An Unbearable Brightness of Being

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Graduate school gave me mixed signals about intelligence. Every now and then I try to sort them out.

Thirty-five years after I earned my master’s degree from the University of Virginia, the nature of my own intellect remains unclear to me. For a long time, I wondered just what kind of “intelligent” I might be—and if I was particularly intelligent at all. My degree was in English Language and Literature, so I had the extravagant opportunity to read great books for two years while I avoided making a career decision. That, alone, was worth the price of tuition. But graduate school, like so many early, formative experiences, tends to teach more than is promised on the syllabus.

Here’s the conundrum. People always told me I was a “bright” kid, so I grew up feeling bright—whatever that means. Interestingly, people didn’t characterize me as “smart” or “intellectual,” which suggested that “bright” wasn’t merely a separate adjective, but an entirely different category of intelligence. The smart kids got crazy-high SAT scores and went on to elite colleges. My friend Richard was smart. He was salutatorian in our high school class. He understood calculus. He studied at a desk. Intellectual kids, on the other hand, didn’t have great grades so much as talk like they did. They embraced fashionably obscure subjects like the theater of the absurd. They sat together in the lunchroom and talked about intellectual things, which was downright alarming to the rest of us. I suspect they didn’t like Beckett as much as they said.

Purple, Pompous, and Turgid

To me, being bright meant your grades weren’t as good as they should have been—solid, but not dazzling enough for top-tier schools. Let’s not even talk about SAT scores. Apparently, those tests were written for students like Richard. When I entered college, my transcript continued the narrative begun in high school, suggesting I possessed an agile mind and rich imagination but a fairly poor work ethic. What I lacked in drive I made up for with speed, writing literature papers in a few hours. I figured if I sounded authoritative, I could rely less on actually reading the text. This approach earned me a note from one professor describing my prose as “purple, pompous, and turgid.” The only word I knew in that trio was “pompous”—and it turned out to be the least offensive.

By the time I applied to graduate school, I had a more mature interest in reading and writing, so I figured I’d indulge in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Eliot for two years. By that time, I’d decided being “bright” meant possessing a quick, adaptable, and creative mind. Such a mind, I believed, engaged perhaps not as deeply with a subject as true intellectual minds do; but it could quickly identify a clever paper topic, construct a plausible argument, and still have time for Miami Vice. It was in graduate school, however, that I learned the best students are both smart and intellectual, which was really unnerving. These brainiacs actually understood Foucault and debated the merits of the panopticon over Heinekens and cigarettes. In class they used words like tautology and mimetic.

My first graduate school paper yielded a B+. I was reasonably pleased since it was consistent with my college grades. When I showed it to my girlfriend, who was a more accomplished student than I, she explained, somewhat hesitantly, that a B+ in grad school is like a D in college. Stung by this repudiation, I studied how she prepared and wrote papers. It was a revelation to watch her work; and it made me wonder how I missed learning so much in college. Nonetheless, I persevered and over the course of my next few papers nudged my grades into the A- zone.

When it was time to choose a topic for my master’s thesis, I froze up like a shy kid in the school play. How could a mind like mine, so unused to the rigors of literary analysis, compose a 50-page paper on anything? Terrified, I decided to write on T. S. Eliot, whose work I liked but didn’t actually understand. Working under the guidance of the stern, old J. C. Levenson, I set about writing the vaguely titled “Incongruity in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot.” Though I dreaded this project, I felt I’d chanced upon a clever topic which, though not terribly theoretical, presented a helpful lens on Eliot’s corpus. The poet’s conversion to Anglicanism, I argued, was an inflection point in his literary and spiritual life, after which, early references to fragmentation and dissociation give way to visions of order, unity, even harmony. I could tell my advisor hated it. It was so badly organized, he made me go back and develop an outline after I’d already written 20 pages. It was humiliating.

As I slogged through my nightmare thesis, I also had a short paper due in my “Backgrounds to Medieval Literature” class. This course explored the influences of classical and early Christian writers on medieval writers, with the syllabus including obscure names like Boethius, John of Salisbury, and Jean de Meun. The course was a struggle for me, but I found myself attracted to St. Augustine’s Confessions and decided on that for my paper topic. Having spent so much time on my thesis, I procrastinated hopelessly on the Confessions piece and ended up writing it all in one feverish afternoon and evening. In the paper, I applied the literary device of catachresis (once described as the “violent yoking” of irreconcilable concepts) to St. Augustine’s conception of Christ, who, I noted, was at once man and god, flesh and spirit, dead and alive. Christ, particularly as represented in the act of transubstantiation, was the quintessential catachresis; in him, impossibly heterogeneous elements were fused in a perfect and miraculous unity. It was a relatively brief paper—maybe five pages or so. I turned it in with my fingers crossed, having dashed it off so unceremoniously.

Brilliant or Merely Facile?

When the semester wound down, my graded papers found their way back to me. My thesis earned a grudging A- and a laconic remark from Professor Levenson implying I wasn’t cut out for modernist poetry. My Confessions paper, meanwhile—and to my absolute astonishment—yielded an A+. What’s more, the professor remarked that my paper had changed how he would teach St. Augustine in the future. Reading his remarks, I felt like an accidental shoplifter standing outside a department store in a fit of ambivalence. I had no idea what to make of these utterly contradictory experiences.

From these two papers radiated the mixed signals of graduate school. My thesis, in which I undertook to present a sustained and sophisticated argument, was a dud. My Confessions paper, dashed off in a day, won extraordinary praise. In an expansive context where my intellectual skills were most thoroughly tested, I showed as merely competent. Yet, where I had limited space to develop an engaging argument, I had changed my professor’s approach to St. Augustine. Depending on the perspective I chose, I could conclude I had acquitted myself brilliantly in a challengingly short paper—or had been merely facile.

My girlfriend, whom I later married, went on to earn her PhD and become a real-deal scholar, publishing a trio of books on nineteenth-century British literature. I wrapped up my master’s and moved into marketing communications. Once there, I spent less time trying to define what “bright” means or looks like. No longer in an environment where people judge each other’s specific brand of intelligence, I relaxed into my unique intellectual identity the way you wear a pair of broken-in loafers. Every now and then, though, those mixed signals come back at me—like when my daughter, studying sociology in college, sent me a Foucault article for my opinion. After a few minutes wading through the French philosopher’s swampy prose, I handed the article to my wife—not so much in defeat as growing comprehension of a more settled intellectual identity. After all, I remind myself, I’m more of a St. Augustine guy.

2 thoughts on “An Unbearable Brightness of Being

  1. Gosh, this piece takes me right back to my own grad school days and all their peculiar anxieties. I’m not sure I should thank you for that moment of transport, as now my old doubts and questions have resurfaced–but this post seems honest and right and spot-on.

  2. Really liked this.

    American developmental psychologist Howard Gardener described 9 types of intelligence:

    Naturalist (nature smart)
    Musical (sound smart)
    Logical-mathematical (number/reasoning smart)
    Existential (life smart)
    Interpersonal (people smart)
    Bodily-kinesthetic (body smart)
    Linguistic (word smart)
    Intra-personal (self smart)
    Spatial (picture smart)

    Yet our high schools, undergraduate and graduate schools focus on language and math aptitude as primary indicia of intelligence.

    Time for our schools to develop greater intra-personal intelligence so they can help their students discover their own brand of intelligence. So glad you’ve discovered yours!

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