Maybe, just maybe, the most indecisive character in all of literature got a bad rap.
Hamlet is forever portrayed staring at Yorick’s skull, muttering waddleidoo waddleidoo in iambic pentameter. But as Kathryn Schulz writes in her 2016 book Being Wrong, this lukewarm take on the Danish prince is both relatively recent and somewhat unfair.
“It’s not as if the prince dillydallies for fourteen scenes over whether to order the BLT or the chicken salad,” she writes. “This is someone who has been asked to commit murder. And not just any murder, but one that is both a regicide and a virtual parricide: the deliberate assassination of a man who is at once his sovereign, his uncle, his stepfather, and his mother’s husband. One assumes that any reasonable person would be given pause by such a situation.”
“I must have a prodigious quantity of mind; it takes me as much as a week, sometimes, to make it up.”
— Mark Twain
Schulz’s larger point is that we want our leaders — even our fictional princes — to be decisive even if they’re decisively wrong. Confidence is contagious, even if it’s dumb. Her archetypal electoral example: George W. Bush vs. John Kerry in 2004. It’s no wonder the president’s desk is named the Resolute.
“Oh! Let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!”
— Hilaire Belloc
Perhaps the best advice on mostdecisions is summed up by Bill Murray’s demotivational speech from the 1979 motion picture Meatballs: It just doesn’t matter. That’s the point of Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice summed up by the subtitle: How the culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction. Schwartz divides the world into Maximizers, who try to optimize every single decision, and Sufficers, who generally pick the good enough option and move on with their lives. One guess as to who’s happier — and make it quick!
“The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regard as important the decisions he is allowed to take.”
— C. Northcote Parkinson
Here in Toronto, two local purveyors of sinful foodstuffs have explored how to sell more by offering less. Cops Doughnuts is all about hot loops of fried dough and filter coffee, because, as they say, too many options are a prison.
Similarly, for many years Steam Whistle beer sold one simple pilsner in an elegant green bottle. “Do one thing and do it really, really well” was their tag line. And then they changed their minds and decided to do five things, and it didn’t work out. So now they’re back to one thing, lemon shandy be damned.
“I’ll give you a definite maybe.”
— Samuel Goldwyn
To be undecided is to be perplexed, so it’s interesting to note that the word perplexity has a special meaning in the world of machine learning, natural language processing, and chatbots. A low perplexity score means a chatbot will quickly find an acceptable next word. Perplexity.ai is a new search engine that uses Open AI to generate full coherent paragraphs in a split second. It’s highly decisive, and in no time at all it told me that “Hamlet is a perplexing character because of his complexity, and his perplexing neurotransmitters may have caused the tragedy.” Which brings me to this line of uncertain origin:
“A great many open minds should be closed for repairs.”
A decision has been made!
I’m delighted to share that our first Riposte Card — a limited edition, beautifully illustrated 4 x 6 artwork sent by mail to paying subscribers — will be designed by Antony Hare, an effervescently accomplished multimedia artist in London, Ontario. Antony’s the spiritual grandson of the great caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and his work has appeared in all the best places. Just look at this portrait of Katharine Hepburn he did for Bloomsbury Press!
We’re currently in the midst of selecting a great quip for him to illustrate. Want in on the finished product?
“In America, through pressure of conformity, there is freedom of choice, but nothing to choose from.”
— Peter Ustinov
The first readers to vote on next week’s topic will really set the tone. Everyone else chooses to support or dissent. But would fewer choices make you happier? Let’s see.
Get Wit Quick No. 190 isn’t what the accountants would call “decision useful.” Unless of course you decide to order Cops Doughnuts, crack a Steam Whistle, and watch Meatballs. Maybe not on Thursday morning though? BLT over chicken salad, for sure. I’m certain that my book was titled Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. I’m less sure that you will tap the❤️ below.
Does not include Mesopotamian invasions.
An antidote to indecision attributed to Mae West: Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before. ...
Hamlet's perplexing neurotransmitters! That explains everything! haha