Dear Diary: Brains


The more I watch An Education, the stronger my conviction becomes that, in a virtual galaxy of great performances — great performances — the most interesting thing about the movie, for me, is Rosamund Pike’s Helen. Nick Hornby’s script is always trying to get a laugh in at Helen’s expense, but Lone Scherfig’s direction propels the character along another line altogether, one that Ms Pike proves to be supremely gifted at realizing. The actress usually plays conventionally sharp girls, but, in Helen, Ms Pike triumphs as a bimbo who feels real pity for people with brains. What is the point of brains? she asks at every turn. And the people with brains don’t have an answer.

An Education is set in the early Sixties, since which time people of all kinds — those with surabundant brains as well as those with none — have been posing Helen’s challenge. What is the use of brains? Aside from a small patch of possibility that has been consecrated to the engineers who build airplanes and power plants, the ground has not been congenial to intellect. As if to prove the man-in-the-street’s skepticism about smart people, smart people spent a big chunk of the postwar period on something called Theory. Given a choice between Helen’s anti-intellectualism and Theory, I know which lesser evil I’d choose.

Let me be the first to confess that I don’t know how to talk to people who have no interest in brains. But let me also insist that I regard this as a terrible personal failing, and one that is perhaps fatally widespread among bright people. Why do I think that the Helens of the world are right to doubt the utlity of anything that I have to say? Simple: I’ve never made an effort to sympathise with their longing for straightforward certainty. It’s true that I don’t want “straightforward certainty” for myself, but to make a point of that difference is thick-headed. I’m certain — functionally — of a lot of things, and if I could hook that confidence up to my ability to speak with honest reassurance, I just might quell the anxieties of someone otherwise prone to mistake my curiosity for mercurial inconstancy.

The deep scandal of it all is that, although I’ve an imposing presence, I can squeak like a footnote, which only makes my size ridiculous. Like bright people everywhere since the end of World War II, I’m preoccupied by the need to say exactly what I think, no matter how many tedious qualifications this involves. The Helens of this world are not going to listen to me until I show myself to be more interested in talking to them than I am in getting the message just right. The minute I persuade them to listen to me, it won’t matter whether I’ve stated the message absolutely correctly. They’ll get what I’m driving at even if I can’t put it into words.