Good Faith

I mostly agree with Ron Rosenbaum’s take on Ulysses: it is overrated and walks a fine line between novel and stunt but still has its moments, the best part being the Q&A format of “Ithaca”.  At the book’s worst, this is a fair characterization:

Ulysses is an overwrought, overwritten epic of gratingly obvious, self-congratulatory, show-off erudition that, with its overstuffed symbolism and leaden attempts at humor, is bearable only by terminal graduate students who demand we validate the time they’ve wasted reading it.

The only thing I take issue with is concluding crack about about terminal graduate students. I don’t want to rag on Rosenbaum specifically here since he’s clearly making a joke, but I’ve heard others haul out a similar line in all seriousness. Too often when presented with another person who does not share our aesthetic tastes, instead of treating this as an entirely unsurprising state of affairs, we assume that person is objectively wrong and then set about solving the mystery of how it could be. The answer inevitably turns out to be an act of bad faith that reflects a character deficiency the other guy is helpless to control. So if you like Ulysses and I don’t, it’s because you are a terminal graduate student. If you like French New Wave movies and I don’t, it’s because you are a shallow, pretentious, Europhile straining to impress. If you like big-budget action movies and I don’t, it’s because you’re stupid. If you like going to Starbucks while I prefer the hip local coffeehouse–well, of course it is impossible that anyone would actually prefer Starbucks, so you must have been brainwashed by their corporate marketing or something.

There’s nothing wrong with questioning a person’s motives–and taste is in fact a reflection of tribal allegiance–but the presumption of bad faith is a variety of ad hominem and a lousy place to begin a disagreement, if only because it leaves you nowhere else to go. (We should try banning the words “pretentious” and “commercial” from all aesthetic debates for a while, just to see what happens.) Even when your dander is up, is it best to start from the assumption that the emperor is merely wearing a flesh-colored body suit, and he has his reasons.

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