In both lectures, groans of rueful liberal laughter greeted cleverly constructed barbs aimed at the beliefs of those less clever, questioning and therefore enlightened than those in the room, ranging from our boy George to anyone who has read a newspaper article that included the words terrorism, religious war or September 11. The scary thing about people with open minds (I try to belong to this group) is that we are just as absolutist, divisive and irrational as the neo-cons, the evangelicals, the jihadists and the Joe Average that we deride in our little nests of learning.
We construct intricate arguments for all sides of the story, go to extraordinary lengths to qualify our remarks and use smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that one must always stand on one set of beliefs to even be able to critique another. No matter how clever your speech, no matter how cutting your remarks, you have to hold convictions to argue, you mine the western culture of understanding, speaking and listening in the very language you use to communicate your message, the forum in which you preach your message and the audience who hear your message.
Somewhere around here is a link to a David Foster Wallace speech and his first anecdote is that of the young fish who do not know what water is. As I walk out of these intellectual love-ins, I am those young fish, all those stunningly original words are remembered now in reference to prior thoughts and I am awash in an ocean of assumptions, myths and outright propaganda. There is nowhere for me to go but madness.
There is only one way that I can see for me to scramble back over the cliff and lie, panting and safe on the dry land of sanity and hope, and that is to cease this self-congratulatory criticism, this endless preening in the intellectual mirror, to control my tendancies to let my intellect free to ravage those that are not me and my immediate audience.
There is a frightening stream of recycling that pervades western culture at the moment. We recycle fashion, music, ideology, politics and images. Our intellectuals critique and deconstruct, our engineers preserve, our politicians parrot and our children are fed regurgitated history and culture in bite-sized portions that are tenuously linked to each other by adults who fancy themselve clever for their 're-interpretation' when their wit is lost on a generation who do not understand the references because they have not the classic education to know what they are looking at.
We are the eternal problem of the snake eating it's tail, forever reflexive and contemporary and losing our chance to strain towards innovation and progress. I know I am fond of wailing that knowing thyself and thy history is important, but history is not there to be repackaged to make yourself look clever at a dinner party! History is there to act as a cautionary tale - forward, forever forward is it's mantra - I do not exist when I am looking back at myself obsessively, only myself when I am hurtling forward in hope.
B'ah. I claim firstly to be a historian, secondly a writer and thirdly a woman in search of a life of learning. But I am too often seduced by the tripping silver of my tongue, the breadth of my recall of my wide reading, the nimbleness of my brain when in search of universal truths. Firstly I am a show-off, secondly I am a smart-ass and thirdly I am a shell of knowledge.
Originally posted on Exiled Britophile, a blog I updated for about twelve months when I returned home from London. Due to it's frank discussion of how horrid I found Perth, these pieces had only been read by my London readers until 2011.