Opinions of Opinions
Opinions are fun. They give us things to argue about in bars.
(Which team is...? Which player is...? What are women all
about? Men?) They identify us. We wear them like pin-on name
tags. We can be proud of them. Even if we've borrowed them,
once we call them ours, they are a source of pride because
our opinions are the right opinions because they are ours
-- circular logic, but we enjoy traveling in these circles.
We consider our opinions good company.
Except sometimes they're not. Sometimes having opinions becomes
like reswallowing one's own vomit. We get tired of hearing
ourselves say them (especially when someone we're with has
heard them 1000 times), tired of thinking them, tired of that
tight little circle of words and attitudes, tired of being
nothing else. It's a relief to look at something (say a leaf
or a puddle or a bottle or the quality of light in a doorway)
and notice that it's not an opinion, but a thing one is looking
Probably long ago we could create things, say "let there
be a universe" and there it would be (and we're still
in it!). We seem to have lost that knack (poetry a poor approximation,
but still a creation). And from creation, it appears we deteriorate
through various stages. For example, long after we feel we
can't create, we can still LOOK at creations. We can see,
can have considerations (con-sideris, with the stars -- no
longer with the Gods as creators, but still pretty high),
for example, we can consider it a fine day, and, lo! it's
a fine day. And when we no longer believe our considerations
have force, we can still have opinions about the weather.
I won't say opinions are the last resort, the final consolation
prize for our failure to be gods. We can fall lower, be unable
to have an opinion, be only the automatic circuit that mouths
the opinions of others, be less than that -- since the blessing
and curse of this universe is that there is no bottom. (No
top, either.) It's a blessing, because we're never at the
bottom. It's a curse because no matter how bad it gets, it
can get worse. (That's why we have death -- to disguise that
bottomlessness from ourselves. Suicides, poor deluded escape
artists, think they've ended something, like the prisoner
who spends months of exertion digging a tunnel only to come
up in a neighboring cell.)
[I suppose a topless and bottomless universe might be a blessing
in another sense as well -- for some of us, anyway -- if the
universe is a beautiful woman. Some of us might not mind coming
up in a neighboring cell if that woman were there, waiting
So opinions may be only one station among infinitely many
on the way up or down, but it's a popular stop these days.
If a man can't create a game (say baseball) and can't play
the game, and can't afford to own a team or manage a team,
he can still call it HIS favorite team and have millions of
opinions about it. Opinions are a kind of ownership. As a
dog makes territory his own by pissing at the borders, so
we make things our own by having opinions about them: Teams,
politicians, wars, places, anything and everything. We even
have opinions about God. We defend them -- sometimes violently
-- until they become, for us, fact or belief, something we
think we know. Not that we can't know things (even God, perhaps),
but when knowledge is a solidification of opinion (a conviction),
it's vulnerable. One day you know something -- maybe you simply
know whatever it is one knows when caught up in the sweetness
of a dog's beseeching eyes or the hard eagerness of a cat's.
Maybe it's just a moment. You're suddenly aware that you're
here and now and that everyone and everything is here and
now with you.
Anyway, time is full of holes, and one day you trip into
one of them (something falls on your head, and you're knocked
flat, and as you come to, you woozily notice, then notice
with unfamiliar vividness the way the feet of people walking
past move off into space and make the space they walk into
-- you notice dimension) -- and suddenly you know something.
And when that happens, you know something else: That all your
opinionated knowledge is just a paper-thin husk of knowledge.
Or the next time you start to tell someone what you KNOW about
how Babe Ruth was twice the player Barry Bonds is, you suddenly
know that this is not knowing; this is a a torn, dog-eared
sepia photo of knowing, something found in a stranger's attic,
nobody you've ever known, hard to imagine it was once a someone
with a life and people he loved and who loved him.
Another reason why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing:
It exposes all our fraudulent knowledge, the memorized data,
the assertions, the support of authorities, the argumentative
statistics -- it turns much of our life into a weary charade
and makes us long for more knowing, even painful knowing.
Opinion as ownership is hollow. We stick our opinions all
over the surface of something (the weather, our spouses, our
kids, our work) until nothing shows except our opinions. Nothing
shows to us, that is, but we also tell our opinions to all,
in hopes that they, too, when they look at the weather, people,
things, politics, will see only our opinions. That makes our
opinions real -- because they are shared. But what we own
is this coating of opinions, which prevents us from noticing
that what we thus own is an alien thing, all the more alien
for being thus owned. For example, when all I know of my wife
is my opinion of her, I lose track of the existence of another
being with her own dreams, separate from my own.
When we've filled the world with our opinions, seeing only
our opinions, we can no longer have opinions about anything
BUT opinions. And I think many people live their lives that
way, aware of nothing other than their opinions of their opinions.
You come to us as wings to carry us from one subject to another,
O pinions, but soon we find we are shackled by you, O pinions.
[Why does "pinion" mean both wing-feather and shackle?
Because birds are restricted -- to parks, for example -- by
having feathers removed from their wings so they can't fly
away, and since "pinions" were removed to restrict
motion, the birds are said to be "pinioned", so
"pinion" comes to mean that which restricts, and
thus the freedom of flight becomes imprisonment, O pinion!
But I digress.]
Lest I seem to mock others, let me assure you that I've fallen
into this trance of opinions myself and still slip into it
at times. Opinions (for me as for most of us, I think) run
through my consciousness in endless ostinato (for the musically
illiterate -- a musical phrase repeated over and over again
by the same instrument or instruments). Many hours I've wasted
day-dreaming, not of conquest by sword or phallus, not of
leading armies or illuminating kings or capturing criminals,
but hours of imagining myself eloquently persuading people
of my opinions, being on talk shows, telling the world my
opinions, proving to scoffers that Tolstoy is superior to
Dostoyevski and Thomas Mann is mediocre, that there haven't
been any great songs since the Beatles; proving to a dreamed-up
murderer or accuser or woman who left me long ago that I'm
a worthy person with profound opinions; finding brilliant
things to say to someone who earlier bested me in argument,
leaving me and my sacred opinions gaping. I read something
I don't like, and hours later find myself (lying in bed, trying
to sleep) working over my opinions, my wonderful opinions
on the subject -- who could fail to agree with such wonderful
opinions!? I wake up still chewing on these now sour opinions.
Go ahead, just ask me, ask me about anything, but please
ask me! Ask me what I think of the Iraq war (I'll come at
it from 10 viewpoints and tie it all together for you) or
homosexuality (they're all wrong about it, all sides are missing
the point) or God or.... Hell, am I the only one who has his
own internal muttering (though brilliant) bag lady 24/7? Reminds
me of a great line from one of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems:
"The taste of me I could not spit out."
But I exaggerate. I'm not grinding out opinions 24/7. There
is respite. More and more there is respite, whole minutes
devoid of these sticky critters and whole days where opinions
(traveling in their pastel schools, each school a mob of identically-pouting
faces) drift in and out of my coral reef, but do not touch
me (hanging there, floating).
I find it's a great relief not to have opinions, not to HAVE
to have opinions. I begin to own things by looking. I simply
look or touch or otherwise perceive what is there. After all,
when you own territory by pissing on it, what you own smells
of piss. How refreshing -- a world that doesn't have my stench,
isn't sodden and sticky with my mastication of it, like a
dog's chewy rawhide toy.
And at times it becomes a wondrous thing to me, the eagerness
with which people leap to have opinions, swarm about call-in
talk show phones like sharks around blooded bait. I wonder,
how is it these people want to have opinions about things
that don't concern them? After all, there are times when we
NEED to have opinions. For example someone says, "What
do you think of [this poem? going to a certain restaurant
tonight? that movie?]" and politeness demands we come
up with something. Or we're asked to be judges, or at work
we're asked to report on "options" and recommend
a course of action.
And having sampled knowledge, one may begin to find such
duties onerous. How do you get us back on opinion, once we've
seen some truth? But most of us manage. We may even be able
to make a game of it. And sometimes, just for the fun of it,
we may jump in (one night at a cocktail party) with an outrageous
opinion. And if we get rebuffed stingingly, we may find ourselves,
in bed that night, doing a play-by-play and formulating an
invincible opinion -- trapped again, having to unstick ourselves
E-mail is the latest opinion trap. I see a message that seems
to be MADE to provide me an outlet for my vast and convoluted
wisdom. I spend hours answering it, finally send it, notice
that I've done none of the things I needed to get done today
-- and today is gone! And gradually (with frequent recidivism)
I wean myself from this intoxication of opinion and learn
to go through 50 or 60 messages I don't need to answer without...without
answering them. And when I find myself forming opinions, I
remind myself that I DON'T HAVE TO HAVE AN OPINION ABOUT THIS,
and what a relief! There is so MUCH about which I don't need
to have an opinion. I can even not know things.
That's one of the sweetest siren songs of Opinion: Not knowing
is dangerous. One must know. One can't live not knowing if
going to war will be a terrible thing or not, without knowing
which candidate is the best, without knowing if terrorists
will strike here again, without knowing if Global Warming
is for real or not, without knowning who was the greatest,
Ruth or Cobb? Jordan or Chamberlain? Who was worse, Stalin
or Hitler? Eventually (in this mood) there's hardly anything
one is willing to not-know. We become like the compulsive
gambler who must bet on everything. "Hey, see that guy
tying his shoe? $10 bucks says he knots the bow twice."
"See those leaves falling? A dollar says that one there
Opinion is our way of knowing things we don't know. But I
said that before.
So when I can let go of having opinions, I can dispense with
having to know, another great relief. And it puts me closer
to knowing. Not so paradoxical: The false knowing we call
opinion is out of the way. Now I know what I don't know, so
I can LOOK. Or better, I can pervade, get into, become intimate
with, practically BE that which I would know.
Not that I have to know. But my ability to know rises as
I shed my opinions -- or rather my need to have them. I can
still have them. It's fun to have opinions when you don't
have to have them. What? You think all opinions are bad? Nonsense,
you don't get it, let me explain, it's really simple, you
see, opinions are fun. They give us things to argue about