A lesson from Nick Kolakowski, AB’03, on what types of eccentricities an aspiring intellectual should embrace.
Maxim: Cultivate a few choice eccentricities
A very thin line exists between insanity and genius. So thin, in fact, that it sometimes disappears completely, and madmen are misidentified as brilliant thinkers, while geniuses are dismissed as lunatics stuffed with an extra helping of crazy. For every genius mistakenly shipped off to a padded cell, another hundred are dismissed as mere eccentrics, with tics that distinguish them as fish-out-of-water types. Mildly intriguing and definitely harmless, eccentrics include many of history’s most famous poets, novelists, mathematicians, theoretical physicists, actors, titans of industry, and half the faculty of the world’s universities.
In light of that, cultivating a few choice eccentricities is practically a requirement for an intellectual. Fortunately, notable role models are everywhere. Despite having parsed some of the universe’s most complex secrets, Einstein reportedly never learned to drive, claiming it was too complicated. On top of that, he disdained socks. Legend has it that the French essayist and poet Gérard de Nerval walked around town with a lobster on a leash—which is actually quite inspired, when you consider how few pets also make good eating.
But only a lunatic would embrace eccentricity without a plan.
THEORY INTO PRACTICE
1. Keep it benign: Nobody appreciates a naked gentleman running down the street, smashing windows, and screaming about space aliens. The best eccentricities are small and safe. Strange hats and out-of-place accessories (ear horns, etc.) are always favorites, as are unusual hobbies, such as collecting erotic art from pre-Columbian Peru or fashioning household goods out of duct tape. Strange pets are a bit more problematic: a tiger will probably just forego the leash in favor of eating you.
2. Loud and proud: Own your eccentricities with every fiber of your being. An audience will instantly discredit the public performer who displays a hint of uncertainty or doubt. For better or worse, that means any chosen eccentricity needs to be cultivated, practiced, and developed over a long period of time. Being an intellectual requires commitment.
3. Sense of humor: The best eccentricities amuse and delight people. You have to admit, walking a lobster is pretty funny. Well, probably except to the lobster.
THE INEVITABLE FOOTNOTE
More than a few professions and workplaces demand eccentric impulses be kept to a minimum. Hospitals fall into this category: patients tend to become nervous if their neurosurgeon, the same one slated to delicately pick through their parietal lobe, starts walking around with a parrot on her shoulder. Especially a parrot who keeps squawking, “Oops, didn’t mean to cut that.” Avoid eccentricities that make it seem like you’re trying too hard to be weird. Wearing an antique accessory of some sort, such as a monocle, is often a critical mistake in this category. Remember, you want that eccentricity to seem totally normal … at least for you.
Maxim: Quote Shakespeare sparingly
Quoting William Shakespeare is a little like breathing: every living person does it. “He’s dead as a doornail,” your roommate will say as she flips through the newspaper obits, never realizing she’s just quoted part of a couplet from Henry VI. Or take another well-worn phrase, “Let’s give the devil his due”: it appears in Henry IV. (Ol’ Billy did love writing about royals.)
Then come the billion lines instantly recognizable as Shakespeare. Case in point: “To be, or not to be.” Thanks to the enormous number of movies, television shows, cartoons, comic strips, and probably cereal boxes that have riffed off that line over the years, even if you slept through high school English, you know it comes from Hamlet.
The good thing about quoting Shakespeare is that it usually sounds so perfect that whoever is arguing with you is suddenly less inclined to disagree with whatever point or idea you’re using the quote to enforce—whether or not they know the quote came from the Bard’s pen. (There’s a reason why the man’s works have endured for so long.) The bad thing about quoting Shakespeare is that everybody’s been doing it for hundreds of years, meaning that many of the best phrases are overused. That’s right: they’re trite, and being trite is anathema to an intellectual.
Does that mean you should banish Shakespeare, King Lear–style, from your arsenal of everyday quotes? Absolutely not. Simply keep in mind that a little bit of him goes a very, very long way.
THEORY INTO PRACTICE
Shakespeare was just one of many Elizabethan playwrights scribbling out a living on tales of irate royals turning each other into human pincushions. If you want a quote or speak with some of that late-sixteenth-century flavor, other options abound: Christopher Marlowe was another scribbler of some of the finest blank verse ever committed to parchment; his “Thou hast committed—/ Fornication: but that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead” says as much about true love as anything in Shakespeare’s poetry. Those looking for another quotable notable can seek out Sir Walter Raleigh, who gave the world a decent phrase or two.
Should you want to diversify even further (yes, you do), there exist centuries of quotes from virtually every imminent brain to ever wield a pen: Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, Teddy Roosevelt, and Nikolai Gogol constitute a mere fraction of the writers who sweated, bled, agonized, and tortured themselves over a sentence in order to provide you, years later, with the ideal epigraph for your Power Point presentation opener.
THE INEVITABLE FOOTNOTE
Shakespeare will always offer an ideal fallback for quotes, particularly if (a) you really want to quote Shakespeare, second-guessing by other intellectuals be damned, or (b) you want to drop a phrase or speech familiar to everyone in the room. With one exception: never, ever employ the phrase “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark” (yes, Hamlet again) to describe something trite like a lack of coffee in the house; a dim buzzing sound will fill the world, as an irate Billy spins in his grave fast enough to shoot him straight to the Earth’s molten core.
Maxim: Peruse these hunting grounds for your fellow intellectuals
Just as birds may flash plumage or wail in ways irresistible to members of the opposite sex, budding scholars and weary academics alike engage in specific actions to signal their suitability as mates. Carrying around a book in hopes of sparking conversation is such a time-honored tactic—although one must be careful to pick the right title. Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a solid choice, because many intellectuals have a warm opinion of it: you start discussing Tomas and Sabina, and fifteen minutes later you have a coffee date. However, some books are a little too obvious as props for romantic chatter: D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover falls into this latter category.
In the same vein, some eccentricities and modes of dress can serve as the intellectual’s romantic calling card. A lobster on a leash, to take a cue from Nerval, will drive someone to ask the inevitable question, which in turn could lead to what the online dating sites so ambiguously refer to as “something more.” If you’re looking for another intellectual with whom to swap theories, feelings, and the occasional cold virus, the following places could serve you well in your hunt.
THEORY INTO PRACTICE
Libraries: A noted gathering place of intellectuals since the ancient Library of Alexandria. Pros: No shortage of prospective intellectual mates, who could find charming your attempts at wooing via handwritten note. Cons: The no-talking rule, enforced by the librarian’s Glare of Doom, requires you to work fast when asking for a later meet-up.
Coffee shops: Your local coffee shop serves double-duty as an office or study lounge for many intellectuals, raising your chances of finding a suitable date while ordering your daily cup of caffeine. Pros: As with libraries, people make their corner hangout a part of their daily or weekly routine, giving you multiple chances to flash the art book you bought for that very purpose. Cons: The combination of caffeine and nervousness can turn you into a babbling, sweaty wreck.
University bars: Across the street from the University of Chicago’s main campus sits a dive called Jimmy’s, whose only difference from your standard-issue watering hole is the set of encyclopedias that supposedly live behind the bar, for settling scholarly disputes. That’s exactly the sort of detail separating university bars from regular ones, and why intellectuals looking to unwind gravitate toward the former. (Although it must be said, with regard to Jimmy’s, that I never saw anyone use the encyclopedias in question during my many, many hours of “studying” in the corner.) Pros: Alcohol, dim light prove forgiving. Cons: The jukebox blasting Modest Mouse’s “Float On” for the twentieth time in a row can drown out your titillating conversation about D. H. Lawrence.
Lectures and talks: These draw intellectuals like moths to a bug light. Pros: Ample fodder for opening lines: “So, what’d you think of the lecture?” Cons: The majority of people attend these events to learn, not to flirt.
THE INEVITABLE FOOTNOTE
Many of these places double as the intellectual’s home (or office) away from home. If the object of your affection rejects your advance, don’t press your case—otherwise you’ll create an uncomfortable atmosphere, and probably need to find another cafe to hang out in.
Excerpt from Kolakowski’s book How to Become an Intellectual (Adams Media, 2012).