Nuccio Ordine argues that “usefulness”, when thought of as that which has utility, which can make money, or which can be practically applied to solve a problem, limits our capacity to be fully human. His thesis is that utility has its limits, but in recent times, I think particularly during industrialisation and the spread of capitalism, utility has acquired a dominant position. He argues that this dominance impedes our ability to become fully human and live satisfying lives.
His own idea of “usefulness” is “everything that helps us become better” – by which he means anything which helps us grow, anything which helps us to develop and, to live more meaningful, richer lives.
He is concerned about “the logic of profit” and how political leaders nowadays are always talking only about money. He claims that leaders in the past, for example spiritual leaders, would teach about value, honor, and purpose…..qualities and values in life which couldn’t be purchased. What’s worse he says, is that this overwhelming emphasis on money isn’t making life better for most people. He gives the examples of the 2008 financial crash and the use of austerity measures by Western governments since, and he also cites the huge growth in inequality especially over the last few decades.
All of that is maybe not so earth-shattering. I’m sure we’ve all thought about those things before, and we probably find ourselves in conversations about that a lot. But then things start to get really interesting when he says
“In the universe of utilitarianism, a hammer is worth more than a symphony, a knife more than a poem, and a monkey wrench more than a painting: because it is easy to understand the efficacy of a tool while it is ever more difficult to understand the utility of music, literature, or art.”
That’s a beautifully written passage and at that point I begin to think, hey, yes, isn’t that true? How much does music, art and literature mean to me? A lot! But I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why that’s “useful”.
I don’t listen to music, look at art, read or write to some “end”, to “achieve some goal”. And I think there’s something in there for me to remember, because I think when I write non-fiction, like these blog posts, maybe I’m consciously, or at least sub-consciously, writing to make things better. In other words, writing for a purpose. Yet, I often find it annoying when I read texts written by others who have that same goal! Elisabeth Gilbert says in her “Big Magic” book…“please don’t write a self-help book”?
Then he says
“Now it is important for me to underline the vital importance of those values that we cannot weigh and measure with instruments calibrated to assess quantitas and not qualitas. And, at the same time, I wish to make a claim for the fundamental nature of those investments that do not produce immediate returns and cannot be turned into cash.”
People not data
Well, that’s right up my street again, because I have felt for a long time that the most important aspects of medical practice are NOT what can be measured with the machines, but rather the qualities which individuals experience.
I’ve never really been satisfied by visual analogue score systems that try to reduce human experiences and stories to numbers in a range. I remember once having dinner with some dentists after having delivered an address to their annual meeting. The subject was symptoms, such as pain….what they meant. One of them told me about a chronic facial pain clinic which they’d taken over from their predecessor. They were a bit taken aback when they asked the first patient, “How are you doing?” and they replied “9”, then the next patient did the same thing. “How are you?” “7”. The whole clinic proceeded that way. Puzzled, he asked one of the clinic nurses what was going on, why were people responding to his questions with numbers? “Oh, Dr. X, your predecessor devised a scoring system for pain and he trained the patients to tell him what number on the scale represented their pain level. If someone began by telling him a story about what had happened since their last visit, he’d say “Stop. I want the next thing that comes out of your mouth to be a number. Nothing else!” He was pretty scary.”
Numbers aren’t a good way to understand human beings.
However, the author says more than that….he says he wants to make the case for investing in what does not produce immediate returns or money. He wants to make the case for curiosity, from the satisfaction that arises from understanding something better, for the joy of wonder, and for all those apparently “useless” activities that make us human – singing, dancing, drawing, painting, and the pursuit of knowledge.
Effort and passion
“True, everything can be bought. From legislators to judges, from power to success: everything has its price. But not knowledge: the price to be paid for knowing is of a completely different kind. Not even a blank check would allow us to acquire mechanically what is the exclusive fruit of an individual effort and an inexhaustible passion. No one, in short, can tread the laborious path to learning in our stead.”
Learning takes effort. It’s a personal pursuit. Nobody can learn for you. The key there for me is “the exclusive fruit of an individual effort and an inexhaustible passion” – effort and passion – a great combination!
Nobody can learn something for us. Knowledge doesn’t just appear. You can’t just buy it from a shop. It takes time and it takes effort. And there is the key – it’s in the living – it’s in the personal “journey” (oops, don’t like that word very much), it’s in the everyday experiences which gradually make us who we are. He quotes from Dickens’ “Hard Times” on this subject, describing his character, the teacher, Thomas Gradgrind’s approach to education –
“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” The enemy of teaching open to imagination, sentiments, and affection, Gradgrind is introduced “with a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket … ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.” For him, education and life are reduced to a “mere question of figures,” to a “case of simple arithmetic.” Just as the young pupils are considered to be “little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts.”
He also quotes Socrates –
“It would be really fine, Agathon, if knowledge were able to flow from the fullest to the emptiest among us and all we had to do was to be in contact one with the other, like the water that flows along a woollen thread from the fuller goblet to the emptier one.”
That reminded me of when I was a teenager. My best friend and I were insatiably curious kids, always finding things out together and conducting our own experiments. We came across the notion of sleep learning. So my friend hooked up a cassette player to two long wires attached to an old loudspeaker we’d salvaged from an old valve radio, and placed the speaker under his pillow. He got me to recite his French vocabulary for the week onto the cassette tape and set the recorder up with a timer so it would come on during the night and play him the words in his sleep…….didn’t work! He didn’t remember a single one of them!!
So learning doesn’t come without effort!
Mutual benefits of sharing
The next point Nuccio Ordine makes is that knowledge challenges the laws of the market place because we can share our knowledge with others without making ourselves one bit poorer. In fact, it’s the opposite – when we share our learning we both gain – both teacher and learner.
“I can teach a student the theory of relativity or read together with her a page of Montaigne thereby giving rise to a miraculous virtuous circle in which both the giver and the receiver are enriched at the same time.”
My experience of teaching, especially in Japan, was that every single time I learned something. I never came away thinking I’d been giving something away in the sense of losing something, or that I was making myself poorer. I felt that I, too, had gained. I learned a new way of explaining something, or I saw a new connection, or I learned a different way of looking at something. I always came away feeling enriched.
Then read this –
“The gaze fixed on the objective to be attained makes it impossible to grasp the joy of little everyday gestures and to discover the beauty that pulses through our lives: in a sunset, in a starry sky, in the tenderness of a kiss, in a flower that blooms, in the flight of a butterfly, and in a child’s smile. Because, often, greatness is perceived better in the simplest things.”
Oh, isn’t that beautiful?? I love, love, love that! And there it is – “l’émerveillement du quotidien” – the wonder of the everyday….my favourite! If we fill our lives with the busy pursuit of short term goals, the days slip by, literally, without us noticing.
He says –
“Kakuzo Okakura, in describing the tea ritual, identified the pleasure of picking a flower to give to a lady friend as the precise moment in which the human species rose above the animals.”
Here’s the value of not only noticing, but choosing to share. Isn’t that where art, music and knowledge excel? I thought of the cave art I’ve seen in France. All those animals painted in the depths of the caves, something which took so much effort, but why? Nobody knows. Maybe that’s because we are so busy trying to figure out what use the art was, that we miss, not only the sheer pleasure of creation and the satisfaction of creation, but also how art adds meaning and purpose to life.
That got me thinking too about the cup and ring markings on the stones in Kilmartin valley. How nobody can explain them either. But maybe they are art not utility?
Seeing beauty and choosing to share it with another – that is a characteristic which makes us uniquely human.
“Being an artist,” says Rainer Maria Rilke in a passage from Letters to a Young Poet, “means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”
Not “reckoning and counting” but “ripening” – ooh, lovely. I love to watch the new buds appearing on the trees in the Spring, the opening of the bright green new leaves from the buds and the sudden appearance of the blossom.
Nuccio mentions Ionesco in the book,
“the need to imagine and create, is as fundamental as the need to breathe”
which is a slight twist on my previously understood “stories are as fundamental as breathing” But I agree, where would we be without our imagination and our creativity?
“Especially when there is an economic crisis, when the temptations of utilitarianism and the wickedest egoism seem to be the only star and the only lifeline, we need to understand that it is precisely those activities deemed useless that could help us escape from prison, save us from asphyxia, transform a dull life, a non-life, into a fluid and dynamic one, oriented toward a curiositas for the spirit and human affairs.”
That made me think of the whole purpose of my “heroes not zombies” blog. It touches on my core value of “curiosity” – curiosity and wonder as drivers in life, as opposed to the desire to possess and consume…..
Here’s another passage explaining his theme –
“While the biophysicist and philosopher Pierre Lecomte du Noüy invited us to reflect on the fact that “in the scale of beings, only man performs useless acts,” two psychotherapists (Miguel Benasayag and Gérard Schmit) suggest that “the usefulness of the useless is the usefulness of life, of creation, of love and desire,” because “the useless produces that which is most useful to us, which is created without shortcuts, without saving time, over and above the mirage created by society.”
Empathy and connection
Time for another insight which is shifting my thinking – this time he quotes the author, Mario Vargas Llosa –
“Mario Vargas Llosa, on receiving the Nobel Prize in 2010, rightly pointed out that “a world without literature would be a world without desires or ideals or irreverence, a world of automatons deprived of what makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.”
There’s the bit that struck me – “the capacity to move out of oneself and into another…” It’s not just that these “useless” activities are for fun, pleasure, or to satisfy curiosity. It’s that they move use out of ourselves and into another – stories do that for sure. Paintings do it. Music does it. I think of concerts I’ve been to where I feel moved to tears from the sheer power of the SHARED experience of the music with the other fans.
A work of art doesn’t ask to be born
“If we think about it, though, a work of art does not ask to come into the world. Or to borrow another splendid observation by Ionesco, the work of art “asks to be born” in the same way “as a child asks to be born”: “A child is not born for society’s sake,” the dramatist explains, “although society claims him. He is born for the sake of being born. A work of art too is born for the sake of being born, it imposes itself on its author, it demands existence without asking or considering whether society has called for it or not.”
I like this too. Another “satori” moment – all this creation, all this art, does not “ask to be born” – just like how we do not ask to be born – we are not born for the sake of society – or even to promulgate a few strands of DNA as Dawkins would have us believe! Can you think of art this way? Again I thought of Elisabeth Gilbert and how she talks about the muse – how if we don’t grasp it, it’ll travel off to find someone else who will!
This book really resonated with me. It affirms the value of things like “blue sky thinking” instead of goal-orientated or problem-solving activities. It affirms the value of quality over quantity. But it also sings about FREEDOM – the freedom to BE, to BECOME, to explore, to follow your curiosity and your creativity – not to get to a particular place but JUST COS! Just cos its fun, it’s wonderful, it’s satisfying.
“Free men” have no problems with time and have to account to no one, whereas “servants” are ruled by the clock and by a master who decides”
I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. ALBERT EINSTEIN,
It is pleasure, not possession, which makes us happy. MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE, Essays
The book finishes with an essay from Abraham Flexner who created the Flexner Institute at Princeton University – an institute which offers academics of many disciplines some time there where the only thing they have to do is turn up and take part – nobody tells them what they should or shouldn’t research or teach. They are encouraged to dream, to imagine, to follow their curiosity and to inspire each other – and it goes on and on that way – the academics don’t work there for life – they go for a few months or years and then return to their other universities, jobs etc – then maybe years later will go again for another spell. Wow! I’ve never heard of such a thing! I’ve often heard university academics talk about how they were fed up chasing funding – that every single grant had to be applied for, fought for, and it had to be shown how the research would be USEFUL!
In this final essay, Flexner gives many examples of how scientists who were simply pursuing their curiosity, following a sense of wonder and a desire to simply understand more, often made discoveries which later led to world changing inventions. Others saw something practical or applicable in their discoveries and turned them into useful technologies, but they were building on the those very “blue sky”, free, thoughts and activities of their “less practical” predecessors.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as I’m sure you can tell. It’s a healthy riposte to the bean counters!