Dramatic interlude

I’m reading Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust, with much interest and profit.

There’s a great bit at the beginning of chapter 6, “Skills for a Social Life.”

The social world and its awesome complexity has long been the focus of performances – informally in improvised skits around the campfire, and more formally, in elaborate productions by professionals on massive stages. Among the cast of characters in a play, there is inevitably a wide variation in social intelligence, sometimes with a tragic end, as in King Lear. [p 118]

I love that, because it’s not always noticed enough that much of Lear’s problem is that he’s just stupid. He’s stupid in the way that people who have too much status and flattery can be – he’s socially stupid. It’s a special kind of Dunning-Kruger effect that belongs to the rich and/or powerful and/or high-status – their money or power or status deludes them into thinking they are clever and shrewd and wise, and they’re too stupid to realize it’s a delusion. Prince Charles is a classic case of this – he persists in thinking the world wants and needs his views on things, and that they’re good views, informed views, wise views, when if he had the sense of a gopher he would know they’re no such thing.

Poor Lear is thick as a plank. He says to his three daughters “I’m going to reward you according to how much you say you love me” and then he does just that – because he’s lived a whole lifetime without ever realizing that people can lie?

He lacks social intelligence, to put it mildly. Cordelia and Kent make a doomed last-minute effort to teach it to him, but since he lacks it, he sees this as a reason to banish them. Dunning-Kruger, you see.

It’s not really a tragic flaw in the usual sense – it’s not impressive or awe-inspiring, it’s just pathetic and laughable. It’s clever of Shakespeare to be able to make the results tragic all the same…and yet one of the great, blood-chilling things about the play is the way the pathetic laughable aspect is always right there, in your face. Lear is an ancient spoiled baby, like Mr Woodhouse, yet the tragedy is still tragic.


  1. Stilts says

    Ain’t that just it, though?

    Thanks to helpful interfaith activists, we’ve all heard the parable about the six blind men and the elephant, yes? (The guy at the front feels the ears and says “the elephant is shaped like a fan!” and the guy in the middle feels the legs and says “the elephant is shaped like a tree!” and so on.)

    These men are meant to represent the various religions “finding” what is ultimately the same god.

    But why not do science to it?

    Why not compare notes, rather than each man insisting that he and only he could possibly see the entire elephant?

    Why not attempt to reproduce the findings (“No, really, it feels like a fan… oh, here, follow the sound of my voice. Here. Here, you feel it? Isn’t that just like a fan?”) instead of each man sitting down and deciding that obviously everyone else must have it wrong?

    And, no, the interfaith answer (“Let’s all just say nice things about the elephant and nod sagely along with each other’s prognostications without actually making any effort to reconcile or reach agreement.”) is not satisfying.

  2. says

    Jane Austen might be poking some fun at the gentry when she created Mr. Woodhouse. I remember you saying somewhere that she’s always pokes fun at her characters,

    Mr. Woodhouse cares a lot about his food, and his doctor, Mr. Perry, is his favorite person in the world – not leaving out Emma either.

    Regarding money and land in ‘Emma’, it’s obvious that, in Highbury at least, Mr. Woodhouse is second only to Mr. Knightley. Being rich doesn’t keep them from being stupid.


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