November 14, 2010

Encouraging Querulousness in Lieu of Genius

Justin Katz

The always interesting Stanley Aronson unfortunately perpetuated a culturally destructive myth in a recent essay addressing whether security is really all that desirable a feeling:

The unreasonable ones, those noisy, disruptive and often disagreeable ones among us, invest their energies in altering their environment rather than themselves, fighting against contemporary realities rather than floating with the current. Painfully achieved progress — real progress rather than cosmetic change — in this fractious world depends almost exclusively on the struggles of these unreasonable ones who forgo illusions of security.

Actually, I've found that unreasonable, noisy, disruptive, and disagreeable people invest their energies in nothing so much as being unreasonable, noisy, disruptive, and disagreeable. They often appear to believe that their behavior is, itself, evidence that they march to a different beat and therefore must have some insight that those of us who walk more lightly must lack. It's bunk, and it's surely a cliché that has contributed to the coarsening of our culture over the past century, mostly because it creates a preference against the contrary attitude:

The man beguiled by reason, by the compelling need to reject all that appears initially illogical, is lost. For he will think only in the worn paths established by his predecessors and he will find accordance solely with the constructs and philosophies of those who came before. And if security and consistency are the pillars of his creed, then little of merit will be found in his most earnest efforts.

The falsehood behind this portrait of the useless conservative is that real advancement and innovation come from radical change rather than as revelations along that worn path. Intellectual discoveries (as opposed to physical discoveries) tend to adhere to a relentless logic that seeks to incorporate that which previously did not fit. Even in art — until modernists transformed high culture into the smashing block of a remedial extracurricular — each innovation was a logical opportunity visible within what came before. Beethoven's Ninth wasn't a radical departure from orchestral music in the sense that it came from out of nowhere, but in the sense that he used a preexisting structure to achieve something that hadn't yet been heard. He made blossom possibilities within the symphonic form.

Frankly, I see Aronson's attitude as possible only within a culture that has determined on its own extinction:

[The dreamers who thrive on personal insecurity, whom our world desperately needs,] are the Quixotes who are the querulous, ill-tempered, perverse, disputatious ones in society. Yet they also are the only ones who advance our culture beyond the limited measures envisioned by the rest of us — those of us who can see little beyond our insubstantial veil of "security."

To the contrary, a thriving society needs people who adhere to a higher logic. People who find their security in accordance with larger criteria than the visible world admits — eternal salvation, most profoundly. In such cases, there is no need for perversity or ill-temper. Sometimes such people appear disputatious to others who have invested their identities in the lower principles being overrun, and sometimes (although I'd venture to say rarely) they may actually be disagreeable, but it certainly cannot be assumed that the trait is causative, not incidental.

Perhaps the dissonance of personal ugliness with genius makes those rare brilliant beasts in whom we find the combination stand out. Perhaps the rest of us comfort ourselves that we willingly sacrifice a place in history because we choose to live our lives as good people. Whatever the case, I'd expect true genius to accompany patient hope that deeper understanding is available to all, given time, and philanthropic excitement at the prospect.