. There’s no articulable qualitative experience, independent of the surrounding ‘context.’

We’ve known this for other supposed qualia too, of course. That shortness of breath, that pounding in your chest, that fire in your legs, those reminders of your determination and outward bound spirit that herald the glory to come as you ascend a steep switchback with a cool wind raking your brow and the aroma of pine trees wafts by, if transplanted to a hospital ward with the sick visible, the smell of disinfectant in your nostrils, becomes ‘unbearable agony.’ There is no separable ‘pain’ here; just a different assemblage of my ‘world-sensation’, experienced differently thanks to its arrangement and presentation and internal relationships. We don’t experience the world as a bunch of separate parcels of sensation and phenomenal experience; the world comes to us a package with each component receiving its ‘meaning’ by its placement within the ‘field,’ by its relationships within it. What we notice, taste, see, smell, hear is a function of the arrangement of this field, and of course, our histories and anticipations (our ‘interests‘) which have performed this arrangement.