THE DOUBTER’S COMPANION: A DICTIONARY OF AGGRESSIVE COMMON SENSE
2014: 20TH Anniversary Reissue with an introduction by Douglas Coupland
A long and distinguished tradition of writers have used the form of a satirical dictionary to undermine the received ideas of their day. Voltaire wrote a sharply humorous “Philosophical Dictionary,” while Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of the English language was derisive and opinionated. These early dictionaries and encyclopedias were really weapons in a struggle for the soul of civilization between forces of humanistic enlightenment and the forces of orthodoxy and dogmatism. Their authors attacked and exposed the half-truths of their day by showing that it was possible to think differently about the social and political arrangements that everyone took for granted.
But as John Ralston Saul argues in this decidedly unorthodox book, modern dictionaries have once again been captured by the forces of orthodoxy-albeit this time a rationalist orthodoxy. Our language has become as predictable, fragmented, and rhetorical as it was in the 18th century, divided as it is by special inter est groups into dialects of expertise that are hermetically sealed off and inaccessible to citizens. In The Doubter’s Companion a marvelous subversive contribution to the great 18th century tradition of the humanist dictionary, Saul skewers and discredits the accepted con tent of common terms like Advertising, Academics, and Air Conditioning (defined as “an efficient means for spreading disease in enclosed public spaces”); Cannibal, Conservative, and Croissant; Dandruff, Death, and Dictionary (“opinions presented as truth in alphabetical order”); and several hundred others, including Biography (“a respectable form of pornography”), Museum (“safe storage for stolen objects”), and Manners (“people are always splendid when they’re dead”).
There is much in this volume that will stimulate, offend, provoke, perplex, and entertain. But Saul deploys these tactics of guerrilla lexicography to advance the more serious purpose of reclaiming public language from the stultify ing dialects of modern expertise.
This book, subtitled “A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense” is the kind of book that people pick up and elevate to cult status. In a few years time, citizens will be living their lives following Saul’s precepts, and his lines will be freely plagiarised by newspaper columnists. He defends local customs against the steamroller of unfettered individualism and internationalist monetarist economics, and defends them with a sharp wit. BUSINESS SCHOOLS: “Acting schools which train experts in abstract management methods to pretend they are capitalists.” ORGASM: “For those who do not see themselves as having replaced God, it is a workmanlike replacement for a religious experience.” And here he is on state-run gambling: “From the moment a government encourages its citizenry to finance the state by gambling, which means by idle dreaming instead of through creativity, work and productivity, that state is in an unacknowledged crisis.” Sound familiar?
In The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, Saul gives us a substantial part of the lexicon. I’m not sure whether it will help make him the Voltaire of the late 20th century that he’d like to be, but I’m dead sure he’s written the most entertaining and useful book of this publishing season, and maybe well beyond that. It’s meant to be the clarifying footnotes to Voltaire’s Bastards, but without the general theme that tried to pave every detail into a single road. The Doubter’s Companion is much easier to follow and sharper in its detail. Actually I can’t recall ever having as much fun with a book as I did with this one, leaping from definition to definition to see what indignity Saul would perpetrate on which set of fools next – or what new insight he was going to deliver.
Some of his 300 or so definitions, which run from one sentence to several pages in length, are just plain witty, like his explanation of where croissants come from, and the circumstantially hilarious discussion of dandruff. But Saul’s wit is always laced with acid. This occasionally leads him to the politically incorrect, but more often to the uproariously funny. Yet most of the time – even when he appears to be indulging his own wit – he is penetratingly accurate. And on the crucial subject of economics, he is dead on.
Saul’s greatest gift is a first-rate nose for large-scale bullshit, and in The Doubter’s Companion he uses it to sniff out the vast lies that he seemed merely to cast a reasonable light on in Voltaire’s Bastards. His is a rare gift in this country, which has, arguably, fewer than a dozen writers who possess this kind of nose at all. And none of them quite have his nose for the big stuff.
The Doubter’s Companion isn’t perfect. One would have to share Saul’s remarkable and unorthodox intellectual range to edit him properly, and this may be why some of the writing is less than translucent. In addition, he can be impatient and arch, and a few of his gags ends up being smothered by the irritable cognitive shorthand he uses to move ideas from one place to another. He also suffers from a vaguely Oedipal hatred of Margaret Thatcher, one that leads him to some frivolous – or at leas excessively fanciful – definitions whenever the subject of Great Britain appears on the horizon. And of course he isn’t exactly qualified to make the sweeping pronouncements he does.
Which brings me to the purpose of this rave, and my assignment as Books in Canada culture cop. The mission of an expertocracy like ours is to prevent the sterile web of addled ideas and intellectual habits that experts and their masters have used to construct the present insanity. Close to the core of both Voltaire’s Bastards and The Doubter’s Companion is the idea that our present societal reliance on expertise is the most malevolent outgrowth of the covert inscription of assumptive knowledge. What Saul is practising in these books – and implicitly demanding of us – is a return to common sense. By “common sense” he doesn’t mean quaint folklore and cracker-barrel truisms, but a more deliberate and civic-minded generalism that we rarely see nowadays. The Doubter’s Companion is, first and finally, a civic-minded work – exactly what an artist in a democracy is bound by the terms of citizenship to produce in a time of crisis. Saul’s generalism is also precisely what the great writers of the past practised, and a sharp rebuke to the specializations that conventional novelists, poets, and playwrights have settled for. That The Doubter’s Companion (and for that matter, Voltaire’s Bastards) is much more exhilarating to read than 99 per cent of our novels and poems is perhaps the best proof of just how successful Saul’s project is as art.
Still, let me go a step beyond that and be brutally clear about what I’m suggesting here. Expertise and art are natural enemies. They are so because expertise operates by secrecy while seeking control and power, and art operates by clear, public language in the service of free expression and wholeness.
It seems to me that most of today’s writers are all too prepared to plead specialist’s rights for what they do – and to punish anyone who transgresses the declared boundaries of the specialty. They take it as a given that the purpose of “serious” literary art is to illustrate the range and fragility of human sensitivities, and nothing much more than that. It makes most of our tired-out fiction not much more than a quick, cheap holiday from the mess looming over our collective heads, and our poetry little more than soulful drool.
Of course, these same writers can be heard whining about how insensitive the instruments of political control have become, and they whine much louder about the plight of suffering authors. Evidently it never occurs to them to do what Saul has done by insisting that the world is comprehensible through a renewed common sense, and by refusing to step into the trap of specialization. Maybe they should reconsider what they’re doing. And lo, The Doubter’s Companion just happens to be an excellent place to start.
If a prize were offered for the most dangerous book of the year, it might well go to John Ralston Saul’s The Doubter’s Companion. It purports to be a dictionary. But although it does bear some resemblance to one – there are more than 300 entries – the “definitions” it offers are highly entertaining mini-essays by Saul on subjects ranging from Big Macs to free trade, neoconservatism to penises. The book is dangerous because it heaves a big, juicy mud pie in the face of conventional wisdom. Among its suggestions: that debt-burdened nations simply walk away from their debts; that expert economists and business-school graduates do not know what they are doing; that eating the kind of apples available today is more likely to bring the doctor than keep him away. It may all sound like the ravings of a crank, but there is a strangely seductive common sense in Saul’s crankiness. People who read his book are in danger of becoming cranks themselves – or, as Saul approvingly calls them, “doubters.”
At first glance, The Doubter’s Companion appears to comprise a lot of renegade opinions fired off every which way. But there is a consistent argument behind it all – one that Saul, a Canadian novelist and intellectual, first developed in his 1993 book, Voltaire’s Bastards. That study looked at the increasing fetish Western civilization has made of what Saul calls “rational structures.” The term refers to systems of both thought and organization that depend heavily on specialized language, knowledge and methods. They are dominated by “experts” – the sort of people, such as doctors, economists, education specialists or the executives of big corporations, who are forever telling society what direction it should take. The problem, Saul argues, is that they are often wrong, largely because they are capable of viewing society only through the special-interest lenses of their own disciplines or organizations.
One of Saul’s most striking examples of this “rational blindness” in Voltaire’s Bastards concerns Robert McNamara, the Detroit auto executive who became the U.S. secretary of defence under President John F. Kennedy. He reorganized the nation’s army along the “rational lines” of the Ford Motor Co., and in the process undermined both efficiency and morale and contributed to America’s catastrophic defeat in Vietnam.
The Doubter’s Companion lays into the McNamaras of every stripe, pointing out that, like the emperor in the fairy tale, such self-appointed experts are often clad only in their pretensions. Some of his favourite targets are the big-business leaders and economic pundits who loudly (yet somehow vaguely) proclaim the benefits of an unhindered, unregulated, capitalism. Saul argues quite convincingly that capitalism is like nuclear fuel – very useful if properly handled and contained, destructive if allowed to do whatever it wants. Under the entries “Free Trade” and “Global Economy,” he predicts poverty for many countries if completely free global trade comes into effect (he is equally hard, however, on extreme protectionists). In the same vein, he lambastes NAFTA for freeing “the transnational corporation and its managers from geographical realities and obligations,” comparing it unfavourably with the more socially comprehensive trade policies of the European Community. And he lashes out at those economic determinists who, he says, devalue and destroy human freedom by claiming that the move to completely open trade is irresistible.
Whether savaging a trade pact or dissecting some trivial consumer item, Saul has a flair for exposing the rationalist sawdust at its heart. He describes the bland Big Mac as “the communion wafer of consumption. Not really food but the promise of food” – a triumph, in short, marketing over reality. He defines a corporate executive as “not a capitalist but a technocrat in drag,” and he describes a think-tank as “an organization which invents disinterested intellectual justifications for the policies of the corporate groups that fund it.” Muzak he terms “a public noise neither requested nor listened to by individuals. It is the descendant of a school of public relations invented by the Nazis” – namely, the “total motivational atmosphere” of the Nuremberg rallies.
When not demystifying the smoke and mirrors of the rationalists, Saul makes it clear that he does believe in something. He calls it humanism, praising it as the richest and most difficult of all philosophies. It involves honoring and balancing the various human capacities: morality, common sense, creativity, experience, intuition, reason. By letting reason run amok, humanity has produced a terrible lopsidedness that has generated waste and suffering. By re-embracing its wholeness, Saul argues, mankind can create a more humane and democratic society.
His position suffers – as his trivializing comments about psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung make clear – from undervaluing the role of irrational forces, for good or ill, in shaping human life. Yet, on the whole, The Doubter’s Companion is a welcome handbook to the confusions of the age. It encourages people not only to doubt, but to think for themselves. A dangerous book indeed. Perhaps the authorities should burn it now.
The Canadian writer John Ralston Saul is an Enlightenment-style provocateur, a cosmopolitan, anti-ideologue. Although not a household name in the United States, he’s a considerable figure in Canada and Europe, where his books – Voltaire’s Bastards (1992) is his best know work here – are often bestsellers. His new The Doubter’s Companion is an eccentric winner – a highly personal dictionary that’s really a compilation of short essays on topics from Air Conditioning to Zealot. He writes with vigor and thunder, firing off epigrams and bons mots. Deconstruction is “a school of light comedy,” orgasm “a workmanlike replacement for a religious experience.”
Readers are most likely to enjoy The Doubter’s Companion by opening it at random and following the highlighted connections. The ride almost always yields surprises. In an entry on Neoconservatives, Saul calls them “the Bolsheviks of the right”; in one on Marxists, he writes that “the only disagreement between the Neo-conservatives and Marx is over who wins the battle in the end. This is a small detail.” He doesn’t shy away from confrontation, either. “There is no convincing evidence,” he maintains in his entry on Voltaire, “that writers can do their job by being nice.”
There’s a fair amount of verbose harrumphing where there ought to be wit. And Saul – like such other freelance lone rangers as Robert Hughes, Paul Fussell and Camille Paglia – can seem oblivious to the pleasures of present-day life. But the book is a remarkably thoroughgoing critique of folly, and the spectacle of Saul blasting away at the conventional wisdom of left and right alike has the intellectual kick of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Saul delivers the pleasures of a good argument.
SCENE: A full-house appearance at Politics & Prose Bookstore inspired some pointed questions about Washington’s current political vocabulary as observed by a steely-eyed neighbor from the north.
PERSONALITY: Canadian author John Ralston Saul, 47, recently named among 100 contemporary “visionaries” by Utne Reader magazine, has been described as “an erudite Toronto gadfly.” He describes himself as an anti-elitist disciple of humanism, the definition of which takes up several pages in his new book, “The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense.” “Free Trade” and “Progress” also have lengthy entries in that alphabetized Free Press tome so eclectic that even “Ronald McDonald,” dandruff” and “kiss” are included.
CREDO: To increase citizen participation in government and make people think more carefully about the workings of present-day democracy. And to raise hackles by going against the grain whenever possible.
Q: What does the word “contract” convey to you, as in “Contract with America?”
A: There are two kinds of contracts. The most positive is the social contract, which has nothing to do with economics or law, but about how people will live and work together in society. Increasingly, the commercial contract has become the model, replacing the idea of an agreement among citizens about how to live together; it has become a reflection of interests in the marketplace that are fairly selfish. Without the idea of disinterest, as opposed to self-interest, there can be no democracy.
Q: What about “national debt”?
A: Our new religion is the marketplace; instead of sin and the devil, we have the national debt. But remember that the American Declaration of Independence was based on a refusal to honor debts incurred in seven years of war protecting the Colonies; it was a form of renouncing debt obligations. The United States is a leader in becoming rich by not paying debts. Maybe there are other questions and other ways to solve the problem other than scaring people with this new ideology.
A: As amusing and charming as a risque Peter Pan, endlessly believing in true love yet seeking the pleasure of free love, endlessly re-creating its own virginity, unequipped with memory or common sense, which is its strength and its weakness. It is, of course, a very good thing. Without it we are reduced to being exploited by personal or bureaucratic absolutism. But is it a sufficient foundation upon which to build a society? In all earlier civilizations, it should be remembered, commerce was treated as a narrow activity and by no means the senior sector in society.
Q: A nasty five-letter word of insult that begins with “b”?
A: That’s what I call an ad hominem, the obverse of hero worship, indicating an unwillingness to deal with content, which is an old-fashioned courtiers’ game typical of imperial China and 18 th-century France. Modern lobbyists resemble courtiers. Public figures have complained for decades about the growing tendency to judge them by violent personal attacks, often aimed at their private lives….If public figures paid a little more attention to history, they would know that their predecessors led a much rougher life.
Q: What is one book you would recommend for a “citizens’ reading list”?
A: The collected writings of Thomas Jefferson in one volume, which I believe exists in a Modern Library edition. I’m not a hero worshipper, but the most successful modern public figure in the West still is Jefferson and his idea of balanced in humanism and openness. These are the best of what was in the American ideal.
Q: Why do you shun optimism? You’re often so down on things – you even call air conditioning” an efficient and highly regarded method for spreading disease.”
A: Optimism, like patriotism, is the public tool of scoundrels and ideologues.
Q: Did you find anything to cheer about in American election results?
A: People sent out the message they are dissatisfied with the way technology is treating them; it could result in a left turn next time.