I spend far too long on Instagram nowadays. So long, in fact, that I have favourites, one of whom I am not afraid to confess to (the rest are mostly women golfers): Scott Evan Davis. He describes himself as a composer and lyricist. He’s also a piano coach. But for me, none of these talents matter compared with the moments he spends sitting in a large wicker chair, holding a huge mug of coffee, urbanely eviscerating the stupid people of this world. He destroys them, employing nothing more lethal than passive aggression and a killer eyebrow:
Instance: ‘Stupidity comes in all shapes and sizes. And a lot of them look like people.’
Instance: ‘Do you ever have a conversation with someone and think to yourself, I neither have the time nor the crayons to explain this to you?’
Instance: ‘Do you ever listen to someone talk and just think to yourself… Oh, you’re the reason why they put directions on shampoo?’
As I said, lethal.
If the simple act of quoting him on the subject of stupidity entices you at all – and let’s face it, you were enticed enough by the idea of ‘brain fog’ to read this article – then I suggest you go and binge on his sarcasm for yourself. He’s like Liz Truss, it’s all in the delivery.
The worldview of Scott Evan Davis hasn’t always been this bleak. Even in the short history of his Instagram reels, or his iterations on TikTok, he has been on quite a journey. Spiritually speaking, it would remind any Italian schoolchild of Dante Alighieri’s, only in reverse. I have traced his evolution from a blithe spirit with a taste for wry comic dialogues, to a totally jaded example of a man demoralised by the omnipresent, omnipotent, omni-shambolic stupidity of the present age. My theory, far-fetched as this may sound, is that the rot set in for Scott around the time that Donald Trump first set foot in the Oval Office.
I could happily fill the rest of this article with quotes from this arch enemy of what Aldous Huxley first called The Stupid, but for now I want to draw your attention to this one: “Does anybody else remember before the internet, when everybody thought that collective stupidity was caused by a lack of access to information? [shakes head in fond recollection] Well, that wasn’t it.”
I shall come to the thorny issue of the internet in a moment. For now, I have a solemn confession to make: with every passing year, I feel myself becoming more stupid. Or should I say, stupider? Oddly enough, I’m not even sure which is the correct form of the word, though I notice my computer hasn’t corrected me; for reasons that will become obvious, I take no particular comfort from that. But there, I said it: I am more stupid than I ever realised, either as a result of actually becoming more so, or simply because I now acknowledge that I am. And I like nothing more, apparently, than witticisms at my own expense, qua stupid person. I mean, how stupid is that? Maybe not really, as it takes a Socrates to know one is stupid, but I refuse to make that false comparison. Not this time. I’m just not prepared to take refuge, as I have so often done thus far, in Socratic paradox. I’ve given this a lot of earnest thought, as we stupid people do, and concluded that I haven’t become this stupid, whether by dint of old age or even a recent bout of Covid. No, it’s just that heretofore I remained unaware how stupid I am. I was blissfully ignorant of my own ignorance.
A brief anecdote will illustrate how this could have happened. Decades ago – I remember it vividly for some reason – I found myself in a university town, having recently graduated from a university somewhere else. I had no steady job, which was a fashionable state of affairs at that time, and a very severe reading habit. Whenever I was not interrupting my idleness with some menial job or other, I would hang around in libraries, and at the time I’m describing it was the university library I preferred. It had things they called ‘carrels’ – tiny cubicles, nicely cooled in the summer months, almost entirely sealed off from the outside world, where you could sit and read for hours in total monkish solitude. I’m thinking of reviving the habit.
So, here’s what I would do: after a breakfast that, however large, never made any impact on my waistline, I would cycle off to the university and find a vacant carrel to take me through to lunch. It was a simple, studious lifestyle, and entirely celibate. The only thing lacking was a tonsured head – which, sadly, it never occurred to me to ask my barber for – and a zealous faith in God. The fact is that if full-time monk had ever come up on the boards at the employment office, I would have given it my best shot.
Into this idyll of aimless ratiocination very little ever intruded. That is why it came as such a shock when, having been reported for hanging around the campus, two policemen turned up in my living room to investigate. Rather gratifyingly, one played good cop and the other played bad cop: until that day I had always assumed this was a fanciful image of policing invented by the acting profession. The first one had a kindly, almost oleaginous demeanour, not unlike a vicar, and said things like “So, Mr Haworth, you say you are fond of books,” exactly as if he would have liked nothing better than to have sat there all afternoon discussing the plot devices of Jane Austen. But then, just as I was about to expatiate on my fondness for books, his colleague would interject very abruptly with “But that’s not why you were seen in the grounds of the university with a bicycle, is it?” I seem to recall he was partial to question tags. His tone always managed to insinuate that I was up to no good.
I don’t recall how the episode ended. Suffice to say, it did not end in a conviction. But it wasn’t even the first time I had inadvertently found myself on the wrong side of the law. At the tender age of nineteen, I had been taken into custody on suspicion of stealing my own bicycle. The policeman on that occasion played good cop and bad cop by turns, owing to recent cuts in the local police force, and at the end of our encounter he gently, but firmly – thus, goodly, but badly – issued a warning that I had ‘a dishonest face’. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
This and other similar incidents, all of which I can confidently attribute to my physiognomy, had prepared me for the interrogation over my wanderings around the grounds of the university, though that didn’t stop me feeling guilty for most of it, just as I had previously felt guilty over the incident involving my own mode of transport. Maybe it was the presence of a bike, though not the same actual bicycle, that sealed my fate. God knows, had there been a third policeman involved – not the third policeman, though the bike precedent is clear, but one able to oscillate menacingly between good cop and bad cop, or between public figure and ‘private person’, Flann O’Brien’s euphemism for idiot – I reckon no statute of limitations could have saved me from finally confessing my guilt over both incidents, on the basis that I had perpetrated multiple infringements where a bicycle was involved.
Given that I was born and raised in a country that upholds the principle of innocence until proven guilty, I have an odd way of assuming myself guilty until proved innocent. Even when I am innocent, to all intents and purposes, I find ways of feeling guilty. It’s my very own variation on original sin, a sort of existential guilt. I am easily persuaded in these situations that I’m in the wrong. The words “it’s a fair cop” seem to hover forever on my lips. I suppose this is why I would make such a bad Catholic, confessing to everything the whole time and never getting round to any actual sinning. The obverse is true of Boris Johnson, who will make a good Catholic, bless him, and never bother a priest by confessing even the weeniest peccadillo.
But I really must stop on about Tory politicians. It would help, of course, if they ever stopped. Instead, we get ‘hasta la vista’ from Johnson and his latest gift to the British nation, wrapped in a dead woman’s wardrobe and tied with a pussycat bow.
But I was talking about two cops, back in the reign of the original pussycat. Following the appearance of the double act in my living room, I not unnaturally abandoned my favoured carrel and retreated ever further into monkish solitude. I withdrew from all contact with the outside world and its inhabitants, which was quite a feat in the days before social media came along. Now, with the assistance of technology, it is generally available.
And that brings me to the real nub of my anecdote, because, before the cops came, when I used to make my way unmolested up through a concrete landscape to the university library, I would pass an ugly building to my right that contained what I saw as a parallel universe. (I shall come to the thorny issue of the universe presently). There, in a cavernous room, under strip lights, behind large windows, sitting at orderly ranks of desks, staring at computer screens and tapping keyboards, were… the harbingers. Of course, I paid them little heed. I was not aware at the time they were harbingers of anything, and besides, I had my own, superior reasons for passing there. I was on my way to the place where, like a scene from The Wings of Desire, people earnestly absorbed the words from books as the angels sat by their hunched shoulders, eavesdropping on their thoughts.
The library was where you could find the sum total of human knowledge. Those sad individuals, on the other hand – we hadn’t yet begun calling them ‘geeks’ – were the ultimate philistines, wrapped up in computer programs and speaking a language of their own, so clunky and jargon-ridden that within minutes it would deprive anyone with the faintest claim to intelligence of the will to live. I glanced at them on my way to the library. I would see them, still there, on the way back. I viewed them with the kind of contempt that Shakespeare’s wanton boys reserved for flies. But worse than contempt, I had this certainty that they didn’t matter. Such was the thought crime for which the succeeding years have been a long, slow punishment.
Because, let’s be brutally honest, I was the stupid one. While I was persuading myself of my radiant intelligence in the company of eavesdropping angels, they were the ones preparing for world domination. A few years later, I still didn’t twig as the computers began to burst out of the labs with the strip lights and into the everyday. I remember reading a kind of idiot’s guide to the internet, yet never thinking of myself as the idiot. I was reading a book, after all. The internet was like postmodernism, it was full of paradoxes. It was everywhere and nowhere. Big deal. I could easily get my head around that ‘centre everywhere, circumference nowhere’ routine. I’d read my mystics. Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa… you name ‘em, I’d skimmed ‘em.
Ah, the innocence of it all. Never such stupidity again, as they say. Or rather, never such pre-Socratic obliviousness to my own stupidity. But now, as I partake of our collective brain fog after the bat virus, I begin to encounter fresh evidence of my stupidity with every passing hour. To adapt the cliché, I learn something I can’t get my head around every day. There were examples of this before, of course. I am a man who attempted the Critique of Pure Reason at the age of twenty-five while seated on a deckchair in the sun, naked to the waist and in the grip of a fixation with tanning my upper body. I have wrestled with the categorical imperative and lost, and my memory of it now has faded as completely as the tan I got reading about it. I have attempted to read Ulysses, and made far less sense of it than Marilyn Monroe.
I have grappled with the theory of relativity, and made far less sense of it than ‘Marilyn Monroe’ in Insignificance.
I have even attempted to understand Marilyn Monroe herself, and concluded with Jack Lemmon that she was ‘a whole different sex’. But these were minor defeats. Like the grammar of foreign languages, I could always blame their inherent difficulty and move onto something I could get my head around. None of these defeats seriously challenged my conviction that I was perfectly – well, not perfectly, but you know what I mean – intelligent.
So let me be clear: I am not, and never was, intelligent. I am entirely of the stupid persuasion. The truth hit me this week, and it was communicated to me by two unrelated things: the contest for a successor to Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative party (see above) and a telescope named after James Webb. Over the first of these I shall draw a discreet veil. The telescope, however, has convinced me of the same thing: that as individuals (I don’t want to sound accusatory, but I’m not alone in this) we are becoming more stupid in inverse proportion to the growing intelligence of the species. I know this for a fact. It is not some kind of moral insight derived from Alexander Pope when he said ‘A little learning is a dang’rous thing/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring’. I drank so deep I even had an inkling, once, what the Pierian spring was. This is not a matter of learning or a lack of it. Nor is this a matter of my personal stupidity, though I freely admit I have partaken of the vast reservoir of stupidity and so am the equal of any stupid person. How can I say this, I hear you ask, when there are such perfect idiots in the world whose utter stupidity beggars description? Why, only the other day… This is the everyday personal stupidity that depends on its opposite for the purposes of measurement. It’s a trivial form of stupid which elevates Leonardo, or Shakespeare, or Einstein at the expense of an ever-descending scale of dumb. The telescope has made all of that look, well, stupid.
In mid-July, I forget the precise date, I saw two programmes in quick succession, one on the Hubble telescope, the other on its successor, the most powerful ever launched into space. For a while the twenty-four-hour news channels were usurped by the scientists in the Goddard Space Flight Center based in Greenbelt, Maryland. It was a revelation of how well the professionals do TV. These scientists, for all their boundless enthusiasm, had a distractingly amateurish way of presenting the latest images from their pet project. Sometimes they looked off to the sides with a slightly anxious expression, as if one of the walls was about to collapse. Other times they were uncertain where to look, which made them seem shifty. At one point a man was describing one of the incredible images on a big screen while his two female colleagues, seeming to pay scant attention, gazed directly at the camera. They came across as the magician’s lovely assistants, but without the flouncy outfits and the “Da-dah!” gestures. Meanwhile the man, who was sixty if he was a day, looked like their precocious child showing off his newest creation in Lego. I couldn’t stand it, I had to switch the telly off.
My aversion to low production values aside, appearances could not have been more misleading. What the magician and his lovely assistants were trying to show me was in fact truly da-dah! Soon the picture was in all the papers and was being shown again and again on the news bulletins. In this area of the night sky said to be equivalent to the amount covered by a grain of sand at the end of one’s finger – very Blakean, but I shall come back to him – were the occasional big star and, beyond, a huge congregation of specks. They looked like the bacteria on a petri dish, and every one of these specks was a galaxy, but not only that, a galaxy so far away that the light had taken up to thirteen billion light years to reach us. The galaxies had not yet had time to arrange themselves into a spiral like our own. Either that, or they had been subject to gravitational lensing, I wasn’t sure which. They appeared as a disorganised smear in some cases, or conglomerates either colliding or separating, and all this on an unimaginable scale, at an inconceivable distance across space and time. There was also a horizon, a limit beyond which the observable universe ceased to be visible to us, for the simple reason that light from that far away could not have had time to get here.
Now this, it seemed to me, was a thought quite unlike anything I’d attempted to get my head around before. The light beyond that point wouldn’t have time to reach us. No human perception could ever overcome that limit. And, if I understood correctly, some of these images had come from out there, from the verge of the absolute limit of our knowledge.
I am stupid, in my own unique way. The complexities of Kant or the mind-bending paradoxes of Einstein will always slip through my fingers, just at the moment I think I’ve grasped them. But the image of those distant galaxies revealed a different order of stupid, the kind described by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12. ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ Or William Blake, who was probably half-remembering Paul when he wrote:
‘If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.’
Perhaps, but the point at which things are too far away for their light to have time to reach us, sounds very like the walls of our cavern. Isn’t this strangely reminiscent of the ‘cloud of unknowing’ described by an anonymous mediaeval mystic? The cloud covers God and repels any attempts by the intellect to penetrate it:
‘For the first time you [lift your heart to God with stirrings of love], you will find only a darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing [...] Whatever you do, this darkness and the cloud are between you and your God, and hold you back from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason and from experiencing him in the sweetness of love in your feelings. [...] And so prepare to remain in this darkness as long as you can, always begging for him you love; for if you are ever to feel or see him...it must always be in this cloud and this darkness."
For that Christian mystic, the solution was to pierce God’s cloud of unknowing with a “dart of longing love” from the heart. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect, but involves spiritual union with God:
‘For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.’
Now this is a profound feeling of stupidity. Not the kind that feels momentarily flummoxed, but a stupefaction that cannot be dispelled and which must yield to love. The telescope has given us a pictorial representation of our collective limit. It has shown us that, for all our braininess as a species, our stupidity is inescapable. If the anonymous mystic was around to respond to these photographs, he would surely feel vindicated. He’d point out the strange terminus our science had achieved and urge us to start loving instead. For those who find this a bit airy-fairy, perhaps the uncensored wisdom of Instagram will help. A stand-up comedian called Pete Holmes, who is really not the mystical kind, puts it more bluntly:
‘Nothing makes fucking sense. Life makes no sense. You’re on a planet right now. You think you’re in America. Zoom out [pause] You’re on a space rock floating in nothingness. Infinite nothingness. And the infinite nothingness is expanding. That means endlessness is getting bigger. That makes no fucking sense! We all just act like it’s normal. Like, “Oh, everything’s made of molecules. Okay, got it, I’ll never think about that again.” I’m made of molecules, you’re made of molecules, the air between, it’s all made of molecules. That makes no fucking sense! These molecules know they’re molecules? These molecules are like “I’m Pete!” That doesn’t make any sense.’
When I was still in my teens, I went through the painful ritual of exams like everyone does. Well, not everyone; luckier souls are made to undergo mutilation in the absence of anaesthetic. On one particular evening, having spent the day revising for a subject I was especially weak in, I was walking down an avenue of trees. It must have been very late, as this was summer and the sun had only just set. I reached a pond, and in the patch of sky above it I saw the full swathe of the Milky Way. I should have felt Pascal’s terror, I suppose, even though I knew nothing of Pascal at the time. Instead, I felt elated. It was all so huge, so impassive and silent, and the confusion in my little brain seemed so insignificant. No one, I thought, could ever make me feel stupid again.