There is a story told about the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott. He was talking to a meeting of clergy. One of them asked him how they should decide whether someone who comes to them for counseling should be sent to a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. Winnicott memorably said: “If a person comes and talks to you and, listening to him, you feel he is boring you, then he is sick, and needs psychiatric treatment. But if he sustains your interest, no matter how grave his distress or conflict, then you can help him alright.”
I think Winnicott’s criteria for separating sick and problematic characters can be extended to what the essayist’s “expertise” is. If, as an essayist, you are dealing with a topic that is boring you, probably it needs to be sent to a specialist. But if it is problematic and fascinating, then you can deal with it.
Lately, the topic that I have been itching to write a mini-essay on is “competition”. Competition is one of the colorless words of our time. To be colorless is to be over-understood – so understood that one loses touch with what, exactly, the sense of the concept is.
For instance: the other day I was reading, in the New York Times, a story about “terror birds” – massive birds that lived tens of millions of years ago and that, when laying down and dying, as a favor to paleontologists of the future, left gorgeously articulated fossil remains. As in any story about a now extinct species, the coda has to involve how they became extinct. In this case, as the story had emphasized how the terror birds prayed on the incipient mammalia, all rodent like beasts, at the time, we had a vague stake in their existence and disappearance.
The fossil adds to the diversity of terror birds and raises new questions as to why they went extinct two and a half million years ago.
Since the species varied in size and weight, terror birds maynot have died out because of an inability to compete with placental mammals, assome researchers have suggested, Dr. Degrange said.
Dr. Degrange has my respect for rejecting the colorless explanation that would have satisfied the NYT mindset, which is all about competition being good for everything, the very vehicle of progress.
That sentence did make me think that it might be nice to see how competition crept into the worlds of natural history and moral philosophy (economics division). I am going to write a bit more about this.