Thursday, March 22, 2018

`Much that One Does Not Want to Know'

“We read, search, pick up one book after another & life becomes a febrile pursuit of knowledge.”

That was me when young. I felt ten steps behind the smart guys and could never catch up. Reading took on an industrialized aspect. I competed not with other readers -- I didn’t know any afflicted with my sort of culture-hunger -- but with myself. I felt anxiety when I didn’t know something, but good things can come from such neuroses. Many a gourmet begins as a gourmand. I came to understand that to recognize shoddy goods you first have to try them on. Why did I feverishly read James Baldwin and Joyce Carol Oates when I was young? So I don’t have to read them when I was old. The burden is lifted.

“But culture is to know that there is much that one does not want to know.”

The quoted sentences are from Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks, 1922-86 (2014). The latter is the rarest sort of wisdom, hard-earned in my case. Vast fields of human endeavor leave me utterly indifferent, and today that’s just fine by me. I don’t care about economics, statistics and neuroscience. I’m glad other people do. There’s a good chance they don’t care about Henry James and Osip Mandelstam. In his next notebook entry, Oakeshott sounds a lot like Montaigne, who is always worth pursuing:

“We spend our lives trying to discover how to live, a perfect way of life, sens de la vie. But we shall never find it. Life is the search for it; the successful life is that which is given up to that search; & when we think we have found it, we are farthest from it. Delude ourselves that we have found it, persuade ourselves that here at least there is a point at which we can rest -- and life has at once become moribund. Just as to remain in love we must be continually falling in love, so to remain living we must be continually striving to live.”

[Added later, from Shirley Hazzard's Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples (2008): "The variety and interest of existence had struck us, through literature, as being more real than our factual origins. It was thus that pilgrimage had been set in motion."] 

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