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The Elusive Intellectual

December 8, 2009


In NYU’s infamous Writing the Essay class Freshman year, I wrote my final paper on the genius that is David Foster Wallace [1]. I don’t remember much of the paper, only that it was over eight pages and received quite a good grade–especially for the class. I remember, mostly, the all nighters I pulled scrambling to stitch together each writing assignment, rubbing teary eyes sunken with exhaustion beneath a cheap fluorescent lamp, taking five minute naps with my head on my arms in front of the laptop, watching the hours slip away until I simply could not stay awake for another second. Alarms set for forsaken hours before the sun rose to finish assignments, and the brief but exquisite relief after turning in each assignment.

It was hardly ideal conditions for reading, especially of the sort of long, involved essays that David Foster Wallace wrote, with the weighing in of linguistic Descriptivists vs. Prescriptivists and sections and subsections dissecting the English language. I won’t attempt to explain the complicated essay (but I’d encourage you to read the essay in its entirety for funny, eloquent and provoking insight in to the English language/grammar/usage/politics/general DFW brilliance), but the point is that I never did read the whole essay (even as I took out sections and footnotes that seemed relevant to fit into my paper). But today I returned to it without the delirium of sleep deprivation and the pressure of a deadline, to learn that I could appreciate Wallace’s arguments and writing far, far better (and wish I could have turned back time to rewrite that particular essay, even if the end result was good).

But instead of discussing the essay, my thoughts circle back to me, myself, and I. Not that I have anything of relevance to add to the subject matter, but it was the glimpse into the fiercely academic, intellectual and critical world that Wallace offered that so seduced me.

My favorite tagline to describe myself comes from the God Help the Girl song (that I’ve written enough about) and tend to be one I stick in front of every online self description: “You have been warned, I’m born to be contrary.” While most people are content fulfilling one or two stereotypes [2], I lust after such a scattered array of social identities and worlds that it’s simply impossible to occupy every one. And the idea of the intellectual had always, always appealed to me, with its thick smoke and contemplative poses, the stacks of classic authors piled high on dark wood bookshelves, quoting philosophers with the same ease that people tend to quote favorite lyrics, long dissertations and romantic notebooks crammed full of scholarly handwriting, tweed blazers and an unnatural eloquence that flows even with an order of coffee…it’s been haunting and taunting me enough with the contemplations of my future, possibilities of classes abroad, grad schools with prestige greater than NYU’s privileged rich hipster-paradise reputation can offer. Reading DFW only sparked it further.

It shouldn’t really matter, but in a recent chat with my creative writing teacher, she told me that I didn’t have to aspire toward intellectual ideas in every short story or piece of fiction. She said I couldn’t be dumb if I tried. It was something I needed to hear. She’s right; my writing tends to veer in a few directions, either the case of “pretty” writing–aesthetics for aesthetics sake, senses engaged with those descriptions that create textures and scents and images like the pretty photos that accompanies them, or in exaggeration and grand ambition and vast abstracts, with intellectualism simmering beneath.

I didn’t think (or maybe just didn’t admit) that it was obvious, but despite my general self conscious self awareness, I’m pretty oblivious to these faults. After all, most of my followers on my inexplicably popular tumblr probably have an idea that I exist solely for the sake of pretty dresses, vintage cameras and well photographed cupcakes. And while I do adore beauty for beauty’s sake, my mind simply cannot settle with simplistic ideals of cutesy crushes or a few lines of vague longing and loneliness or romanticized depression or whatever it is that a good number of Tumblrs seems to be obsessed with [3].

It’s this restless striving for higher intellectualism, debates on authors and rhetoric and language, philosophy and existentialism and art and all of those higher fields on interests that hums inside of me. Single words with a few too many letters with a presence, like books with thick spines and faded antique gold titles and author names you can’t pronounce. But then again…pretension (especially in writing) is despicable [4], and I love writing that is snappy and minimalistic, clever and smart without piling on layers of meaningless big words (as is too frequent in academic writing).

I suppose it’s just another way of self validation, confirmation that I’m capable of discourse beyond the sort of small talk conversations driving my life. It’s the romantic appeal, another set of aesthetics. It’s longing for yet another niche that doesn’t nestle quite right. Pulling threads from this and that to form some vague sketch of who I want to be…or, I suppose, it’s just another way to sort out these thoughts, reflect on my favorite things in the world: words, letters, books, ideas.

But mostly words, and the shift they inspire, the footnotes that David Foster Wallace makes lovable even though I’ve always hated them, the ideas I want to exceed when I’d never even considered them before, the worlds I want to open with these clicks of the keys. I know, I write about writing too much, and this is what it’s about, as always, in the end, but it can’t be helped, I don’t think. For my efforts spent on images or inspiration or anything of the sort, I return, always, to these words that can do so much more.

1. I also spent half the summer reading Infinite Jest–albeit without footnotes, so I suppose I didn’t really read it at all.

2. Stereotypes hold such a negative connotation, but in this context simply mean “role” as in super hip electro Brooklynite or artsy photographer who lives for vintage owls or cute girl with bangs and every back issue of Lula as bible.

3. And yes, in real life, I really do wear big bows and poofy skirts/dresses and drink a lot of tea and have done/seen everything in my TILTs so no, it’s not a fantasy, I just like making my life resemble fantasy as much as possible.

4. I’m probably being hypocritical, as is inevitable, as always, as I’m sure I’ve written self aware and overly pretentious prose plenty of time…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2009 8:37 pm

    WITHOUT FOOTNOTES? blasphemy.

    what i love most about david foster wallace is his lack of pretension at heart but his total pretension at first glance. his writing is convoluted, drawn-out, intellectual, and complicated; but i think his what he values, ideologically, is simple–honesty (examples: mario incandenza, don gately, “this is water”, etc.). and that’s what i love about him so much and why i “ID” with what he says so so much: our world is complicated, convoluted, drawn-out (and unsatisfying)… but it is still crucial to try to ID, give people the benefit of the doubt, analyze, and believe in things. i know i’m not addressing like 95% of what you wrote since i just like finding excuses to talk about DFW, but what i’m saying is, i like reading your writing and keep doing what you already are.

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