Substitute to thought; a culture of quotes; trees or the forest…



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Here’s an extract from an article written by Teju Cole;

“In 1913, a compilation of Gustave Flaubert’s satirical definitions was posthumously published as “Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues” (“The Dictionary of Received Ideas”). Flaubert hated cliché, a hatred that expressed itself not only in the pristine prose of “Madame Bovary” but also in his letters and notes on the thoughtless platitudes of the day. “The Dictionary of Received Ideas” is a complaint against automatic thinking. What galls Flaubert most is the inevitability, given an action, of a certain standard reaction. We could learn from his impatience: there are too many standard formulations in our language. They stand in place of thought, but we proclaim them each time—due to laziness, prejudice, or hypocrisy—as though they were fresh insight.

Flaubert’s “Dictionary” inspired me to try something similar, over the course of a few hours, on Twitter. I think, also, there was the influence of Ambrose Bierce and his cynical “Devil’s Dictionary,” Samuel Johnson’s mostly serious but occasionally coruscating “Dictionary of the English Language,” and Gelett Burgess’s now-forgotten send-up of platitudes, “Are You a Bromide?” What the entries in these books have in common, in addition to compression and wit, is an intolerance of stupidity. As I wrote my modern cognates, I was struck at how close some of them came to the uninterrogated platitudes in my own head. Stupidity stalks us all.

AFRICA. A country. Poor but happy. Rising.

AUSTRALIANS. Extremely fit. Immune to pain. If you meet one, say “Foster’s.” The whole country is nothing but beaches.

BLUE. The color of purity. Countless mysterious ads are devoted to pads and liners that absorb blue liquid.

BUDDHISM. The way of peace.

CARAMEL. Term used to describe black women’s skin. No other meaning known.

CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say “our children.” The childless have no interest in improving society.

CHOCOLATE. Term used to describe black women’s skin. No other meaning known.

CHRISTIANITY. Peace on earth.

COFFEE. Declare that it is intolerable at Starbucks. Buy it at Starbucks.

COMMUNITY. Preceded by “black.” White people, lacking community, must make do with property.

CRIME. Illegal activities involving smaller amounts of money.

DIVERSITY. Obviously desirable, within limits. Mention your service in the Peace Corps.

EGGS. Always say “you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs” whenever the subject of war comes up.

EVOLUTION. Only a theory.

FEMINISTS. Wonderful, in theory.

GERMANS. When watching football, “never rule out the Germans.”

HARVARD. Source of studies quoted on BBC. Never say “I went to Harvard.” Say “I schooled in the Boston area.”

HAUTE COUTURE. Always declare that it is made by gay men for boyish girls. Wait hours to see fashion exhibits at the Met.

HILARIOUS. Never simply say “funny.”

HIP HOP. Old-school hip hop, i.e., whatever was popular when you were nineteen, is great. Everything since then is intolerable.

HIPSTER. One who has an irrational hatred of hipsters.

ILIAD. Declare a preference for the Odyssey.

INDIA. Work your tolerance of or aversion to spicy food into the conversation as quickly as possible. “A land of contrasts.”

INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees.

JAZZ. America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.

LITERALLY. Swear you’d rather die than use “literally” as an intensifier.

MEN. Always say “all the good ones are gay or taken” within earshot of the straight single ones.

MIGRANT. Mexican immigrant..

NEWSPAPERS. Bemoan their gradual disappearance. Don’t actually buy any.

NIETZSCHE. Say “Nietzsche says God is dead,” but if someone says that first, say “God says Nietzsche is dead.”

ODYSSEY. Declare a preference for the Iliad.

POET. Always preceded by “published.” Function unknown.

PUNS. Always say “no pun intended” to draw attention to the intended pun.

RACISM. Obsolete term. Meaning unknown.

REGGAE. Sadly, just one album exists in the genre.

RUSHDIE. Have a strong opinion on “The Satanic Verses.” Under no circumstances actually read “The Satanic Verses.”.

SMART. Any essay that confirms your prejudices.

SUNSET. Beautiful. Like a painting. Post on Instagram and hashtag “no filter.”

TELEVISION. Much improved. Better than novels. If someone says “The Wire,” say “The Sopranos,” or vice versa.

TOUR DE FORCE. A film longer than two and a half hours and not in English.

VALUES. “We must do whatever it takes to preserve our values.” Said as a prelude to destroying them.

VIRGINITY. An obsession in Iran and in the olive-oil industry. It can be lost, like a wallet. ”

I’m a fan of this article. It has obvious comedic value but also addresses the increasingly prominent issues around rhetoric. A ‘dictionary of received ideas’ is a brilliant way to portray how independent thought and informed speculation is encumbered by standard-form reactions, often saliently. The unchallenged use of platitudes and the resulting  impact on our mental faculties is addressed further by Teju Cole, more specifically in the form of a common viral obsession; inspirational quotes:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that analysis, no matter how torturous, will be reduced to its most “inspirational” quote. Thinking about unquotability, irreducibility, downworthiness and about how the consolation of the quotation can short-circuit justice. But none of us can resist the lure of these stupid aphorisms. Writing them, sharing them. Sugary calories in 140-character servings. America itself becomes a quote-only zone. The politician’s “misspeak.” The president’s fine sentence in a speech. While the drones drone on. The mistake is to separate inspirational quotes mania from the ideological conditions that confine people in sentimentality culture. Sentimentality culture is inspirational quotes, solutionism, white saviorism, un-intersectional feminism and, yes, the Global War on Terror.”

He goes on to qualify his critique quite brilliantly:

“But (I warn myself): so much social critique comes down to “my consolations are superior to yours.” Why begrudge people their pleasures? ”

Can’t argue with that. There are more worrying vices than the occasional dip in the paddle-pool of bite-sized-borrowed-wisdom. Nonetheless, here’s another excerpt from a book I am currently reading by Guy Lyon Playfair which compliments the argument put forth by Cole;

“Most serious of all is our built-in bias away from the general and towards the specific. By focusing the tree at the expense of the forest it promotes superficiality at the expense of depth.”

These three extracts rest on the same pivot. Standard form reactions based on built-in semantical triggers cause a lack of cognitive independence and unintended conformism to quarter-arsed attempts at comprehension. This often fuels our propensity to find solace in ‘inspiri-quotes’ that warrant pseudo-analysis and little commitment (guilty as charged- this blog actually has a quotes section, dammit!), which congregates into a superfluous understanding of subjects such as religion, love and success, amongst others. It causes us to to overlook the basics in almost every aspect of life.

This was just a reminder for all of us. I won’t get into further specifics; you may draw your own conclusions. I feel there is a sense of truth in these extracts for all of us. In our obsession with the heavens, let’s not overlook the earth as our means of attainment (quote?).