(Guest post from the Spouse)
Recently, visiting a group of friends, I mentioned that I thought one of our other friends (who was absent) was “opinionated.” A collective smirk went around the room. And then someone said (jocularly, but kindly), “And you are NOT opinionated?!?” This surprised me as I have never thought of myself as “opinionated,” and I said as much. Scoff, scoff. Smirk, smirk. Hmmm…. So I started thinking more about what I meant by the term “opinionated.”
Opinionated to me does not mean “stuck in one’s habits.” If one routinely has morning coffee at 8:50 and takes a walk at 9:30 and doesn’t like those habits interrupted, that is not being “opinionated,” that’s being an old fuddy duddy who doesn’t like her routines disturbed. Irritating enough, but not falling within the realm of “opinion.”
I realized that by “opinionated,” I meant “firmly entrenched in an idea for which one has no evidence.” In its worst examples: X holds the “opinion” that the majority of black men are dead-beats who run out on their families, deal drugs, and mug white women on a regular basis. Data? No. Y says that such a stereotype is unfair and biased. Data? Yes. X holds the “opinion” that Covid-19 is a hoax; Y says that the evidence supports an alternative narrative. In both instances, I find X is “opinionated” while Y has opinions, but they are based on data. One further example: I have no trouble holding the “opinion” that our current president is a threat to democracy and civic order. Given world enough and time (see Marvell, below), I can point to at least 421 million cogent reasons why this is so.
And so it is that well-meaning people can agree (I hope) on the need for certain sorts of “opinions” to be backed up by evidence.
However, this sort of fact-based reasoning becomes more nebulous in the realm of art. Chacun à son goût, and all that, but I believe…let me rephrase that…it is my opinion (the source of which is obscure to me, though see footnote*) that a literate person should make an effort to enunciate a reason for their goût. I like to think that my “opinions” on such matters are grounded in something that is akin to evidence (it’s “in the text” or, less convincing, “the author has said so in interviews”). However, pin-pointing/articulating such evidence is often a subjective exercise based on comparisons to past reading experiences and to the emotions elicited by them. Art, after all, is not a science. You say passage X is lyrical, beautifully descriptive, and moving. I say it is prosaic, pretentious, and off-putting. It’s the same passage! How can we read it so differently? Which one of us is “opinionated”? Which one of us is accurate?
Many who have grappled with the definition of “art” have fallen back on the explanation that “art” is whatever survives the test of time. Fine for Greek temples, Beethoven, Rembrandt, and certain English novels of the 19th century, but what are we to make of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review? Many of us fall back on the collective opinions of others (The National Book Award committee, Michiko Kakutani, and Reese Witherspoon can’t be wrong, can they?). But aren’t our own educated opinions as good as theirs?
Perhaps it’s okay for us to have different opinions about “art.” It’s certainly okay if each of us experiences the world differently. But I see that it’s not okay for me to experience the world in so different a manner that I cannot empathize with another’s point of view…
however wrong it may be.
* When I was a junior in college – and a newly-minted English major – I took a seminar on the Metaphysical Poets (Donne, Hebert, Marvell, etc.). It was well beyond my reading sophistication, but I needed some English lit credits. We were asked to write an essay on (I think) Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress.” To me it was banal; it sounded like a flowery Hallmark card, and I had the temerity to write as much. It was stupid on so many fronts that it’s almost hard to write about it. When the professor called me in to talk about the generous “C” I got on the paper, he basically said I didn’t know how to read, and he was right. My reading experience had been too meager to appreciate the subtleties and ironic joys of Marvell’s poem. I am happy to say that now, after an additional 50 years of reading, I experience the poem with delight. However, that “teachable moment” taught me that sometimes someone’s (including my own) goût is totally misguided.