Counter Intelligence

Have you read Flowers for Algernon? I have, because I’m really clever. Actually that’s not my point, my point is that the book tries to question the idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’. The main character is intellectually below average, takes a drug that makes him clever, and then is forced to stop taking it, knowing he will turn back into his original self. It also involves a mouse who takes the drug too but luckily doesn’t suffer the same level of emotional turmoil. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor used the ‘lab mouse foreshadowing’ idea in the same way, but with a hamster. Clever.
Anyway, it might be my favourite book, because it questions the idea of intelligence, and what makes a person happy in relation to that. At least I think that’s what it’s about. It certainly could be, but what if I’ve totally misinterpreted it? What if it’s actually about how mice are harbingers of misery, or it’s about the virtues of animal testing? What if, try as I might to ingest interesting art, I just don’t get it? It’s not hard to read works of the literary canon, it’s just time-consuming. What’s hard is understanding its intention, interpreting it in a way that speaks to you. I don’t want to turn into one of those people having an unironic ‘Great Gatsby’ party, celebrating the aesthetic of that era, totally oblivious that the book is about the pointlessness of shallow artifice. I want to be one of those people who has an accurate ‘Great Gatsby’ party, where someone ends up dead in a swimming pool. I think that’s what Michael Barrymore was going for.

I do wonder if society now is as anti-intellectual as it used to seem when I was at school. Back then, to know things was considered shit, and to try was pathetic. So imagine being in an environment of learning, the awful combination of trying to know things. I really hope this has changed since, because I persevered with the whole trying to know fad when all it got me was mild bullying leading to lifelong self-doubt. But without that need for approval caused by bullying, maybe we wouldn’t have this blog, or me trying to do stand-up, or a podcast, or make everyone I meet like me, or me needing constant reinforcement from friends, or a pervading sense of dread lingering over every moment that I’m not bettering myself intellectually or creatively. So you know, is anti-intellectual bullying really so bad?
It didn’t help that people thought I was more intelligent than I was, due to the perceived correlation between intelligence and social ineptitude. So because I had so few friends, people assumed I must know pi to one hundred places, or the difference between a simile and a metaphor (actually I did, I just remember that a simile is like a metaphor, and a metaphor is). Surely I couldn’t just be bad at making friends and be only mildly intelligent? What would be the point? Cool and stupid, or alone and clever. That’s the rule.

Although I wouldn’t classify intelligence as necessarily knowing things, it’s wanting to know things. It’s a curiosity, a thirst for knowledge which obviously leads to taking on interesting information. I like to learn new words for example, and to use them wherever possible in conversation or written text, to practice using them in their proper context, to avoid sesquipedalianisms. Unfortunately, this can lead to me appearing pretentious, as in the previous sentence. I was recently on a date with someone who, after hearing me use the word ‘egregious’ took it upon herself to refer to me as ‘Mr Dictionary’, which to me just sounded like an underdeveloped Countdown mascot. “What’s Mr. Dictionary up to this week Rachel?”
“Well it looks like he’s just added a new word: Yolo!”
“Oh well, off to the furnace with him.”
I’m not condemning her for not knowing the word, but rather for making me the butt of the joke for knowing the word. I should have responded by saying, “Mr Dictionary? Well first of all, aardvark. Secondly, you do know that the dictionary wasn’t named after the person who invented it?” But I just tried to ignore it, while making a mental note to ridicule any aptitude she showed in any area for the rest of evening. Supposedly everyone has some unique skill.

Einstein famously said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” In fact, Einstein said it so famously, that people don’t seem to care that he never even said it. That’s how much of a genius Einstein was. And in fact, if you judge Einstein by his ability to come up with a pithy bon-mot, to the extent that you attribute him with quotes he never said, he will live his whole life believing that he is a wit, when in fact all he is, is a genius. And frankly that should be good enough.
Also, I like the idea that you could communicate to the fish your judgment of its tree-climbing abilities and that it would take that criticism so harshly as to change its self-image. Presumably within the quote, the royal ‘you’ is Aquaman.

So maybe my genius comes in the form of desperately trying to improve myself, instead of actually utilising any of the skills or ideas I try to acquire. I liked Flowers for Algernon. Maybe for the wrong reasons, and maybe that doesn’t matter. At least I’m trying, I’m curious. And wrong as it might seem, I’m suspicious of people that aren’t. Maybe in her own way, my date was trying to sniff out pretension, thinking that I was using the word to impress or intimidate her, which would be a worthwhile condemnation.

By the end of the date, I was desperate to deliver a witty retort to her dictionary remark. But she hadn’t brought up anything up in particular for me to gently mock, so, I decided to depart by confusingly calling her ‘Miss Ellaneous’.
Maybe this is why Mr. Dictionary’s still on the shelf.


Next time on the bandwagon, the transient new extreme sport sweeping the nation, bungee scuba.

The People vs The People

People. They’re everywhere. Up in the sky or buried underground. Walking around a garden centre or running through a water fountain. Inside diving bells or outside semi-digested food. In fact, in some large cities you’re never more than zero feet away from a person, and it turns out it’s you. Terrifying.

An old friend of mine used to express her frustration at long queues or slow-moving crowds by exclaiming ‘Ugh! People!’ with a sort of browbeaten inflection as though this was typical behaviour that she was once again the victim of. As though she was annoyed at the whole concept of peoplehood based solely on the actions of these individuals. I would politely tell her that she herself was people, to which she would wryly remind me that she was not; she was a person. I would then explain, with a hopefully well-communicated level of sarcasm that, no she wasn’t, because she was a woman. We don’t talk anymore.

If I find myself disagreeing with or being confused by a large group of people, or an individual, I try to put myself into their mindset, in the hope of realising that if I was doing what they are, I’d probably understand. For example, some people naturally walk slowly, that’s fine. Some people like to wait until they’re at the front of a queue before they decide to even consider what sort of coffee to get, that’s… I mean that’s… whatever… I guess. Some people like to practice the Ferber method a.k.a graduated extinction with their child in a public place, where they let the child ‘cry it out’, so they can learn to self-soothe. And it seems that no matter how many other customers I’ve cajoled into a sort of class-action complaint, it’s close to impossible to get them ejected from Waterstones.
It’s not always easy to sympathise. In fact, just as I sat down to write this in a public place, a stranger sat down next to me (I won’t say what her gender was, nor try to put a number on her advanced age, lest I come across as discriminatory) and proceeded to manically and feverishly devour the loudest packet of crisps I have ever encountered outside of some very niche ASMR videos. She was eating them with the hysterical aggression you usually only see in movies where a teenage runaway is given their first proper meal in months. As she snuffled down her Kettle Chips, I found it difficult to put myself in her position to understand her urgency, and only struggled to concentrate on this excellent blog, hoping that when she’d finished, she wouldn’t start on a bag of pork scratchings or a sachet of popping candy. She made a comment to no-one in particular about the changeable weather, perhaps hoping I would acknowledge it, or chip in. But I ignored her, staring at my screen with the intensity of someone taking a BuzzFeed quiz entitled ‘How Long Can You Stop Blinking For Before People Start To Worry?’ I know I should feel guilty about being rude, but actually it’s pretty typical behaviour for me. In the end I was just pleased that I was behaving consistently on brand, and considered myself to be the Daniel Day-Lewis of method acting my own personality.

It seems quite common to claim to have a general hatred for other people. In an indiscriminate way I mean, not like racism. Although, racism’s doing well too. A lot of social media posts and memes seem to be concerned with the idea of not enjoying crowds, or socialising, in a way that might even diminish genuine feelings of agoraphobia or social anxiety, like I just did in the above paragraph. If I was to over-analyse, I might bullshit that it was as a result of social media and digital interaction creating a real-world interpersonal dissonance, or as a response to the distasteful populist movements going on such as Brexit, and Trump, as a way to distant oneself from the idea of a mob mentality. But I think it’s basically been going on longer than that. It’s just another way to feel distinct. Like choosing to sit alone in a coffee shop writing a blog, imagining that one day in the future when you’re a famous comedian, people will revisit the blog and go: “See, he was always going to be successful. Just look at the quality of his writing. He even used the word ‘dissonance’.”
I certainly understand an attitude of wariness to populist thought. We all remember that zeitgeist-penetrating scene in Men in Black where Will Smith asks Tommy Lee Jones why they have to keep aliens a secret, since people are smart and deserve the truth. Jones responds by saying that, “A person is smart. People are dumb.” And he’s right. Just look at what happens when big groups of people get together and lose their sense of self, or right and wrong. You have protests turning into aimless country-wide riots back in 2011. You have a nation voting for someone who openly took the piss out of a disabled guy to a crowd of laughing supporters. And you have Ed Sheeran concerts.

Distancing yourself from adhering to popular ideas which have traction just because of their prevalence and popularity can be healthy. But similarly, every individual is ‘people’. No single person likes being in the queue that they created, but everyone blames everyone else for it. Remember, if you’re not part of the solution, then that’s probably okay, no-one’s perfect. You’ve got your own thing going on and I respect that. Give my love to Ashley and the kids.

The loud crisp-eating woman has gone now. Maybe I was too judgmental about her abhorrent behaviour. If you see her, tell her I’m sorry, and that she’s right, the weather is crazy.

Next time on the bandwagon – I amalgamate two of Stephen King’s best works: On Writing and Carrie, to create a new bawdy comedy-horror, Carrie On Writing. Expect telekinesis, puberty anxiety, and lots of veiled knob gags.