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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. 

 

hitler stalin say hi

firesign theatreAll of us grow as we age; some more than others. Things we thought simple and obvious when we were children turn out to be infinitely complex. Judgments we handed down when we were innocent later turn out to be self-righteous piffle. Uncles we thought were hilarious when we were 6, when we are 15 turn out to be insufferable. If you live long enough, your life gives proof to the Firesign Theatre dictum: “Everything you know is wrong.”

This is the evolution of — what? Of an understanding. A widening of the historical record. I’m using the Second World War as my exemplar. I have been aware of it from my earliest childhood, but my understanding of it has changed radically over the decades.

I was born just after the war ended, and it was an immediate presence in those years. My childhood featured the shabby remainders of that war gotten from the proliferation of war surplus stores. We all played war, and the nerdier kids were condemned to play Japs and Krauts, while the alpha kids were Americans. I envied my friends who had helmet liners, machetes, canteens or drilled and emptied hand grenades to play with.

daggerMy father saw France and Czechoslovakia in that war, although he downplayed his part in it. He had several war souvenirs that were kept in the basement: a German helmet, an SS dagger, pair of binoculars, a Walther PPK pistol. I was fascinated by them, and pulled them out to play with. (When he found out I had been playing “war” with the PPK, he immediately took it and sold it to get it out of the house). These things were catnip to a little boy.

This was the early 1950s, and I learned about World War II through movies shown on television. This was the war of John Wayne and William Bendix. The Americans were the heroes; the Japanese and the Germans were the villains. It was an easy call; there were the good guys and the bad guys.

The version of Hitler that shows up in these films is insubstantial. When mentioned at all, he is satirized as a clown with a funny mustache, but most often the Nazis are an undifferentiated enemy with nefarious aims. Little distinction is made between Germans and Nazis. We argued over which way the swastika bent, and whether they were “knot-sees” or “nah-zees.”

guadalcanal diary bendix

When the German war aims are mentioned, it was that they sought “world domination.” When the movie is set in the Pacific, the Japanese war aims were never mentioned at all: They were just evil and our enemy.

There were documentaries, also. On TV, there was also the resonant voice of Leonard Graves and the music of Richard Rodgers on Victory at Sea, and a Saturday morning filler program produced by the Army called The Big Picture. Both fed a version of the war that was about the United States defeating its enemies.

dead bodies at Nordhausen

It was in those Army documentaries that I first saw images of the liberated concentration camps when I was a boy. I was horrified — and fascinated — by those piles of dead naked bodies bulldozed into mass graves by the American soldiers, and the spindly, glaze-eyed skeleton-survivors. I don’t know how these images affected others, but in my tiny 6-year-old brain, they were the fountainhead of moral development: Those images are indelible; I can draw them up in my mind anytime. Nothing from my childhood has such potent emotional power as the memory of those films. But the Holocaust was a separate issue, barely related in my boyish brain with the war my father had fought. Only later, did the Holocaust become central to my understanding of the war, of Nazism, of Hitler.

sgt rockBy the time I was in the seventh grade, my interest in the war had changed: In typical adolescent (male) fashion, I became hypnotized by the machinery and regalia of the war. I learned the names of each type of Panzer tank, fighter plane, each sort of submarine and corvette, destroyer and cruiser. I drew them endlessly in stereotyped scenes learned from primarily from Sergeant Rock comic books.

By then, I was also becoming aware of the centrality of Auschwitz. But German anti-semitism made no more emotional sense to me than the “world domination dictator” image of Hitler. I grew up in northern New Jersey and my Boy Scout troop leader was Mr. Weinstein. I knew many Jewish people and I could not see any difference between them and the Italians, Irish, Germans or South African families sprinkled through the suburban neighborhoods. Anti-semitism seemed no more possible than men in the moon.

The version of the war that persists in the American imagination is the one in which Americans, with a little help from England, beat back Hitler and won the war.  D-Day was the turning point. There was a niggling awareness that there might also be some fighting on the eastern front, and that somehow the Soviet Union was our ally in the war, despite their being “godless communists.”

belt buckleThis version was filled with stories of American heroism in the war. We won, it was implied, because democracy always wins. It was our system vs. their system, and ours was more virtuous. After all, God was on our side (despite the Wehrmacht beltbuckles that read “Gott mit uns.”)

I had read a good deal about the war and had finally come to the conclusion that perhaps D-Day was not the central turning point of the war and that perhaps the conflict with the Soviets was a bigger deal than the war in France. (This is not to diminish the efforts of the Allied soldiers in western Europe, but to recognize the balance of the death and fighting was in the east).

I began to see World War II as the “Great Patriotic War,” a war primarily between Germany and the Soviet Union, with the Western Allies as a sort of sideshow. All those riveting TV documentaries about D-Day and the retro-movie version of the war in Saving Private Ryan seemed like empty chauvinism. How many Americans died in the war? About 400,000, which is a staggering number until you compare it with the number of Soviet forces killed: 10 million. If you add in the civilian war deaths, the number rises to  27 million. That is nearly 14 percent of their total population. In the U.S., that percentage is less than one-third of one percent. (Again, I don’t mean to diminish the enormity of the American suffering or the part played by our soldiers, but to put it into the larger context of the war horror).

Kursk

Kursk

On D-Day, American deaths were about 2,500, roughly the same number as died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 (and roughly the same number who were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941), but consider the battle of Kursk in the Soviet Union, when some 10,000 Germans were killed and the Soviet deaths estimated at three times that. Or the Battle of Stalingrad, which admittedly continued over several months, but wound up with nearly 2 million casualties. If there was a turning point in the war, it was Stalingrad, not D-Day. Germany never recovered.

Stalingrad

Stalingrad

japanese stereotype 2Forgotten in all of this is Japan. When I was a child, it was clear that the Japanese were treacherous people who designed the deaths of Americans, presumably for irrational reasons. They were a crazed nation of  squint-eyed, buck-toothed people insanely loyal to an emperor.

World War II was in most books a single entity with combat theaters in Europe and in the Pacific. But at some point, I came to understand that there were really two unrelated wars being fought concurrently, or rather that the two wars overlapped. The European war began in 1939, if you were Polish, 1941 if you were Russian (June 22) or American (Dec. 7). But the Pacific war had begun in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and turned into the so-called Second Sino-Japanese War beginning in 1937. Just as in Europe, where we glory over D-Day and forget the millions who died in Eastern Europe, so in the Pacific, we remember Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal and tend to forget that the real misery was felt in China, where the war death estimates run from 10 million to 25 million. (It should also be remembered that until Pearl Harbor, Germany and the Soviet Union both allied themselves with the Chinese against the Japanese.)

rape of nanking baby

But the one question I could never quite answer to my satisfaction, the issue I could not quite understand was: What were the goals of the Axis powers? What did they hope to accomplish?

warner bros hitlerThe standard answer was: World domination. Hitler wanted to invade Europe to achieve power. Why he might want to conquer France was a mystery. Why he bombed London never made sense. And that was just the Germans. The Italians hardly entered the equation. They were an afterthought. And finally, it was never clear what sort of domination the Japanese might be after.

In the Warner Brothers cartoons I was weened on, Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini were three comic villains with the same aim: world domination. (No one asked if they had accomplished this goal, whether they would turn their rifles on each other).

Ming the Merciless

Ming the Merciless

Hitler was, in this view, hardly different from the nefarious Fu Manchu or Dr. Mabuse or Ming the Merciless. Why any nation would bend to the will of such a madman was an enigma.

Wars are political and economic. We remember them militarily, but they are gestated through power and money. Now that I am an old man, I no longer see World War II as the “Good War” — the American version — or the “Great Patriotic War” — the Russian version — but rather as The War between Hitler and Stalin over Poland.

Poland has rolled around eastern Europe for centuries, expanding and shrinking, becoming an empire and disappearing altogether. You could make an animated map showing how over time Poland moved east, then north, then west like a ball of mercury on a plate, then evaporated like a dried-up puddle. In western Europe, nationality conveniently tends to follow ethnicity. France is filled with the French, the Netherlands are filled with the Dutch. But throughout eastern Europe, ethnicities are scattered like confetti. There were Germans in Poland, Poles in Ukraine, Lithuanians in Poland, Russians in Lithuania, and Jews all over. It made national borders more arbitrary than they are in the west. Much of Hitler’s plan before the war broke out in earnest concerned bringing ethnic Germans together under one nation-state. Hence the Anschluss and the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. His ostensible aims were to “protect” the German people from persecution by non-Germans. The Nazi slogan was “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” — One people, one country, one leader.einvolk einreich einfuhrer

Ein Volk” — this was a nearly mystical idea of race and genetics. Hitler believed in two things that were current in his age. One was Social Darwinism, that competition was not only between individuals, not only between species, but between “races,” or genetic bloodlines. His Germanic race was in competition with all other races, and only the strong would survive. Second, he believed in a neo-Malthusian sense that as population increased, food production would begin to fail. And, as Germany industrialized, fewer people were producing food, and less land was given to farming. These two things were behind his announced need for “Lebensraum” — living room. He proposed not only to aggregate the Deutsche Volk under one political system, but also to annex new farmland to Germany and repopulate that land with German farmers.

In this, one ventures to say, he was little different from American Manifest Destiny in the 19th century. As we proposed forced migration of Native Americans and to appropriate their lands, so Hitler proposed to move Poles and other non-German people out of his section of Poland and repatriate a growing population of Germans into it.

He faced two international political problems with this plan. The Soviet Union would likely object, and the allied forces of western Europe had a treaty to defend the independence of Poland.

Molotov and Ribbentrop

Molotov and Ribbentrop

To eliminate those problems, he made a pact with Stalin — the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact — which freed him up, he expected, to face the armies of France and England that intended to protect the sovereignty of Poland.

In reality, there was an unpublished portion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that split Poland in two, with one half going to Hitler, and the remains going to Stalin.

So, when Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, he planned also to turn his Blitzkrieg on France, which he neutered in 1940, taking over most of western Europe save Great Britain and the neutral countries of Spain, Switzerland and Sweden. This meant he thought he no longer had to worry about a two-front war. In this sense, the whole war in western Europe was a sideshow to the real carnage.

When the forced immigration of Poles, Jews and other non-Germans proved problematic, and after Hitler decided Blitzkrieg could bring him not only Poland, but also most of the European territory of the Soviet Union, he invaded eastern Poland (by then, a part of the Soviet Union) and headed for Moscow.

A separate industry developed to deal with the displaced peoples, which, by Hitler’s racial thinking were Untermensch, or lesser humans, and with his own propaganda blaming Jews for the loss of the First World War, and the “Jewish Bolshevism” of Communist Russia, his Nazi planners came up with a “final solution” for what to do with all those unwanted people. Six million Jews were exterminated over the course of the war, mostly from 1942 to the end of the war. But also nearly 2 million ethnic Poles, 3 million Ukrainian and other non-Jewish victims.

liberated prisoners at Ebensee 1945
bloodlands cover(Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands, covers all the deaths in the tragic lands between Germany and Russia from the 1930s through 1945, including the Holodomor — the deliberate starvation of between 3 and 7 million Ukrainians by Stalin’s order. In all, between Hitler and Stalin, Snyder estimates that some 14 million non-combatants were murdered for political reasons between 1933 and 1945. The numbers are all estimates; the death was so pervasive, accurate records for most deaths were impossible. And these 14 million were all separate from the military deaths of the war.)

What I have written here is an obviously very simplified version of things. Almost every sentence here could be expanded into a book. I have left out many important things (not the least of which is the bifurcation of Europe after World War I into camps espousing Communism and camps promoting Fascism. For a time in the 1930s, it even looked as if America was going to have to choose between them).

MBDRUOF EC010This is a lot of words, all to show the slow development of ideas about the war, from childish to mature, from simple and unexamined to complex and nuanced. The case I am trying to make is that this is true not simply for my pathetic little understanding of World War II, but that this kind of growing complexity is symptomatic of getting older, seeing more of the world, and tying it all together.

I could have chosen almost any subject and gone on at length about how my understanding has changed, widened, saddened. For, if there is anything that results from broader experience — which is what getting old gives you, want it nor not — is the sad truth expressed in Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, Rules of the Game, spoken by Octave (played by Renoir himself): “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”