Archive

Monthly Archives: July 2017


 by Richard Nilsen
.
The more I learn, the less I know.
.
This is common to most of us. Because knowledge grows arithmetically, but our awareness of how much we don’t yet know in any given field grows exponentially.
.

The great E.O. Wilson without doubt knows more about ants than anyone else on the planet, but I would wager that he would tell you that if you put all his knowledge on one side of a balance scale, and all he doesn’t know on the other, that side would drop the weighing pan to the table, leaving his knowledge high and dry and swinging quietly in the air. He is more aware now than ever of just how much there is still to learn about ants.

.
Fifty years ago, when I was taking college courses in everything I could think of, my ambition in life was to know everything. Literally. I wanted to absorb all that was known in this existence. There may have been a slight awareness of irony in this, but the ambition was essentially sincere. I plunged into ancient Greek, into astronomy, into Shakespeare, into mythology, into symbolic logic — and that was just my first semester; I had to get special permission for the extra credit hours. And in my leisure time, I read poetry, physics, political science and Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.
.
Needless to say, I couldn’t keep this pace going after the second semester. There was beer, combustible pharmaceuticals and a newly invigorated interest in the exciting volatility of female physiology. Still, I continued to take as wide a variety of courses I could get away with and still meet my requirements for the core curriculum. But it was after my degree that my real education began. In school, I read what was required of me, after, I read entirely what my curiosity ignited in me. I soaked up everything I could, but the more I took in, the faster the horizon of my knowledge sped away from me.
.

by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1629

It bugged me. When poet John Milton was that age, he took six years off after getting his degree from Cambridge University and read everything that have ever been written up to that time — at least everything he had knowledge of.
.
I doubt he read Chinese, but he did read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and even Old English, and while there were surely myriad books he was simply unaware of, other than those, he managed to read everything as far as he knew, that had ever been written. Everything.
.
By 1967, that was no longer possible for me. By then, even scientists could no longer even read everything just in their own field. There was too much. Now, it is even worse. Words are being written faster than they can be read, faster than they can be cataloged, faster than voice-recognition software can translate them. We are buried under a vast refuse pile of publication and the gulls swarm, circling overhead, squawking.
.
One then makes a choice — do you dive deeper into a single field, and learn all you can about ants, or about the use of the ablative case in late Roman literature, or perhaps the transfer of spin in subatomic particles, or do you attempt to skim the surface of it all and gather bits of flotsam from every field.
.
As for me, I didn’t really have a choice. I have become less interested in any single particular, and more interested in the way all these particulars relate to each other. I made a distinction between what I called the “tree of knowledge” and, on the other hand, “fact confetti.”
.
We all know fact confetti. In high school, we had to learn dates: 44 BC, AD 1066, 1492, 1588, 1776, 1848, 1914 — but they too often remained discrete bits of factoid unrelated to each other, except by needing to know them for tests. The snow of confetti piled up: subtrahend, pluperfect, atomic number, Bonaparte, establishment clause, hypotenuse, bicameral, manifest destiny, cosine, topic sentence, supply and demand, and something about my aunt and her pencil. It was a blizzard.

.
Against this fact confetti, I set the tree of knowledge. In this view of learning, all the branches of human knowledge are connected, and you follow one limb out to its extension without ever losing track of the limb that balances it on the other side of the tree. It is the ultimate effect of trying to hold on to as wide an understanding as possible. You cannot know every fact, but you can grasp the structure on which all the facts are leaves.
.
If you have a sense of the Renaissance giving in to the Baroque and to the Neoclassical and Romanticism, then you not only understand the history of painting, but also that of political philosophy, literature and even typography. The Bodoni typeface simply has to appear when it did. And by the flow from one era to the next, you can follow the pendulum as it swings from a kind of classicism to a kind of Baroque, or Romantic outlook, which governs all. Thus, 1492 isn’t merely Columbus, but also the Expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia, the pivot into a world of nation-state, a growing urbanism, a gradual reawakening of European globalism. The years that soon followed, Erasmus wrote his In Praise of Folly, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, and Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was published. It is all tied together.
.
If you understand the forces of the Reformation and its Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, you can understand the difference between the paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens. You will not place them in the wrong century. It is all of a piece. Know the tree and even if you forget a detail, you can follow the branch out and rediscover what you didn’t know you remembered. It is not fact confetti, but a single glorious growth from rootstock to leaf tip.
.
The truth is, that we need a framework for our knowledge; anything else is merely fact confetti. We enter that calculus class and hear a blizzard of terminology:  derivatives, tangents, quotients, functions, integrals, vectors. We might as well be studying Aeolian Greek. An overview would be helpful, so we would know where to hang these definitional tree ornaments.
.

Scene at base of trumeau, south portal, west facade Notre Dame de Paris: Eve eats of the forbidden fruit and hands apple to Adam, while serpent is seen as part woman.

Clearly, the frontiers of knowledge are expanded by the first choice, by those who dare to pick apart the minutiae, get their Piled-Higher-and-Deeper and condemn themselves to a life in which the only people they can talk to are others who share the same fragments of existence. But a problem occurs when such profoundly learned people venture outside their own spheres. What can an entomologist have to say about the ablative case? Or a Dante scholar say about differential calculus?

.
And it is the breadth of knowledge, not its depth that makes the tree of knowledge. We depend on specialists to add new growth to the tree, but it is important for at least some of us to focus on the whole and not the part.
.
Obviously, the specialists cannot, and don’t need to. But someone does. Someone has to see the forest and not the trees, or the trees and not just one leaf or another. That is for those of us who have taken the second choice. Those whose curiosities cannot settle, who hover over every thought, every field, and wish not to write a peer-reviewed paper, but, like Denis Diderot, write an entire encyclopedia.
.
In other words, not to know everything, as I once wished, but at least to see the shadow of everything and try to hold it in the mind even as the horizon stretches away from us.
.

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: