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The Cerebral and The Mundane

New friends are moving. He is all cerebral; she is highly intelligent, but perhaps more grounded in worldly things. (Wouldn’t she have to be? At least, that is to say, one of them should be.) She is thinking about their new, unseen, flat in a city in which anyone would be thrilled to abide. She wants little in the way of furnishings, but dreams of a particular, classic couch. It gets mentioned several times. He cannot bear even thinking about it, but I’m interested in this problem.

We’re all on our way to a good museum. Allium — my own partner — is also cerebral. I, too, am of more than average intelligence, and I, like She, spend much of my time, of necessity, in the world of the mundane. Though not as intellectually nimble and focused — obsessed? — as our partners, we meet them, well enough, and as circumstances allow, on their mental playgrounds.

I dream of the sort of intellectualism these partners of ours possess, but I am earth-bound, of necessity, of habit. Someone must order day-to-day life, see that the accounts aren’t ignored, make sure that the lights stay on, or there could be no reading and no time for thought.

We who deal with the minutiae of everyday feel the tension between the cerebral and the mundane, but our more intellectual partners do not.

Her material desire, and his response, stirred a musty memory. As a young child, each museum I visited had a remembered, and generally cherished, character of its own. As a rule, I viewed exhibits uncritically, and very much within the framework of what I defined as the museum’s identity.

I saw my museum excursions almost mathematically: The context was History; within that framework there were sets (the museums themselves) and subsets (the various themes and branches) which depended and built upon one another. My interest was almost purely academic — cerebral, really, if that’s not too strong a word for childish observation.

Somewhere along the line — I suspect when I was a young adult — that changed, and the visual, sensory and visceral effects of museum-going became a much more personal thing. I began to consider artifacts in terms of my own taste and predilections, rather than as subsets of the buildings in which I walked.

It occurred to me, on this outing with He and She, that this shift represented the melding of the cerebral and the mundane at a time in my life when the details of becoming an adult first presented themselves. What kind of home shall I have? What are my own aesthetics? If I were to set the scenes of my life, what would they look like?

About this time, I fell in love with the artifacts of later Colonial America. Not that dreadful “Early American” stuff that pocked this country for decades, but the real thing. I began to see the human hands behind every hand-carved line, every perfectly inlaid decoration, every spoon worked in silver, behind every brush stroke.

I saw the history in each piece, the progression of ideas. But I also began to place myself in the rooms where these paintings hung, in company with these exquisite chairs, these textiles, these candelabra. I felt the lives that once moved, more privately, around these pieces. I saw how little the essentials of life have changed in the past few centuries: there is a chair to sit in, a table to eat upon, a drawer for storage.

For me, to a great extent, all artifacts recall the mundane now. I cannot see them only in the context of other cultural, historical or artistic influences. ‘Art’ has become personal: whose studio, whose hand, whose forge, whose wood shop. I cannot help but view ‘art’ in terms of the lives lived with and around each artifact; the cerebral and the mundane are inextricably intertwined now.

Today, though, I feel the poignancy of the longing She is expressing, which seems to me to imply something more than a mere desire for a specific type of furniture.

Her words recalled my old desires and the way imagining furnishings in my own life acknowledged and honored my human antecedents, but also the way in which imagined ownership was an attempt to establish my own place in the continuum of human lives.

She is new at this business: The flat will be furnished somehow — perhaps with this lovely piece or that. Or perhaps things will happen as they have for Allium and me; we gradually acquired domestic accouterments that are comfortable, unglamorous, and, with a few exceptions, uninteresting.

In the end my imagined furnishings didn’t matter; what I really want are the cerebral intangibles. At this later remove, I long to immerse myself in the content of our books, the discussions within and without the house, to have the leisure and freedom to burnish my cognitive state. The furnishings I long for now are ones inside my head.

2 replies on “The Cerebral and The Mundane”

A very touching reminiscence. Yes, we all, even I, must live in the world of the mundane, of bread and circuses. My job is as far removed from Real Life as possible, but still, it is a job. Gas and electric bills must be paid, ho hum. Travelcards must be bought. We talk more about money than Philosophy, and always will. I had not, incidentally, considered the Museum-going split that you describe; presumably I am still stuck in History. Ah well.

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