Monday, July 18, 2005

SARTRE, SANDLER, AND WHY KNOWING A LOT OF STUFF DOESN'T NECESSARILY MEAN SHIT

MAN: Boy, it looks like you guys make your own fun around here, eh?

ANOTHER MAN: Everybody makes their own fun. Otherwise it's called 'entertainment'.

(A more-or-less accurate quote from David Mamet's State and Main, which I've never seen, but I heard about the quote, and I like it...)

I remember a review Roger Ebert wrote a few years back, about a movie I'd never seen, whose title I can no longer recall. It starred Mike Nichols and Wallace Shawn; I do remember that. (I could google it, I'm sure, but my refusal to do so is my way of maintaining a little mystery in life, however small and transient it may prove to be.) The reason I can recollect it at all is because the central idea of the flick sounded intriguing: Can we be too educated?

Meaning, is it better to live a life full of references to Satre and Schopenhauer, existentialism and Jung, the Middle Ages and the modernism? (The sad thing is, in university I took a course titled 'Modernism and Anti-Modernism', and I can barely remember which is which; I DO remember my instructor patiently explaining to us all that 'anti-modernism' actually came BEfore modernism'. I remember nodding solemnly. I remember thinking: Thank God ross-country practice starts in one hour...)

In other words: Is it better to be a fisherman living in a small village in the north of Cambodia, raising a family, living life, marking the seasons and moving on? Or is one's life fuller, richer, more sentient by simply knowing more stuff.

I don't know.

It's personal, I suppose. I like knowing stuff. I like learning stuff. But I'm not sure that it really makes one intelligent, simply knowing stuff. Most young Cambodians know very, very little about the outside world, about the stars and the sun, about astronomy or cartography, geography or history; and yet I would say, in all sincerity, that I consider most Cambodians of university age to be fundamentally more intelligent than most Canadians of the same age. Their education has been abysmal. Their political system is a joke. Their prospects are few and far between. And yet, their English is often sensational, their observations apt, their questions incisive. Donald Rumsfeld once famously said something like: "There's what we know. There's what we know we don't know. And there's what we don't know what we don't know." A lot of Cambodians, most of Cambodians, don't know what they don't know, but they seem happy, or at least content. They live. They don't need Freud.

The thing is, learning can be contagious. It can be seductive. And yet, it can also be an intellectual dead-end, I think, when the whole goal of life becomes simply ingest, ingest, ingest. It's why, so far removed here from western culture, I look at it with more than a little degree of alarm: all anyone seems to do is complain about nothing is good any more, nothing is intelligent enough, nothing is entertaining enough, nothing is (insert complaint here) enough. It's always everybody else's fault, not on our own. Our own engagement in life too often seems to be predicated on what somebody else can do for us, rather than we can generate for ourselves. And that makes me sad.

I love the scene in Adam Sandler's Mr.Deeds where Sandler, playing a small-town hick who has inherited a bunch of cash, tells off a snobby rich dude in a fancy restaurant. He says something like: "You know, if I spent an hour with your friends, at the end of the hour they'd think I'm a pretty good guy, but if you spent an hour with my friends, at the end of the hour they'd be beating the shit out of you." Or something like that. Meaning, the snobbery would be too much to handle. And what is snobbery but: I know more than you, therefore I'm better than you.

I don't know. I'm not saying I want to take a bus up to Rattanakiri province in northern Cambodia and exist as a fisherman for the rest of my days. But there's something to be said for living life on its own terms, at its own pace, free from the pretense that seems to govern so much of our short little lives.

2 comments:

Uncle lynn said...

I don't know if, like yourself, I could hang out for the rest of my days in that Cambodian fishing village but for the next week or so I'll be getting away from the " pretense " and enjoying a life removed from modernism / at least there is no internet at the cottage.

It's still my belief that people inspire people - knowledge and ideas don't emenate from rock.

Always take the road less travelled - trite but good for the soul

Scott said...

I agree with you one hundred percent, Uncle Lynn!

Enjoy the cottage. (And say hi to everyone for me!)