Friday, December 11, 2009

Intellectual Arrogance

One of my less appealing traits is intellectual arrogance: I tend to believe that most things are pretty easy and that with little effort I could easily master any of them. In this I am invariably wrong.

Take learning to play the piano, which I started back in June 2007. I will be entirely honest with you – I thought of piano-playing as being essentially the same as programming a computer in assembly language with each key corresponding to a machine instruction.

I was good at assembler programming. Write the correct sequence of instructions and you have a program, execute it and problem solved. Press the piano keys in the right order and out comes a Bach fugue: problem solved.

Turns out it’s not quite so easy. First thing was the extraordinarily awkward way the music scales map to the piano keys. Each musical scale in its key: C, G, E, F# etc. uses a different pattern of white and black keys to make up the scale. All these patterns have to be learned separately and locked into the motor neurons.

Then there was the fact that the right and left hands have to do different things. How natural is that?

Ultimately piano-playing is not an intellectual exercise; it’s a performance skill. You would have thought I would have had sufficient insight into myself to recall that I have always been clumsy. But no, that fact passed me by, as consequently did any success in piano playing.

Take writing. I mean the writing of good-quality fiction. I have always written technical material (including my book) and I believe the view has always been that the results have an enviable intellectual clarity. What could be easier than to write fiction?

While we were cleaning out prior to our house-move a couple of days ago, I chanced upon some material from a novel I attempted back in 2002. It was ghastly! The dialogue was completely artificial, people “speaking” as if they were reciting from a scientific paper. It’s clear I have no ability to inhabit someone else’s head and give their character the power of life and speech.

Over the last few evenings we’ve been listening to Alan Bennett’s monologues repeated on BBC4. The man is a genius: through homespun dialogue he unveils the secret desperation of ordinary folk. How does he do it? Any local segment of dialogue appears quite mundane, but somehow a compelling picture emerges with inexorable force. Genius.

Why would I have ever thought I could do that? I’m notoriously poor on observation (‘head in the clouds’ they say). I have far more interest in abstract ideas than the plight of my fellow human beings. No-one would contradict you if you said ‘Nigel is sadly out of touch with his emotional side’ - or inner child, or any other icon of the psychotherapeutic pantheon which might correlate with the workings of the human limbic system.

No, I am the last person who should be writing literary fiction with rich characterisation and deep insights into inner life. And what other kind of fiction is there these days?

It’s sad isn’t it? I’m actually looking forwards to my Maths MSc course due to begin in February. We start with the Calculus of Variations.

Enough said.

A reader acidly remarks: "Even when you're self-critical you're self-satisfied."