Friday, December 04, 2020

'And Yet Spend All Our Life on Imprecisions'

Says Imlac in Dr. Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759): 

“Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is criminal; and he may be properly charged with evil who refused to learn how he might prevent it.”


Voluntary is the operative word. To choose ignorance, to remain in darkness when the stakes are high, or to proudly parade our incomprehension, is, if not evil, at least irritating. Most ignorance is not voluntary, and the more we learn, the more our involuntary ignorance is revealed to us. Some of us will never know enough. I am mechanically ignorant and couldn’t explain with any precision how sewage treatment, the human spleen and the internal combustion engine work. On a more trivial level, I don’t know the rules of football and cricket (or any other sport, for that matter), and remain obstinately monolingual.


I’ve concluded that Philip Larkin’s “How Distant” (High Windows, 1974) is, in part, about ignorance – of the future, of the motivations of others. It’s also about “being young,” a time when some of us are ignorant of our own ignorance, setting us up for future embarrassment. Ignorance can be a goad to imagination. The lines “. . . watching / The green shore past the salt-white cordage / Rising and falling” remind me of Conrad glimpsing Latin America from aboard a ship and turning his brief citing into his greatest novel, Nostromo. Larkin gives us several such glimpses that leave the spectator filling in the gaps in his knowledge: “When the chance sight / Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage / Ramifies endlessly.” As usual, Larkin’s choice of verb is perfect. The scene recalls Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau spying a beautiful woman from a distance, briefly, and remembering her for the rest of his life.


Only after reading “How Distant” did I remember that Larkin also wrote a poem titled “Ignorance” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964), which concludes:


“Even to wear such knowledge --for our flesh

Surrounds us with its own decisions--

And yet spend all our life on imprecisions,

That when we start to die

Have no idea why.”

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