I Don’t Get It

On the pleasures on non-critical thinking

Rumaan Alam
Jun 18, 2019 · 4 min read
Illustration by Kyle Griggs

L.L. and I go to the museum. We inspect and discuss. We wend our way up the ramp of the Guggenheim. You’d think we were mountaineering, delirious from the lack of oxygen. The paintings are installed in chronological order, and Agnes Martin had a long life, so by the time we reach the summit, she’s in her ninth decade, and the paintings have rapturous titles, like “I Love the Whole World.” That particular painting is like so much of the rest of her work: a series of lines across a perfect square canvas. Maybe it’s the title, the thought of an eighty-seven year old woman making essentially the same painting she’d made dozens of times before, somehow still filled with the optimism of love for the entire planet. We’re almost in tears, for some reason.

OOnly crazy people go see movies on weekday mornings but the book I’m supposed to be writing has driven me to that point. I persuade L. to go with me, though the only thing I know about this movie is that Robert Pattinson is shirtless in the trailer. We eat popcorn. I can hear the subway rumbling just underfoot during the show — and there’s a small mouse frolicking in the aisle — but the film is hypnotic, bizarre, and, as promised, Robert Pattinson takes his shirt off quite often. We walk downtown, an hour to kill before we have to pick up our children from school, and we talk about the movie, which makes no real sense but that doesn’t seem to matter. In fact, it seems instructive in some vague way.

SSomeone gives me free tickets to the ballet. S. and I ditch our kids, eat salads and French fries at a middling midtown restaurant, than shuffle through the summer rain to Lincoln Center. I’ve spent years trying to like Stravinsky and have never quite been able to. No matter. S. buys us cocktails and peanut M&Ms during intermission. The final dance is exuberant, deranged, set to loud music and the kind of lights that could induce epilepsy. I have no idea why it makes me feel, or even what that feeling is. Dance is like the language from some country you’ve never heard of, one that uses its own inscrutable alphabet. The truth is I’m not that smart but maybe, at this moment, that doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, I can barely breathe, as though I were the one dancing. When the dancers, with their perfect bodies, take their bows, we stand up and applaud, smiling.

II pick up a book by Patrick Modiano, because I know he won the Nobel Prize and this seems enough to recommend it, and also because I love the long title. The book is a mystery with no resolution: a man loses his address book, another man finds it, the first man remembers a woman he once knew, a car trip he once took. I can’t remember if he gets his address book back, but that’s not the point, I guess. I read a dozen more of Modiano’s books, and recommend them to anyone willing to listen to me talk about books, but struggle to articulate why anyone should read them. I don’t even know what happens in most of them. The writer asks a question and then declines to answer it. He sidesteps the conventions of a book yet the books are still so satisfying — maybe because sometimes, sometimes, not knowing is a pleasure.

It’s not exactly the same thing as finding bliss in ignorance, but it’s not far removed from that. That night at the ballet, I did find something close to bliss. That dance lasts twenty-four minutes; I’d have eagerly watched it for another hour, even two. I know no more about dance than the average person, but that didn’t seem salient, or perhaps that was key. Maybe not understanding what I was looking at, or how it worked, or what it was supposed to mean, or refer to, or make me feel, is why I enjoyed it at all.

Perhaps I’ve been for too long been too dutiful a student, one who learned as kid that art is for analysis. I still believe that, but now, too, I understand the particular pleasure of being confounded. You can feel something and not know why. Maybe not knowing why is part of the feeling.

Understand: I’m not smart, or well informed, or conversant in the language of art, though I admire and aspire to that. But maybe there are occasions where incomprehension is liberation. Maybe joy, if that’s the word, has nothing to do with knowing. If you find it — in the lines painted by an old woman, in shirtless Robert Pattinson lost in space, in slender French novels, or a ballet performed to loud electronic music, maybe you just got lucky.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Rumaan Alam

Written by

I’m the author of the novels “Rich and Pretty” and “That Kind of Mother.”

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Rumaan Alam

Written by

I’m the author of the novels “Rich and Pretty” and “That Kind of Mother.”

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store