Idiot Highlights

by Elif Batuman

It was a mystery to me how Svetlana generated so many opinions. Any piece of information seemed to produce an opinion on contact. Meanwhile, I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened. In high school I had been full of opinions, but high school had been like prison, with constant opposition and obstacles. Once the obstacles were gone, meaning seemed to vanish, too. It was just like Chekhov said, in “The Darling”: She saw objects round her and understood everything that was going on, but she could not form opinions about anything and did not know what to talk about. How awful it is not to have an opinion! You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.

Everyone thought they were Dumbo. Again and again I saw the phenomenon repeated. The meanest girls, the ones who started secret clubs to ostracize the poorly dressed, delighted to see Cinderella triumph over her stepsisters. They rejoiced when the prince kissed her. Evidently, they not only saw themselves as noble and good, but also wanted to love and be loved. Maybe not by anyone and everyone, the way I wanted to be loved.

Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.

The message had been posted at five-thirty, and Ivan had been logged on since two forty-five. Those were important, delicate hours. People didn’t give them up so easily.

Dear Ivan, My break was bullshit. I don’t know what anything means. I have this book that says LANGUAGE on the cover and it isn’t teaching me anything. I think the problem goes really deep down. The oil-drum is empty, so you throw in a cigarette. The whole thing bursts into flames. I don’t understand anything that happens, or how. I don’t understand why it will trivialize these letters to say hi, or to actually talk to each other. You say you’re not in the mood for insignificant subtleties. But insignificant subtleties are the only difference between something special, and a huge pile of garbage floating through space. I’m not making that up. People discovered it in the nineteenth century. I think I’m falling in love with you. Every day it’s harder for me to see the common denominator, to understand what counts as a thing. All the categories that make up a dog—they go blurry and dissolve, I can’t tell what anything is anymore. Chills go up the backs of my arms and songs go around in my head. “[If I Must Be Put to Death, Let It Be] by Your Aristocratic Little Hand.” Your Sonya

“I like someone who doesn’t like me,” I said. I had thought of it as an approximation, but once I said it, it felt like the truth.

I told him my theory. Most people, the minute they met you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources. It was as if everyone lived in fear of a shipwreck, where only so many people would fit on the lifeboat, and they were constantly trying to stake out their property and identify dispensable people—people they could get rid of. That was how Hannah was—she wanted to make an alliance with me against Angela. “Everyone is trying to reassure themselves: I’m not going to get knocked off the boat, they are. They’re always separating people into two groups, allies and dispensable people.”

Words create a mood, but they aren’t the mood itself. I definitely agree that some moods can’t be conveyed by clear and logical language, or by essays. Essays can be such a pain! Basically, the reader isn’t on your side, so you can’t leave out any of the logical steps. And sometimes when a connection is delicate, the steps take too long to spell out—it just isn’t possible, by the time you get to the end of the steps, the mood is lost.

Moreover, my policy at the time was that, when confronted by two courses of action, one should always choose the less conservative and more generous. I thought this was tantamount to a moral obligation for anyone who had any advantages at all, and especially for anyone who wanted to be a writer.

When it came to science or history, reason got you only so far. Even if each step followed from the previous one, you still had to memorize the first step, and also the rule for how steps followed from each other. It wasn’t as if there was only one way the world could have turned out.

There were lots of ways things could have turned out, and you had to memorize the particular one that was real. Or . . . did you? Was there only one way the world could have turned out? If you were smart enough, could you deduce it? A tiny part of me held out the hope that you could.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, extending my hand. “Oh!” she said. I briefly held a small, cold, unenthusiastic object. “I talked to Vogel,” the girl told Ivan, retrieving her hand.

“I know,” she said. She had a bright red mouth drawn with lipstick, slightly smaller than her actual mouth. Suddenly the image came into my mind of her putting on her lipstick in the morning while Ivan stood in the door and they talked about nothing, like they were doing now—about the trivial and contentious things that somehow made up the whole of life. Everything stopped. Space and time shut down, one dimension at a time, the sky collapsing from a dome to a plane, the plane collapsing into a line, and then there were no surroundings, there was nothing but forward, and then there wasn’t even forward.

In the cafeteria line I took a knife and fork. Ivan handed me another knife and another fork. I stared at the two knives and two forks. At the salad bar, Ivan put lettuce and tomatoes in a bowl and topped them with dressing. I also put some things in a bowl but at the end it wasn’t a salad, it was just a lot of random things in a bowl.

I didn’t want to be the kind of person who lost her appetite over some guy, so I ate a few chickpeas. Then I thought, why should I be the kind of person who eats when she isn’t hungry, just to prove some kind of point? I put down my fork.

The dining halls were open late for exam period. At a table near the door, two students were slumped over their books, either asleep or murdered. In a corner, a girl was staring at a stack of flash cards with incredible ferocity, as if she were going to eat them.

I reread the last sentence I had written in my paper. It wasn’t very clear. How could I capitalize on this unclearness to make my paper longer? “In other words,” I typed.

The croissant was crisp and soft and flaky at the same time. Just biting it made you feel cared for.

For you, language itself is a self-sufficient system.” “But it is a self-sufficient system.” “Do you see what you’re saying? This is how you get yourself involved with the devil incarnate. Ivan sensed this attitude in you. He’s cynical in the same way you are only more so, because of math. It’s like you said: math is a language that started out so abstract, more abstract than words, and then suddenly it turned out to be the most real, the most physical thing there was. With math they built the atomic bomb. Suddenly this abstract language is leaving third-degree burns on your skin. Now there’s this special language that can control everything, and manipulate everything, and if you’re the elite who speaks it—you can control everything.

“For a while now I’ve been conscious of a tension in my relationship with you,” Svetlana said. “And I think that’s the reason. It’s because we both make up narratives about our own lives. I think that’s why we decided not to live together next year. Although obviously it’s also why we’re so attracted to each other.” “Everyone makes up narratives about their own lives.” “But not to the same extent. Think about my roommates. Fern, for example. I don’t mean that she doesn’t have an inner life, or that she doesn’t think about the past or make plans for the future. But she doesn’t compulsively rehash everything that happens to her in the form of a story. She’s in my story—I’m not in hers. That makes her and me unequal, but it also gives our relationship a kind of stability, and safeness. We each have our different roles. It’s like an unspoken contract. With you, there’s more instability and tension, because I know you’re making up a story, too, and in your story I’m just a

“He said you’re stupid,” Rózsa told me after a moment. “I see,” I said. The caretaker was still yelling. “Not stupid,” Rózsa said thoughtfully. “Idiotic.”

A whole ocean of rain seemed to be pouring out of the sky. We sat under an awning near a hotel parking lot and ate yellow plums. Eventually Rózsa ate one of the cookies I had bought, and I felt happy and proud, like I had successfully fed a shy and proud animal.

We were supposed to return to the village at eight in the morning. By 7:40, all the children were lined up outside the bus. Nonetheless, the bus didn’t leave until 8:40. It wasn’t clear to me what was happening between 7:40 and 8:40—why we weren’t just getting in the bus, which was sitting right there, as was the driver.

I tried to hang out with my peer group, Defne, Murat, and Yudum, but was unable to assimilate myself to their mode of being. They seemed always to be waiting for something, for the removal of some obstacle—for a business to open, for the sun to move, or for someone to come back from going to get something. Whenever they actually did anything, like go in the water, eat lunch, or walk somewhere, they did it in an abstracted, halfhearted way, as if to show that this was just a side diversion from the main business of waiting. All they talked about was when the thing they were waiting for was going to happen. But whenever that thing did happen, nothing seemed to change. The sense of provisionality was the same, it just gradually found a new object.

I was just there with my relatives, living pointless, shapeless days that weren’t bringing me any closer to anything.

It seemed to me that this state of affairs was a relief to my mother. From her perspective, I thought, the past weeks had been a perilous, temporary adventure, something to be endured, and now things were back to normal. It was painful to feel at such cross-purposes with her. Almost everything that was interesting or meaningful in my story was, in her story, a pointless hazard or annoyance.

When I got back to school in the fall, I changed my major from linguistics and didn’t take any more classes in the philosophy or psychology of language. They had let me down. I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.