Highly Intelligent yet Emotionally Retarded

by F.

I had a professor at UCLA whom an undergrad once described as “a highly intelligent insect.” It was not a compliment, either.

This description was uncannily accurate. He was, in fact, highly intelligent. Like, super. He was a mathematician, musician, philosopher—had that whole cluster of abstract reasoning skills. But when it came to affect rather than intellect, he was entirely undeveloped. He was emotionally retarded.

I know a lot of people like this. In fact, the second crackpot psychologist I went to (during adolescence) described me that way. Can you believe it? I mean, how dare he say such a thing to me—ME! What an asshole! Well, I don’t have to tell you that I very soon afterward—



There I go again…

Anyway, back to my professor. He has since moved to another (better) university and continued his distinguished career, probably getting smarter and smarter. But what about his emotional development?

I thought about this when browsing through the book Godel, Escher, Bach, the other day. Why? Because putting Godel and Bach with Escher is like grouping apples with Agent Orange. It’s like that Sesame Street game “One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong.” Escher just don’t belong there.

Here are some comparable made-up book titles:

  • Russell, Cezanne, Britney Spears
  • Gauss, Raphael, The Monkees
  • Von Neumann, Degas, Clay Aiken.
  • Tarski, Patrick Nagel, Stravinsky

You’ll notice I generally substituted out the musician in each ordered triple. That’s because most low-brow visual artists are not well known. Not anymore. Maybe a better analogy would be with filmakers. Maybe:

  • Liebniz, Roger Corman, Marin Marais.

But enough with the examples. The point, man—What is the point? I hear you ask.

Just a sec.

I’m thinking of what it is.

[A long silence ensues]


Yes…the point is that Escher sucks when considered as anything more than a maker of curios. He is certainly not in the same class as Godel and Bach, even if you think (as I sometimes do) that Bach is emotionally sterile as well. When it comes to the artists (including, but not limited to, musicians), they’ve got to deliver the emotional goods. It’s not enough just to make the audience sigh and feel clever, I don’t think.


Now, I know why Hofstadter chose Escher—the recursion thing. But couldn’t he have tried just a little bit harder to find someone that did more than just do “gee whiz” drawings completely devoid of emotional coloring? Or is it that the author of Godel, Escher, Bach, like many of us, is… is… emotionally…

No, I can’t say it.

So where are the highly intelligent and emotionally developed folks hiding?

I don’t know.

Shakespeare was probably one. Montaigne perhaps? And maybe Nietzsche (I hear you laughing at that! But I’m serious). It can be done. It’s just not easy.