The World is an Obtuse Angle

My pal came up with that one. He was describing this blog. “You know,” he said, “when you’re writing that The-World-Is-An-Obtuse-Angle stuff.” I laughed. It’s a good description, I’m not sure I can say it better. I even thought about re-naming the blog, but TWIAOA is not as neat as HCN, even if it is closer to the mark.

I used to teach geometry, a beautiful subject, but one that school makes a mess of. Imagine learning about Beethoven and only having sheet music. No instruments, no recordings, just humming along (assuming you can read it) while the teacher talks about how beautiful it is. I’m sure you’ll feel it. Yup, you’ll be a fan of lovely, lovely Ludwig van all the rest of your days.

In geometry, an obtuse angle is greater than ninety degrees. An angle less than that is acute. In real life, obtuse means dense, and not in a good way like gold is dense, that is, substantial. No, dense in the sense of slow-witted, with acute being its antonym and meaning quick or clever. Partridge says obtuse is from a Latin verb meaning to beat against, to blunt or dull an edge for example, like on a weapon or other instrument.

And that suits me. I feel like I go through the world with a couple of oven mitts on. I don’t have the sharpest tools for making sense of things. I don’t know if it’s just me or if the rest of humanity is like this. I’m tempted to say that it’s the normal state of affairs for the entire race. My ham-fisted probing of the wonders of nature is on par with my fellow earthlings. We like to think we are clever, with our science and our technology, and we are, I can’t deny it, we are indeed clever. Electromagnetic theory alone, of all our inventions, will continue to keep us busy for generations. We are just like the sorcerer’s apprentice—we can tap into the magic and make it do groovy stuff but we really don’t have a fucking clue about why that shit is the way it is.

But who says you have to? Isn’t an operational definition enough? Why seek why? Isn’t how and what enough? That’s the best we can do, I imagine. We can bang away at the vast chthonic mess in front of us and figure a few things out. No need to get metaphysical about it all. Unless that helps, of course. But I’m suspicious of things that can’t be field-tested. I understand that people seem to need all sorts of celestial mumbo-jumbo to tie it all together and try to make it all mean something. Hey, whatever gets you through the night.

I’m too obtuse for that, though. The believing game is so much harder to play than the doubting game. It’s easy to poke holes. What’s hard is not seeing them in the first place. Maybe there’s a benefit to dulling the senses, one can overlook annoying details while looking for the big picture. It’s like brainstorming, when you ask for ideas from a group without any censoring or evaluation. Some people can’t do it. They say something and the objection comes tumbling out right after. Or they piggyback on another’s idea and shoot it down. It actually takes a lot of mental discipline to do it right, to be free and spontaneous, when it seems like it should be easier. It’s because we are trained to be critics, and the suspension of disbelief is equated with naivete or gullibility.

A critic’s job is not to criticize. It’s to point out something we are missing. Book and movie reviews are avenues for the critic to talk about their artistic criteria and whether or not said form lived up to it. Who cares? It’s just another goddamn opinion. I want a critic that says “hey, you haven’t heard/seen/read this, you ought to take a look, you are missing out on something you might like.” I don’t want “this thing stinks because blah-blah-blah.” I want to be led to something new that will enrich me. I don’t want to be steered away from things, I want to be invited toward them. Remember when you had a friend turn you on to some artist or music that you had no idea about? Remember how joyous that moment was when you got it and felt it and knew that creation would be part of your life? That’s what I want from a critic.

So you have to be sharp enough to avoid getting bamboozled, but dull enough to learn something new. Receptivity is the key, and that’s a function of the heart, not the head. You need a good head on your shoulders so you don’t fall victim to the world and all its asinine schemes. But you also have to embrace inconsistencies and contradictions and immerse yourself in the unknown, otherwise you’ll never be transformed. After all the world is a goddamn obtuse angle: broad, blunt, and hard to see around; you don’t know what you’ll need in your pocket for the next adventure.

2 thoughts on “The World is an Obtuse Angle

  1. Good post, although I have to disagree. You say the doubting game is much easier to play than the believing game. I think it’s just the opposite. We have too much belief and not enough doubt. Doubt might make us, say, examine our presidential candidates’ statements before voting. I don’t mean doubt as you describe it, which sounds to me more like belief in the negative, I mean doubt as foregoing certainty until you can examine the premise from different angles, poke at it to see if there are any holes, field test it, if possible. Sure, when X says something and Y says “I doubt it” that is just another “no, it’s not.”. That’s not doubt. Doubt is “maybe … let’s think this through”. Couldn’t we use a little more of this kind of doubt? I’ll go farther. Don’t you need doubt to have faith? It could be religious faith or faith in a premise. Faith is not belief, believing without doubt is just an inactive mind. It is only through doubting, examining, testing that you arrive at faith. Sounds like science, but it is equally true for matters politic, or of the heart.

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    • I’m a skeptic by nature, and doubt is part of my makeup. Science cannot proceed without it, of course. Belief is harder, I think, because you have to turn off that “yeah, but” muscle that is always working. At least that’s the case for me. I liken it to listening. We have (or at least I do) this massive urge to but in and say “well, I think” when the right thing to do is keep silent and suspend disbelief and let the speaker spin their web. How often do we actually get inside someone else’s head and feel what they are saying instead of simply viewing it as a counterpoint to what we think? Argument is more highly valued by scholars, but too often it involves one side “winning” over the other. Does the “loser” change his mind? I don’t know. Seems to me a good argument is one that opens another’s mind and allows them to see things in a new way. That requires empathy, which is an act of faith, a belief that another person has something valid or meaningful to say due to the uniqueness of their makeup and/or experience. I suppose I learn best these days by asking fewer questions, unlike the young me who was always questioning things.

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