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.