The Curse of the High IQ
What’s it like to have nothing to lean on in this bleak world but nihilism?
Aaron Clarey’s new book, The Curse of the High IQ, takes an exceedingly unromantic look at the misfit misery of being too smart. Which is odd, seeing as how nearly every intelligent person who hasn’t shot himself has survived thanks to that point in his mind where reason gives in to romance.
The smarter you are, the more insistently your logical mind will come back to the fact that the sun will explode someday, and we’re too busy making photo-sharing apps to solve the light-speed problem; nothing we do will last. So your clever arse needs some magical thinking to give life the false and rosy—and psychologically essential—glow of meaning (otherwise known as dopamine).
Some are lucky enough to believe in a God; problem solved. For others, salvation is the irrational attachment to breeding and/or dominating as many of the bred as possible. Those blessed with strong constitutions stay drunk or high. For idiots of my particular stripe, the backup generator for that delusional illumination is cobbled out of art and literature.
For Clarey, it’s making money that hits the dopamine button: getting paid so you can get laid and enjoy other hedonistic or status-boosting treats. Which is fine as far as it goes, but this very utilitarian solution keeps you on the verge of the abyss; despair is only a delayed fix away, when there’s nothing to cushion the blow of all that nothingness. Which finally leads me to the main point of this review: I’d kind of like to slap the shit out of Aaron Clarey’s high school English teachers.
My friendly neighbor Matt Forney has already pointed out the irony of the title of Curse of the High IQ, since the text itself highlights Clarey’s failure in the mechanics of written English (he’s hired me to proofread it, sneaking in my disclosure, but we’ll see if he actually listens to me). As Matt puts it, Aaron writes like he has a 90 IQ, though he claims it’s around 140, and judging by his work in economics I don’t think that’s a hollow boast. Forney chalks Aaron’s philistinism up to laziness and tells him to read a book. But judging from Clarey’s emotionally steamy critique of high school English teachers, he also seems to be too hostile to enjoy fine prose. I’m guessing he had a castrating ass-hat for an English teacher at some point, and she turned him off literature completely. (Not that his own stubbornness did him any favors.)
Like Forney, I’m of two minds about this book; I was looking forward to reviewing it before Matt told me about the grammar train crash. IQ is the foundational debate that’s silently stewing under our public policy brouhahas, from immigration to welfare to the question of how in Satan’s name so many women are falling for the obvious reptilian that calls itself “Hillary Clinton.” And reading the book certainly gave me some insights into my own past, or at least gave me opportunities to wallow in self-pity.
Curse highlights the genuine suffering that being surrounded by morons causes for the dwindling number of bright kids; there are a few words for parents, but mostly it’s a book of advice for young people. People at the extremes of intelligence become painfully rare the further out you go on the bell curve; due to economy of scale, institutions like work and school are designed for the average bear—and if you want to talk about a nerdy kid who was ill-served by a school system, I am the queen of the goddamn sob stories.
I’ve said before that anyone who wants to complain to me about inner-city schools can go screw themselves; like Clarey, I was unfortunate enough to be born in Wisconsin. The world gives less than a damn about my tiny town, and I taught myself to read using the comics section in the local paper when I was less than three years old.
That’s right; the rest of you were struggling to conceptualize toilets while I was reading books. What was my prize for such genius? I got to read aloud to my kindergarten class so the slutty teacher could go outside for a cigarette break with her boyfriend while the kids threw wadded-up paper at the freak. Unlike Clarey, I was never unaware that I was a nerd. On the other hand, I didn’t think it was an advantage. It was a curse that made the kids hate you and the teachers ignore you. I joked to myself that I would have been even more convenient to everyone around me if I died.
As if I weren’t already enough of a freak, my elementary school decided to deal with it by making me skip a grade, which guaranteed I would get the crap beat out of me on the regular by the bigger, older farm girls. Not that there was anything else to do with me. “Gifted and talented” programs were limited to a one-year experiment when I was in fifth or sixth grade; all of the extra money in the tiny budget was already eaten up by the special education programs. Because morons are “special.” (And then they were shocked when I took up with Ayn Rand in high school.)
In the process of having me skip a grade, instead of bothering to teach me second-grade math, they sent me home over the summer with the math textbook, figuring that if I could teach myself to read and write, then I could teach myself to divide and multiply, too.
Which might have worked out fine, except that this was the summer my mother chose to completely melt down. I still associate basic mathematics with shoving my fingers in my ears and trying to poke out my brain while Baby Boomers screamed at each other and in my general direction; I guess it’s roughly the same reason Clarey has for being hostile to literature, come to think of it.
However, unlike Clarey, I do try to keep up a basic literacy in my less-favored topics; I don’t bitterly denigrate the contributions to civilization that people who have specialized in math and science have made. This may have something to do with the fact that reading the great books (as opposed to skimming the Cliffs Notes so you can sound like an educated person) lets you get to know what the other guy’s point of view looks like.
Not to mention the fact that it teaches you to be happier. We may come from similar hellholes, but as prickly and serial-killer-like as I am, even I can’t listen to Clarey’s podcast persona without thinking, Christ, this guy is grumpy as shit. (And this is coming from someone who’s threatened to kill people for standing still on an escalator.) Clarey needs to read Thackeray like a neckbeard needs a blow job. He even seems pissed off when he’s riding his motorcycle to Mexico for fun. And without reading the great writers of the Western tradition and deluding myself that they were on my side (dead though they might be), I probably would have been Clarey-level bitter myself.
I got lucky with my high school English teacher—and all he had to do was be a little kind to me instead of punishing me for falling asleep in class. Which is why the typical government school teacher is so enraging. All you have to do is not be a socialist control freak, ladies. Instead of giving me detention he invented a bunch of independent studies credits, letting me loose in the school for most of the day to become a feral animal or some weird orc, learning the now-useless art of printing photos, becoming fluent in French by talking to myself, trying to play a broken 50-year-old oboe, and writing my first science fiction novel. If I didn’t spend much time on math, it was because I actually had to show up for that class, and the crazy moron I had for a math teacher was not OK with narcolepsy. But I didn’t thereby decide all math and technology was for ass-clowns like my teacher.
When Clarey makes blanket fun of liberal arts majors (he even mocks the ridiculously difficult ones, like sixteenth-century French poetry—DUDE! You can’t even handle 21st-century English!), I almost feel sorry for him. I’m completely sympathetic to math guys when they say they don’t want to share their income with lit people, because experientially we got the better deal, even if I have had to work night and day to make a living as an editor and follow my vocation on the side. Remember when we were friends back in junior high and the morons were kicking sand in our faces? We went one way and you went the other but whichever path you choose, it’s a trade-off. There is only so much time to master things in life. But if you don’t occasionally blow off steam enjoying the sublime greatness that is Western art and literature, and you don’t believe in God either, then I don’t know how you function day to day.
Maybe they get by on feeling superior. Here’s the passage from Curse that almost made my eyes fall out of my head; it’s in a section near the end where Clarey lists the several ways that people of excellence deal with the fact that an imperfect world will never live up to their greatness.
The Playboy Pursuit of Greatness—This is a combination of hedonism and pursuing greatness, but largely on your terms and only if it’s worth your time. You don’t put forth your full effort, you don’t aim to realize your full potential, but demonstrate and achieve excellence when it suits you, is beneficial, and takes minimal effort. This turns the pursuit of excellent [sic] from a costly and life-consuming profession into that of a flippant intellectual sport or hobby. This usually manifests itself in the form of literature or philosophy, very much like Voltaire’s and Socrates’ criticisms of society. It’s neither toil-intensive nor revolutionary work, but it has the hallmarks of “intellectual greatness” including literary excellence and a heavy dose of misanthropy. In short, you know society is preventing you from achieving your best, so you don’t pursue it.
Look, kid. (I was born in the first week of ’75, so there’s no way he’s older than I am.) Are you aware that Voltaire was repeatedly deported and imprisoned in the goddamn Bastille for bringing about the very Enlightenment that allows you to have a free market to analyze? You root for the Stefan Molyneux podcast on your show. How can you not be aware of the fact that Socrates was freaking killed by the mob for his efforts to bring reason and evidence to Western civilization?
We upbraid SJW-types for their ingratitude, bitching about European culture while enjoying the comforts that the dreaded white males have invented for us. Well, maybe you could say a little thanks to Voltaire for going through all that crap so you can have the freedom to make a grand a day consulting.
It was philosophy and literature that built the ideological framework for the liberties we enjoy. Stefan Molyneux doesn’t spread free market ideas by writing code, he does it with philosophy. The Marquis de Sade suffered in the Bastille too, just so you could have Internet porn. The fact that green-haired idiots whose written English is no better than Clarey’s have taken over literature departments doesn’t mean freaking John Locke was an idle playboy. That’s like saying the entire gaming industry is worthless because Anita Sarkeesian thinks she’s part of it.
I’ll certainly grant Clarey the point that any dope can get an English degree. This is why I apprenticed at zines and newspapers instead while I washed dishes for a living. This helped me avoid one of the worst smart-people problems Clarey complains about in Curse: having imbeciles for bosses. Once I got the skills to snare full-time publishing jobs, my bosses may have been assholes, but they’re never idiots; in an industry where you’re not allowed to make errors, no English Ph.D. can help you fake it. Clarey might make fun of 16th-century French poetry, but if morons could become his superiors in finance, then it sounds like the field he judiciously picked was actually too easy for him.
Not that I don’t benefit from his misery. His podcast is like hearing one of my old drinking buddies talking to an economist talking to Bill Burr (and it’s all going on in one head). Weirdly, his spoken English sounds fine—although, since we were born in the same shitty year in the same shitty state, it’s possible that he sounds good to me because we both talk like idiots in the same way.
But when he picks up the pen, though he’s occasionally entertaining, he’s not making a great argument for the continuation of Western literature.
Not that this is what he’s set out to do.
Then again, who has?
Some days it feels like I’m one of about five people in the world who are trying to maintain a literary tradition—and even my books are goofy as hell. But the rest of the right and the left spend all their time cowriting a YouTube soap opera called Race War Now!
Particularly if you don’t believe in God, for the West to be worth saving, there has to be something beyond wealth and technology and Pixar to do it for. Otherwise we’re one more boring anthill making more ants and more hills. Who cares if our hill is the biggest? Now that God is dead, there’s no point in having all the top-shelf liquor in the world if you don’t have Bukowski and Thackeray to sip it to. Song is worship. Art is religion. Story and song are the numinous. People go to the cathedral to listen to the organ, dammit. And without the revolutionary words of Voltaire and Socrates shaming the mob and the tyrants, there would be no market freedom for you ingrates to sensibly study in the first place.
So, er . . . several thousand words later, should you buy this book?
I dunno. I’m about twice the age of the target demographic, so my gut reaction—”Dude, that’s the tenth time you’ve told me that morons are keeping me down; can we move on to some useful information, like how to kill them all?”—isn’t terribly useful. If you’re in high school and your dumb teachers make you feel crappy, you may well benefit from this book. If you want more practical advice for young people, you’re better off reading Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major. If you’re old and it’s too late to avoid taking your lumps, you’ll get more entertainment out of Clarey’s podcasts.