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by Richard Nilsen

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I’m just not in a lectual,” she said, in a rich eastern North Carolina drawl.
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Yet, as a militant atheist, she has many a theological question, which may contradict her self-assessment as not being intellectual.
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“I don’t read literature,” she says, “I just read books, you know, fiction.”
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She reads constantly and widely, including books about religion.
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She is smart as a whip. I’ve known her since taking classes with her in college 50 years ago. She may not count herself as an intellectual, but I think she underestimates herself.
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More to the point, it should be noted that being intelligent is not the same thing as being intellectual. There are many ways of being smart, and not all of them incline toward the academic.
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Further, there is many a Ph.D. of impenetrable obtuseness. You get a doctorate not only through brilliance, but sometimes just by dogged shoveling — that’s why they call it “piled higher and deeper.” And, in reverse, I could name scholars who have made significant contributions to their field who began as school dropouts. (This is not to denigrate most graduate degrees. Most who hold them weigh in on the high end of the quotient of intelligence. Just that there are exceptions.)
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The fact is, being an intellectual is a turn of mind, not simply a quality of intelligence. We tend to think of an intellectual as someone who knows a lot, especially in terms of science, math, history, literature, law, or philosophy, but facts don’t make an intellectual; questions do.
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We all have questions, but intellectuals have questions about the questions. If I were to create a definition of “intellectual,” that would be it: questions about the questions.
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I will fess up to being an intellectual, but I will also admit that I’m not especially intelligent. I’m smart enough, I guess, but when I hear a Steven Pinker or a Ta-Nehisi Coates, I shrivel in humility. Those guys are smart. I’m just above average.
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Yet, most of my little gray cells are focused on questions about the questions. Those that pique my curiosity are about language, about perception, about the relevance of history — things that are often taken for granted, but are far more complicated, far muddier than the general run of people — even smart people — are likely to credit. Many of my blog entries have been about these questions, or questions about these questions.
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People far more acute than me have tackled them also. I don’t claim to have found any answers — or answers about answers — but that has never been able to quell my eyebrow furrowing. What is the relation of language to experience? Why do so many people believe that thinking requires words? And why do we think what we see is a direct cerebral process? Can we trust eyewitness accounts? Why do we?
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I see the same process in my betters. I’m at the bottom of a mountain, on the summit of which stands Albert Einstein, but what led to his breakthroughs are exactly the same kind of questions about the questions that I have. Or that you can have.
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 The fact that I read Milton or Livy and my friend reads best-sellers is of no import. We are both reading what we enjoy, which is more to the point. She is by most measures smarter than I am. She is alive, awake and interesting. I am a drudge by comparison. Yet, I could not change if I wanted to — the turn of mind I have been condemned to is almost genetic. I did not choose it; it captured me.
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One should never be intimidated by intellectuals. One should rather pity them. My wife used to call me “the man who couldn’t have fun.” By that she meant that I don’t enjoy parties; I listen to classical music and am bored by most pop music; I have no talent for being silly, which she always enjoyed, playing phone games with her daughter, taking on new personae — Meemaw and Peepaw.
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I always argued back that I have lots of fun. Really. I have fun reading Paradise Lost or listening Wozzeck or watching C-Span’s Book TV. Really. Really I do. I can’t help it.
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The intellectual can get so balled up in a knotty problem that the world falls away — like when you are caught up in a really good book and when you stop reading you are surprised to find yourself in a chair with your feet up on the ottoman wondering where did Ivanhoe run off to.
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And, so balled up, that you forget to pay the gas bill, forget to meet your daughter at the taqueria, fail to notice the gas gauge on empty. So balled up, a curl of smoke escapes your ears as your forehead furrows and you consider whether the fibonacci series really does describe the swirl of a whelk shell. (It doesn’t. Really. Google my name and “Fibonacci fib,” a blog I posted in 2013.)
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I wish I were smarter and the questions I question were more tractable, but even if the normal world looks at me like I’m an antisocial weirdo, I never ever wish I were not intellectual. It’s too much fun.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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What’s the most beautiful sentence in the English language?
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In his epic TV series, The Singing Detective, author Dennis Potter has his hero ask a similar question: “What’s the loveliest word in the English language?” An answer is offered: “Love.” But no, you’re responding to the sentiment behind the word. What is the loveliest word “in the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page?”
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His answer: “E-L-B-O-W.”
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You may have your own candidate. Mine might be “anaflaxis,” or perhaps “curmudgeon.” Both pleasant to say, “in the sound it makes in the mouth.”
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My nomination for the most beautiful sentence?
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Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.”
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It is the opening sentence of the second chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is followed by a tasty list of those comestibles that Mr. Leopold Bloom especially savored. “He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes.” And then he brings you up short with the consummation of the paragraph: “Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
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If you get past the last bit without a distinct sensory, gustatory and olfactory assault, you aren’t paying attention.
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But it’s that first sentence I want to examine. It has a cadence to it: You can scan its metrics two ways. First, you can break it down into four brief bursts: His name, as if it were the first line of a song; then comes the two-beat “ate with relish;” another two-beat “the inner organs,” and the peroration in another two beats — “of beasts and fowls.”
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You can, however, scan it as two lines, a pentameter followed by a tetrameter. And if you do it that way, you can feel behind the rhythm the ghost of Anglo-Saxon poetry, each line interrupted by a caesura.
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Mr. Leopold Bloom // ate with relish
The inner organs // of beasts and fowls.
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Either way, it is a graceful mix of iambs and dactyls. All that is fine, and worth noting. But the real treasure is paying attention to where in your mouth you articulate the various consonants and vowels: You shift the sounds around in your mouth, front to back, roof to base, like you were savoring a morsel of tasty food. These are words that as you say them out loud, you practically chew on. Try it: Mister Leopold Bloom ate with relish, etc. Your tongue flies around, your lips purse, your teeth come together and separate, your jaw moves forward and back, in a fine simulacrum of mastication.
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This is one tasty sentence.
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You should also note how heterogeneous the sounds are. Few consonants or vowels are repeated. There are five “L” sounds, which move your tongue up to the palate; four sibilant “S” sounds; four “O” sounds, making your lips project, as if you were smacking them; four short “I” sounds drawing the tongue back in the mouth; four rhotic “R” sounds, which scrunches your mouth up in a contortion (admittedly, a different sound if you speak them with the Irish accent that Joyce would have used); three “T” sounds, moving that tongue to hide just at the back of the teeth; three “E” sounds, stretching your cheeks out wide to pronounce; two “M” sounds, making you go, “mmm,” like you really enjoyed that mouthful; two “N” sounds, drawing the aroma up into your nasal cavities; two “B” bumps, rhyming with the single “P” to keep your lips plosive. There are two different “TH” sounds, an eth and a thorn — voiceless and voiced dental fricatives.
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All the rest of the sounds occur only once. Which means, to read the sentence out loud, your tongue, lips and jaw get a workout worthy of Jane Fonda.
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So much for the gnathometry of the sentence.
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 I also want to point out that the sentence is not difficult to comprehend. It is, in fact, a fairly ordinary sentence, outside its poetry. And I mention that because I want to make the case for the book as a whole. It has a reputation. People who haven’t yet essayed it are apt to fear it like ebola. But, these days, now nearly a hundred years after its conception, we have grown used to many of its more idiosyncratic habits. Stream of consciousness has made its way to paperback bodice rippers and Tom Clancy munitionology. And after MTV, how simple seems the rapid cutting and multiple points of view. Joyce should not present any unclimbable obstacles these days.
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Which makes it all the more important to read the book. It is some of the best prose ever put to paper. Joyce’s writing is elegant, precise, musical and redolent.
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The entire final chapter of the book is one of the greatest monologues in literature, when Molly Bloom lies in bed next to her husband and recalls her love affairs, her life, her body, her mind and heart. It alone raises Ulysses to the level of classic. Everyone should read it and weep.
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But to enjoy the prose, you have to break yourself of the habit of reading solely for content. Speed reading Ulysses is flying over country where the driving would reveal cities, rivers, regional foods, national parks, and people worth meeting. The prose is meant to noticed. It is unsurpassed. The plot of the book is hardly more than an excuse for the writing.
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Joyce wrote the book over many years, writing and rewriting like a demon. It takes reworking on an obsessive scale to get just the right mot juste in every case. You can see that in the manuscript, worked over so thoroughly, it is barely legible.
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Ulysses was written at the end of the First World War and published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach and the Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. Joyce was 40 years old and an exile from his native Ireland. It chronicles a single day — June 16, 1904 — in Dublin, Ireland as lived by three primary characters, Stephen Daedalus, and Leopold and Molly Bloom. It’s a simple plot. Not much happens of consequence, but we follow the events in the minds of the characters as much as through the words of a narrator. And we aren’t often told which.
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But what is of consequence is the language. You can pretty much read any page and nearly swoon at the beauty of the words, the rhythm, pitch and melody.
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Of course, that’s not what caught public attention first. The book has been banned in many countries, including the U.S. It was considered obscene. It had to be printed in Paris, and at least 500 copies were seized and burned by the U.S. Postal Service as they were confiscated in shipment. Another 2000 to 3000 copies were seized and destroyed by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1929.
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When Random House decided to take up the American publication, The publisher sued and in The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene. Random House published the authorized American edition in 1934.
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We say “authorized,” because Ulysses has been much pirated. Even printed as an underground book by publishers of pornography, wishing to capitalize on its notoriety. I have an edition by Collectors Publications of Industry, Calif., which features pages and pages of ads at the back for such other literary gems as True Love Stories of a Wayward Teenager, The Incestual Triangle, Four Way Swappers, and The Debauched Hospodar. (Along with Henry Miller’s The World of Sex and Lawrence Durrell’s Black Book and The Story of O. They seemed to make little distinction between actual literature and smut, i.e., they knew their audience).
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My wife’s father-in-law was a poet who had studied with Robert Frost, and after a trip to Europe, he smuggled in a copy of Ulysses in the 1920s concealed by binding it in a cover for a Nancy Drew mystery.
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To read it now, after Fifty Shades of Grey and countless Jackie Collins tomes, it one puzzles over the ruckus. You can search the pages ofUlysses looking for the “good bits” and be disappointed. Judge Woolsey in his judicious judicial opinion famously wrote, “whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” (Remember the mutton kidneys).
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 Woolsey’s opinion opened the door for Lady Chatterly’s Lover (or is it “Lady Loverly’s Chatter?”), Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer., and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. It may be hard to define great literature, but you know it when you see it.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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