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Hello, my name is Richard and I am a Tarkovsky addict. As usual, the first fix was free: I watched Andrei Rublev on Turner Classic Movies a number of years ago. 

Rublev (1966) is a three-hour black-and-white epic about a 15th century Russian icon painter, which isn’t quite the selling point that it may sound. But it is also complicated by the problem that there is no discernible plot, and that large chunks of the movie are not about Rublev at all. And also, what story there is moves at the pace of paint drying. I was hooked. 

As New Yorker writer Alex Ross said, “Some art works impress us so deeply on first encounter that they become events in our lives.” 

Andrei Rublev is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen, black and white, with more black than white, lots of murky weather and nighttime scenes. It is divided into eight tableau, with a prologue and an epilogue. 

It begins with a crowd of Russian peasants watching a man attempt an early hot-air balloon ascent. A lot of commotion, not a lot of clarity. He manages to get aloft and from his point of view, we watch the landscape beneath him as he screams with joy — until he crashes. Then a horse rolls over on his back and we move on to the first official scene. 

This prologue has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. 

Each of the next eight scenes documents episodes from the life of the painter, although we are not at first clear which of the characters we see actually might be Rublev. There are three of them taking off from a monastery. Tarkovsky doesn’t spend a lot of effort differentiating them. 

I can’t relay the plot, because there really isn’t one. And any attempt would be interminable. Suffice it to say that the film is hypnotic rather than active. It seems to make time stand still. 

This is a virtue of all of the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who made only seven feature films in his short life, each of them more enigmatic than the last. He was born in 1932 and died of cancer in 1986, a cancer he most likely acquired making his 1979 film, Stalker. (Two others from that film, including its star, also died of cancer). 

I saw my second Tarkovsky on Turner Classics also. It was also three hours long, but was a space epic. Sort of. Solaris (1972) was Tarkovsky’s response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is about a Russian scientist visiting a space station around a planet names Solaris. While there, he encounters his dead wife, and she dies again. It turns out the planet can create mental reality for anyone nearby. 

A lot more happens, of course, but again, the plot is hardly the point of the film. Tarkovsky seems to view plot as an unpleasant necessity for filmmaking, which he is willing to put up with, but not if it requires too much of his thought and energy. He is more interested, like his planet, in creating a mental reality for anyone nearby. 

Solaris was remade in Hollywood in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney. The films was shortened, tightened and made sense, and therefore was a complete botch. 

The Tarkovsky original begins with a half-hour scene set on Earth, with some of the most stunningly beautiful photography I’ve ever seen in a film, outside a Terrence Malick movie. Watching it breaks my heart, it is so beautiful. I have often watched just this beginning, just for the sheer pleasure of it. 

Solaris is less successful than Rublev, and precisely to the extent that it tries to actually tell a story. But it is still a great film.

(In an almost comic bit, Tarkovsky seems to be making fun of Kubrick’s film by inserting a five-minute long, nearly unedited segment from the point of view of someone driving a car along streets into a city. It makes no plot sense, but does seem to mock the “star journey” from 2001). 

Then, these “free samples” began costing me money. I bought DVD versions of both films and watched Rublev many times. Each time, confusions became clearer; this is what happens with Tarkovsky. Other filmmakers lead you through their plots by the nose, so you don’t miss anything. You get a passive experience, sitting back and letting the story wash over you. Tarkovsky forces you to participate actively in the film, joining him in making meaning as you go. 

Several people had recommended Stalker as the Tarkovsky film I really had to see. And so, I hit Amazon for another DVD. 

In Stalker, a guide leads two other men on an illicit expedition to “The Zone,” where an unnamed disaster has rendered the land out-of-bounds. They have to elude the authorities and make their way through a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, littered with trash, abandoned tanks, overgrown weeds and industrial waste. The destination is to reach a room where a person’s deepest wish will be fulfilled. 

But this retelling of the storyline implies that the plot is the point, and it is not. The film is all atmosphere and poetry. It was seeing Stalker that first clued me in to the fact that Tarkovsky’s films are about a series of symbols very personal to the filmmaker and not explicable in ordinary terms. We just have to recognize their meaning, the way we recognize meaning in a dream. One thing does not “mean” another thing as in semiotics, but rather these are projected obsessions of the filmmaker. 

In almost every Tarkovsky film, you will find these obsessions repeated: horses; 

you will find ceilings dripping with water; 

puddles of shallow water that actors have to trudge through; 

wind rippling through grass; houses burning; 

action seen through a screen of forest trees; 

and over and over, someone looking at reproductions of art. 

(The influence of art is obvious in many of Tarkovsky’s compositions, such as this one from Zerkalo):

There are also an extraordinary number of people viewed from behind their heads. 

And mothers and children. 

More than one levitation;

 and lots of symmetrical compositions. 

These pieces are assembled and reassembled through all seven films.

Stalker is now imprinted on my own imagination. It is unforgettable, even if you never have a clue what it is about. Forget “about.” It is not “about” anything. It is an experience. If you visit Niagara Falls and stand under its torrent, it isn’t “about” something; it is an experience. A Tarkovsky film is the same. It is something you absorb and it stays with you for the rest of your life. 

If you attempt to find meaning, you will be sidetracked, and you may very well decide the effort is not worth it. 

Susan Sontag wrote a book called Against Interpretation, and Tarkovsky is Exhibit A. He is providing you with the same kind of gift that you get from the changing of seasons, a great snowfall, the night sky, the loss of love. 

Earlier this year, I set myself a Tarkovsky marathon (not all in one day — I’m not a masochist) and watched all seven features in order, beginning with Tarkovsky’s first film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), which is the most conventional film he made, coming in at just 95 minutes. 

It tells the story of 12-year-old Ivan during World War II, who serves as a spy for the Soviet army, and comes under the protection of a captain who wants to send him back to school. Ivan runs away to join partisans and eventually winds up leading a raiding party into the German occupied area. Flashbacks show us Ivan in happier times, before his mother and father were killed by the Nazis, and there are dream sequences and a wonderful interpolation of a flirtation between the captain and a beautiful nurse. 

That scene, set in a forest of white birch trees, is extraneous to the story, but the image of the captain holding the nurse over gulley, her feet dangling as they embrace, is unforgettable, even if you never know why. 

There is a horse, there are puddles, there is action in trees, mother and child — a host of images that will reoccur in subsequent films. 

Ivan’s Childhood is a good place to start with Tarkovsky. It is almost a normal film, and has a story that can be followed. It is also an indictment of war rather than the usual Soviet glorification of their victory. 

Next came Rublev and Solaris.

In 1975, he made Mirror (in Russian, Zerkalo), a semi-autobiographical film set in three time periods: pre-war, wartime, and the present. It shifts back and forth with no explanation, and also switches from color to black-and-white and to sepia. There are dream sequences, and it all seems to flow more like a stream of poetic images than like a story. 

It has been called the “most beautiful movie ever made” and is almost always included in lists of the “greatest movies.” 

But explaining it is as difficult as explaining a dream. 

Then comes Stalker, which is as gritty and filthy as Zerkalo is intensely beautiful. 

By this time, any viewer has come to realize that all these films are not only about an intense engagement with life, but the subjective life of the filmmaker himself. 

To paraphrase Anais Nin, Tarkovsky didn’t see things as they are, but as he was. 

His films are often called “spiritual,” but only in the sense that Tarkovsky seems to be trying to figure out what spirit really is. 

The films are often about faith, but not in advocacy, but in exploration. In Andrei Rublev, the crisis is that the painter has lost, not his faith in God, but his faith in humankind. 

In other films, the faith is either formal, as with the Russian Orthodox Church, or pagan. 

The filmmaker’s belief that the Orthodox Church is central to the Russian soul made things squirmy for Tarkovsky during the officially atheist Soviet era. Many of his films were either censored or cut by censors to tone down the religion. The three-hour Rublev was first withheld and then shown in a 90-minute version, with all the offending parts excised. 

Eventually, Tarkovsky felt he could no longer work under the Soviet system and moved to the West. 

In Italy, he made Nostalghia (1983), about a Russian writer (named Andre) who visits Italy for research, fails to have a relationship with his beautiful guide, meets an unbalanced man who has kept his family indoors for seven years, becomes sick, remembers many things, and finally attempt to carry a lit candle across an empty pool, in order to save the world. 

It is probably Tarkovsky’s least watched film, which is a shame, because it worms into your psyche and never leaves it. Again, its logic is not linear, but moves more like music. Scenes follow each other like themes in a sonata. 

The film also features Bergman regular Erland Josephson as the crazy man. In the end, he mounts a statue in Rome and preaches a sermon about connecting with the real things of life, then sets himself on fire in protest. 

The film has its share of dripping ceilings and walking through puddles. 

It has many a symmetrical composition,

and it moves from time and place with no warning and ultimately ends by splicing together dual times and places in a single uncanny image. 

The film could be seen as an exploration of Tarkovsky’s nostalgia for his lost homeland, but it is more widely about the loss of the entirety of a life that has been lived through and lost to the irrecoverable past. 

It is also, again, about faith. Not a specific faith — indeed the belief that carrying a candle could “save the world” is on the surface an absurdity — but mere faith, separate from any belief. 

Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice (1986), also features Josephson, this time speaking his native Swedish. 

Set on a very Bergman-like Swedish island, Josephson plays a writer who, on his birthday, is faced with world-ending nuclear holocaust, makes a bargain with God: Take us back to yesterday and start over with no war and I will sacrifice my house and family. He also hedges his bet, by making a pact with a witch to do the same thing. When he wakes up, it is the previous morning. 

He then single-mindedly prepares to burn down his house while the family is out. 

We never know if it is God or the witch who changes things, or if it all takes place in the writer’s mind. (At the end of the film, we see him carted away in an ambulance, as if he is being taken to an asylum. This is never explained, and it is up to the viewer to make sense of a good deal that doesn’t make sense.)

Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, it moves very slowly, with very long single takes, uninterrupted by edits, and long moments where no one talks and we are forced to break past our own boredom by noticing every tiny detail of the scene. 

This technique makes us either dismiss the film as boring, or spend the effort to discover some of the richest material in any movie ever. I’m of the second school.

But I understand why anyone might not find Tarkovsky — and especially his last film — riveting. I do. I am never so awake as I am soaking in all the stimulus from a Tarkovsky film. I find them overwhelming. 

I sometimes visit my brother- and sister-in-law. He is an artist and they are both brilliant and intellectual. And I bring a bag of movies to watch together. When I showed them Andrei Rublev, I wasn’t sure how they would react, but they loved it. 

Some visits later, I showed them Stalker and he liked it even more. I was feeling confident. 

Two down and a third one this last visit: I showed The Sacrifice, and that was too much. They sat through it patiently, but it was uncomfortable watching them watch the movie. I could sense their boredom. The Sacrifice is a test of anyone’s patience. I don’t think I’ll venture Nostalghia

To be overwhelmed, though, you have to have patience. The films move at the pace of a glacier. Or rather, their stories do. As for visual information, you are being assaulted in a shower of imagery. 

In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky quotes several letter writers with approval. “Accustomed to films as story-line, action, characters and the usual ‘happy ending,’ the audience looks for these things in Tarkovsky’s films, and often enough leaves disappointed.” Instead, you should watch “as one watches the stars, or the sea, as one admires a landscape. There is no mathematical logic here, for it cannot explain what man is or what is the meaning of life.”

In most of the world’s movies there is cause and effect moving the story ever forward. A woman is kidnapped causing the police to search for her, causing a rise in tension before the ultimate resolution. Cause and effect. Each part of the film explains the rest. In Tarkovsky, it begins with effect and what follows is the emotional. We don’t need to understand why, only that

Another writer comments, “How many words does a person know? … How many does he use in his everyday vocabulary? One hundred, two, three? We wrap our feelings up in words, try to express in words sorrow and joy and any sort of emotion, the very things that can’t in fact be expressed. … There’s another kind of language, another form of communication: by means of feeling, and images.”

When words fail, images, like music, can express. It is in this sense I mean Tarkovsky’s films are musical. He prefers to call it poetry. 

“When I speak of poetry,” he says, “I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular was of relating to reality.” 

In another place: “Art, like science, is a means of assimilating the world.” 

He quotes Nikolai Gogol from 1848: “It’s not my job to preach a sermon. Art is anyhow a homily. My job is to speak in living images, not in arguments. I must exhibit life full-face, not discuss life.’

Often, his characters look directly into the camera, making you, the viewer, a connected part of the filmic world Tarkovsky is giving us. 

And finally, “If not to explain, at least to pose the question.”

Andrei Tarkovsky made only seven features, but life only gives us so many years. 

Is there anything left to say? After 5,000 years of putting it all down on clay, stone, parchment and paper, is there anything that hasn’t been said? It is something every writer faces when putting pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard. Or even thumbs to smartphone.

And it is something I face, after having written more than four million words in my professional lifetime. Where will the new words come from?

It is also something newlyweds often fear: Will they have anything to say to each other after 20 years of marriage? Forty years? Surely they will have talked each other out.

What we write comes from a deep well, a well of experience and emotion and sometimes we have drawn so much water so quickly, it dries, but give it time and it will recharge. If no new experience enters our lives, our wells remain dry.

One friend has offered this: “That each generation thinks they know more than anybody else who has ever lived.  In a way, that’s a good thing because it allows for new ideas.”

But how new are those ideas? “I guess we have to live with a certain amount of repetition under that system,” she says. “Relying on what previous generations wrote would be so boring. Our ego demands that we pick and choose from past works if we heed them at all.”

I have a different interpretation. We never quite hit the target of what we mean; words are imprecise, concepts are misunderstood. One generation values family, the next understands family in a different way and builds its family from scratch with friends.

As T.S. Eliot says in East Coker:

Every time I put word to word, I come up short, leave things out, use phrases sure to be misinterpreted, have my motives doubted, and — as I learned many times from my readers, they read what they think I wrote and not always what I actually wrote.

And so, there is the possibility of endless clarification, endless rewriting, endless apologizing. And new words to be written.

As someone once said, all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato (who, by the way, is a footnote to the pre-Socratics), and all writing is an attempt to get right what was inartfully expressed in the past. It is a great churn.

All writing is an attempt to express the wordless. The words are never sufficient; we are all wider, broader, deeper, fuzzier, more puzzling and more contradictory than any words, sentences or paragraphs can encompass.

Heck, even the words are fuzzier. Consider “dog.” It seems simple enough, but includes great Danes and chihuahuas, Scotties and dobermans.  As a genus, it includes wolves and foxes. It also describes our feet when we’ve walked too much; the iron rack that holds up fire logs; the woman that male chauvinist pigs consider unattractive; a worthless and contemptible person. You can “put on the dog,” and show off; you can “dog it,” by being half-assed; you can call a bad movie a “dog;” at the ballpark, you can buy a couple of “dogs” with mustard; if you only partly speak a language, you are said to speak “dog French,” or “dog German;” past failures can “dog” you; if you are suspicious, you can “dog” his every move. “Dog” can be an anagram of “God.”

Imagine, then, how loose are the bounds of “good” or “bad,” or “conservative,” or when someone tries to tar a candidate as a “socialist.” Sometimes, a word loses meaning altogether. What, exactly do we mean when we talk of morality or memory, or nationality or the cosmos?

And so, every time we pick up pen to write, we are trying our hardest to scrape up a liquid into a bundle.

And so we rework those words, from Gilgamesh through James Joyce and into Toni Morrison. We rework them on the New York Times editorial page and in the high school history textbook. We rehash them even in such mundane things as our shopping lists or our FaceBook entries.

We will never run out of things to write or say, because we have never yet gotten it quite right.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Aug. 2, 2020. 

I was once or twice asked to speak to a writing class at a local community college. When you write for the daily newspaper, you get such invitations. I always tried to oblige.

As I spoke to the students, who ranged in age from teens to retirees — that is the way it often is in two-year schools — it became clear that I wasn’t saying what the course teacher had wanted me to say. She was clearly tapping her nails on her desk and looking more an more consternated. 

I wasn’t trying to undermine her curriculum, but it was obvious from her comments that she had hoped I would talk about writing outlines, topic sentences, supporting arguments and perorations, all the usual paraphernalia of learning how to put words in order so as not to embarrass yourself to your reader.

But, I’m afraid I had something different in mind. In fact, I started out by laying out only one rule for good writing. And it had nothing to do with not ending a sentence with a preposition; nothing to do with making notes and organizing your thought; nothing to do with spell-check or grammar.

“The most important requirement for good writing,” I told them, “is having something to say.”

It is surprising how many people sit down in front of their computer keyboard and assume that writing is somehow a substitute for having something to say, as if fancy words would bamboozle your readers with flash and mist. It is not hard to imagine where they might get this notion: So much public discourse, from political speech to blathering 24-hour news, is filled with verbiage meant to fill time and space without divulging anything meaningful. Rhetoric, which once meant effective speaking, now is an insult meant to expose empty speechifying. 

You can read online the two-hour speech that Edward Everett gave on Nov. 19, 1863 at the dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. It is a 13,000-word behemoth of rhetoric and panegyric. It was carefully wrought, organized in just such a way as to make impressive points at calculated intervals, rising to climaxes, falling back and rising even higher. It was a masterpiece of construction; unfortunately, all that great scaffolding rather hid the edifice behind.

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies  dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

Two hours of this. Geez. 

There were references to Ancient Greece, the glory of war and the bravery of soldiers, and a good deal of mention of blue skies and rolling green fields.

It was a memorable performance — at least, that is what people thought at the time, although almost no one remembers it now, except in dim contrast with the words Abraham Lincoln then spoke, with a ratio of words, compared with Everett, of 1-to-50. Lincoln’s words barely fill half a page of typescript.

The difference: Lincoln has something to say.

What is surprising is how few people actually have anything to say. Oh, they jabber on endlessly, but it is mostly prattle. And it is mostly rehash of what others have already said. Original thought is a rare commodity.

What does it mean, having something to say? It can be the recounting of a meaningful experience, it can be a fresh insight, it can be an opinion.

There is a lie that is a cliche (how often they are twins), that opinions are like (I’ll use the word “noses” here to be polite, but you know the familiar wording) noses: everyone has one. But this simply glosses over the fact that almost no one has a true opinion, but rather restates some glib bromide that has been heard from someone else. These are not opinions, they are bumper stickers; they are T-shirt slogans.

A genuine opinion comes from deep experience, probing consideration and formulation of thought within a coherent world view. You can tell the difference easily: If you imagine a meme on Facebook printed in fancy text over a picture of a cat, it is not an opinion. If it a quote questionably ascribed to Mark Twain or Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi, it is not an opinion. If it favors one political party or candidate over another, it is not an opinion. Sorry. 

But I am overplaying opinion. Having something to say is much greater than merely weighing options in a dilemma and reaching a conclusion. In many ways, having something to say is more compelling when it is not trying to persuade us of anything, but to convey to us the experience of something. Or telling us a story. Or discovering something you had not previously known and now feel compelled to share. The compulsion is the all.

Writing is a compulsion. You have something to say; it needs to get out, get down on paper (the legacy version — now we get it down in bits on a laptop screen). Good writing is an overflowing, like a fountain. Questions of creating an outline, or fretting over sentences with prepositions as the ending of, simply don’t come into play.

When you have something to say, the order with which it spills out onto the page will almost certainly be the most effective order. Yes, you can arrange ideas rhetorically, and certainly, if you are not a natural writer, you may be helped by a course in creative writing. But writers are born, not made. Some people have a talent for mathematics, some for music, some for sports. You can teach people the rote version of any of these, but those with the inbred talent will find the best expression for any of these fields. I know that no matter how much I study trigonometry, I will never be a mathematician. I may get the gist, but never the pith.

I suppose you can teach enough rudiments to non-writers so they will not humiliate themselves when they are required to write something down, but you cannot make them writers. And I suppose you can take a raw, unformed writer and make him or her aware of things they hadn’t considered and help them develop their natural ability, but you cannot take a lump and turn it into a gem.

But even talented writers have to have something to say, or they are just spinning their wheels. Think of Hemingway’s later books. 

Something to say requires a life paying attention, a life with an open chest, willing to soak things in. This is filling the well so it may be drawn on later. In the old days, writers like Thomas Wolfe or Hemingway sought out adventures, signing on to merchant ships; or taking cross-country road trips, like Jack Kerouac; or shooting lions; or stabbing a wife, like Norman Mailer (this is not recommended); or leaving America and living out of trash bins in Paris like Henry Miller; in order to gain material for books. Not so much for autobiography, as for the sheer volume of experience that could inform their prose.

The larger you are on the inside, the more pressure for the accumulated steam to escape in words, precious words, delicious words, excited words, needful words.

That is having something to say.

Like so much else, this is something I learned from my late wife, who taught art for so many years to first-, second-, and third-graders. Too many art teachers spent their classes with the color wheel, or with masterworks of art history, or — much, much worse — project art, such as outlining your hand to make Thanksgiving turkeys, or with golden-macaroni Parthenons.

But what my wife did was bring live animals to class and let the children play with them for 20 minutes or a half hour, asking them to sit quiet and observe the bunny or the hermit crab or the turtle; to feel their fur or carapace; to look them in the eye; even to talk to them. She might have them sit in a circle on the floor and put the rabbit in the middle of them and ask them to sit still and try to draw the bunny to them.

Children respond to the animals so strongly that all you have to do is put a piece of paper in front of them after their exposure to the beasts, and give them some paint and brush, and they will be mad to paint their response to the experience. You cannot stop them from making masterpieces. You do not teach them technique, you fill their insides with something real, and they transmute it into utter expressivity. It is a miraculous thing to see.

Educator Viktor Lowenfeld said that given sufficient motivation by experience, the children will find their “adequate means of expression.”

It is the same with writing. You don’t need topic sentences (I snooze at the prospect), you need content. You need enough life in you that you become a conduit for it. It is written because it needs to be written.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Aug. 1, 2017. 

The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn.

I have existed on this planet for seven decades and if there’s anything I have had to discover for myself — despite so many others knowing it before me and telling me over and over — it is that the more I learn, the less I know and its corollary, the more I know, the less I learn. 

And I say that as someone who has always been prideful of how much I knew — or thought I knew. By the time I was four, I could ID any car on the road, including Kaisers and LaSalles. My uncle would parade me around as a curiosity, like Mozart before Maria Theresa. By third grade, I could name any dinosaur known to science. By 13, I could name everything my parents did wrong and by college I could tell the president how many kids he killed today and further, I instructed the dean on changes to the curriculum. God, I was a prat. 

In my 20s, my girlfriend took bets from coworkers that when I came to pick her up after her shift, I could answer any question. “Who was the first secretary general of the U.N.?” “Trygve Lie.” And she would collect her winnings and we’d go home. What a racket. 

At any rate, my ambition in life was to know everything. I can’t say I came even close. 

It is distressing how much we have to discover for ourselves. Libraries are filled with books overflowing with wisdom, but even if you were to read everyone of them, what you gather is only book-learning. Your parents and grandparents tried to tell you what they had learned, to try to save you from the pain, frustration and humiliation that is everyone’s birthright. But being told is the equivalent of book-learning — it cannot really teach you to swim or ride a bicycle; you have to learn by doing. And these two truths of knowing and learning have come hard and slow to me. Hard to acknowledge because I have spent so much of my life being smart and knowing stuff (ask anyone who has had to listen to me), and slow because I have spent so much of my life being dumb as a pumpkin. 

The Firesign Theatre produced an LP in 1974 titled Everything You Know is Wrong. (Weird Al Yankovic put out a song in 1996 with the same title, and more recently, in 2004, British band Chumbawamba released their song with the selfsame name.) How right they all are. 

Everyone knows that Socrates once claimed to be the wisest man of all, because, he said, he knew nothing. Except, of course, he never said that. In the Apology, Plato has him saying that Socrates queried a wise man  but came away disappointed. “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know” (Benjamin Jowett translation). Close, maybe, but no cigar.

Life is full of things we all know but that ain’t so. Napoleon was not short. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did not start the Chicago Fire. Einstein did not flunk math and John Kennedy never said he was a German pastry. Anti-war protesters never spat on returning Vietnam War vets. Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children (that doesn’t make it OK, although my wife used to say eating cake is good for you because “sugar is a preservative.”) The Great Wall of China is not visible from the moon. All that right-brain, left-brain stuff is mostly hooey. And water does not circle the drain the other way in Australia. Everything you know is wrong.

Some is wrong because the common knowledge is just a story someone made up; some because we used to think so, but science has progressed and now we know better; and some is wrong because we misunderstood something. But most is wrong because things are just more complicated than that.

I grew up with an image of the atom being like a tiny solar system, with electrons spinning in orbit around the nucleus. Turns out that is a bad analogy. Maybe like a cloud of possible electrons, but can’t quite put your finger on them. It is only understood mathematically, the quantum physicists tell us. Too complicated to make a simple picture. 

We tend to fit our facts into a coherent whole that we take as our “Umwelt,” that picture of reality we manufacture from experience. But these things can become ossified. When we learn more, we discover we know less — we were mistaken, or only half right, or maybe just confused.

And now that I am old, I am confronted by the fact that learning only lets me know how much more there is I don’t know. As I say, my knowledge grows arithmetically but my ignorance grows exponentially. 

I like to take the example of the common tomato. When I was two or three, a tomato was just something we ate in a salad or on a burger; I gave it no more thought. But when a little older I learned to classify. A tomato was a vegetable. The world was divided into animal, mineral and vegetable and the tomato fit the third category. 

A little later I learned — was told, by some pedant — that a tomato is not a vegetable, but a fruit. I scratched my head, but then went about repeating this Cliff Clavinism. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

Well, it isn’t animal and it isn’t mineral, so a tomato must be vegetable. Simply put, a fruit is a vegetable, isn’t it? This turned into a lesson in philology. The word “vegetable” has multiple meanings. Our definitions must be examined. I learned the difficulty of matching language and reality. This came as an uncomfortable truth to me as a writer, whose faith in words was, at one time, unshakeable. Now, I say, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, “I know nothing.” 

Of the things of this world, those that are vegetable can be divided into the edible and the inedible. The botanist can divide comestible plants into those with seeds and those without. One we call fruits and the other, vegetables. The cook divides the same into those sweet and those savory. There is no single “right” way to think of them. The knowledge changes as we learn more. It doesn’t matter how many facts I warehouse in the noggin, they are likely to be superseded or just plain wrong.

But those facts can be mulish, which explains my corollary: What you know prevents learning. That Umwelt is hard to nudge. If your sense has been for millennia that the sun revolves around the Earth, then you cannot accept what Copernicus tells us. If you know that continents are fixed and permanent, then Alfred Wegener comes across as an unmoored screwball. If you are used to bleeding ill patients, then Joseph Lister is a crackpot. 

Isaac Newton’s physics ruled the world until Albert Einstein gave us relativity, but even Einstein could not fully accept probabilistic quantum physics, saying God “does not play dice.” 

If we still think of all history in sequential steps, then progress makes sense. But experience proves that we don’t keep heading for a Utopia. Rather we lose just as much as we gain. Art historians used to think that they could predict where art would go next by analogizing what had gone before. Arnold Schoenberg knew that the line of musical harmony went from diatonic to chromatic to atonal. It had to: History teaches. He almost made it work, but no one still writes dodecaphonic music anymore; what was produced in academia through the 1960s was barely even music; no one wanted to listen. Karl Marx assumed history had a rightful completion in true Communism. Francis Fukuyama gave us a different “end of history.” 

We are a stubborn people; we know what we know until we don’t. The only way to see what is in front of us is to forget what we already know about it. I call this “volitional ignorance” — trying to forget what I know — or believe I know — in order to see with fresh eyes, with baby eyes. Of course, I’m not in favor of actual ignorance: Let Shiva dance over its body. (According to Hindu mythology, Apasmara — Ignorance — must be subdued, not killed.) But you can attempt to forget temporarily what seems fixed and certain in order to see what doesn’t fit into the accepted schema — the odd bits that contradict your assumptions.

That’s how Einstein saw the holes in Newtonian physics. It’s how Mary MacLane broke the impenetrable “fourth wall” by speaking directly to her audience (in title cards) in her 1918 film Men Who Have Made Love to Me (now lost). It’s how Bobby Lee came to divide his army against all accepted principles of war and beat the pants off the Union forces. 

It’s the only decent way to overcome the sad premise that: “What you know prevents learning.” .And so my two assertions are mirror images. The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn. 

This essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Oct. 5, 2020.