"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 27, 2021

Non Sequiturs–The Art Of Looking Good While Making No Sense

Brandy Barstow knew that what she was about to say was shaky in evidence; but she thought she would give it a try, turn attention her way, and give a hint that she was on topic and intelligently so.  She chose not to notice the quizzical smiles and blank looks around the table, so she kept banging on with surmised dates, places and events, a hodgepodge of dimly-remembered, never really understood items.

It was a polite group – old friends and next door neighbors – so no one called her out on her iffy references.  Let her be and move on was their motto.  Some were more generous and listened for some thread of relevance to Brandy’s comments, but finding none joined in the demurral and waited for her to finish.

The only hope of silence from her end of the table was a topic so far removed from her experience – generational music, the club scene, sea turtle harvesting in the Caribbean – that no matter how hard she tried, no matter how she searched her archives, bits and pieces of half-read articles, social media innuendoes, or snatches of conversation from a decade ago, she could find nothing of even the slightest relevance.

However, the silence was short lived because Brandy had mastered the art of the non sequitur, an conversational twist to assure attention.  “Changing the subject”, she would say, and would go on to introduce something well within her wheelhouse.  This could only be done in a knowing and forgiving group, but she never ventured far afield in her social contacts.

Image result for Non Sequitur Cartoons Funny

Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, a dutiful amanuensis and faithful recorder of the great man’s thoughts once wrote an interesting aside in an addendum to his principle work, Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Ah, the marvelous non sequitur, carefully attuned and resonating with seeming intelligence but devoid of it, is the refuge of the intellectual scoundrel whose archives are misfiled, references jumbled, and are a collection of random bits of invented knowledge and pawned as sensibility and good sense.  The master of the non sequitur is a genius of insertion, standing before a field of gentle, rhythmically swaying wheat, understanding nothing of its subtlety, marvelous harmony, and poetic eloquence, stomping  the graceful stalks, and leaving a ragged trail of deliberate carelessness.

Johnson, of course, had no patience for the non sequitur and even less for its perpetrator.  “Inane souls”, he told Boswell.  “Inept intelligence if there ever were any to be so categorized, an abomination of the species”

Image result for Image Samuel Johnson. Size: 166 x 204. Source: fr.wikipedia.org

The non sequitur became the art of minor courtiers who raised a chalice to the king and recited gilded tales confected from childhood nurseries, scraps of Jerusalem parchment, and fabulous rejiggering of Petrarch’s love poetry. The knights of the court and especially the bishops at first turned with interest to the non sequiturist.  The fragments in and of themselves showed some pith; but after a minute of two they were lost in a scrambled potpourri of nonsensical meaning.  Meanwhile the non sequiturist overlooking their perplexity which he took as serious intent, chattered on until whatever scintilla of relevance might have been gleaned from his words had disappeared entirely.

Brandy Barstow had perfected what Boswell had called ‘the mental pas de deux’ – intervening in logical conversations with bits of personalized, fictionalized, and sensational news to turn heads one’s way; and then when internal order had returned, coming up with an ‘illusory, magnificently irrelevant’ story.  A one-two punch a modern critic had called it. Lead with implausibility and uppercut with a non sequitur.

Some friends wondered why Brandy was given a bye and left to barging in; but realized it was a matter of good taste.  One simply did not disrupt a good dinner party by saying ‘bullshit’.  

The thing of it was that Brandy knew exactly what she was doing.  In calmer, private moments she admitted to herself that in less forgiving company she would never get away with her menial diversions.  At the same time, she was so seduced by the attention paid to her by her circle of friends, that she decided to venture out and invited acquaintances she knew only by reputation – men and women of respectable class, manners, and education.

She, however, had not counted on Harvard Professor Emeritus Harcourt Roberts who was from a marvelous family of good breeding but who had eschewed a career in investment banking at the family Wall Street investment bank and became one of Harvard’s best-known academics.  

Roberts had gained a reputation not only for the quality of his work on the Enlightenment but for his acerbic, devastating dismantling of lesser minds.  In his retirement he had become a smiling, generous man who won friends with his charm; but those who had seen him with fools, knew that he had not lost a step.

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Brandy invited Harcourt Roberts on the basis of having seen his tame, gentle, gregarious side and his family pedigree; so was shocked when, at the first of her fictional comments looked at her directly and said, ‘Nonsense’.

She smiled and fumbled for a justification, and came up with a reworking of what she knew was an idea cobbled together from dimly-remembered articles from The Journal and The Times.  ‘Absolute nonsense’, said the Professor, and turned to the lovely, bejeweled woman to his left, a premier thinker herself, limited only by her sex and the generation in which she came up. 

Brandy was flummoxed.  Never before had this happened.  Never in her unearthing of personal references of a remote, no longer relevant past; or in her confabulations about German history and the Tsars had she ever been so humiliated.  Not only that, the other members of the dinner party vetted on the flimsiest criteria of ‘standing’ and ‘personability’ were not unlike Professor Roberts and did not come to Brandy’s aid.  She was left on the curb.

One would have thought that this rude calling out of her fancy would have chastened her so that no one would have to listen to her digressions.  Her badly-made intellectual quilts should have been retired and left to the moths long ago. But no.  There was apparently no end to this unfortunate psychological vanity, and in fact no less of an authority than Freud weighed in on it

The human psyche is a fragile work, always in need of support.  If it doesn’t find it in others, it will feed upon itself, creating barriers, bulwarks, and ramparts of protective armor.  And once the battlements have been put in place, there is no storming them, and the fragile psyche goes on a vengeful crusade. Beware of this poorly defensive psyche but understand that its expressions come from a weak and damaged super-ego.

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Even had Brandy read or understood Freud, she would have rejected his ideas out of hand.  Part of her nature was an automatic rejection of criticism, another chapter in Freud’s book of emotional pathologies.  She no sooner would accept the fact that she blathered – and there was really no other term for it – than change her favorite dress. 

She was not a bad person, meant well, was reasonably intelligent; but simply couldn’t help herself.  She could be annoying, irritating, and at times maddening; but once she emerged from the circle, she behaved herself.  Although this respite was only down time before another non sequitur performance, it helped.

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