Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why feel guilty?

Yesterday's Guardian weekend magazine included an odd filler-article which let a number of 'great brains' let us in on their guilty pleasures. Read it online here. There was a healthy variety of intellectuals assembled, but I get the feeling that they either did not all get the point or else found it impossible not to turn a simple statement of their preferred leisure activity into a deep and meaningful excursus into the hidden complexities of something the rest of us mere mortals find merely trivial or not a recognisable pleasure at all. Richard Dawkins, for example, reveals his guilty pleasure is 'computer programming':

I have now kicked the habit, but every so often the craving returns and I must thrust it down and away. But whence the guilt? Isn't programming useful? In the right hands, yes. But my projects (inventing a word processor, machine translation from one programming language to another, inventing a programming language of my own) could all be done better (and were) by professionals. It was a classic addiction: prolonged frustration, occasionally rewarded by a briefly glowing fix of achievement. It was that pernicious "just one more push to see what's over the next mountain and then I'll call it a day" syndrome. It was a lonely vice, interfering with sleeping, eating, useful work and healthy human intercourse. I'm glad it's over and I won't start up again. Except ... perhaps one day, just a little ...

Such a wag, that Dawkins. Others (Stephen Pinker, say) threaten to turn their chosen pleasure (in his case, rock music) into another domain for their particular intellectual efforts but eventually recognise how odd this would seem. (Martha Nussbaum gives a nice account of why she loves baseball only slightly marred by a gratuitous reference to Marcus Aurelius.)
My question, reading this, was: What are our expectations, as non-intellectuals, reading this? Would we be comforted if Professor X said she simply loved reading Popbitch every week? Or are we disappointed since we want to imagine her relaxing with some challenging Hungarian cinema? Do we want these people do have a life beyond their profession or do we think there should be no possibility of having sensibly compartmentalised bits of a person's life? Does a linguist confirm or disappoint our expectations if he feels the urge to point out the interesting syntactical and lexical quirks of pop lyrics? (Or, perhaps, rage at the confusion of two similar verbs...)
I hope we don't insist that these pleasures should be guilty (a point one or two contributors do make) or else our 'intellectuals' are condemned to be less approachable and less relevant to the rest of us. (There is, of course, the related question of whether we need or want this handy category of 'intellectual', but that's a topic for another day.)


shevy said...

I do not understand why you draw to make a line, claiming "they" are intellectuals (and thus different from the "others")

Such a distinction is simply bad in my opinion.

Aaron Trevena said...

Dawkins is spot on, both professional and amateur programmers can find themselves writing software and reinventing wheels in their spare time because it solving problems can be compulsive, addictive, fraustrating, time consuming and results in a moment of pride and elation when you've cracked something - hence the popularity of soduko, crosswords, etc - coding combines the problem solving of crosswords and soduko with the engineering and tinkering involved in doing up a house, fixing up a car or motorbike, or renovating antiques, and like all of them can be a profession or a hobbie, or even both.

Jack said...

Dawkins has written about this elsewhere, I remember coming across it a while back. I found it fascinating at the time and see myself doing the same thing with my favorite language, Perl. I make some of my own system scripts and find myself perfecting the indentations, changing the variable names to balance brevity and clarity, and obsessing over the comments and usage notes.