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Book Review: I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams by Mark Dery

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It is fitting that the last essay in transgressive (to use one of his favorite terms) culture critic Mark Dery’s collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (available April 1) is a 2009 rumination on intelligence he calls “Cortex Envy.” And never satisfied with a title unadorned, at least with the essays herein published, he makes sure to add the further clarification, “Bringing Up Baby Einstein.” Starting with his youthful certainty, planted firmly by his mother, of his own extraordinary intelligence, he moves to a short history and critique of intelligence testing, and ends by questioning the whole idea of intelligence in the first place. In the end he offers a variety of ideas about what it might be, but comes to no real conclusion. But one thing we can conclude is that whatever intelligence is you’re probably going to need it if you’re going to make it through the thirty odd essays that lead to these final thoughts. If you manage it that far, it’s safe to say you’ve got something that might pass for it.

Dery is interested in a broad range of cultural subjects. In one essay he’ll question the sexual orientation of HAL the 2001 computer. In others he’ll muse about the implications of the linguistic kinship between Santa and Satan as it relates to the history of Christmas celebations, the metaphorical sexual attraction of female internal organs, or the perils lurking in our animal friends. Hitler’s omnipresence on TV, the dark side of Mark Twain, Lady Gaga’s limitations as a cultural terrorist, zombies and survivalism—the list of Dery’s interests goes on and on. He mashes phenomena together in ways that probably would never have occurred to most of us, but leaves us wondering how we missed the connections. He leaves us envious of the mind that can see forests where the rest of us see only trees.

And he does it in a style that is both dense and entertaining (if such is possible). In that essay on “Cortex Envy,” ruminating on his feeling about intelligence and its effect on his writing, he gives as accurate a description of his prose style as you could want, even if he wonders about what it portends: “. . . for much of my life I’ve been gnawed by the neurotic suspicion that my idiosyncratic use of language (rarefied vocabulary, arcane allusions, Proustian syntax, poetic metaphors), coupled with a fondness for ‘intellectual’ subject matter, creates the illusion of intelligence in a society with a pronounced logocentric bias.” You have to smile: a sentence that defines itself. The vocabulary might not be Dery’s most rarefied, the allusions, his most arcane. There may be syntax even more Proustian, and metaphor, poetic or otherwise, may be stretching it, but this is the Dery voice loud and clear; you can decide if it’s illusion or the real thing.

Thinking bad thoughts is a metaphor for questioning conventional wisdom. It is, he says in his introduction, “a refusal to recognize intellectual no-fly zones.” It honors neither the right, nor the left. It is the faith that no subject no matter how morally indefensible, “should be ruled out of bounds, no thought forbidden.” You can analyze the homoerotic implications of sports or the ubiquitous tide of kinky porn on the internet. Conversely, no subject is so sacrosanct it can’t be examined critically. You can talk about the Disneyfication of the Holocaust, and you can even indulge in a little word play when you do so. You can call your essay “Shoah Business.” And to show that you are an equal opportunity offender, you can take on John Paul II as his earthly remains lie in state. Thinking bad thoughts isn’t necessarily going to endear you to the masses.

Mark Dery is an intellectually challenging writer. He makes few concessions to his readers. He has high expectations. Reading him takes some effort, but he is worth it. He is witty. He is amusing. He is stimulating. The essays in I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts will force you to examine ideas you more than likely have never thought about before. You may end up disagreeing with a lot of what he has to say; you may end up disagreeing with everything he has to say. You may be shocked; you may take it all as a mere intellectual exercise. But one thing is certain he will make you think.

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