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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. 

two old men

Which of these portraits is more realistic?

One is a photograph and the other a Roman portrait bust. One might choose either one over the other, although I suppose most people would choose the photo. But in what sense are either of these “realistic?”

(For the purposes of this argument, you should imagine an actual photograph, on paper, held in your hand, not the digital image you see on your screen — for which there is a whole different set of problems. And the portrait bust, think of as the real stone sculpture, on a plinth in a museum.)

The photograph is in black and white; reality is in color. The photograph is flat; reality is rounded. If you walked around to the back of the photograph, you would not find the back of this man’s head; in reality, you would.

Further, the photograph is rectangular and framed by its edges; reality has no such frame. Looking at a photograph, we hardly notice the frame.

The sculpture is three-dimensional, which might give it a leg up on the photo, but the sculpture is also monochromatic. Worse, it has no pupils in the eyes, which makes it a little eerie. True, you can walk around to its back and see the rest of its tonsure, but that hair is stone, which is unlike real hair, except during the ’50s, when hairspray lacquered the head down into something brittle. Take its temperature, and it will not be 98.6, but room temperature.

Neither the photo nor the bust has a body attached, which would be  very uncomfortable in real life.

The fact is, that both forms of art are highly conventionalized. We take them as “realistic,” when, in fact, they are merely conventional. We tend to let our conventions fall invisible; we hardly notice them.

picasso self portraitThe photograph might be an 8X10 glossy, but the head in the photo would be miniature compared to the man’s real head. How is a tiny figure on a flat piece of paper said to be realistic? You can fit a whole city on an 8X10 glossy; try that with the real Philadelphia. The only way to do that is to accept the conventions and then let the disappear.

You can go on listing unrealities: The photo and bust are motionless. The men portrayed most certainly were not. They also made sounds — I’m sure they they each spoke to their portraitists while they were being immortalized. And they probably had characteristic smells about them. More, they each had thoughts that cannot be read in the images.

Yet, compared to a Picasso painting, we take these as realistic images. We ignore all the counter-indications and lock on to the few things we wish to accept.

duane hansonEven a Duane Hanson sculpture, which might fool us as we first enter the gallery, eventually gives itself away by never moving.

Every culture has these conventions. Consider the standard ancient Egyptian figure, turned into contortions so that we see both arms and both feet, yet the head turns profile because we need to know the nose sticks out from the face. Somehow, though, the eye is drawn as if head-on. The convention insists on things we know — like two arms and two legs — rather than things we see — like foreshortening and overlapping. To an Egyptian in the Middle Kingdom, a foreshortened figure would simply be “not true,” since it would obscure facts we know — like two arms and two legs.

ukiyo e mie pose actor pictureOr consider a cultural convention that seems to Western eyes truly bizarre — or at least comic. In the Japanese woodblock print, images of popular actors were often portrayed in the Mie Pose, which means giving them crossed eyes. To us, crossed eyes are silly, but in the Ukiyo-e tradition, they express extreme emotion. Those images were hugely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries — the equivalent of the Farrah poster from the 1970s, with its own conventional gesture and hairdo.

There are the conventions of Precolumbian cultures and the wonderful circle-and-dot conventions of Northwest Coast Native American cultures.

Each is a way of transposing the living, breathing world into a two- or three-dimensional image that can be understood to embody some version of that world. For us to accept the black-and-white photograph as a realistic depiction of our world, we have to accept and then forget the many conventions behind it.

clock 1But it is not merely art that conventionalizes our sense of the world. Many of the things we take for granted are not rooted in reality or necessity, but are purely conventional. Twenty-four hours in a day? Seven days in a week? There is no good reason, other than convention, that the clock and calendar could not be decimalized, like so many other measurements we now know. A 10-hour day just requires a clock notched out in a new way. Give those extended hours 100 minutes each. Fine. There is nothing about time that requires the division of the day and night into 24. Or a 10-day week, leaving us with a year of 36-and-a-half weeks.

Nor is there reason to add days into weeks, or weeks into months. We could subdivide them entirely differently, say into sub-weeks, or bi-weeks and cut the 36-week year into 9-week divisions, subdivided into 3-week “months.”

There is a lunar and sidereal cycle, but our current conventions don’t actually match up to them, so convention trumps astronomy on the calendar.

I am not suggesting we change our clocks and calendars; convention works just fine. But I am saying we should recognize them merely as conventions. If Ramadan moves around our Julian calendar like a slipped clutch, that’s fine: It’s merely another convention.

We are used to seeing North at the top of a map. How disorienting it can be to see a Medieval map which puts South at the top.

Suits and ties? Convention. Lipstick? Convention. Men in pants, women in skirts? Convention. Just picture Amelia Earhart in jodhpurs standing next to Sean Connery in a kilt. Where are the bloomers and bustles of yesteryear? Conventions change.

Our version of marriage? Convention. There are other ways of organizing families. History is full of them. Patriarchy? Convention. There are perfectly successful matriarchies in the world.

The names of colors are conventional. We could divide and subdivide the spectrum in other ways. Different cultures, in fact, do divide them differently. The same way we think of pink and red as different colors, Russians think of dark and light blue, and have different names for them: Siniy and Goluboy. We could easily make a distinction between “sea green” and “leaf green” and give them distinct names.

colors

chopsticksThe musical scale is now more conventional than ever, as it has been squeezed into the well-tempered system. We now split an octave into 12 semitones; others find five tones in an octave plenty. Indian ragas may need up to 40. All conventions, taken inside their generating cultures as simply “the way things are.”

Why do we eat off round places with knives and forks? Other cultures favor square plates or chopsticks. Three meals a day? Not nutritionally determined. Four does for some; two for others. Compare the French croissant and coffee in the morning with the full English breakfast.

Zuni PuebloOur houses have front and back doors. Ancient Puebloan people did without doors altogether and clambered into their homes from their roofs down ladders.

Poems used to rhyme. Works great in Italian, with all those vowels, a bit harder in English, unknown in most cultures, which may value metrical rules over rhyme, or alliteration instead.

Driving on the right in the U.S.? On the left in the U.K.? Switching from one to the other in Sweden?

We each of us has in our mind a pattern of how we think the world is organized and constructed. Sometimes called the “Umwelt,” it is partly constructed from the ineluctable constraints of reality, such as gravity, light, day, night, hunger, thirst, the horizon and the wetness of the sea — and the rest is made up of convention. We seldom make a distinction between the two, and take the weekend for as natural a thing as we take ripening fruit.

This model of the universe does not feel learned, the way laws have to be learned, but are taken as the natural state of the world. The problem lies when we make prescriptive demands on others based on our private Umwelt. It is what feeds racism, for instance. When you have an internal model of the world that sees one race as superior or inferior, you then create laws requiring others to act according you your inner light (or lack of light). Yet, as we have seen, a good deal of this inner model is nothing but convention. It might be good to examine everything we believe with some skepticism.

north bergen to meadowlands

Northern New Jersey in the postwar years was a patchwork of suburban towns and rural farmland. The part just west of the Hudson River is hilly, with a long irregular slope dropping down from the crest of the Palisades and into the valley of the Hackensack River. The larger towns — Teaneck, Bergenfield, Hackensack — were urbanized with a bloom of soot covering everything. My town, Old Tappan, was changing from one of small farms and Dutch-colonial homes to one in which whole neighborhoods of sameness were erupting in tract housing. The population was a mix of old families that had lived there for generations and the bright-cheeked newcomers looking for their own homes and green lawns and an upwardly mobile place to raise their children.

OT bridgeOur house was a one-off — new, but not in a development. It sat on a gentle hill in what had been woods and included a brook. My father built a wooden bridge over the stream and enlarged a bend in it to become a small pool in which we could wade or recline in the water to cool off in the muggy summers.

Because I grew up there, this patch of planet became for me my umwelt — my inner picture of what the world looks like — it was normative. The wider world I knew stretched from upstate New York along the Hudson and down to the Jersey Shore along the Shrewsbury River. The landscape included such landmarks as the accordioned oil-storage tanks along Route 36 in Keyport, the Pulaski Skyway that crossed over the New Jersey Turnpike, and the three-lane Route 9W that skirted Storm King Mountain along the Hudson. It included forests and streams, and it included heavy industry, a web of highways and the shopping malls of Paramus. pulaski skyway

The center and anchor of this landscape was Manhattan — the gravitational center on the other side of the George Washington Bridge. It was where, as a teenager, I wanted to spend all my time. Museums, bookstores, subways, Central Park, Chinatown restaurants and the great cheap ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

When the family went to the city for whatever reason, and we came home at night, driving up the brand-new Palisades Interstate Parkway, the lights of the city across the river were stars burning in the blackness, outlining the vertical thrust of the skyscrapers, while a thin line of burning beads moved continuously along the West Side Highway providing a baseline. When I was 7 years old, it was the most beautiful thing I knew. nyc night skyline

The landscape of our childhoods is embedded in our minds and memory the same as the language we learn without trying — it is absorbed whole. It shapes the mirror that reflects back everything we live through afterwards.

“The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,” wrote Andrew Marvell in The Garden.

As an adult, I have lived in each of the four corners of the nation: the Southeast, the Southwest, the Northwest in addition to my green years in the Northeast. But no matter where I have gone, outside that comfortable nest of the Middle Atlantic, the landscape remains a novelty. I have enjoyed, even loved living elsewhere, but deep in the folds of my cortex, normal is New Jersey.

That same process works for wherever you grow up. It is Mississippi for Faulkner, Brooklyn for Henry Miller, Concord for Thoreau, Ohio for Sherwood Anderson, Missouri for Twain, Lowell, Mass., for Kerouac. You can find Paterson, N.J. in William Carlos Williams and Asheville, N.C. in Thomas Wolfe. The axis mundi.

Leonardo took northern Italy with him when he went to France. Durer took Germany with him to Italy as much as he brought the Renaissance back north. Beethoven never left Bonn even when he lived in Vienna, and the provincial towns of Czechoslovakia chime over and over through the symphonies of Mahler in the military marches and SchrammelmusikRiver Street, Madison NC.

My wife grew up in Madison, N.C., on the banks of the Dan River. “The river and the creek in the back yard are the back of my brain, the inner part I draw from. The front of my head looks out to the town.”

That is the crux: the part we draw on, waters of life from the inner well.

Childhood creates the fixed inner sense of the world, depending on where you grew up: the flatness of northern Indiana, the short-grass prairies of western Nebraska, the leaden skies and perpetual drizzle of Seattle in winter.

But it isn’t merely the look of the landscape — as if it were a painting — but an entire sense of the physical world and our place and size in it. That includes a paradigm of distance — how far is the horizon, how long is a street before it curves away from your vision, how tall are the trees. These measurements are as set in the forming brain as are our names.

So too are the seasons we live through. In New Jersey, there were four, with deep snow in winter and muggy heat in summer. The further north, the more winter and summer vary in length of daylight. In Arizona, there are two seasons: unbearable heat and relief from unbearable heat. In San Diego, there is barely more than one season. If you move from one place to another, you never quite get used to the missing or added seasons.

That umwelt includes the quality of light we know as normal, the feel of air and its humidity against our skin, the way sound carries or doesn’t carry as it is muffled by woods or snow. It also includes the food, the ethnicities that surround us, the accent we speak in and the population density. All create a “normal” in our minds that we never lose, even as we expand our horizons as we grow. bergen co to nyc

There are those who believe we try as adults to recapture our childhoods, but I say instead, we can never escape them. They are there engraved in our synapses.

I have traveled widely in North America, through all the states save Hawaii, and all the Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island. And all those states many times. The landscape — not landscape as art, but landscape as the planet your drive or walk through — gives character to each location, as if each location were not just a tract of land, but an entire culture.

The land has meaning.

I am going to try to describe over the next series of blog entries a variety of distinct American landscapes and find in them meaning beyond the picturesque. I hope you’ll come with me.