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Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

July 5, 2003, Saturday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section B; Page 7; Column 5; Arts & Ideas/Cultural Desk 

LENGTH: 1111 words

HEADLINE: It's Stupidity, Stupid: You Can Look It Up


Along with the shag haircut and platform shoes, imbecility was hip in 1970's London. There, in 1976, a journalist named Stephen Pile founded the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain. The admission requirement was simple: incompetence. Meetings consisted of individual demonstrations driving home the point (displays of ineptitude at small talk, batik, art-making, etc.). At the club's kickoff event -- a meal at a hand-picked, third-rate restaurant -- Mr. Pile made the mistake of catching a soup tureen midfall. For this blatant display of adroitness, he was instantly demoted.

Mr. Pile went on to write "The Incomplete Book of Failures" about the club and the trait it sought to honor. A catalog of notable imbecility, including "the worst tourist" (a man who spent two days in New York believing he was in Rome), and the "slowest solution of a crossword" (34 years), the book also featured a membership application form for the Not Terribly Good Club.

As a result the club's numbers swelled. After the book appeared in 1979 (complete with a two-page erratum slip), the organization received 20,000 applications in two months. An incontestable success, the club was in violation of its commitment to failure, and under the terms of its own bylaws had to be disbanded.

Today imbecility seems to be making a comeback, and the success of the "Dumb and Dumber" movies isn't the only evidence. Consider a 46-year-old lapsed academic named Matthijs van Boxsel who has been campaigning full time on imbecility's behalf in the Netherlands for the last five years. In 1999 he published "The Encyclopedia of Stupidity." The book was an unexpected success. Mr. van Boxsel became a sought-after figure on the local lecture circuit, and avid fans went on to found stupidity clubs in Amsterdam and Groningen, where, he says, members "give accounts of their own stupidity and try to outwit each other."

Now American readers can see what the fuss is about: "The Encyclopedia of Stupidity" has been translated into English and has just been published by Reaktion Books. An illustrated hodgepodge of ruminations, anecdotes, aphorisms and esoterica, the book attacks its subject obliquely, spinning a theory of stupidity while cataloging its sightings.

Foolish science? Mr. van Boxsel cites research on "the effect of side winds on arithmetic sums," "the specific gravity of a kiss" and "the surface of God." Or consider what he describes as the "explosive mix of stupidity and intelligence" on display in recent technological advances: filters for water purification that turn out to be breeding grounds for bacteria; suntan lotions that cause skin cancer and cushioned running shoes designed to protect the knees but at the expense of increasing stress on the hips.

Mr. van Boxsel devotes two pages to, a Web site honoring those "who improve our gene pool . . . by removing themselves from it." Recent laureates include a "bungee jumper who had gauged the length of his rope against the depth of the gorge, but forgot that the rope was made of elastic," and the leader of a Christian sect in Los Angeles who died after slipping on a bar of soap while trying to walk, Christ-like, on the water in his bathtub.

But Mr. van Boxsel is hardly mocking such lethal haplessness. "On the one hand, stupidity poses a daily threat to civilization," he writes. "On the other it constitutes the mystical foundation of our existence. For if man was not to fall victim to his own stupidity, he had to develop his intelligence." Or as he put it in a telephone interview from his home in Amsterdam, "Stupidity is the engine that drives our society."

This is his most insistent point: stupidity is not the same as a lack of intelligence -- though precisely what it is is not always clear. "It's a quality all its own," he said. "It's unwitting self-destruction, the ability to act against one's best wishes with death as the most extreme consequence. And it's a typically human talent."

On this last point, novelists seem to agree with him. Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne were fascinated by imbeciles. And Flaubert devoted a sprawling novel to stupidity: "Bouvard and Pecuchet." Unfinished at his death, it featured two retired clerks who embark on a disastrous quest to assimilate the world's entire supply of knowledge. Constantly thwarted by their own poor judgment and ineptitude, they eventually concede defeat. "They acquire a faculty deserving of pity," Flaubert explained. "They recognize stupidity but can no longer tolerate it."

And in 1937, a year before the Anschluss, the Austrian writer Robert Musil gave a lecture in Vienna titled "On Stupidity," in which he described "higher stupidity" as a sophisticated and ubiquitous "disease of the mind that endangers life itself."

Nor is Mr. van Boxsel the only one theorizing on the subject today. In November the English publisher Gibson Square Books will publish "The Dictionary of Idiocy," by Stephen Bayley, a historian of design in London. Inspired by Flaubert's "Dictionary of Received Ideas," which was published as an appendix to "Bouvard and Pecuchet," Mr. Bayley said the book (whose title was changed to avoid confusion with Mr. van Boxsel's work) is a catalog of foolish opinions on topics ranging from beards and Italian food to accountants and abstract art.

"You have to be terribly intelligent to be aware of what stupidity is," he explained by telephone from his home in London.

But of stupidity's commentators past and present, Mr. van Boxsel stands out for his exalted view of the phenomenon. Stupidity, he suggests, is motivating. Without it, we would have little in the way of progress, success or civilization, which in his contrarian view is nothing more than "a series of more or less abortive attempts to come to grips with the self-destructive folly found in all countries and at all times."

It's a theory that seems borne out by Mr. van Boxsel's career. He has managed to turn an inauspicious topic into a source of stable employment -- and modest renown. His second book on stupidity, "Morosofie," a compendium of 100 absurd theories by modern Dutch thinkers, appeared in 2000. His third, "The Topography of Stupidity," a catalog of European cities and provinces known for their stupidity, is nearing completion. And he says he plans four more: on stupidity and theology, stupidity and sex, stupidity and the economy, and stupidity and art.

"Of the people like me, who are spending most of their life on stupidity," he said cheerfully, "I guess I'm the only one living off it. I'm the only one living off my own stupidity."

GRAPHIC: Photo: Kiddie movie or social-science research? The Three Stooges (from left, Curly, Larry and Moe) practicing a persistent trait, stupidity. (American Movie Classics)

LOAD-DATE: July 5, 2003