Why did Czeslaw Milozs include “Cogito sum: certum est quia impossibile…” in the preface to his book Road-side Dog? Any intellectual answer would do, the more complicated the better, the less comprehensible to the common person and the higher the discourse lingo the better. I put the quote on my screensaver in my computer, also I put it on a scrolling marquee on my website (one of three websites). And I think the reason I put it there—the reason why it caught my eye was the same reason I have for most of my actions in life: academic arrogance and pompousness. I know most of this is fake, vague at best, aside from the small part that actually is life-long learning; the single one pleasure I get when I finish a book in the privacy of my studio or lying in my bed is the only real value in all of this I call the intellectual endeavor. There are large questions, of course, related to this such as, knowing for a fact that I sacrificed my relationship with my father for this, how valuable is the fact that most of this is vague at best? Simply put, did my father go to his grave not understanding his son because his son wanted to be an intellectual? But I am not here to discuss this but rather to examine the writings of a Nobel Prize winner (issues with my father are in the process of being resolved even as we speak—45,000 words worth of resolution so far).
It is hard to imagine a more definitive challenge to one of the most famous intellectual tenet than that of the aforementioned quote. We recognize the self. We know that we are, stated Descartes because we think. Yet, the author of Milosz’ quote challenges the notion without offering a solution. If knowing that we are is impossible and we don’t know that we are, then would it really matter? All of this sounds circular in reasoning, true, but looking at it from the perspective of the value or vagueness of intellectualism brings about an interesting crux. Any variety of people would define themselves through the very thing which gives them freedom, significance or definition. Highly fulfilled parents point to their children as the meaning of their lives (incidentally, not their lives to own or rule). Religious people declare their relationship with God as the driving force in their definition of the self through salvation. A scientist having devoted his entire career to a single theory would likewise approach the matter of self through the validation of his work. But this leaves us in the same place and we are left to assume (by faith or any other means) that we are by default of this or that definition of self. If I validate myself by the measure of my work then intellectual pursuits are real. However, leaving no stone unturned, I look at the dissatisfaction intellectualism offers from time to time. Why is it? Have we created a monster of the so-called “intellectually enriched” life? When is enough, enough? Some of my academia friends offer long-winded explanations in favor of the cultivation of ideas, etc. Yet, we don’t cultivate to validate ourselves (first the idea and by means of it, ourselves) but to perpetuate the social mask of what intellectualism really means.
An academia friend of mine is getting a divorce after years and years of seemingly blissful marriage. I have heard his side of the story, which seems to be highly rational—a list of things he failed to see or overlooked, failure to understand the needs of his wife, etc. As for her, I heard her side of the story from a mutual friend. “She was just tired of the fact that he spent so much time in the office,” said our mutual friend, “he devoted so much time to research, grading papers and having conferences with students.” And immediately I recognized the problem. Of course, I immediately blamed it all on the “intellectual pursuit.” It is easy to see. While he was ready to admit the error of his ways, he did so with the proverbial intellectual, mind-numbing, zigzagging line of reasoning only academic (read intellectual) discourse can offer. Loaded phrases such as, “wife needs,” and “failure to understand” assert the vagueness of the over-intellectually charged mind at work. Her reasons were concrete and detailed—no space for interpretation needed. I “cogito…” you “cogito?”
When Gertrude Stein wrote down her famous “a rose is a rose is a rose” she was attempting to rescue and release the word from centuries (if not millennia) of intellectual captivity and cookie-cutting interpretation. Who knows what Descartes' purpose was, but what we do know (or I should say assume) is that there is something else “there”… and we live for the drive, the answer. Is intellectualism needed for this?