In a 1936 essay in Esquire Magazine, F. Scott Fitzgerald offhandedly said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” In context, he was referring to himself as one such first-rate intellect, probably as much because he was a booze-soaked egomaniac as because this is what people did for self-promotion before Twitter, and despite being a top-ten American novelist of all time he was still happy as hell to have a job writing half-cocked horseshit for Esquire in the middle of a depression. Calling yourself first-rate in the hope that somebody would agree probably seemed like a forgivable way to keep the checks coming in.
The quote has since become one of those total non-points that aunts and uncles always love to make while engaging in political discussions on Facebook. As if F. Scott Fitzgerald had actually said, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to quote something F. Scott Fitzgerald said in a magazine article 80 years ago rather than formulating and articulating your own viewpoint about something totally stupid and pointless like the Tea Party.” Stupid people love to attach themselves to the idea of intelligence in any way possible. There’s no reason to hold that against F. Scotty F.
But let’s say what good old F. said was true and not just some weird thing he rattled off to distract himself from the gin shakes. Well, that would mean that the following people are not smart: people who can’t function regardless of the ideas they have, people who can’t hold more than one idea in their mind regardless of how well they function, people who can only function while holding unopposed ideas in their mind, and people who can hold two opposed ideas in their mind but can’t function as a result.
There’s also an implication in the word “test” that people who function better while not holding opposing ideas in their minds and therefore choose that state for the sake of their own happiness are somehow less first-rate than people who rush headlong into contradictions. This is an odd opinion for F. Scott Fitzgerald to have, seeing as how his arms-open dash into the arms of the oxymoronic resulted in death from an alcoholism-induced heart attack at age 44. But: benefit of the doubt, he didn’t know that at the time. He only had several good hints.
Anyhow, that is an awful lot of people who by one little sentence of supposition are not intelligent. It might even be most people. It’s me most of the time. That’s probably why so many well-functioning people get their cages rattled when you tell them something that opposes an idea they are already holding in their head. Especially if it’s ideas that need not be opposed because they are inherently unimportant, like “The Beatles are the best band” or “The Wire is the best TV show.” Try taking an opposing viewpoint to town with somebody who doesn’t want to hear it. “LA LA LA LA LA,” they will say, “I was getting along fine with this stupid little harmless belief of mine before you showed up, I wish you’d go away so I can continue to function optimally.”
Sometimes, thanks to the internet, it’s “fuk u idiot” instead of “LA LA LA LA LA,” but the idea is roughly the same. People dislike hearing things they don’t instantly agree with. I do too. If you were to tell me that krautrock is the worst rock, or that Gary Graham (Detective Sikes from the Alien Nation TV show) is an unamazing actor, or that “Surfin’ Bird” is not the best song ever written, I will disagree with those things and probably not like you very much at first. That’s just the nature of the human beast. HUMAN BEAST. (Sorry, just typing the phrase “HUMAN BEAST” over here.) But I regard that reaction as a shortcoming.
So in the effort to find my better first-rate self, I’ve recalibrated my opinions to allow for opposing ideas to harmoniously coexist within my still-functioning mind. Aren’t I great? Man, let me tell you, I am great. I seldom get upset about anybody else’s opinion, even (especially) if it appears totally valid and completely opposed to what I feel to be correct. How do I pull this off? Besides probably dying at age 44 of some stress-induced arterial explosion, I have little arguments with myself about the validity of diametrically opposed ideas, and then discover that it’s all good, homie.
Let’s try it.
Idea One: Everything Anybody’s Ever Done Is The Worst.
“Oh poo poo, he’s just being negative to get my goat.” Hold on there, buddy. We’re gonna try this thing. And I am here to tell you that everything you’ve ever loved that a human being was responsible for is not at all inherently great. I know you don’t like this. Try to hear me out.
You know why you like things? You like them because you want to align yourself with them when the time comes for public discourse. Really you like things because you want to have something to talk about with other people, and you want those people to be the kind of people who you want to like you. There is research about this. By scientists. It is boring.
But: the problem with this is it reinforces the idea of a social hierarchy which by nature seeks to marginalize people. That’s what the process of liking things does. Yes, even no-brainers like “Magic Carpet Ride.” Even by choosing to call “Magic Carpet Ride” a “no-brainer,” I am marginalizing a ton of people. Do you like that song? “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf? At least a little bit? If not, I just called you less than a brainless person, simply because I and a lot of other people like me (English-speaking American white dudes) like that song. This is what liking a thing, even a popular and totally harmless thing like “Magic Carpet Ride” does.
There is nothing so universal that everybody likes it. There’s always going to be a hierarchy in which somebody is left out. AND since that’s the case, everything anybody has ever done is the worst. Even your favorite thing ever.
Don’t you sometimes feel like, “Man, I wish everybody in the world loved my favorite thing ever as much as I do?” Like sometimes you’ll try to convince your friends that your favorite thing ever should be their favorite thing ever too, and they’re like “no dude, not feelin’ it.” Doesn’t that make you feel lonely? Like “I gotta get some new friends.” Just because you liked something a lot and it’s your favorite thing ever.
Or do you ever see something that other people think is the best thing everand you’re like, “Really, that thing is somebody else’s best thing ever? Are they even familiar with it? I can’t even be diplomatic about this thing. It makes my skin crawl.” Doesn’t that make you sad? Like no wonder human beings have wars all the time. Human beings have the capacity to believe all kinds of outlandish shit. And then when you say something like “Emerson Lake and Palmer sucks,” they get mad at you for “trolling” instead of “speaking the truth that other people need to hear.” It’s frustrating.
Take all of this division created by the liking of things (even the good things that you really actually like), and multiply it by a factor of “somebody somewhere is benefitting from all this division,” and you have a recipe for infinite self-perpetuating human misery. All because somebody did a thing.
Is this the fault of the things themselves? Probably not. It’s totally unfair that all things must necessarily be processed through the distorting lens of human nature. But that’s just how things are. Liking things or not liking things means humankind cannot ever unite in harmony. So: everything is the worst because we are the worst, you guys. We are the total worst.
Idea Two:Everything Anybody’s Ever Done Is The Best.
“Here we go. Another ‘hooray for everything’ blast of sunshine from the everybody gets a trophy camp of rewarding mediocrity.” Guys. Please. Hear me out on this.
First of all: we’re all going to die alone, and humankind’s brief and pointless existence will not even register as anything other than a momentary flickering blip in the infinite reach of the cosmos. How’s that for sunshine? Sure, there might be some good theories out there about Gods and souls and reincarnation and whatnot, but the whole “die alone, humankind’s existence is brief and pointless” are just basic things that we know at this point, and the rest of it is “but hopefully we’re wrong” thinking. Whatever, just give it to me for the sake of argument. We’re trying to hold opposing ideas in our minds here.
Given that life is utterly meaningless, it’s pretty amazing that we’re able to do ANYTHING at all with it. That includes… anything. I mean, literally, ANYTHING. Anything. (Those are all hilarious examples of things that are actually great, but you get the idea.) (Whether you think they are actually awful, accidentally hilarious, or in fact good, it can’t be anything other than unironically great that Jan Terri decided to write songs and make videos instead of giving up on life and killing herself because what’s the point.)
There is stuff that nobody in the world likes, which some people like to pick up and champion as if to say, “Hey, this has value! Just like me, a person that nobody likes all that much, this thing is a thing too!” Sometimes liking things that nobody else likes makes people who feel bad about themselves feel better. Maybe even some of them will be able to meet each other via the YouTube comments section and strike up an oddball long distance friendship based on a mutual appreciation for peanut butter and relish sandwiches. That would be great.
And then there’s stuff that’s just totally great. Like “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Come on. “Strawberry Fields.” Come on, dude. That is great. Right guys? Who cares. It’s great.
Even stuff that somebody did which seems at face value to be mediocre to the point of being a virtual creative nonentity has admirers in this world for whom such a thing is “Almost as good as sex!!!!” That is AMAZING! As infinite as our capacity for dividing ourselves is, it would appear that our capacity for joy is equally infinite. You find me a better explanation for somebody out there liking Bryan Ferry’s 1987 solo record.
So you see, guys, even though everything ever is the worst, it is also the best. It’s the best because it’s the worst. It’s the worst because it’s the best. Best and worst are the same thing, even. Why not? “Best” and “Worst” are two opposed ideas we should all be able to hold in our minds and still be able to function. Makes sense. Everything is the best and the worst all the time.
AND if everything is the best and the worst all the time, than whatever our respective bests and worst are should matter too much in the grand scheme of things, even if your best is somebody else’s worst or vice versa. If somebody thinks your favorite thing ever is their least favorite thing ever, what they’re really saying is “I’m not like you.” But you shouldn’t take that too personally because guess what? They ARE like you. They are a person and you are a person. They are almost EXACTLY like you. They’re just acting like kind of a dick. Like a booze-swilling blue blooded Minnesotan Lost Generation dick. Fitzgerald style.
Hooray for America, USA, amen, everybody wins, go WORLD LIFE infinity.
Previously: The Wheel of Punk Pt. 2