Sunday, June 18, 2006

Thoughts on no thoughts

Yesterday, at a lovely picnic involving unpasteurised camembert and some very fine olive ciabiatta, my friend Dr T told me a brilliant joke:

Q: What's red and invisible?
A: No tomatoes.
I love this joke. It is a pretty decent distillation of the kind of thing I find funny -- a happy meeting of the absurd, a slighty giddy mismatch with everyday assumptions and a kind of ruthless internal logic. But it also struck me as a miniature story of Xtin's Everyday at the moment -- and best of all, a teeny-tiny story with a wee message of hope for Xtin! Good lord, a joke that doubles as an After School Special. But we all know how much I loves me a metaphor. Or three.

My favourite metaphorical thing about the No Tomato Joke is that it's a crack about nothing. Or more precisely, some not-things. Just for some laughs, indulge me in a philosophical sidebar that brings out this contrast nicely. Pop quiz: what's wrong with the following?

(1) Nothing is better than true happiness.
(2) A peanut butter sandwich is better than nothing.
Conclusion: A peanut butter sandwich is better than true happiness.
Heh. Good one. Anyway, the thing that's wrong here is the same thing that makes the No Tomato Joke work. My life is full of metaphorical not-tomatoes right now. It gives me a spark of glee to think that there is a glimmer of humour in it.

I've been struggling pretty vainly to get out from under the stifling weight of Having To Have Ideas. You know: Thoughts. The Big Ones. The Interesting Ones. The (erk, cringe) New Ones. Pardon my attack of Germanified nouns.

I mean, you know, just an idea or two for the fracking blog would be fine, dude! But the inside of my mind has smooth, uninterrupted edges like a dimple in granite worn smooth by ten thousand million raindrops; the echo in an amphitheatre with the atmosphere of loss that comes from a millenia of no audience. Only they're both too damn majestic. It's really more like wandering the aisles of a huge supermarket, each shelf lined with a capitalist cornucopia of comsumer goods, where each one varies from the one next to it only by the shape of the New And Improved! starburst-pattern.

As a matter of fact, I am mercifully over the stage in my dissertation where I need to have any new ideas. There is enough to thrash out the pages and sprinkle The Big Idea(s) judiciously among them. But the plastic-wrapped monotony of my mega-mart mind is depressing the living hell out of me. There isn't enough time to learn a billionth of a percent of all the things that I'd love to know about, and right now I can't even remember why any of it is interesting -- or how I might take it apart and put it back together so that I can make a different Lego spaceship. All I'm having are no-thoughts. Thoughts about the no-thoughts. Thoughts about how all the non-thoughty stuff later turns into some thoughtish stuff. No-thoughts that stand around the edges of the skating rink, tottering on their rented skates and taunting me with their excruciating inelegance.

But remember our After School Special? To hell with the bourgeoise limits of non-existence! If no-tomatoes can be red, then no-thoughts can be ... something. And, dear reader, do you want to know the best part of this story? I just tracked down this lovely Platonic ideal of a nice red tomato to grace the opening of this post. Because no-tomatoes are invisible, and Google Images doesn't handle that well.

But Blogger won't upload it.



Heidi the Hick said...

"....cognitive science and of physics, and a bunch of other things."

What's in the bunch of other things????

Heidi the Hick said...

"But the inside of my mind has smooth, uninterrupted edges like a dimple in granite worn smooth by ten thousand million raindrops; the echo in an amphitheatre with the atmosphere of loss that comes from a millenia of no audience."

Okay, that is beautiful.

Xtin said...

Thanks Heidi. Although I've realised I didn't edit correctly and that's a grammatical error there. There shouldn't be an "a" in front of "millenia"! Curses. Shall I revise history? :)

"... cognitive science and of physics, and a bunch of other things."

Did I write this somewhere? I have a vague recollection but I can't place it ...

EOL said...

Xtin, there's only one thing to do when one's mind feels rubbed smooth: Do something with your body.

Time to go punting.

Heidi the Hick said...

The other quote was actually from the link you made to the long haired Australian philosopher's site. I didn't catch your grammatical error though. Slid right past me!

do go punting, and maybe make some echo noises under the bridges. It's kind of fun. I'm taking my smooth mind grocery shopping now...

Xtin said...

Punting. Oh my. What a great plan. *writes note in diary*

Yeah, Heidi -- that Chalmers dude is a pretty terrifying polymath. Very, very big brain. I try not to think about it too much. I might hide under the bed with my blankie.

Tom Bozzo said...

I couldn't let 'Lego spaceship' pass... I had much the same feeling a couple years ago when I dusted off my D with the thought of advancing the one or two Big Ideas therein. Unfortunately, I managed to complete (from the position of having a job for which a PhD wasn't strictly necessary) in part by getting past the idea that I should make Bigger ideas and instead embracing the "best dissertation is a complete dissertation" concept.

So I found myself regretting the excessive compression of some of the writing and the lack of access to whatever I had been thinking before I started getting paid to think about specific subjects. A side effect was that figuring the effort-reward ratio for resuscitating my one-time research program as a non-academic contributed to the decision to start blogging.

Mei said...

But doesn't that sound just like the "thinking about thinking" you must go through for a PhD? Or in your case, another couple of levels too!

You have to do it so you can share a roll of the eyes and a half smile when you bond with others of the group you're joining!

And like an overworked muscle that goes wrong a bit now, it'll be better for it later.

I wish you didn't write white on black. It's so tempting but... :-S

Good luck.