I spent some of the previous afternoon at the Barnes & Nobel Bookstore in Downtown Chicago. I leafed through some books. I began with Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works”. Lehrer’s op-eds in The New York Times and Wired Magazine have been rewarding. His book however is not. It appeared to me as the most popular kind of popular science. The language is not engaging and he indulges in the American habit of using examples culled from the corporate world and product development to illustrate creativity. While this may be a legitimate approach for others, I remain allergic. I should add I only read 10 pages.
I then moved on to Thomas Sowell’s “Intellectuals and Society”. I liked this book. Sowell makes useful distinctions between the following:
Intellect is the least impressive quality of the three in Sowell’s schema. It consists of the ability to originate and manipulate ideas, comprehend and articulate complex arguments and so forth. Intellect on its own does not endow its possessor with the knowledge of what is right. One requires intelligence for that, says Sowell. For example, Marx’s Das Kapital “was a classic example of an intellectually masterful elaboration of a fundamental misconception…” In other words, Marx possessed intellect but certainly little intelligence and no wisdom.
Wisdom of course is that rather ethereal quality that surpasses even intelligence and attempts to arrive at the knowledge of what is truly good and truly right – a quality that has been christened ethical intelligence by a modern Chinese thinker.
While I find Sowell’s understanding of wisdom unproblematic, his characterization of intellect and intelligence did challenge my own conception. I have understood “intelligence” as the quality of being able to digest and comprehend large amounts of information, grasp and proffer sophisticated, well-constructed arguments and evince an aptitude for the mathematical and natural scientific modes of enquiry. I considered “intellect” to be a higher quality, one that supplemented raw intelligence with ethical judgment. Thus, Sowell and I have the same content in mind but have used differing referents.
Another interesting aspect of Sowell’s argument is the establishment of “Intellectual” as an occupational category rather than a conferrer of normative value. Hence, intellectuals are those whose primary occupational concern is with ideas. Academics, journalists, think tank scholars, writers and so on. To call somebody any “intellectual” is not to make any statement about his intelligence but merely state his occupation. Of course, this is not how conventional conversation is conducted. Nevertheless, I did think this an interesting and valuable contribution.
The book into which I dug most substantially was Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” which is a portrait of life in a Mumbai slum. I read forty pages of it. This book has garnered a lot of press and as with any new India book, fiction or non-fiction, it naturally attracted my attention. Just the day before I had read a very caustic – and might I add, pleasing – review of the book by Paul Beckett, the man in-charge of The Wall Street Journal in India.
If I remember correctly, Beckett’s main grouse was that whilst Boo succeeded in narrating the horrible lives of the slum-dwellers she failed to provide any coherent insight into why things were the way they were in the slum. She had a ready-made cast of villains according to Beckett – the police, global capital and Sister Paulette of the local orphanage – that provided some explanation for the wretched lives of the slum-dwellers.
I think there exists a distinction between reportage/talented story-telling and philosophical insight. Boo succeeds at the former but fails at the latter. What should be pointed out is that I don’t think Boo was aiming for the latter. She is after all, a reporter. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, but a reporter nonetheless. It is not in the reporter’s job description to provide meaningful philosophical insights into the workings of the world. He can only tell you what happened and if he is a good reporter those happenings will possess a narrative. That is all.
It is only a recent perversion of the reporting profession that requires reporters to function as ersatz intellectuals and philosophers. Some reporters unfortunately clamour to supply this demand and end up over-reaching themselves and cheapening public discourse.
In any case, I liked what I read of Boo’s Beautiful Forevers. It was what I expected it to be: a sensitive, humanizing portrayal of India’s urban underclass. It is easy to empathize with Boo’s cast of characters – Abdul the waste-sorter and Asha the aspiring slum-boss. But do not go to this book looking for philosophical insight. Go to this book as you would to a novel, expecting a good story, a good distraction with the added benefit that this is “real” and therefore telling you something about the “real” world and not simply about the workings of the author’s imagination. This is of course a foolish way to approach literature but all of us suffer from the affliction of valuing non-fiction more than fiction in varying degrees.
Latest posts by Vijay Vikram (see all)
- Interrogating Pankaj Mishra’s Weltanschauung - December 28, 2012
- Standing Upon the Ruins of the Macaulite Project: India, The English Language and the Need for a Native Idiom of Intellectual Discourse - September 4, 2012
- The Question of God - July 10, 2012
Tags: Pure Thought