The sum of things

Mathematics. We all have our personal sums and divisions. I was once 20; I am now 70. The years have added up, and what is left is now a fraction. 

When I entered college in 1966, I was just over half the age of the professor who had the most influence on me. He is now 85 and have become exactly 14/17ths his age. I am catching up. The ratio has narrowed. 

(If we both live long enough, I calculate by my birthday in 2025, I will be older than him by seven months.) 

There was once a great difference in our ages and in our wisdom; now we are roughly equal. The piling of years does that; the gathering of experience. 

I have spent my life learning. It is the basic drive, like women for Don Giovanni, or gathering corporate acquisitions for Warren Buffett. But more math: Every time I increase what I know by 2 percent, I double what I don’t know. I learn arithmetically, I become ignorant exponentially. It is as if I am splashing in an inflatable wading pool on the beach next to the ocean.

When I was young, I was a complete idiot, and my ambition in life was to know everything. Seriously: everything. I suppose underneath the surface, I understood that was impossible. But you have to have some kind of aspiration. 

But back then, being an idiot, I still thought being intelligent meant knowing a lot of stuff. And I knew a lot of stuff. Piles of facts and factoids. I could explain the Defenestration of Prague in 1618: the shifting taxonomy of lions from Felis leo to Panthera leo to Leo leo; the use of the Neopolitan sixth chord as the subdominant in a minor key. And perhaps I showed off a bit too much. But now I understand that knowing stuff is mere accumulation. Nothing to take credit for: These things stuck in my mind because my brain is gummy. 

Besides, the more you learn, the more you discover that what you once took to be fact has either been superseded by later research, or been misunderstood, or turned out to be canard and cant. I.e., Cliff Clavinism. 

I have a pile of books and music scores that keep me going, and I add to that all the things of the real, the physical world, that I observe — the seasons changing on the trees, the birds chirping, the clouds ranging over the skies.

I am hungry to take it all in. 

But there is another delusion: that being intelligent somehow means being rapid of apprehension. Quick. Sharp. Fast on the uptake. While it is true that a fast comprehension comes with intelligence, it is, as they say, necessary but not sufficient. 

People who know they are smart tend to sort things very quickly into their silos, eager like tennis pros, to volley the next shot back. C’mon, you can bring’em faster than that! But sorting isn’t intelligence. Quickness of wit is fine; it is fun, it is exhilarating, but it doesn’t get us to the core of things. 

This is something I have come to understand over many years. Two people, more than any others, more than any book or class, taught me what to value in whatever mote of intelligence I possessed. 

The first was my wife. She was the most intelligent person I ever knew, although, on first hearing her, you might be confused over that issue. She could say the most surprising things: “Andrew Wyeth is more abstract than Jackson Pollock” or “You can fall into blue.” (We once argued over that last one for three full days and nights, before I capitulated. I always gave in. She was always right, although you had to think sideways or give up long-held unreflected prejudices. Wyeth is abstract in the sense that he abstracts a visual essence from the world and flattens it into an image made of blurts and squiggles, while a Pollock painting is no abstraction: It is palpably and solely a painting; it is what it is and nothing else. As for blue, I have been drowning in it since that fight.)

What she had was complete and utter openness to input. A failure to plop input into those silos. She didn’t so much think outside the box, but was unaware there was a box. I marveled at her insight, which she was basically oblivious to. It just was. 

It led me to my doctrine of volitional ignorance. That is, to approach any subject from the point of view of complete innocence. Forget what you think you know and just take in the new experience. 

The second person, and earlier lesson came from that professor, now frail and failing, who forced me to engage with the material. 

When I first got to college, I knew I was bright, and I responded to classes by doing what I had always done: giving the teacher what he or she wanted. I was good at that. But in my class of English Romantic Poetry, I handed in my first paper, saying exactly what I knew my professor wanted me to say and he gave me back my paper with a big, red “D” on it. (Technically, it was a D-plus). I was dumbfounded. There was nothing in the paper that didn’t repeat what he had said in his lectures. It couldn’t have been that far wrong.

But what he wanted from me was not what I thought he wanted. He wanted me to engage with the material. To know something, not to know about something. There is a difference, not just in magnitude, but in kind between knowing about and knowing. 

That is where engagement comes in. Paying attention. Not sorting to be done with, but holding something between your thumb and fingers, twirling it around, seeing it from all sides, squeezing it to see how hard it is, cutting it open to see what’s inside. 

You must start from the simplest things. Looking at a painting, do not decide what the subject is or means, but first look. Long and hard. Describe everything you see, however slight. Don’t forget the corners, what is hidden in the shadows, describe the exact color of the blank parts of the background, what the fingers of the subjects left hand is doing. Get all the bits in first. Take time. I once spent seven hours in front of a single painting. It takes time and commitment. It takes engagement.

Only when you have spent all the time you need should you then essay to understand what the art might be about. Ingest it first, digest it second. 

Fifty years ago, my professor forced me to engage with the material. I wasn’t there to learn facts about Shelley, but to engage with the work and see what it might teach me. I have been attempting that ever since. It is a hard practice to keep up: so much easier to categorize and dispense and move on to the next. More efficient. Gets things done. 

But if you really want to partake in this life, be embedded in the world into which you have been dropped, it is essential to pay attention, to know in your bones how little you truly understand.  

 For the world is infinitely complex and can obey no schema you toss over it. Engage with it on any level and extract whatever you can. Savor it.  

2 comments
  1. Connie Midey said:

    Richard, you are a treasure.

  2. Daniel said:

    Richard, this is a very wise article. Thank you.

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