In Which Our Hero Appeals to Lesser Intellects
Updated: May 3, 2021
By Elizabeth Jackson
My Dear Sir,
I write to you because I find myself (per usual) in the pernicious predicament of being monstrously misunderstood by my colleagues. This time, they have taken umbrage with my adoption of the identity “Devil’s Advocate.” Really, my dear Dante, it is quite marvelous. Never was there a more effective way to hold the floor and regale an audience with one’s own insights. In the same session—nay, in the same breath—one may make a blistering observation and then promptly recite its opposite Ingenious. Regrettably my classmates do not seem to share my enthusiasm for this device.
Some lesser intellectuals have called my comments “tangential.” Can you imagine? All because I invited them to ponder how the world might have been altered forever if Karl Marx had been ambidextrous. Think of it! He never would have written the Communist Manifesto if he had constantly to choose whether to write it with his right hand (proving himself a true everyman) or with his left (proving himself daring, a leader). His own hands, trapping him between the two identities he sought to inhabit—just imagine the constant self-betrayal and crises of confidence that would have occurred!
I also have an intense investment in those secondary literary figures for whom no one seems to spare a thought. The little people, you know? I am sure you, too, empathize with such persons, especially given your fairly recent (and, if I may speak plainly as a new but steadfast friend, somewhat nondescript) emergence into the pages of The Blue and White. I embraced the role of Devil’s Advocate again during a discussion of Pride and Prejudice to defend Mr. William Collins—a thoroughly misunderstood man, as I’m sure you will agree. His only flaw is that he is too obliging, too apologetic, too eager to please. But is this really a flaw, I asked my classmates, or is it rather a subtle indication that he is more deserving of the leading lady’s affections than the dapper and disdainful Darcy? I must also confess to, on occasion, drafting the same sorts of “elegant compliments” that Mr. Collins admits to, in advance of gatherings large or small. You can imagine my irritation when this behavior was roundly ridiculed.
Reactions to these and others of my valid but controversial points have included laughter, eye rolling, and deeply unsubtle ankle-kicking beneath the seminar table. Recently, my comments even caused one dramatic soul to acquire a physician’s note diagnosing her with “acute intestinal distress resulting from over-exposure to irrelevant and distressing monologues.” She is now permitted to exit the classroom when I am called on. These displays of profound (and unwarranted) displeasure baffle and vex me greatly. I seek your capable counsel, friend, in order to regain the respect of my compatriots. Fail me not! My social future rests upon your shoulders.
Your faithful servant,
It’s a treat to correspond with a seasoned pro like yourself. I’m as big a Blue and White history buff as any, so I’m well aware of your longstanding place amidst the highest minds on Columbia’s campus. I know that in your heyday—6 or 7 years ago, I think—your wit and gumption were the stuff of legend. I also know that your personal essays for many years helped shape our magazine’s voice (for better or worse.) Confused as I am about when you plan on graduating, it’s an honor to publish your insecurities in my column.
I’ve always heard around the newsroom that your … intellectual might … tends to bring conversations to an awestruck halt, but I’d never considered the social burdens you must face as a result of your brain’s speed and impenetrability. That’s not necessarily your fault, though. Your peers were likely caught off guard by your seemingly unfamiliar or inflammatory arguments. Marx has only just recently entered the popular canon, so your theory-dense hypotheticals were always doomed to fail in a classroom of mere undergrads.
Likewise, most Columbia students would never be brave enough to vocally support Mr. Collins or his incel-adjacent courting tactics, so it’s no wonder that you made a mark on your peers in doing so. I won’t say whether I agree or disagree with your stances on these hot-button issues—mainly because I know our Editor-in-Chief is so firmly in your pocket—but I will advise you to make some attitude changes if you want to regain your social footing.
The biggest challenge you’re facing, other than reclaiming your “Greatest Eponymous B&W Contributor” status from yours truly (an unlikely feat), seems to be your classmates’ intellectual immaturity. It’s obvious that they’ve yet to be exposed to the sort of free dialogues you wish to inspire, likely because so few people think like you. It’s up to you to change that. What you need most is an audience, and a big one, at that.
As I’m sure you observed in Lit Hum, sharing a collective forum can often lead disparate minds to an understanding. Now, I doubt your classmates or their friends would be willing to see you outside of your Hamilton seminar room (given their intellectual immaturity and all), so you might have to rely on some good old fashioned grassroots organizing to get your ideas out there. Try setting up shop at 1020 Bar during their Tuesday night Trivia and reciting your theories for anyone who will pay attention. Really open up to these people, let them know how your mind works. Maybe even workshop your TED talk. And definitely bring along a personal microphone and sound system in order to maximize your reach. No promises, but this is sure to get you some attention, and maybe even some friends. It all depends on how the dive bar crowd feels about Mr. Collins.
I know it might seem like everyone in your CC class and the Blue and White staff thinks you’re an outdated, pretentious weirdo, but I promise it’s just because you haven’t found the right audience. There’s no better place to do so than amidst a sweaty crowd of drunk academics on Trivia Night.
Please let me know how this goes.
Best of Luck,
In hindsight, the amplifier had not been Verily’s most practical choice. But Dante had advised that he procure one for the occasion and so here he was, maneuvering the substantial speaker through the cluster of individuals chatting insipidly near the door while trying valiantly not to hang himself with the devious microphone cord.
In the throes of his struggle, Verily was cheered by the presence of an open seat near the central platform where the apparent Master of Ceremonies (a determined-looking giant wearing a T-shirt that instructed Verily to clap his hands if he loved Webster and he knew it) stood sorting through trivia questions on index cards.
Arriving at the vacant chair, Verily shook hands with the others at the table, introduced himself, asked for and promptly forgot all of their names, and inquired about joining their team. He received an affirmative response.
The giant on the stage began bellowing instructions at the crowd, sounding like a cross between a pro-wrestling announcer and an auctioneer.
“Alllllll right folks, let’s get started! Let’s. Get. Started! At the center of your tables you’ll find a notepad! When I ask a question, you’ll have two minutes to discuss with your groups and write down an answer! One answer! For the whole group, one answer! You’ll then pass your answers to me and I’ll write down the points for each group on this! WHITEBOARD!” In the absence of a cape to whip off and reveal the whiteboard, the MC contented himself with giving the board two very loud whacks with the palm of his hand. The easel wobbled threateningly.
“We’ll start with an easy one today, folks, to get everybody warrrrrmed up! So! What was the most important speech that Abraham Lincoln gave after the single bloodiest battle of the Civil War?”
The crowd began murmuring, and ice clinked as glasses were slid across tables to make way for frenzied scribbling. Verily assumed a thinking stance, leaned forward, eyes closed, index fingers to his temples, and ruminated.
“Hey, Verily,” the manbunned youth next to him tapped his shoulder. “We’re thinking ‘the Gettysburg Address.’ You good if we write that down?”
Verily pursed his lips. “The Gettysburg Address? That’s a bit pedestrian, wouldn’t you agree?”
Manbun looked puzzled. “Pedestrian? Can a factual answer be pedestrian?”
“The correct answer is almost certainly Lincoln’s recitation of ‘The Tribute to the Murdered Duncan’ from Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2. Lincoln read this passage and several others aloud to his companions on the River Queen as he was sailing home to Washington from Richmond. General Lee surrendered while Lincoln was journeying home.”
“But the question,” said the bespectacled girl across from Verily, “is the most important speech—”
“This is important!” Verily insisted, picking up Manbun’s half-full glass and banging it against the table for emphasis. A fountain of whiskey burst from the glass, slopping onto the table and splattering those unable to shift quickly enough. Verily’s teammates looked warily at each other.
“Okay, man,” conceded Manbun evenly, “go ahead and write that down. It’s just the first question, anyway.”
“I thank you for your belief in me,” Verily said seriously. “It will not prove to be misplaced.”
After handing in the answer, Verily waited expectantly for the MC to shower his team with points and accolades.
“Allllll right, most of you got this one correct, the answer is indeed the Gettysburg Address!” Most groups gave triumphant cheers. Verily leapt to his feet, switching on the amplifier.
“This is an outrage!” he bellowed into the microphone. Before anyone could answer, Verily barreled on, “Allow me to explain the insight of my group’s response. Lincoln was very fond of Shakespeare, and mere days before his death he recited to a crowd of people the tribute to one of Shakespeare’s fallen leaders.”
“Sorry, mate, I asked for the most important speech, but that’s some cool niche knowledge you got there!” the MC said kindly.
“Important?” Verily said incredulously, “Our sixteenth president subconsciously predicted his own assassination mere days before it happened by identifying himself with King Duncan after Macbeth murdered him. This could be evidence of clairvoyance! Of determinism! Of us all being cosmic chess pieces! And you, sir, stand here telling me that the Gettysburg address is more important?!”
“Um. Yes?” said the MC with uncertainty, shuffling his index cards.
“Dude, please sit down,” Spectacles Girl said wearily. Verily, conscious of Dante’s words that tonight would be an opportunity to win over (rather than alienate) his peers, obliged.
The MC quickly returned to his chipper demeanor, rattling off questions as Verily tried desperately to rally his increasingly exasperated compatriots.
They humored him for a few more questions, agreeing readily enough when he insisted that there were, in fact, 119 elements because his “dear friend up at the Massachusetts Institute” had managed to synthesize ununennium when he skipped lunch one fine Tuesday. They likewise assented with only minimal grumbling to his idea that the primary hazard for sailors during the 15th and 16th centuries was not scurvy, but a dearth of writing implements with which to map their course.
However, even Manbun, patient to a fault, drew the line when Verily asserted that Frederick Douglass’s death had actually been caused by an altercation with a wild turkey.
“He was indoors!” Manbun exclaimed.
“Contrary to popular belief, wild turkeys do not fear the indoors,” Verily reasoned amiably, feeling bold enough to give Manbun a collegial pat on the shoulder.
“We are not writing that down. He died of a heart attack,” Manbun said with labored serenity.
“Well, chum, wouldn’t an encounter with a wild turkey have the potential to give you a heart attack?” Verily asked conspiratorially.
Shaking his head, Manbun scrawled “heart attack” and handed it roughly to the MC, earning them their first points of the game.
Verily knew he had to change tactics. His teammates did not appear to be warming up to him. He looked around for inspiration and, far away, spotted Alias Alibi, Verily’s principal competitor for the esteem of his CC professor. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Alias would traipse into class, wearing sweaters that were (fashionably) several sizes too large, sit at the end of the table, and offer esoteric, cynical insights without ever raising a hand. He was deliberately ethereal. He leaned back impossibly far in his chair. He constantly smelled of cigar smoke. He was, as one of Verily’s other classmates had once dreamily put it, pure literary rock and roll. Verily despised him.
However, even Verily had to admit that Alias knew how to work a room. His teammates were all smiling, gazing in barely concealed, tequila-glazed admiration as he sat sprawled in his chair, awaiting the next question with serene confidence.
Verily suddenly realized that he’d been trying too hard. He needed to appear blasé, that was what the intellectually immature (as Dante had called them) adored. As the MC read off the next question—“Name a common element of slapstick”—and told the audience to raise their hands rather than writing their responses down, Verily perched his feet on the table and leaned back to the optimally relaxed angle in his chair. Spectacles had raised her hand, and the MC had just called on her when Verily noticed his chair teetering.
“NO!” Verily yelped, as he felt his weight carry him backwards. He waved about in total panic, grasping onto the microphone cord only to bring the entire amplifier apparatus crashing down on top of him.
In a dazed heap on the floor, Verily only dimly heard the MC yell, “Physical comedy! And a demonstration to boot! Two points to the team at the front!”