Thoughts Out of Season

The only thoughts that ultimately matter much are those which we may, following Nietzsche, call “thoughts out of season.” This is true in part because seasonal thoughts, by definition, do little to advance the discussion, and tend to merely amplify the ambient noise, but mainly because such thoughts, being reflections of one’s time and surroundings, are often difficult even to classify as thoughts at all in the strictest sense. They will typically be, at best, the sort of imbibed insights that we designate as “received wisdom,” and at worst, the sort of oppressive bromides that we cite as evidence of indoctrination, along the lines of all our trendy progressive “isms” and “phobias.”

Unseasonal thinking, however, is often confused (and this is itself one of our indoctrinated trendy notions) with mere contrarianism. Simply saying the opposite of what is generally said, for its own sake, is akin to deliberate non-conformism. The intentional non-conformist, paradoxically, represents a peculiar sub-type of conformism, in that he is orienting himself as any ordinary conformist does, namely by reference to social norms and others’ expectations. So, by analogy, with the contrarian, who is transparently seeking approval (including the indirect approval of being “shocking”), which is to say that insofar as he is orienting himself against the perceived voice of his audience, he is doing so mainly to get a rise out of that audience, i.e., to impress others.

But impressing others is the furthest thing from the mind of the genuine truth-seeker or straight talker. This man orients himself by the tenor of his time only in the sense that the attitudes and received wisdom of his age form the inescapable launching pad for his own musings. His primary interest in addressing the current truisms, however, is to plumb their depths until he uncovers the (typically unstated or forgotten) principles and premises of the popular views, so that he may examine these with regard to their internal coherence and unacknowledged implications. Due to the fact that most of the unseasonal thinker’s work in the realm of common opinion is archaeological, his own overt statements or reference points will often appear somewhat closer to one or another of the standard views than they really are. This is an indication of the extent to which this person differs from the mere contrarian. Sounding contrary is of no concern to him. Hence, he will often find himself beset with unintended or unexpected allies — people who assume he is saying what they believe, because they are not really attending to what he is thinking, but only to the parts of what he says that their own ears are already attuned to hear.

In this age of interchangeable soundbites, paint-by-numbers Twitter rants, and public discussion so simplified and superficial that even communication between two native speakers of the same tongue tends to sound as though it has been filtered through Google Translate, the man who dares to try expressing a thought out of season is almost certain to be cheered on as “one of us,” or spat upon as “one of them,” in either case without his thought having truly been heard by anyone, let alone digested. In other words, it will provide none of its valuable nutrition to anyone, but only the corn syrup they happen to prefer, or the acidity they happen to hate.

I conclude with an example of what I mean by a thought out of season — a thought, in this case, that has only grown more gloriously unseasonal (and impenetrable to the common mind of the age) in the thirty-five years since it was published.

MISOGYNIST. From our earliest days every one of us is faced with a mother and a father, a femininity and a masculinity. And thus marked by a harmonious or disharmonious relation with each of these two archetypes. Gynophobes (misogynists) occur not only among men but among women as well, and there are as many gynophobes as there are androphobes (men and women who live in disharmony with the masculine archetype). Both these attitudes are fully legitimate possibilities of the human condition. Feminist manicheism has never considered the issue of androphobia and has transformed misogyny into mere insult. Thus the psychological component of the notion, the only one that is interesting, is evaded.

— Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (Linda Asher translation)

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