Tuesday, January 29, 2008

`Them's the Jockies for Me!'

The least important thing I can know about you are your opinions du jour (before they ossify, opinions are as fog in the noonday sun). This passage, dated June 1827, is from Coleridge’s Table Talk:

“Silence does not always mark wisdom. I was at dinner, some time ago, in company with a man, who listened to me and said nothing for a long time; but he nodded his head, and I thought him intelligent. At length, towards the end of the dinner, some apple dumplings were placed on the table, and my man had no sooner seen them, than he burst forth with: `Them’s the jockies for me!’ I wished [Dr. Johan Gaspar] Spurzheim could have examined the fellow’s head.”

The joke is on Coleridge, a typhoon of raging opinions. His dinner companion’s silence was probably involuntary. Coleridge, likely stoked on claret and laudanum, could have out-talked Fidel Castro and, like El Jefe, had opinions on every subject. There’s a strange algebra at work here, one with applications beyond Coleridge. An inverse ratio exists between knowledge on one side, and vehemence and duration of expression on the other. The less our certainty, the louder and longer we opine. Coleridge appears to have no awareness of his vanity. So long as the man nods his head – approval? bafflement? politeness? Coleridge-induced catatonia? – the poet judges him intelligent. Only when the guest shifts his enthusiasm to apple dumplings does Coleridge deem him a moron.

Spurzheim (1776-1832) was an early proponent of phrenology, the pseudo-science of reading character in the size and shape of the head (Whitman was an enthusiast). I admire the dining partner’s gustatory opinion (nothing could be more heartfelt) and that colorfully peculiar word “jockies.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites Coleridge’s usage and defines “jockey” in this context as “fellow, lad, chap.” Of course, Coleridge was a tireless prevaricator, and we have no way of knowing whether the apple-dumpling man existed. I thought of him while reading Bryan Appleyard’s excellent post “On Opinion,” including:

“Certainly a large number of people I know seems to define themselves through opinions and to judge others by theirs. I am incapable of doing this, which is, I'm afraid, a very disabling condition. I console myself that it is the times that are at fault, not me.”

Presumably, the human impulse to opine aggressively is immemorial, and it’s only the proliferation of new media that makes it seem so unrelenting. Most comments on most blogs come in two basic forms: “I agree!” or “I disagree!” Could anything be more tiresome or less useful? It’s the latest manifestation of human self-importance, of course, but it also represents a degraded understanding of democracy. The right of free expression has devolved into the obligation of free expression. Online editions of newspapers, in their drive to attract readers, encourage comments on every story, review and editorial. Predictably, the loudest, shrillest, least informed voices prevail. As Appleyard says:

“We don't call the view of a stupid fifteen-year-old something different from the opinion of a wise sixty-year-old. I suppose 'opinion' is just a way of pretending there is more solidity to the people we meet than there actually is.”

As to solidity, remember Coleridge’s dinner guest: “Them’s the jockies for me!” That’s solid.