Do we know what knowledge is, or what intimacy is, or what matters in our lives? Well, we could start with the observation that we have plenty of room to maneuver in exploring these questions. The terrain is shifting, and that’s a good thing.
I want to shift the long shadow knowledge casts over alternative life-ideals — things that matter. But I’ll start a bit off-center, looking at the terrain “liberalism” used to claim, and no longer can. It helps to think of reality shifts and language shifts as occurring in tandem.
Language is mutable, as mutable as reality. Do we know what “liberal politics” amounts to? The meaning of “liberal” in the U.S. has changed radically in the last half-century from a position that was pro-civil rights and in favor of LBJ’s poverty programs to a position that is maligned from the left as pro-global-capitalist and maligned from the right as anti-capitalist, soft on crime and hard on the deservedly super-rich. “Liberalism” has lost positive traction, and so lost any present reality. It’s what not to avow.
What “liberal” means in one decade in the USA will not be what it means in another. But the same goes for the gamut of terms we use to characterize our lives, collectively and personally: “romantic,” “spiritual,” “Christian,” “successful,” “knowledgeable,” “masculine,” “poetic,” “religious,” “snobbish,” “academic,” “grasping” – the list is endless. This is not news.
“Knowledge,” “intimacy,” “reality,” and “really matters” amount, one by one or together, to one thing a decade or three decades ago and another today. As concepts and realities, they are in flux. When I ask today, “What matters in life?” it seems the pursuit of knowledge is just one among other things. Yet we can forget this important fact just as we can forget the fact that “liberalism” has more or less fallen by the wayside. Here’s what I have in mind.
It’s a cliché or an article of faith or dogma that we are, and ought to be, dedicated to the search for knowledge. Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Descartes, thought so — as did Einstein, I suspect. Most institutions of higher learning pledge loyalty to the search. In 1969, responding to the first walk on the moon, that remarkable ‘cellist Pablo Casals answered a question about its meaning by saying
In science you can never say “Halt! — you must continue to discover.”
But I’ve become increasingly wary. Not that better airplanes or better appreciations of ice-melt or stock-market behavior are bad things. It’s just that our imagination abruptly stops there, blinded by the glare. Knowledge and know-how remain as the illustrious, unchallenged end-all.
Hearing Casals’ remark, I’d just add, modestly, with all due respect,
You can never say “Halt!” to playing Bach — you must continue to discover.”
“Knowledge” has a prominent place on the pedestal of “things that matter.” But there should be room for other pursuits.
I’d honor knowledge, and also the pursuit of humane living — the pursuit of friendship, of attention to others and to landscapes. I’d honor listening to the stars and to sea breezes, and to music and to all the many private and public arts and ever-so-many crafts, from making popovers to knitting. I’d honor listening to families and solitaries and figures from the dead. All these matter.
Of course in a religious age I might say love of God and love of neighbor are the be-all and end-all. Or if I were modern and cynical, I’d say that despite the denials of fancy-culture rhetoric, the paramount human interest is and ought to be the pursuit of money, power, and pleasure.
Widening the stage (or pedestal) of things that matter frees up room for what I’ll call intimacy. And that’s not necessarily love and not necessarily sex.
Imagine increased intimacy with the complexities of life, with the afflictions of others — intimacy with the harsh paradoxes of living (once one sees beyond suburban success or the pursuit of public acclaim).
Or imagine intimacy with the garden’s cycle of Spring blooms, or with the Bach Suites as Casals plays them.
We can say “Halt” to “knowledge” just long enough to give “intimacy” some cultural traction. Otherwise any consummate good that we seek above power or pleasure ends up, by default (given our cultural mind-set) as an awkward attempt to increase Knowledge.
We think that if there’s no knowledge-acquisition afoot, then painting and photography and poetry become no more than fun. I’d take a different approach. I’d value the intimacies painting and poetry afford. Desiring intimacies is not desiring mere fun and not desiring credible knowledge. It’s desiring touch, immediacy, inescapable contact with all that’s in our surround.
I’d take music, painting, and poetry to provide serious access to reality. Poetry puts me in touch with something real, but not by giving me knowledge. I have the satisfactions of learning something, hearing something, without having to be tested on what it is that I now know. My satisfactions are not knowledge-satisfactions but satisfactions of immediacy, of contact.
Thoreau valued sympathy with creation in its varied forms and beauties. He sought intimacy with all about and around him. He found the attractions of intimacy stronger than the allure of knowledge, though he was a first-rate field biologist and geologist and welcomed Darwin. His vast reading in, and appreciation of, what we’d call today “world literature” was astounding. It wasn’t enough that he had a scholar’s grasp of it. He could read it “from the inside,” with love and affection.
Thoreau lived with his texts as with intimates. An open volume of Homer graced the table in his pond-side cabin. He read Homer aloud and in Greek with his wood chopper companion, arm in arm. It was an abounding intimacy that embraced friends, books, and all under the sky and all held in the geological kettle that was Walden. Kneeling by the pond’s edge, peering through its mirrored surface, he whispers in a moment of intimacy, “Walden? Is it you?”
Knowledge can, but needn’t, go counter to intimacy. They can be complimentary pursuits. Knowing about music is compatible with sensing its revelations intimately.
I’m intimate (I hope) with both the wonders of knowledge and the wonders of non-knowledge — my gasp at a sunset or Bach cadence is as familiar to me as my small knowledge of minor keys and planetary motion.
And I think it’s OK to act from non-reason and non-knowledge — not always, but often. I gasp at a sunset and at Bach and I return tomorrow for more. I smile at a child because I’ve gasped at its smile. To smile at a smile is to act neither from knowledge nor from reason. It is to act from intimate connection.
I take heart from the view of language as mutable, allowing us to drop old saws and to embrace new truths:
. . . so far from constructing a definitively demarcated territory … [in speech and writing] we constantly re-draw boundaries—or rather, perhaps, introduce migrants into different territories and make them speak new dialects and wear new clothes. The unceasing effort to re-work perceptions as our means of exploring what it is for something to be ‘there’ for us is both free, in the sense that it is never accounted for by an energy-exchange model, and deeply constrained, in the sense that we are always trying to allow what is there to show itself—an ethical and not only an epistemological point.”
I’d want to let writing and language lead me not just to knowledge (though that’s important) but to the wider sympathies, sensibilities, and intimacies that bring love and music to the fore, that bring sea breezes and thunder, that bring long-absent friends and those newly arrived — all, well to the fore.
There is much to pursue beyond knowledge despite its seeming to reign solo on the pedestal of things that matter.
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
Credits: Both quotes on language are from Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 58–61. Casals on science, NYT July 21, 1969. Thoreau reading Homer with wood-chopper Alex Therien, Walden, “Visitors,” para. 8 and following; Thoreau’s “Walden, is it you?”, Walden, “The Ponds,” para. 23; Thoreau on desiring Sympathy more than Knowledge: his late essay “Walking,” toward the end. Photo of intimate, ivy-clad trees, courtesy of Tami Yaguri. Two opening Leonardo images, the closing finger-touching Michelangelo image, as well as photo with pink blossoms, are from Google Images.