Category Archives: Happiness

What is Art? What is Happiness?

What is Art?

Certain artists -artistes if you will- invite you into their world, to see your own world through their eyes. For many viewers/ listeners/ readers/ participants this can often come across as incomprehensible nonsense. For others more-attuned to the wavelength of the originator perhaps, it can immediately be recognised as a breakthrough, speaking directly to the heart of what they’ve always felt but could never hope to express -or if not that, immediately appreciated as an expression of truth -or even a new kind of truth.

The rest of us can wander around as if in a daze afterwards, unable to comprehend what we have witnessed, often experiencing an incomprehensible anger or contempt towards what has been put before us, such is the level of mistake or seemingly wrongness to it all.

People often attribute a certain intellegence-level to the appreciation -or lack of appreciation- of such art (and it works both ways, with cries of elitism or braindead-ism for its enjoyment or otherwise.) Perhaps it is a branch of intelligence, but to my thinking it has nothing to do with the Comprehension we usually mean by intelligence. In fact I believe it is often the opposite of this: it’s to do with the ability willingness to traverse comprehension.

 

None of this is to suggest I’m always to the fore in recognising/ enjoying/ appreciating such an ‘auteur’. There are many such ‘creators’ in different fields whom I readily admit must have something but which I can never (thus far) grasp. eg. Thomas Pynchon, Jean Renoir, Tom Waits, James Joyce, most ‘modern art’ artists, etc..

Immediately I’m a philistine to fans and officianados of these people, I know. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on such maestros’ work, but rather shine a light on their commitment to the craft -their vision -their outlook on life. I salute such singular approach to “Art” in all forms, whether I “get it” or not.

This to me is what Art is. A true artist is one who knows (no doubt) the rules and has heard all the arguments for how things are supposed to be done. He/ She is aware of every reason why something doesn’t work, but yet spots or senses something new, something unconsidered, something overlooked and brings it to the fore.

Sadly, more and more it seems, the world is full of so-called writers/ directors/ painters/ musicians who first look outwards at “what the audience/ publisher/ agent wants” rather than inwards at “What do I know? What do I feel? How do I see the world? What can I bring to the table?”

 

To my way of thinking, this is the difference between an Artiste (whether I can personally appreciate them or not) and a whore. Mostly the world of cinema/ books/ ‘art’ consists of whores.

 

What is HAPPINESS?

Happiness is a 1998 film by Todd Solondz.

 

The first time I saw it (around the time of its release on Region 1 DVD) I must confess I was appalled. The film, with its depiction of some seriously dysfunctional individuals in a seemingly-comic setting jarred me so much I felt contempt for everyone involved. “How could these people even agree to act in such a movie?” was my genuine first thought. I couldn’t believe, for one thing, someone had made a film wherein (among other things) a paedophile was portrayed sympathetically. A sickened anger arose in me long before the credits spurted onto the screen. I even felt anger towards my wife who afterwards conveyed no such contempt for what we had witnessed. How could she have so much as tolerated this travesty?

For a long time after (hours? days? weeks?) I was Alex from A Clockwork Orange following his aversion-therapy. Whenever I thought of that film I felt ill. Seriously.

 

Then a strange thing happened some six months later: I happened across a forum where people were expressing an appreciation of “that film”. As I read, I began to be reminded of scenes that “weren’t too bad”. Once or twice I tittered despite myself.

Yet it was some three months after this again when I finally found the courage -or the will- to rewatch Happiness. My reaction was a complete reversal -I laughed and loved it all the way through.

 

Since then I have watched Happiness at least seven times and each time it gets better and better. I now count it as one of my favourite movies of all time. I do find it too long but there is nothing in it I would or could think of that should be cut.

Although I sympathise with the view that it is a sick movie, I look back on the person I was when I first experienced it (in 1999 or so?) and feel nothing but an almost embarrassment for my reaction.

 

The movie was the same, so what changed?

The obvious answer is “me”, but it’s not just that. Of course on my second viewing I was forearmed with the knowledge of what was -and was not- going to happen. I was no longer viewing it, imagining where it was going, but now I could actually look at where it was going and perhaps experience that for the first time rather than watching in fear of what would come next (no pun intended).

Certainly though, the main thing to have changed in that 9-month or so period from first viewing to second was me. This movie I believe showed me how a movie should be (in my view).

 

The problem with the movie is also its strength: it has no Hero Protagonist -nobody for us to root for -nobody we can easily empathise with -nobody we want to empathise with.

It’s not the first or the last film to do such a thing of course (not even from this director) but for some reason it took me many months after viewing Happiness to realise that almost every film out there virtually insists I ‘like’ the protagonist(s) and plays to my prejudices and preferences in order to gain my affection.

Happiness almost does the opposite. It’s a film whose characters are surely disliked by everybody, yet dares the viewer to look past this to see the bigger picture.

Post-Happiness, I think perhaps I’ve learnt to be more guarded with my affections towards onscreen characters. I don’t submit to them freely -and I find myself separating emotion from the rest of the ‘package’ that makes up a film.

 

It’s likely this film wasn’t solely responsible for my ‘movie-viewing transformation’. For instance I’ve always found myself favourably disposed towards the films of Stanley Kubrick, who is often (wrongly) said to ‘lack emotion’. What Kubrick -and the movie Happiness among others- does is to lay the plans out at one’s feet and allow the audience -the viewer- to decide how to react/ how to see it.

Armed with the fruits of this ‘effort’ the viewer is better able to judge for themselves what they have seen/ how they feel towards it. The result is everybody sees it differently -as true-art is always experienced. No two people see the same Kubrick film -and nobody sees the same Kubrick film twice in the same way.

Don’t get me wrong -spending 90 minutes being spoonfed emotion-on-rails via manipulative characters/ visuals/ audio can be enjoyable too. Who’d like to live on nothing but steak after all? That can be as debilitating as the guy who spends a lifetime slurping beans with a spoon.

It’s not an either/or choice, but I would dearly love if the phrase “leave the brain at the door and enjoy” was more readily recognised for the braindead remark it truly is.

By all means enjoy the chicken nuggets and the sausages and the beans and the sugary candy, but don’t mistake it for a slap-up all-round honest-to-goodness healthy meal.

 

Anyway, after fourteen years or so I thought it important to throw a few thoughts together on the subject and to mention that I believe Happiness is a truly excellent film that deserves widescale recognition and acclaim.

 

 

 

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg -My Kind of Anti-War Movie

 

There is something self-defeatist about movies that purport to be anti-war spending 90 minutes bathing in blood and comradeship. Violence is its own advertisement. Showing more of it in order to lessen it is akin to invading a country in the name of peace.

Furthermore, like a closet-gay spending an inordinate amount of time ranting against homosexuality, the very people who get their knickers in a twist over onscreen orgiastic blood-letting are often the ones most titillated by it. How else can Gibson’s Passion of the Christ be explained? Extreme violence turned up to a sadistic-11 in the name of all that is holy and righteous.

The truth is Violence and Aggression and Anger and Death are cool. Singing and Romance are not. I say that with a contemptuous sneer, not as a justification for what is considered cool.

Singing & Romance (together) are allowable nowadays only if accompanied by a nod & a wink that advertise how you recognise the inherent uncoolness of it all, but that you are so cool you just don’t care, which makes it acceptable and perversely cool.

But before ironic cool uncoolness there was unapologetic joy and love and beauty and raw emotion without the baggage of the pre-packed Happy Meal mode in which to consume it.

You can fight and complain about what is considered cool -and make a good case as to why it should not be so considered, but the more you do the cooler it gets and the further into Crater of Uncool you dig.

 

Enter The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

 

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Dexter -The Fall of The Western Empire

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Can I stick my head above the parapet and say I believe the whole concept of the TV series “Dexter” is deplorable and symptomatic of the decline of western civilisation? Well I’ve said it.

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True I’ve only seen one episode (and it was very well written), but I really don’t want to ever see another -not because it’s not any good, but because I can see how it sucks you in and gets you to empathise with a serial killer and personally I don’t think it’s healthy for individuals or society as a whole to go there. It just ups the ante on what is acceptable.

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I’ll go one teensy bit further and say I believe the best “serial killer movies” are not about the killer himself/ herself (they don’t deserve a movie IMHO), but about the destruction on the individuals surrounding the incidents -detectives, reporters, others becoming obsessed by the crimes to the detriment of themselves and their loved ones. Films like Zodiac and Memories of Murder (Korean) deal with it very well.

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It’s my belief that with the advent of “The Serial Killer Hero”, embodied most blatantly in the likes of Dexter and Hannibal Lector, the whole of society (whatever that is) is becoming embroiled and obsessed by this kind of thing as though each of us is immediately affected.

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Over time and over a large population I don’t believe we are breeding serial killers, but we are increasing “the whole negative vibe”, which is nothing but a self-destructive downer.

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My catchy rallying call for an anti-Dexter type movement would be “Spread Love, not gouge out eyeballs with a tuning fork!”  Do you think it’d catch on? :)

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The Tyranny of Consensus

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Say you find yourself in a large indian tent on the American plains circa 1880 and everyone is sitting around a large fire, passing a pipe from one to another… When it gets to you, would you point and deride the people for passing on their vile fumes?

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I know it’s a silly question, but I think complaining about a bit of cigarette smoke is a comfortable 21st century prejudice that would be incomprehensible in any other era. It would not only be laughed at, but seen as a childish concern.

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Sure people always have preferences (my own preference is not to be around smoke if I can help it) but I find anti-smokers (as opposed to non-smokers) take things a bit far. Their views and opinions have an unassailable militant edge. They are the only allowable voice on the topic and their message is one of hate. In short, they are bullies. Whether they know it or not.

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Leaving smoke aside for a little while, I’ve been in the company of people (mostly women) whose noxious perfume, etc. have caused me to almost collapse. Literally.

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If enough people were with me and we got a good campaign going I dare say I could point at such a lady in a crowd and deride her choice and application of toiletry products. And I would be applauded. And she should race home immediately and scrub herself down. And the contrary view would not be tolerated.

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But I wouldn’t like to do such a thing. I’m happy to stay away from smelly people (of any kind) whenever I can and to suffer in silence when it’s my ill-luck to be near them. If I worked near one I’d have to say something eventually, but that’s a separate and isolated matter.

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Similarly, I find people who kick up a fuss about doggie doo-doo to be equally angry and chipped individuals. Concrete paving and expensive, stylised footwear are an affront to nature. Excrement is not. I wouldn’t like to step in it every day, but that would be my problem, not the poor dog’s.

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Ideally dogs should be trained to dump in by walls and lamp-posts where possible, but the whole notion of ranting and raving about excrement is the mindset of imbeciles.

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I’m in the minority on this, I know, but that’s OK. My point is less about my personal opinion, than how opinions and prejudices become curiously militant and segregating once they are shared by a majority of vocal assayers. People who perhaps suffered in silence for many years suddenly rise up with an incongruous anger and scream foul at the perpetrator once their view is in the ascendant, seeking to destroy any vestige of the “foul deed” from sight and mind. In the process, I believe such people are as “wrong” as the crime they are fighting against -whether I agree with their cause or not.

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In short, live and let live. :)

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…And I don’t own a dog either. Never have. To date. Mainly because

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a) I hate the smell of dogfood. It makes me sick.

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and

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b) I’m not going to walk behind it with a bag in my hand, eagerly awaiting a donation.

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and

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c) There is almost nowhere left for dogs to run free. Thankfully we have  a garden, but outside that I’d have to suffer the tyranny of concensus that dictates dogs -ALL dogs- should be tied up.

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To that view, I say pooh pooh!

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Would you do the lotto if…

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Odds on winning the Irish lotto (45 numbers to choose from): 1 in 8,145,060

 

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Odds on being involved in a fatal accident in one of the world’s Top 25 airlines with the best accident rates: 1 in 9.2 million (according to planecrashinfo.com).

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Obviously the second rate could change depending on the airline, but lets just say the above numbers are more or less comparable.

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My question is… if there was a lottery whereby you could win “the grand prize” (whatever that may be) and also be as likely to win the booby-prize of Death (delivered by the press of a button by the lotto organisers, causing your whole being to immediately explode)… would you do the lotto?

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Fire, slightly out of hand

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It began like all the best plans, with an idea. There was an ugly dead broken-looking overgrown lump of a massive plant in the garden. It used to look like long palm-tree stems waving from a single tropical clump of a windy afternoon. Now it was an old, used, dense, dry, flopped-out giant mop. Its long strands wormed across part of the driveway like an Emo’s hair blocking his face, lending the front garden a deep-felt weary dissolution with life, the universe, horticulture and mainstream teenage pop music. It needed removing before it had an undesirable effect on my ten year old. And I was just the father to do it!

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Simple Solution #8: Irish Dáil Reform

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THE PROBLEM: The Irish house of Parliament (the Dáil) is in a mess. There’s a massive job ahead to be done, but time and again politicians are voted into power based on their ability to bring investment or at least a little positive attention to their local area, rather than having an ability to face or tackle the national problems of the country.

“He may not be able to renegotiate a deal with Brussels, but he’ll make sure the road outside my house looks alright.”

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THE SOLUTION: Nobody should be allowed vote for their own ministers.

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ie. ..People in Cork should be given a choice of Carlow candidates, people in Donegal should vote to put in Waterford ministers, Galway people should be given a choice of Louth political wannabes, etc..

Existing political approaches and constructs such as “clinics” should be allowed continue as before, but not in the voting areas -rather in the area in which the politician has been elected to represent. (eg. a Louth TD should live in Louth and not be allowed have a clinic in Galway.)

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This ensures that

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a) Nobody can think only of himself/herself when voting for a candidate since the person who gets in will not be responsible for “the road outside my house”.

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b) Everyone will consider the national interest when voting.

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c) Candidates will run with a national-interest mindset and agenda.

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What’s good for the country will ultimately trickle down to local rights, rules and regulations.

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OF COURSE THIS WON’T BE ADOPTED BECAUSE: Irish people have voted for the same political party since ever. Even now they are set to vote back in their local Fianna Fáil (or any other “established” party candidate) because “he’s not one of them fellas who made the mess -an’ didn’t he turn up to Johnny’s funeral last November on a rainy day!”

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“Political Reform” to any of these people means a token reduction in expenses and perhaps removing automatic rights for some TDs to a state car & driver.

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Same ole wankers will get back in, even if some of them have different faces. Same ole crap will be the result. Nothing will change except the people of Ireland slouch their shoulders and prepare for a hundred years of hardship.

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Nine Kids

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I was talking to a man a couple of weeks ago, who during the course of the conversation mentioned he had nine children.

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“Nine kids!?” I cried.

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“Yes,” he nodded sagely before sitting back in his chair as if to intone some wise words.
“And the funny thing is,” he declared, “six of them turned out great!”

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One slide

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Yesterday I collected my son (5 years old) from a party at a local play centre. His eyes welled-up as I approached him.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to go yet,” he cried.

I told him, “well OK, go and have one slide down.”

Immediately his face burst into joy and he ran off laughing.

“..but we’re leaving as soon as you do one slide!” I called after him.

“Alright,” he shouted, pausing to look back, “but I’m not going down any slide so I won’t be back for a while!”

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Back to School -Morning Rules

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Now that the kids are going back to school (next week), I am reminded of the rules I stuck on the wall some time ago..

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Do you find yourself going through the same routine, saying/ shouting the same things every school morning?

Well, post up these rules (or your own version thereof) and reap the benefits!

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Now the kids know what they need to do each morning and it saves a lot of heartache to just say “have you done everything on the list?” instead of listing same over and over and over each and every morning.

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You know it makes sense!

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(I’m often asked why the “no juggling” rule. Short answer is, rules shouldn’t necessarily be an interdiction on everything one might enjoy, nor should they be seen as solely “about me”. And it’s nice to have a rule that isn’t always being broken.)

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Simple Solutions #7: 12th of July Parades

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Peace and Brotherly Love are the by-words that certain correspondents would have us believe most effectively sum up relations and mood between the peoples of Northern Ireland.

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But under the surface (and even clearly on the surface at times) old hatreds and prejudices boil and bubble, resulting in an annual eruption of violence you could set your watch by. Old Faithful is alive and well and gushing through the streets of Northern Ireland every 12th of July.

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THE PROBLEM: ‘Orangemen’ see it as their right to hold parades along routes they have always marched each 12th of July. Unfortunately, certain areas on certain routes do not want these marches. People in these areas see them as an imperialist and triumphalist finger to the wishes of the majority (in those areas).

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Every year this results in a stand-off between both peoples, usually with the police in the middle (literally) keeping them apart.

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THE SOLUTION: Allow the orangemen down the road (each contentious road I mean), one person at a time.

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These roads are lined with police and army vehicles that keep the ‘locals’ from attacking marchers as the almost-inevitable parade progresses. Orangemen are usually told not to play their instruments during these times.

These men wish to “walk down the queen’s highway” as they put it and frankly they have a point.

Catholics/locals in these certain areas do not wish a horde of “ignorant loyalists” to trample through their patch, and frankly they have a point too (even though the idea of catholic and protestant ‘patches’ itself is ridiculous, however that’s how it is).

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So anyway, after a flurry of protest & violence, usually the orangemen eventually march, amid a flurry of protest & violence on the other side of the barricade.

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Imagine now the scene if orangemen were allowed march one-at-a-time. Such a ‘march’ could no longer be interpreted as a triumphalist cock-a-snoot to the locals, but instead would be laughed-off (loudly) from behind the barriers. The glass bottles and angry threats would be replaced by jeers and mocking laughter. (OK, ideally this should not occur either of course, but I’m trying to be real here).

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The result is the orangemen have their march, but it could not be interpreted by ‘locals’ as an annual triumphalist invasion of the area.

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Of course this won’t be adopted because: The underlying problem is the traditional communities themselves, divided along sectarian lines. It’s understandable why people huddled together in these ways during the troubles, forced to rely on each other in times of need. Now these huddles (in certain areas) are themselves as problematic as a mass of marchers. They will likely take a couple of generations to disperse naturally, as people find they no longer need to live and define themselves along strictly religious lines.

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Unknown Knowns

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“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that’s basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.” -Donald Rumsfeld, 2002.

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I believe Rummy missed one: The unknown knowns.
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In fact, I believe most popular movies/ books/ anything else misses this too. It is a highly underrated knowledge.
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The unknown knowns are those things you know, but aren’t aware you know. They could be things you take for granted or something right under your nose that you never knew you knew about -for example you might “know” something to be true, but never actually think about it (and so not know you know) until perhaps someone else mentions it.

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“She’s pregnant!” …only after you hear it do you realise that you somehow “knew” all along.
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Similarly, the best comedy is often to be had from these unknown knowns -everyday life events we already know about, but weren’t aware we knew or did. When they are held up in front of our eyes, perhaps through a skewed lens, we have to laugh because we recognise what we already knew, but somehow didn’t know we knew.

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Why do I say this is missed by most books and movies nowadays?

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Well, in my opinion the best “works of art” are almost indescribable, yet speak sometimes in a personal nature directly to the reader/ viewer. It’s not something that can be described in the blurb in the back of the book, so it’s not easily marketable, so it’s unappreciated.
Or under-appreciated at least.

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Maybe the book/ movie hasn’t even broached a topic, but yet puts a certain thought in your head or leaves you with a mood that is familiar and yet new. These are the greatest.

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I’ve often turned the last page of a book I really enjoyed and half an hour later could barely remember any of it. To me, that makes the book almost a complete waste of time.

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On the other hand, the best books can often be harder to get into -they need some work by us readers, to place ourselves in the right frame of mind to appreciate “the full show”. But as the last page is turned, we are left floating for a long time afterward. Maybe with much to think about or just to appreciate the mood.

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The unknown knowns can also lead one to that “ah yes of course!” moment, as when you suddenly realise “AAHHH So *THIS* is where it’s all going! -I didn’t know that, but now that I know I know it, I knew it all along!”


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The unknown knowns are the best of all knowns and unknowns because they take the least effort with the greatest reward (or at least the groundwork has already been done, maybe subconsciously).

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NOW… The next time you find a forgotten tenner in your back-pocket you will hold it aloft and declare with joy: “The unknown known!”  :)

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Jim Emerson has a good discussion on Rumsfeld’s points here.

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