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Exceptionalism and tribal meaning

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Stephen Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind posting on being a writer sets out a contrast between the exceptionalism that tempts a writer to pull rank based on the special work he/she does, on the one hand, and the need for tribal meaning that actually tempts lots of people to write (or participate in other arts, too). The posting reminded me of an encounter with a doctor who seemed steeped in the exceptionalist attitude and another encounter with a doctor/writer who felt otherwise. I left this comment on Steve’s site:

I took someone to see a plastic surgeon once. The doctor had a huge collection of diplomas and awards in his hallway, and I saw that his M.D. degree was from the University of Iowa. He was there at the same time I was doing my own graduate work. Breaking the ice, I mentioned that we had been in Iowa City at the same time. I mentioned what I studied, and he said that he had been on the other side of the river, performing surgeries. A slight chill swept through the room, brought on by his tone of voice as he compared what I had been doing with his own lofty work.

Not in the mood to offend the doctor who was about to take care of someone who mattered to me, I let it pass, but I remembered meeting the surgeon/writer Richard Selzer back in Iowa City, and chatting with him in the hallway of the English-Philosophy Building, near the offices of the Writers’ Workshop, and getting the unmistakable impression that writing had deepened his life as a doctor in ways that he found very satisfying and that made him proud. He felt no need to pull rank– we were people who liked to write in order to make sense of our lives, having a conversation about it. Very nice of him, I thought. We had this common ground.

There is exceptionalism, as you say, and then there is tribal meaning. According to the one story, I failed to become the next great American poet and no dissertations will be written about my balanced compositions. According to the other story, I am almost always happy when I have been writing, and some of what I write reaches people.

As Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

In the same spirit, here is Kurt Spellmeyer setting up a chapter that considers perhaps the same contrast that Kuusisto offers:

So completely have professionals remade knowledge in their own image that most of us find it had, and possibly absurd, to seek knowledge fro anyone else. (Arts of Living 221)

The understanding of knowledge he describes seems so familiar that it is no surprise that experts often inhabit it without giving a second thought; the tone that comes from it helps to explain the great anger that boils up from time to time in our country over the ways of the powerful, their sense of entitlement, their satisfaction with things as they are, their control of public discourse and even common sense.

As in an earlier entry on Kuusisto’s writing, some fail to notice the opportunities for new knowledge embodied in difference. And then there is the matter of democracy.

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