BRAINY PEOPLE VERSUS THICK PEOPLE
The woman Sarah I wrote of yesterday, apart from being addicted to meditation and to her failed marriage, had another notable quirk. I was teaching her fiction writing in 2003, and one day the pair of us happened to share a lift into Cambridge to do some last minute shopping for our teenage kids back home. We were sat in a cafe, at a table adjacent to three or four loudly chattering Cambridge women, very obviously not highbrow dons in their functional Primark slacks and leggings, and with their lushly applied make-up and cheap handbags. Suddenly Sarah remarked that she couldn’t stand ordinary, boring people, and she didn’t know how anyone else could. Her voice was low thankfully, and they were all talking at full volume, plus there was something about her artless honesty which didn’t offend me as much as it might have. But very obviously, someone who had spent 30 years doing oriental meditation courses on several continents, and hadn’t sorted out her principal and overwhelming personal problem, namely her hopeless marriage, might have been describable as a bit on the predictable side, if not downright dull in her repetitive biases and inclinations.
As I pointed out yesterday, Sarah fetishised the male intellect, and had had a 20 year chaste affair with a married man, largely because he had such a colossal brain. This admiration of the mind and all that it stands for, is, as you probably know, as common as muck, and given that I myself went to Oxford University, read Sanskrit and Old Iranian, and have published 10 works of literary fiction, it might be thought that I revere and respect the intellect too. To be honest, I often play devil’s advocate and tell these partisan enthusiasts for all things intellectual, that brains are 10 a penny, and that I have spent some of the best nights of my life with people who never open a book, have never willingly listened to Bach or Beethoven, and would sooner watch the sink emptying than go to a lecture on philosophy, much less a bloody poetry yuk reading. The corollary of that, and I am being merely candid rather than provocative at this point, is that there are a great many very clever people who are also, I would argue, outstandingly thick as well as super-eminently dull. Indeed if you have anything like a full, panoptic and stereoscopic take on life, there is no paradox at all in talking about thick or even quite brainless ‘geniuses’. I have met Oxbridge dons with intellects (to quote one of them himself, apropos a dazzling woman scholar working in the same field) half way between Einstein and God, but who are astonishingly naive and wooden when it comes to both banal daily matters, and the most urgent practicalities, such as workable international politics, in these truly apocalyptic days of ours.
One Oxon gent in particular took my breath away, when in 1980 I introduced my wife Annie, and she explained that she worked in an innovative hostel for young people with learning difficulties, which was intended to help them to live independently. In those Neanderthal days of 35 years ago, such people tended to be referred to as ‘mentally handicapped’, but this Brasenose professor with his gigantic brain aged 44, obviously needed more ruthless clarification and terminological definition. With amazing bluntness he shot at Annie:
“You mean that your are working with people who are simply very stupid?”
His voice was anything but compassionate, and indeed sounded contemptuously critical of folk who had not got round to refining their brains quite as spectacularly as he had. One irony was that he himself was Jewish, of Central European extraction, aged 9 when WW2 finished, and in other circumstances he might well have been murdered in the Nazi camps. His tone of disapprobation communicated to me in a split second, that part of him would have preferred that such people as my wife worked with, simply did not exist, as for him to think about them and their dilemmas, he found an irritating and perplexing chore. I don’t mean anything as crass as he was pro-eugenics or Brave New World inclined, but most certainly he felt a vast impatience when required to contemplate a 25 year-old professional like Annie, taking on a selfless task that would have driven him to distraction. For clearly, in some respects, he automatically projected himself into her situation, and violently recoiled.
He snorted, “And what do you do in your job? Play with these unfortunate people all day?”
What do you say to someone who is as thick as pre-stressed concrete, an Oxon professor notwithstanding? In this uncomfortable connection, it is worth reflecting on the fact that a phenomenal intellect like the socialist HG Wells (1866-1946) was very much alarmingly pro-eugenics, and that Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) pre-WW2 was repellently anti-semitic in his early collections of short stories. Search out those books like Limbo (1920) Two or Three Graces (1926) and Brief Candles (1930), and you will find raw and slighting references to Jews and Jewishness, stated as casually as if the milieu Huxley moved in absolutely took these things for granted. He was 33 and 37 when he published the last two, so we can hardly write them off as jejune and forgivable juvenilia. I have no idea whether he ever repented those books, but he obviously never forbade their republication as they stayed in print after WW2. Also, reflect on the choicest irony, that he penned one of the most famous books on eclectic spiritual appreciation ever written, The Perennial Philosophy (published in 1945, therefore composed while the war was still in progress) where he quoted Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, Sufi saints, Confucian thinkers, alongside the writings of Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart and St Teresa. His conclusion was that the great spiritual traditions all had a common ground, a transcendent substratum, which he termed the ‘perennial philosophy’ and which conclusively proved the authenticity of such immanent, all-pervading and catholic spirituality. Fast forward about a decade, and in 1954 aged 60, he published The Doors of Perception and in 1956 Heaven and Hell, books which almost everyone you have ever known, intellectual or not, has read and pondered over, and sometimes used as a pharmacological self-help manual. Here he radically proposed that in suitably comfortable circumstances, the spiritually inquisitive might swallow some LSD, and thereby at the drop of a hat, experience the identical numinous bliss of the blessed saints and sages of all the Great World Religions. Anyone but a blinkered intellectual, could have predicted the regular psychotic breakdowns/cataclysmic bad trips that would ensue over the next few decades, but Huxley’s prescription for those bumming out catastrophically on acid, was for someone nearby to read to them a soothing verse of scripture, most likely from his convenient compendium, The Perennial Philosophy.
So observe the diffuse triangular eccentricity of this mega-intellectual, who came from an entire dynasty of geniuses (he was the grandson of TH Huxley, the controversial zoologist, as well as the great-nephew of Matthew Arnold, no less). On the one hand, a fearless youthful anti-semitism, which presumably no intellectual these days, aside from a few far right nutcases would endorse. 15 years later a sunny conflatory appreciation of the various Great Spiritual Gnoses, all according to him originating from a common ground, and all leading to the same transcendent bliss of Godhead, Moksha, Nirvana and so on, as exemplified by the meditations and renunciations of the great saints and sages of all faiths. Finally, a decade later, he has worked out that a simple tab of acid can assist you to the prize of all prizes, meaning you can shortcut all the years of meditation and renunciation, and get there over a long weekend if you have the bottle to do so. No wonder all the 60s and 70s hippies adored him, and subsequent generations have never stopped doing so.
Two things to reflect on. Aldous Huxley with a brain as big as the universe, said what he said, and wrote what he wrote, and there are those who survive him, who remain his fervent apostles, and like Huxley himself, see no commonsensical contradictions. In this connection, in September 1971 I was walking with a friend through Hyde Park, London, where we dawdled to watch a free concert which included a live performance by the Rolling Stones. A few long-haired hippies in their early 20s had put up a small white tent, and outside it they had a large flag attached to a wooden pole which they were waving victoriously. The flag was plain white, and had a message written on it in big black letters. The message was obviously connected to their experiments, for who knows how long, with the psychotropic drugs, which included LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. This was what their victorious 1971 pennant said:
We shit purple lightning!
I wonder if Huxley, who had been dead 8 years, could have observed that singular gnomic message from The Great Beyond. Would he have at once understood it as paradoxically exemplifying his perennial philosophy? I somehow seriously doubt that he would have turned in his grave if he had.