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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 at.

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 for us.]

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 again.

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 lands first."

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 in bars....

Last updated: July 18, 2007