In Praise of Pointlessness

by Mary Jackson (March 2010)


A film of a book can disappoint; it is better to see the two as separate than to fret over why plain Jane Eyre is pretty, or Mr Knightley young and handsome, or why Emma speaks in a South London accent. Nevertheless, I had high hopes of the 2006 film Notes on a Scandal. The novel by Zoë Heller, on which it is based, came out in 2003, so there would be no anachronisms to grate. And Judi Dench was in it. Judi Dench, like Juliet Stephenson and Helen Mirren, can transform the trashiest of films into a classic.

The film did not disappoint; if anything it was better than the book, in all respects but one: the sex. I refer not to the young teacher Sheba and her teenage pupil – of course they have an affair – but rather to Barbara, the lonely older teacher, who becomes obsessed with Sheba. In both the book and the film, Barbara is manipulative and controlling, but in the book her desire for physical intimacy is only hinted at. In the film it is made more explicit – more explicit than it needs to be.

Aren’t loneliness, jealousy, the wish to control and possess, interesting enough in their own right without having to bring sex into it? It is as if, having raised the question of Barbara’s obsession, that question must be answered: she’s a lesbian, and that settles it.

Far from adding spice to the dish, too much sex makes it bland. It reduces man to an animal, or worse, to a mere puppet, acting out dreary Freudian symbolism.

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller has written a book called Spent, subtitled Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism. (Is "Spent" a pun, or is it me?) There are not, I suspect, many laughs in evolutionary psychology, a mean little discipline, which at best justifies male chauvinism, and at worst reduces us all to apes.

Reviewer Paul Seabright quotes in the Times Literary Supplement from Miller's earlier book The Mating Mind (2001): "Women find intelligence sexy (which explains the adaptive pressure on men) and women need intelligence to discriminate among intellectually pretentious men, which explains the adaptive pressure on women." The idea that women, or indeed men, can be intelligent for purposes other than mating, seems not to figure. If Miller had used religion, rather than cod science, to relegate women's brains to the role of catching a man, feminists would be kicking him in the intellectuals. In fact the idea sounds suspiciously Islamic; it is Islam, rather than Christianity, which regards the whole woman - brain too - as arwah.

I say "cod science"; codpiece science is more the size of it. Miller's research has led him to the startling conclusion that rich men puff themselves up with expensive baubles to attract women. But the brainy have baubles too. Paul Seabright summarises:

Given how attractive the rich are to potential mates, many would like to pretend to be richer than they are. So to send a credible signal about their vast earning power, the truly rich have to waste money on baubles whose only merit is their being unaffordable to the poor. To signal their intelligence, the brainy may likewise have to do some really pointless and wasteful things (like write sonnets or compose symphonies) that are just too difficult  for the unintelligent person to do. That said, natural selection has, over vast stretches of time, trained us to want to do these things, so that sonnets and symphonies (or at least the best of them) cease to seem so pointless and wasteful. But they are no less baubles for that.

So, at a stroke, all artistic and intellectual endeavour is reduced to the status of a Rolex watch or a Ferrari, worn, or driven, in order to pull the birds. Presumably female artists and scientists are an evolutionary aberration, as are the uxorious, or the celibate, or the scholar whose work is unfashionable. And, since Miller is a disciple of Darwin, what of the brainboxes whose field is less than sexy? Fossils, for instance? "Come up and see my ammonites" doesn't sound quite right.

This materialist, reductionist view of human achievement has parallels in Islam. If not outlawed altogether, science and art are baubles to be "bought in", whether in the form of Western medicine, or, grotesquely, in the proposed Louvre Abu Dhabi.

If art is baubles, perhaps baubles are art. Singer Elton John is no stranger to baubles, but his recent pronouncements are not on art, but on religion: specifically, what drove Jesus Christ. Where saints and scholars saw through a glass darkly, Elton John sees Him face to face – or rather cheek to cheek. From The Telegraph:

In a magazine interview, he said: "I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems."

Jesus was gay; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

One of the many reasons I dislike the plays of Samuel Beckett, is that their symbolism (piles of mud, dustbins, waiting for nothing) hits you over the head with an almighty thud. I don't mind symbolism, but I like it to be gentle, such that if I notice it I like it, and if I don't it doesn't matter.

Vladimir Nabokov once took exception to the claim that the tennis balls in Lolita represented testicles. "Those of a giant albino, no doubt," he sniffed. Critics like to see symbols in writing and in film. Sometimes they overdo it, to the extent that they not only see balls, but talk it. Commenting on the death of  Michelangelo Antonioni, blogger Andrew McKie wrote:

Though I think his films have much to admire in them, there can be no disputing that Michelangelo Antonioni was responsible for the most pretentious balls ever put on film: the invisible ones in the tennis game at the end of Blow-Up. He has also inspired some of the most pretentiously written balls ever produced about film; try this prime example of an attempt to use the words “semiotic”, “chiasmus”, “punctum”, “mnemic” and of course our old friend “hermeneutic” as often as humanly possible.

I'm just relieved to learn that Blow-Up is not about dolls. But must a film, or a book, be “about” anything? I remember my university tutor saying that some of the best books are not about anything. At the time I thought he was dotty, but now I think he may well be right. Such books unnerve conformists, who try to force them into the procrustean bed of social or psychological theories. The effect is often comical. Peter Ackroyd in The Times on Alice in Wonderland:

“If there’s no meaning in it,” the King of Hearts says, “that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.” Yet a book without any overt meaning is bound to have meanings imposed upon it. That is why the book has been given a Jungian interpretation, and a Freudian interpretation. It has been claimed that Alice, with her numerous expansions and retractions, is a version of the male penis. Going down the rabbit hole, therefore, has obvious connotations. The book was banned by a high school in New Hampshire in part because of its “references to masturbation and sexual fantasies”.

Honi soit qui mal y pense. Or should that be “ponce”? Ask Freud. Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss, and a rabbit hole is just a rabbit hole. Ackroyd continues:

There is in fact sensuality, rather than sexuality, in Alice, with all its sneezings and beatings, its writhing flamingos and delectable oysters.

It has also been seen, for example, as an allegorical account of the Wars of the Roses. Some have found the origin of Alice in Dodgson’s mathematical speculations. Mathematical patterns are pure and self-contained, after all, divorced from any observable reality. Dodgson wrote an essay on logical theory, and called it What the Tortoise said to Achilles. It is hard not to be reminded of the Mock Turtle. “We called him Tortoise because he taught us.”

Yet it is essentially a work of pure and unmotivated fiction. Literature for children had previously been largely sanctimonious and dogmatic. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the subsequent Through the Looking Glass, are the first comical books for children full of absurdity and puns. If a book has no meaning, then it need not have any morals. “I can’t tell you just now what the moral is,” remarks the Duchess, “but I shall remember it in a bit.” Her memory, however, fails her.

Alice has no moral, no sex and, more the point, no point. Pointlessness is all. And no, this is not a vaguely Freudian reference to impotence. Writing in The Times a few years ago, Sam Leith made some pointed points about pointlessness:

How much better we all are for a peck of pointlessness. In the dreadful grind of this week's news - all that getting and spending and blaming and shaming - the three stories that stood out were all testament to the unquenchable human appetite for the pointless-but-interesting

[...]

The pointless endeavour that most captured my own imagination this week ... was ... the latest instalment in the saga of the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, a creature last seen in 1944 and thought by many to be extinct. The ivory-bill is the Nessie, the White Whale, of the bayou.

Scientists have now installed sophisticated robot birdwatchers - with cameras, and customised woodpecker-recognition software - in the hopes of catching a glimpse of one. "We're willing to run this camera for years, and we're prepared to accept it if we never see the bird," the lead scientist has said.

It does not, of course, make a difference in the world whether or not those cameras capture the longed-for flash of wing, or their sound-detectors - years from now - capture an unambiguous rat-a-tat on tape. If a woodpecker warbles in the woods, and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? Who cares?

Well - someone cares: and I think that this speaks to the higher part of our nature. That might be the bit that attributes to the Almighty a strong interest in each sparrow's fall; but it's more likely something simpler and more visceral: sheer curiosity.

[...]

It's that that raises us above Economic Man, who knows the price of everything. And is something - there is a vague point to this article, I regret to say - that we'd benefit from recognising, and defending in our education system.

Euclid had a pupil who asked him what was the use of the maths he was learning. He turned to his slave: "Give the boy a penny, since he desires to profit from all that he learns." Then he kicked the lad out.

This was a bit harsh, perhaps, but it made its point. We are in danger of travelling far too far in the opposite direction; of treating education as training. So let us speak in praise of all those who study astronomy, or number theory, or Latin, or the biology of the colossal squid, or the mating habits of birds that may or may not exist.

I hope they never find that woodpecker. But I hope they keep trying.

A more pointless exchange than this, between Alice and the White King, would be hard to find. Nor one more delightful:

There's nothing like eating hay when you're faint,' he remarked to her, as he munched away.

`I should think throwing cold water over you would be better,' Alice suggested: `-- or some sal-volatile.'

`I didn't say there was nothing better,' the King replied. `I said there was nothing like it.' Which Alice did not venture to deny.

No moral, no sex and no point. Now imagine a world – communist, capitalist or Muslim - that makes no room for the White King and his hay. Pass the sal volatile.



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