Friday, November 19, 2010

The Idol of Being Interesting: A Meditation

Via Andrew Sullivan, I came to read this short piece by blogger Robin Hanson about the virtues of being "interesting." Horrified by a radio interview on which a father refused to buy his child Legos for fear he might become like the "obsessive male hobbyists" who "devoted decades and huge sums to develop Lego masterpieces," Hanson writes

Me, I worry my kids will grow up to be the opposite: sophisticated. While such folks can be very smart and capable, they are uninteresting. I blame their having too many hobbies. Their conversations swirl around the same standard topics: food, music, movies, novels, travel, sports, clothes, houses, politics, etc., all of which they each feel the need to be ready to quip. Sophisticated folks are horrified to seem to not care or know the standard amount about any standard hobby. The sort of folks one wants to know, e.g., to invite to a dinner party, simply must be ready to converse lightly and intelligently (if not insightfully) on the latest fashions in all such areas. The problem is that maintaining a basic proficiency in all these topics, in addition to keeping up a job and family, etc., takes a up pretty much all their time and energy.

Interesting folks, in contrast, get so far into a particular topic that they become at risk of violating conversation etiquette, by talking too enthusiastically for too long on topics of minor interest to sophisticates. Yes, interesting folk are at risk of being distracted from dress or hygiene, or from carefully climbing their local status ladder. But they are also at risk of making a unique contribution to the world. They are also the sort of person from which you might actually hear something new, something you couldn’t hear from a million different sophisticates.

I was struck by Hanson's praise of being interesting, because precisely this had been the topic of conversation at the breakfast table that morning. Lamenting a felt lack of clarity in my thinking, reading and writing as of late, I described my frustration in terms of feeling "uninteresting." Leah, ever the hammer of idols, asked, "are you sure its not just pride? Why do you need to be interesting?" My stammering attempts to convince her that my grief was connected with my use of language, rather than the dirtying of the waters of my Narcissus pool, fell on deaf and unbelieving ears. Detonated.

On most points, I whole-heartedly agree with Hanson. When I think of the kind of person I'd like to be - as well as the character I'd like to inspire in my daughter - I'd much rather be someone whose vivid imagination and deep wonder at the beauty and enchantment of the world leads me to slough off the temptations of relevancy and break the hipster addiction of "being in the know," and making sure people are in the know about it. While I do think that being fascinated and engaged on a variety of interest fronts need not make one a "sophisticate," and can even contribute to one's both having an enriching life, and being an enriching presence to the world, too often my mortal brain snaps in the face of endless rows of academic journals, towering piles of new literary and musical releases, and cringes to realize that for every page, topic, insight, or delight of which I partake, several trillion words go unheard. Call it sophistication, being interesting, or simply seeking knowledge - such salvific gnosis, both tantalizing offered by and diabolically snatched away in the same movement by the Internet, and often, blogs like these, simply cannot be attained.

I make the confession of my own infatuation and entanglement in the worship of the Idol of Being Interesting, not as part of the standard blogging liturgy of naming own's self-obsession (an act which of course only further highlights the obvious by amping up its performance), nor because I think being Hanson's interesting person offers any more possibility of originality than his sophisticate. Rather, I am struck by the fact that so often, the first casualty of such questing after the holy grail of relevancy is the delight of wonder. Truth, beauty, goodness, magic, imagination, and their beginning, wonder, shine forth with a kind of splendor that render visible the shadowy nature of the concern for the kind of interest one's life and hobbies garner when offered solely as libations upon the altars of the attention spans of one's audience, or the demands of the gaping jaws of the three-headed Cerebrus of being special, guarding the gates of the hell of isolation and paranoia whose maw awaits all of us who lose sight of the joy of witnessing unspeakable grace, dancing, delighting, and offering its hand to us in invitation to taste and see. I confess, that I may remember this grace, follow in its steps, and discover the Paradiso to which it leads.

Wittgenstein famously wrote that "Man has to awaken to wonder, and perhaps so do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again." He did not mean science proper, but rather, a way of being which is calculating and controlling, which seeks to attain to the heights of absolute perspective, thus rendering oneself no longer human, but, in the striving for Olympian heights, something far less, and far more terrifying. Language is, in the end, a lot like Tetris - we drop words, observations, ideas, and creations into the milieu of a hundred million other utterances. But ideally, in finding completion in the artful interaction of relationship with other words, speech does not add to the mess, but learns how to disappear, leaving open space, clearing away the jumbled stockpiles of our idols and our obsessions with sophistication and of being interesting, and thus flinging wide the door and making wide the pathways by which the splendor of existence might shine forth. As a great prophet once said, "I must decrease, that He might increase."

Of course, as Hanson reminds us, words are also a lot like Legos. And so let us build, and yes, even blog - but let us do so to create not towers of Babel, but windows of wonder, and doorways of delight. Then we shall have something truly interesting (and relevant) to say.


  1. A beautiful post, Matt--in content, form, and prose!!!

  2. More than beautiful--interesting (yuk yuk)