In Praise of Ignorance
Everybody is ignorant. It’s true. Everyone is ignorant.
And it is nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s a very big world. Much bigger than anyone can know. And the relatively intelligent understand that there’s lots they don’t know. Which means that there’s lots more out there to learn.
Only the willfully dumb or the very naive don’t realize their ignorance. The willfully dumb just don’t (or can’t or aren’t willing to) comprehend their ignorance. And willful stupidity, when coupled with narcissism or arrogance or power, is a potentially deadly combination. The naive, happily, are able to embrace and make good use of their ignorance, once they’ve experienced enough of life to notice what they don’t know. Naïveté is curable. But everyone is ignorant.
If I’m not mistaken, the first time I realized the extent of my ignorance I was reflecting on the weekly obituaries in The Economist news magazine. I’ve faithfully read The Economist for thirty years. And every week, I start at the last page, reading the obituary first. Week-in, week-out these obituaries introduce the public to people who have recently died who shaped the world significantly for good or ill.
Some of the recently deceased are familiar names. But often — indeed, very often — I don’t know anything about these people until I read the obituary. Sometimes I have never before heard of them. And, yet, reading about them in the obituary I become conscious of the fact that they have done more than I will ever accomplish.
Poets and pundits, soldiers and soldiers of fortune, economists, chemists, politicians, physicians, adventurers, artists, villains and humanitarians, and scores of others, have their stories told by the obituary writers of the Economist. And, more often than not, my jaw drops and I say to myself, “how could I have lived this long and not have heard about this person until now?” I’m ignorant of whole swaths of human life and history.
I don’t just feel ignorant. I am. Recently this awareness took on new dimensions when I began reading the collected essays of Clive James.
I have admired Clive James for a very long time. Thirty years ago I first took note of his essays and television appearances. Outrageously funny, intellectually brilliant, prodigiously catholic in his interests, James’ comments on cultural issues were always a treat. An Australian by birth, James emigrated to England as a young man, studying at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was a classmate of Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame) and the historian Simon Schama.
James could have been an academic scholar. And that would have been a pity. An eager student of European languages, with an insatiable curiosity, James seems to have read everything in European literature, political studies, art, culture, and history. Fortunately he became a journalist, and satirist, a television personality, a memoirist, poet and essayist of the first rank. Thus, a lot of people, who will never darken the doors of a university, have benefited from his vast stores of knowledge.
When he died last year, I set myself the task to read his most important books, beginning with his small collection of essays on one of my favorite poets, Philip Larkin. Then I moved on to what many consider his most important collection of essays, “Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts” (New York/ London, 2007). Reading his essays on Larkin, I merely felt relatively uninformed, perhaps not quite educated enough to have unraveled the subtleties of Larkin’s poetry. But when I turned to “Cultural Amnesia,” within only a few pages, I realized my profound ignorance.
Apparently, I have been walking through my life with my eyes closed and my brain in cold storage.
Sure, I had heard of Anna Akhmatova, Jorge Luis Borges, and Sir Thomas Browne, Albert Camus, Dick Cavett, and Miles Davis. But who the heck is Ebon Friedell, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and Nadezhda Mandelstam. I can’t even complain that these last are obscure names. They aren’t. They are well known across Europe.
Not only does James amaze me with his comprehension of the significant and unique contributions of someone I’ve never heard of before (as when he explains that every aspiring college student simply must read Mandelstam’s “Hope Against Hope” or that one of the best ways to learn German is to read Golo Mann’s Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, with German Dictionary in hand), but when he uses these profound thinkers and artists as a launch pad for his own brilliant peregrinations. That’s when James is at his very best.
Reading Clive James reminds me of an evening I once spent with the renowned scholar of modern European history, Roger Hausheer. Henry Hardy, the literary executor and editor for Sir Isaiah Berlin, at Wolfson College, arranged for Roger and I to get together while I was doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford. The two of us spent a long and delightful evening in conversation, beginning with dinner at one of my regular haunts and culminating with several hours of steady libations at the White Horse Pub on Broad.
What was dumbfounding that evening in conversation with Roger was the same thing that one finds incomprehensible – as a mere mortal – reading Clive James. Roger could move from language to language seamlessly, quoting Croce in Italian, Montesquieu in French, and Hegel in German, without missing a beat in his own argument. It reminds me of the old joke: “What do you call a person who knows two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who knows three languages? Trilingual. What do you can a person who knows only one language? American.”
So, why read someone (or indeed become friends with someone) who makes you feel ignorant?
Let’s start with the friend question. Friendship is a gift that is, I believe, a reflection of the very being of the triune God. All my friends are smarter than me. That’s probably one reason I love so much being in conversation with them. I adore them. They inspire me. And reading someone as smart and witty as Clive James is like enrolling in a masters seminar with the best and funniest teacher on campus. I’m on page 409 of “Cultural Amnesia.” We’re into the M section (the book is arranged alphabetically). I’m not quite halfway through. And I dread the day this seminar will end.
There are two great things about ignorance. First, and ultimately, it is incurable. No matter how much we learn, there will be so much more we do not know and will never know. And, second, that means as long as we have breath, there will always be something new to discover. That’s wonderful!
In the mid-1980s, the Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman wrote a book titled, “Surely you must be joking, Mr. Feynman,” in which he described “the joy of figuring things out.” That’s one of the best phrases I’ve ever heard. It led Feynman from the idle observation one day of a college student twirling a plate on the end of a stick to the discovery that won Feynman his Nobel Prize. It also led Feynman to become a drummer in the annual Carnival in Rio. Not knowing how or what or why or who is a great motivation.
Blessed are the ignorant for they shall never be bored. Even in the middle of quarantine.*
*A word derived from Venice during the Black Death. It was used to describe the forty days of isolation they required shiploads of passengers to wait before entering the city.