Sunday, March 11, 2012

Not Kingly, Not Manly


“So what is it you do?” I asked one of the men sitting across from me at a dinner party. But it was clearly the wrong question.

“I’m an intellectual,” he said, exhaling dramatically to indicate that I was a complete idiot for not knowing who he was.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I was tempted to say. “I thought you were just an asshole.” But the specter of Mother Vikerkaar appeared in the room and I thought better of it. “So that’s a job title now?” I asked instead.

Then the man two seats over took up the topic and said he was making films about intellectuals but how Estonian TV networks weren’t interested in airing them. “They only want to hear about Eurovision,” he said.

There had clearly been a mistake in the seating chart. What was I doing with these people?

Then the discussion turned to a debate over which was the most elite secondary school (English College, the 21st, or Realkool? – with no mention of the Woburn Collegiate Institute in Scarborough). Then the dikes finally broke and we were all drowned in a Hit Parade of Western Philosophy. Abélard, Acquinas, Adomo, Aristotle, Augustine. It was if someone were reading off crib notes in alphabetical order.

Well before they arrived at Wittgenstein I felt like standing to quote a character from White Noise about the communal ego: “You say I’m a genius; I say you’re a genius; and we’re all geniuses together.”

But I didn’t have the courage to cause a stink, and so rather I silently recalled the words of Bluto, one of the intellectuals from the movie Animal House: “Grab a brew. Don’t cost nothin’.” Which means I got drunk instead.


Last week, I worked at my friends’ secondhand English-language bookstore in the Old Town, substituting for them while they were away making porno films or assassinating evil African dictators, or whatever it is that booksellers do on their days off.

I was humbled by the fact that every customer who entered the store seemed better read than I, and I lost count of the number of obscure literary references I was supposed to pick up on, because working in a bookshop they assumed I had read everything on the shelves. (I found myself wondering if forest rangers are often asked about specific trees among hectares of forests.)

Also, many people felt compelled to tell me about the size of their personal libraries (thousands of volumes), and they were shocked to learn how light I travel: my library is limited to a hundred books or so.

I could not even escape intellectualism on the bookstore’s radio: “…not singing about frivolous things…” said a talk show host about Leonard Cohen, who then noted that Cohen was writing on the “human condition, duality of our flesh, higher self…” Puleez. Give me my vomit bag.

But one of the things you do in a bookstore is read, and while leafing pages I stumbled upon an observation made by Iivi Anna Masso to Toomas Hendrik Ilves in the book Omal Häälel: “Paradoxically, this is a problem of our northernness – to be ill at ease with elitism is a northern phenomenon, and in the 'old' Nordic countries it's feared even more than in Estonia.” If this were true, I thought, then someone had failed to inform those at the dinner party.

Thinking a bit, I wondered if perhaps the Estonians, though not known for speaking in coded language, have simply employed a euphemism: visionary. I have noticed it is currently fashionable in the country to refer to oneself as a visionary. Is it perhaps the Bud Light-version of Intellectual?

But I have always considered a visionary to be an action figure from Hasbro, or a millionaire with a self-image problem. Even Steve Jobs refused to describe himself as a visionary. (“Technology leader” was his preferred term.)

I somehow believe the real visionaries among us aren’t the guys who call themselves visionaries. (And shouldn’t a true visionary have the courage to call himself an oracle?) And I am sure true visionaries are not the guys who continually post inspirational quotes from self-help books on Facebook. Real visionaries are more the troublemakers and the shit-stirrers, the activists, misfits, the dreamers and the downright crazies.

The moment I hear the word “visionary” I unsheathe and ready my dagger. I want to sit across the dinner table from a visionary just about as much as I want to receive a Jackie Lawson e-greeting card or walk barefoot over broken glass.


I’ve often wondered why it’s not okay to be smart in Europe without branding yourself as such. Perhaps it’s the North American in me, instructed from birth to pretend that class differences don’t really exist, even when they’re staring me right in the face.

I’ve long been a fan of intellectuals who shun the title. Like Joan Didion. She’s said the term “doesn’t make her reach for her gun,” but that she isn’t one because she doesn’t think in abstracts.

But mostly, to me, a peasant boy from Scarberia, Didion seems like somebody I’d like to drink a beer with. From her essay “Insider Baseball“: “[I]t had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations, […] had not gone to Yale or Swarthmore or DePauw, nor had they even applied. They had gotten drafted, gone through basic at Fort Ord. They had knocked up girls, and married them, had begun what they called the first night of the rest of their lives…”

My favorite Canadian intellectual — who will reach for his gun if you employ the term — is a timber framer with little formal education. Michael is a boat builder and collector of antique tools, all of which he employs in his craft. He can speak for hours on the virtues of Damascus steel, the art of typesetting, or Plato’s conviction that books were a poor substitute for dialogue – and convince the listener that each topic is of burning relevance to his own life.

I also find refreshing a diplomat I know in Tallinn with the courage or courtesy (I’m not sure which) to answer in the affirmative with a one-word response: “Rad.” (Probably only in unofficial communication, as the term has not surfaced in the Wikileaks memos.)

Were I to ever achieve status as a writer to the extent that readers make pilgrimages to my home, I would hope to be a recluse in the manner of Cormac McCarthy, who was once reportedly so aloof that he stowed his mail in the trunk of his car – unopened royalty checks, included, until his agent arrived to cash them for him. Or Pete Dexter or William Gay, modern day Hemingways who can make a fist fight real on the page because they’ve started a few themselves.

And so I should have punched out those fool dandies across the table from me, I know. I should have stood, thrown down my napkin, and declared that they had offended the sensibilities of a Thoreauian.

“To be a philosopher,” I might have crowed, “is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a nobler race of men.”

But, alas, I did not. And perhaps in Estonia, as in America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler (as Gore Vidal told us). And if you think you’re a great thinker then you must say that you are. Perhaps there is nothing American about it? Perhaps it is simply human? If so, I am saddened.