Many years ago, when I was barely out of my
teens, I was on a train to a place unremembered, reading a book, never
forgotten. It was one of Samuel Beckett’s novels, from his trilogy, Molloy,
Malone Dies and The Unnameable. As I read, quietly, in an end seat in the
subdivided train compartment, I annotated the book, writing my thoughts in
response to Beckett’s, my understandings of his understandings and ideas of my
own that emerged as I read. I wrote in very small writing with a biro. I was
A voice interrupted me.
“You think you are so intelligent.”,
sneered a middle aged woman across from me.
I looked up at her, somewhat surprised, but
more puzzled at what she had said.
“I am just reading a book.”, I said, matter
of factly, trying not to rise to her provocation.
“You think you are SO intelligent.”, she
said again, with even more of a sneer.
Now, I thought this most odd, since I wasn’t
thinking of myself at all, but of the book I was reading and the place it had
taken me to.
“You know nothing about me.”, I began
softly, but with an intensity that made it seem hard, “I have said nothing
about my intelligence, to you. So, why are you attacking me for it? I am just
reading a book on a train – what is wrong with that?”
Her mouth, if anything, looked even more
sour than before.
“You are writing in your book.”, she said,
as if that was proof of her view of my self-image.
“I am writing, because I am recording my
thoughts in response to the book. That is all.”
Her sourness condensed further.
“You are just showing off.” Her sneer was
well on the way to becoming a scar, by now.
“I am not showing anything. I am not
writing for your consumption and entertainment, I am writing so that I am able
to look at my thoughts again, later. It is not for you that I write.”
She didn’t know what to say, but there was
a strange kind of hate cum envy in her eyes. She looked out of the train
window. The conversation was at an end.
I returned to my reading and my writing.
Aware that she was observing me from across the carriage, but not paying her
any more attention. I had become accustomed to hostility from people less
bright than myself, but I hadn’t expected to be attacked for reading on a
train. I thought it odd that a middle aged lady should be so hateful of
intellectual interest. It was odder still that she should assume to know what I
thought about myself, from me quietly reading and saying nothing to anyone.
Looking back, I do wonder if she were a little mad – and whether she projected
her own evaluation of me – that I was “so intelligent” – onto me and ascribed
it to me. This would be paranoid thinking and it seems quite possible now that
that explains her behaviour.
Yet, there is another explanation that
requires far less supposition: that she was hateful of any intellectual
activity – that she was “giftist” as I call it. If so, then that attitude was
alive and strong about a quarter of a century ago. Even now it is a toxic
memory. At the time it was rather like being awoken to the sensation of
sandpaper on one’s skin – a rasping reality that could not be ignored.
I have never forgotten her strange action –
but was only reminded of it, today, after long years, on sighting the word “annotate”.
Suddenly the event flooded into memory again.
It is a wonder that giftism is not more
widely spoken of. I even had to create the word myself, some years ago, since
at the time, there was not a single hit for it, on the Internet. Attitudes such
as this unknown lady’s are truly corrosive, in society and make life difficult
for more intellectually minded individuals. It seems likely that she behaved
toxically towards any seeming intellectual she met. How many people would she
bully in a lifetime? Hundreds, certainly...Imagine if she were a teacher, then
there would be thousands of victims. These people are very harmful to society
and to the health of a culture – yet she is not alone, there are many people
who hate the “gifted”, the “smart”, the “intellectuals”...and even pride
themselves on their hate. They think it “trendy” to attack the bookish, the
thoughtful, the preoccupied. That woman wouldn’t even leave a young man to read
in peace on a train, without trying to poison the experience.
I used to read a lot. I don’t read much
these days. Life seems to take up too much time to leave enough time to read as
much as I would like. Yet, I am now middle aged and I still see her words to me
as foreign. I couldn’t possibly imagine saying them to a youngster reading on a
train. I am more likely to feel glad they were reading and just to sneak a peek
at the book title, to see how weighty it might be. I would be happiest if it
were a complex and rich work. That is what I would like to see in the young
today...intellectual preoccupations, thoughtfulness and a desire to learn. I certainly
can’t imagine attacking anyone for it.
The UK has gone into a cultural and
intellectual decline in recent decades. No doubt that lady, who would now be a
pensioner, would be quite happy with the way things are going. I, however, are
not. Here’s to a future world in which every youngster reads on trains and
thinks in public. How much better a world that would be.
Posted by Valentine Cawley
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Labels: anti-intellectual, attitudes to the gifted, experience of the gifted, giftism, giftist, prejudice, unfounded hate and jealousy