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The pleasure of figuring things out for yourself

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

When did we start wanting everything explained to us? Why can’t we be content with indeterminate meaning and subjective interpretation?

Part of the explanatory drive comes, I believe, from the nature of higher education. The cost of college is so great that students and their parents feel they should get their money’s worth—which is to say, get answers to all the difficult questions.

Another reason is the Internet. The other day, a colleague came into my office disgusted. He had asked his students to write a paragraph about the symbolism of the flower pot in Raymond Carver’s story “Popular Mechanics.” The answers that came back were similar, he said, not because students had copied from each other, but because they had all Googled “Popular Mechnics,” “Carver,” “flower pot,” and “symbolism,” scanned what came up, and found the “answer.” They had no idea that this wasn’t the way to proceed. They figured that the question had a singular answer, much in the way a math problem has an answer.

Consider some other ways we have been conditioned to expect hard explanations for soft things (e.g., works of the imagination, and moral and philosophical questions). DVDs give us “special features,” that often seem to diminish our understanding of the film or our appreciation of it. The idea applies to television as well. After watching the last episode of Girls, I happened to let the show run on to the after-show sequence, in which creator and star Lena Dunham explained what we had just seen. Not only did her banal exegesis lessen the power of the episode, it made me less interested in her quirky persona. What had looked smart and funny, creative and irreverent, was forced into an explanatory mold and both became uninteresting and co-opted into the very sort of neatly packaged form that the show seems to oppose. I didn’t want to see a counterculture icon giving me a lecture on relationship stability.

Museums are another example. I usually bypass the audiotapes the accompany a special exhibit. I don’t like the didactic tone—being told what to feel about this or that picture, or the development of this or that artist. Biographical information about the artist, some gossip about his or her circle, what other artists have been influenced by this one—yes. But to be told that this is X’s most accomplished work, or that Y shows particular genius here, or that the depiction of the young girl in the corner is especially moving in what it says about isolation and alienation—no thanks. Such commentary also frequently appears on the cards used to identify paintings on the wall. Along with the date and a few details as to where the work was painted, we are now likely to get a mini-dissertation on how the green background is a statement about the artist’s wish to return to the bucolic farm of his boyhood. Driving the trend is the assumption that people want more information—they want to get their money’s worth.

I recently received an email from a student asking if she could use No Fear Shakespeare for my Shakespeare class. I had no idea what No Fear Shakespeare was, though the phrase made me shudder in anticipation. I soon learned that it gives you Shakespeare’s play on one side and “regular” English on the other.

I don’t think there’s a genuine pedagogical impulse behind our explanatory culture. It’s more about selling more product—in this case, cultural product. And it’s about control. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, believing that some Big Brother is trying to control my every move, but I do think the tendency of a capitalist economy is to know where consumers are (which includes how we think) all the time in order to sell us stuff. This is why movie theaters bombard us with commercials and movie-related tidbits even before the endless previews begin. It’s also why the TV now runs continually in doctors’ offices. And why, as a friend of mine pointed out, we need to have signs on the highway telling us that a “Scenic Overlook” is coming up, as though prescribing in advance what is photoworthy—and also to have a kiosk available to sell us throwaway cameras, Kleenex, and bags of chips.

All this chattery explanation seems designed to refuse us a moment of peace in which to think for ourselves. Despite my jab at capitalism, the problem is more existential than economic. It’s like the sort of chanting that goes on in a house of worship. The effect is soothing but also distracting. It keeps us from focusing on the difficult, unanswerable questions associated with the human condition—from gazing into the abyss and learning about the best use of our lives and the best way to face our eventual deaths. We may be getting explanations a mile a minute but we’re not getting wisdom.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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