What is thinking for?

15 Oct

A footnote to my last blog: I realise that reading doesn’t always lead to thinking, nor should it. Just after I’d posted my blog I heard a discussion on the Radio 4 arts review programme Front Row (10 October – World Mental Health Day) about the part reading novels can play in combating depression.  For this exercise you need to choose novels which aren’t too taxing. Marian Keyes, herself a novelist, favoured Margery Allingham, while the presenter Stig Abbell was an enthusiastic champion of P.G. Wodehouse. ‘I never go anywhere without a book,’ Keyes told us – she refers to it as her ‘emergency novel’. Once she’s feeling a bit better then she can move on to something more challenging.

I was glad to hear this. Personally I’ve always found reading novels far more effective than the remedies often prescribed – meditation, relaxation, visualisation, and so on. Often I’ve felt vaguely guilty about this, seeing myself as too weak, too irredeemably flaky, to get to grips with mindfulness. So it’s good to receive this stamp of approval. From time to time I meet people – unfortunates to my way of thinking – who can’t abide novels. Obviously these individuals need to seek relief elsewhere. Perhaps the inventors of mindfulness are among them.

Of course reading sometimes does lead to thinking.  But this, I’m prepared to admit, still isn’t the same thing as doing.

At the moment I’m reading – at the most basic level imaginable – a lot of stuff about the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and general relativity. I barely understand it, but I also find it exciting. Even so, it doesn’t matter one iota whether I understand it or not – I’m never in a million years going to make any contribution to the solution.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a young black woman half a lifetime ago, about the situation in what was then Rhodesia. She told me that my having a grasp of what was happening there was irrelevant – there was nothing that I could do to change anything, and nobody in what was to become Zimbabwe cared about my opinions. And of course she was right. Middle class people in the developed world tend to believe that if they can just keep up with global events they’re somehow helping. But it doesn’t generally make any difference at all. Being well educated and well informed might make us feel powerful, but usually we aren’t.  

So it isn’t enough just to think.

Act from thought should quickly follow./ What is thinking for?

(‘Underneath an Abject Willow’, W.H. Auden)

marx.jpgOr as another important thinker once said, referring to a more significant locus of activity, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ (Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, Thesis Eleven). This quotation is inscribed on his tomb.

It isn’t enough to know either. Earlier this summer I saw James Graham’s play Quiz, about the ‘coughing major’ who won a fortune by cheating on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?  Among other ideas, the play probes our national obsession with game shows. The major’s wife, Diana Ingram, is asked at one point why she’s always been so passionate about quizzes. ‘Because there are right and wrong answers,’ she replies. ‘I like the certainty of knowing.’

This answer appeals to me a lot.  The stuff that you know seems likequiz something solid and unchanging that you can hang on to in a troubled and confusing world. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I have a horror of not knowing stuff – FONKS, you might call it – and it’s what keeps me and thousands like me bent over our computers into the small hours, googling for information that we’ll never need nor use. Did Auden dedicate ‘Abject Willow’ to Benjamin Britten? When did Rhodesia become Zimbabwe?  Are the major and Diana still married?  No need to live on in ignorance! You can find the answer! You can also waste your life.

When I was studying education theory I became very keen on the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, who in Pedagogy of the Oppressed coined the term ‘the banking model of education’. This describes a system in which a student was viewed as an empty account waiting to be filled up by his or her teacher – stuffed with facts, in the most banal version of the practice.  This ‘transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.’ (p.77)

Quizzes and obsessive googling are symptoms of the same phenomenon on a smaller scale. Alright in their way – some people might find that they help with depression – but not to be taken seriously, and not for one moment to be seen as a solution to anything, least of all our own powerlessness.

Thinking and knowing need to be translated as far as possible into action. It’s not a big thing, but right now I know what I should be doing with my utterly superficial knowledge of particle physics. I should be writing a play about the physicist Schrodinger and his fabulous cat. Or deciding not to and moving on. This play, if it’s ever written, isn’t going to change the world. But you never know, it might just, if I’m lucky, set one person thinking. Which is all as a writer I can ever really hope to achieve.





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