Logophily: Not Understanding Is Underrated

Photo credit: I took this dumb picture of this dumb thing

I don’t know what kind of redneck [1] shit this is supposed to be. All I know is that when I saw it on sale for sixty-nine [2] cents at the [3] Bi-Lo, I had to have it.

Who’s the speaker? Who’s the interlocutor? Why would he or she not be one of the speaker’s three wishes [4]?

I don’t understand.

I like not understanding. The bottle cooler [5] provides me with a small puzzle, one that’s probably irresolvable [6].

Not understanding is underrated [7]. I like to read things that confuse me, though I usually look for a different kind of attention to craft than one finds on the above cooler, and a potentially if not actually different genre [8]. I particularly like it when I don’t understand words, because then I have to go learn them. I don’t just mean obfuscation [9], though that kind of thing can be nice, too, if it’s not precious [10]. (Thesaural abuse [11] doesn’t count. . . it’s just annoying.) But sesquipedalianism [12] is fine.

I like to learn while I read, so in a sense, I want to not [13] fully understand what I’m reading. There’s got to be a minimum standard of comprehension, if only in terms of the language family used: I won’t get very far in a German [14] text, and I won’t make it anywhere in a Korean [15] one.

But my affection for this extends to almost all kinds of not understanding, as long as they’re interesting [16]. I like it when form is weird, or when I can’t quite follow, as long as that not following seems to be something the author’s OK with.

There’s a feeling, perhaps sometimes a valid one, that any difficult [17] work is a trick pawned off on readers. Maybe it’s true, sometimes. There are charlatans in any field [18].

But the main problem isn’t wool-pulling; it’s that lots of people are suspicious of anything that’s difficult, that’s alienating, that might not be easily shared, that’s not transparent, that doesn’t transmit a clear message. Maybe it’s the same instinct that makes some people suspicious of introverts [19]: difficult work goes against the social order. We’re supposed to talk about shared cultural shit around the water cooler. When we do that, the talk is re-creation, and the reading or watching or whatever is supposed to have been recreation.

Difficult work reverses those: reading is a re-creation [20], and talking about it is the soothing part. It’s difficult to tell someone what Finnegan’s Wake is about or what it means, and that can make it hard to recommend reading the book [21].

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I like that you’re writing these difficult things. You like that you’re writing them. Some other people do, too. Maybe that’s enough.



1. See the 17 July issue, comics fans: http://www.pankmagazine.com/pankblog/logophily/logophily-rednecks-or-you-cant-tell-a-cartoon/

2. Three times twenty-three and all of that.

3. This purposefully out-of-touch use of the definite article is unendingly amusing (to me) (also probably unfortunately amusing, as far as anybody who talks to me is concerned).

4. Judging by the other coolers on display, some sort of commentary is being made on marriage.

5. So, here’s a brief riff on trademarks: I don’t call it a koozie, because I thought the term was trademarked, but the legal situation is slightly more complicated, and is getting hashed out right now, apparently. Maybe it’s just a regular old word, now. We’ll see. A more interesting previous occurence is when Duncan lost the trademark to yo-yo specifically (in part) because they’d billed their factory town as “Yo-yo capital of the world.” If Luck, Wisconsin was merely the place where yo-yos were made best or most prolifically, then they could be made elsewhere, with the same name.

6. The note here originally read “Unless I find out there’s a country song being referenced,” but I’ve checked. There isn’t one. (Of course, this note still reads the same, in part.)

7. You heard me.

8. Genre is bunk, in a sense. On the other hand, I’d like to see more poems, or koans, or anything, really, on can coolers.

9. The use of which word [etc]

10. Twee, overwrought, recherch. See the next note.

11. Studying words is a different thing altogether, but I’ll talk more about both. See many of the other notes; see a later column, as yet unwritten and unposted.

12. I always thought this word was a cheesy 19th-century thing, but it turns out to be from Horace. Sesqui means “one and a half,” and pedal means foot, in this case. In any case, because of my previous assumption, whenever I use sesquipedalian, I always end up using absquatulate within the same week. Ab means “away from,”and squatulate means squatulate.

13. What I’m doing here is fine. It’s fine. Relax. Stay cool.

14. Steven Pinker suggests that, based on the most commonly used words, German is more grammatically irregular than regular. The real problem for me, though, is that I haven’t studied it. I can count to twelve, and I’ve got a few other words, some cognates, and a vague sense of how the language works. And on a visit to Germany, I made it through a couple of transactions without having to speak English, based on my apparently Teutonic appearance and on the fact that I could correctly pronounce whatever it was I ordered from the train-station Pizza Hut menu.

15. All I know about Korean is what a bilingual creative writing student taught me once during a twenty-minute meeting. I didn’t retain much. If I were trying to read Korean, I’d just study the ideographs, which is an exoticizing thing to do, except inasmuch as I do that to Roman characters, too.

16. I can’t seem to make this non-tautological (because it is so tautological).

17. I can’t parse this easily. A brief, breezy internet search points out that every text is difficult for someone, the which is worth remembering. See notes 14 and 15.

18. The one who springs to mind, oddly, or perhaps not oddly, is a contemporary modernist: Thomas “He Is No Longer Alive” Kinkade.

19. Man, this part looks as though I’m pandering or auto-fluffing.

20. I’m overstating it for the sake of wordplay. Every act of reading is an act of creation; in certain texts, the point is creation of the original message. I’d talk more about deconstruction here, but I’m not qualified to do so, and anyway, I’m not sure it’d make a differance.

21. I once took a Joyce class with Michael Begnal. It was exceedingly helpful. We read everything (close-read everything) through Ulysses, but when we got to FW, he gave us a brief tour, pointed out the highlights, then told us there wasn’t much point in reading it for class.

  • Sheila Squillante

    Regarding the “out of touch use of the definite article”–P calls interstate 80, “the 80.” It drives me batty.

  • When people get bent out of shape about “difficult writing,” the first thing I think about is nonsense; How there is no such thing. The absence of sense? It seems to me that what really bothers people is too much sense, too many possibilities. People get frustrated by not being given enough direction by the writer about how to read. Sometimes this is legitimate and sometimes not.

    Someone once said, good poems (and it’s poems that piss people off the most, isn’t it?) are made of something stable and something unstable. It’s when those “things” seem to lack integrity, lack some kind of consistency, that people start throwing around the word nonsense, even though it’s the opposite happening.

  • @Jeff:


    That’s exceedingly helpful.

    Poetry seems to make the fewest people the loudest, if you see what I mean. The old chestnut about academic disputes and what’s at stake. But yes: barring personal antipathy on other levels, poets who don’t get along seem to get along less than other writers who don’t get along, barring the legendary literary disputes.

    But people say the same damn thing about for example Pollack. People say the same damn thing about Renoir, which is coming up in a. . . uh, an upcoming piece.

    Some people want a coffee table book and some people want a coloring book and some people want an unused sketchbook.

  • @Sheila:

    My absolute favorite formation is “the AOL.”

  • Roshan

    Is there a comprehensive course taught on Finnegan’s Wake..anywhere? The only undergraduate course
    i had that even touched Finnegan’s Wake was a course on experimental poetry…which, you know, Finnegan’s Wake is not. (or maybe it is, idfk)

  • The one I mention was a grad-level course, but I feel your pain. We only read Portrait of the Artist in the one Irish-lit class I had as an undergrad. (That one was taught by a Scotsman, if it makes a difference.)

    A buddy of mine teaches a full undergrad course on Infinite Jest, but that’s hardly the same thing (in several directions).