Zadie Smith’s novel, “On Beauty”, which took its title from an essay by Elaine Scarry — “On Beauty and Being Just” was first published in 2005. The story is about two families, each with its own invariant habits and prejudices of mind, poisoned by their rivalry over every piece of sentimental, intellectual, aesthetic and political turf. Says one family matriarch to the other: “I am so sad that everything got polluted by [the animosity between the two families]; I love a line from a poem, ‘There is such shelter in each other’.” (The poet who wrote the line is Zadie Smith’s husband, Nick Laird.)
Words of argument and antagonism can come cheap, and if we’re serious about meaning what we say and saying what we mean, we may be described as someone who quibbles over semantics. But the design of the communicative architecture of our dialogue with others both creates and suppresses what can be thought and said.
Indeed, even the way we think about who we are as individuals is largely a function of the structural design of the way we think.
Let’s begin with a look at the instincts that drive us to be the way that we are.
- Some are hard-wired biological imperatives. We know what provokes us to eat and sleep or run like crazy away from a lion.
- Some of our instincts are triggered by our sentiments, some by the words, actions and mindset of the people we learn from.
- Some were coaxed and coerced into what have become our intuitive beliefs, attitudes and expectations.
What I mean by intuitive is that these beliefs, attitudes and expectations are based on what we feel to be true and on our ready-to-hand thinking. This means we may become single-mindedly absorbed by the intensity of these feelings and our stories about them before we’ve really learned to think through and articulate the beliefs and certainties that underpin our lives.
As a result of this self-absorption, it’s not so surprising that many of us appear to have little interest in expanding our initial horizons and conclusions so that we can truly be the designers of our own lives. We think (we feel it in our proverbial guts) that we already have the big picture and the skill-set needed to create and live a life of our own design.
However, this solipsistic pathway to independence and to the promise of thinking for ourselves — a pathway seemingly instinctual and supposedly truth-based — is counterproductive. The energy of the force of our nature, the powerful resource that we expect to draw on, is sapped by a limited exposure to the intellectual light of extensive thinking and emotional nourishment. Further, without the shelter, companionship and back-and-forth interrogatory dialogue with other members of the human race, our thinking is likely to become not free and knowledgeable, but narrow, inhibited and angry.
Who human beings are, besides their genes, is a human invention born of such dialogue. Our ancestors were literally beasts driven to survive by any means possible, including actions we think of today as ruthless, cruel and inhuman. It was by way of the aims and ideals we acquired over eons of evolution and social interaction that the civilized standards of conduct we esteem today were established. We’re still animals, of course, but unless we are willfully ignorant, we must also marvel at the remarkable range of ideas, sentiments and sympathies that human beings — harder to herd than cats — can create when we think for ourselves.
Referring to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty again, I believe that what we need today is a particular sentimental education that would expand our ability to rethink and oversee our intensely felt instincts in a new light. Without such a sentimental education, we are very likely to remain single-mindedly and exclusively attached to the unexamined forces that have already determined our fate.
This is an updated version of my original piece posted on my blog.
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