The Story of an Intellectual Snob

December 14, 2011 § 7 Comments

NY at Night, 1903, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By Jacqueline Austin

I had the idea, in puberty, that I wanted to compete against the best of all geniuses, each in their own discipline.  Why should one of unlimited intelligence (I was modest) be limited by conventional categories?  I decided to train each of my senses separately. Then, and only then, would I be able to see (feel, hear, taste, smell, intuit) if there were any true divisions in epistemology, psychology… whatever.

To my pre-teen self, all endeavor was one.  Divisions, categories and limits were just habits, shackles, brought to us, then locked onto us, by our collective history (“our” meaning my, and my sisters’).  As such, these were downers and should be ignored.  Why chain ourselves in dungeons of the mind, when we were actually outside in Nature, playing, being kids?

As a pianist from the age of three–my mother, a retired child prodigy, had expected, but  not gotten, greatness from any of us–I felt that I was already prodigiously expert in music.  My vast experience as an accompanist for all our school plays, and the vigorous clapping of parents and friends at every one, was all the proof I needed.

To me, such a mind as mine had never before been encountered.  Proof?  Ha!  Only little minds, say, of eleven year olds, required proof.  Twelve year old thinkers who could reify the senses, were beyond such things, and could, if only he wasn’t dead, go talk to Einstein.

Six years later.  Yale.  After a skip and a hop into biochemistry, music theory, composition, philosophy, and History of the Arts and Letters (a four year course in Western culture which I, alas, opted out of in sophomore year), I decided that to get ahead, I must get over certain feelings of intellectual inadequacy which were, mirabile dictu, springing up.  Why not return to my roots?  I could major in painting (sight), do a lot of cooking (taste), and participate in martial arts and the sexual revolution (touch).  All the senses would thus be covered.  I would really, truly, finally! be a genius in everything.

I tried to write a journal following my amazing travels through the halls of thought.  But again alas, I would no sooner put a piece of paper into the typewriter, and type “A,” “The” or “Once,” when I’d find myself ripping the paper from the typewriter, screaming at myself, “How cliched!”  “This is not worth doing!”  By the end of the day, I’d have a mountain of paper, all crumpled up, each page with one or two sad words on it, but writing couldn’t be all it was cracked up to be, anyway, since I couldn’t do it.

After painting my way out of Yale, graduating by the skin of my, uh, models, I set up in New York, as an artist–with a plan.  A plan for real, true greatness.

First I would explore synesthesia, via art.  I rented a 100-foot long loft, with floor to ceiling arched windows.  I was an artist, and there were those windows, so pretty, so metaphorical, so big, so I made art on all the windows.  By day, though, the art was pretty well invisible.

By night, it was too.  My beautiful, meaningful art, created by one so talented, so brave and so young, was obscured by fires all across downtown Manhattan.  I could see these fires from my window, and they were much more interesting than my art.  They were set each night by landlords who wished to collect insurance money.  At the time, the lower East Side, down to Little Italy, was just starting to increase in value, but there was some kind of legal limit on how fast landlords could kick out old school New Yorkers.  Because the poor, downtrodden landlords couldn’t increase rental fees for the demanding masses, as fast as they liked, arson was the next best alternative.  Every night, pretty orange fires would spring up, one, two, five, a half dozen or more, from the bottom to the top, and both sides, of my 100 foot panoramic view.

Whenever I stayed awake too long at night, I sat on the fire escape, naked (nobody could see me, as downtown was still pretty well deserted), cultivating a certain weary sympathy with these landlords.  Wasn’t I doing the same as they were doing, with my own physical real estate?  Burning the candle at both ends, to collect cosmic, yet unearned, insurance payments?

Now came a series of jobs not good enough for me.  Had I settled down to any job, no matter how far away from my ridiculous ambitions, I would have had some chance to reach my as yet unarticulated new goal, of being loved.  But no, each job was stupid.  If no one did that job, society would be better off.  Rather than change things, or even entertain the idea that change was possible, I would quit each job, metaphysical virginity intact.

What would I be, I thought one night, in ten years?  Jack of all trades; master of none.  Senses trained and raring to go.  But no direction, nor means, of finding their proper venue.  A great anxiety descending, like a clammy yet electrified fog, over my talents.  My senses twinkling out one by one ahead of me, like these sirens, wailing to the fires, as my naked back pressed shivering against the glass edging my art, demarcating my insubstantial efforts, from the great and smoky beyond, outside their home.

Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.


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