Monday, April 28, 2008

Ignorance Can Be Better than Bliss

Maybe it's because so much of my day job requires me to be certain, and to do my research thoroughly. Maybe it's because I was beaten up and terrorized as a grade schooler because I was a know-it-all and too stupid to know how unpopular that would make me. Maybe it's that knowledge can be a very dry and dusty thing, making you more like Owl (the ultimate "dessicated scholar") and less like Pooh. Maybe it's tangled in the truth of Einstein's remark that imagination is more important than knowledge*.

But I get a major kick out of ignorance**.

As I've gotten older I've bemused and amused (and occasionally alarmed) my children by rushing off into the unknown with a gleam in my eye, a drunken tilt to my head, and laughter ready to roll out at every new delight. I adore getting lost on road trips, and the longer I'm lost the better I like it. I enjoy watching strangers in restaurants and airports, imagining what kinds of lives they might lead. I love to find a totally new subject or topic, something I'd never even considered before - not because I'm going to learn it, but because it renews my sense that there is so much that I don't know. I used to be an obnoxious beast about knowing the names of all the plants and animals around me - now I chortle with glee when I find something new, and I don't run right off for the field guides. I often prefer not to know the name or taxonomy at all. Instead, I will remember and recognize the creature again later, with the same crowing of delight, and I'll ponder what it might be related to, or what it might be called. My dearest used to carry this even further, and bestowed names of her own.

Lately when I cook or paint I find myself craving a new flavor, a new color. The kind of thing you'd find by suddenly turning off the color wheel, say somewhere between red and orange, and down some side track, probably not paved, maybe just two grooves in the grass between the trees. It would be attached to new emotions, never before felt. I imagine it as exciting as magenta and more bent and jazzed than aqua or periwinkle, but it would not be reducible to any combination of any existing hues. And with my spice rack I find myself turning it round and round, looking for something. I know just what it would be like, but it's not there. Somehow, if I keep turning it, or go the other way round, maybe it will be there, between the herbs de provence and the chervil, perhaps behind the celery salt. Sometimes I actually look at the bottles in the lesser known center of the circular rack, actually hoping that something new will be there. I want to be taken by surprise.

Maybe this is also behind my stash of unopened Dunnies. I buy one every so often and I put it in my pocket, unopened but burning a hole in my mind, until I put it away in my art supplies. I come to my art bench and feel them there, unopened and unknown. They pull on my gently. Which ones are they? I love to resist the tug and leave them unopened. It's more interesting not to know - at least for a while. Once in a while I open one - because it's fun to find out, knowing I have the luxury of an infinite number of other things that I still don't know. There will always be plenty of benign ignorance to enjoy.

What I mean is that while I love discovery, I also love to hoard troves of new things, under the cover of ignorance, until I'm ready to properly savor and delight in the first peek into the box. I guess this isn't the ignorance of the old saying about bliss - that refers to the innocent state of ignorance about something bad. I'm talking about ignorance that can be lifted at any time - an ignorance that comes with the accompanying knowledge that there is something there to be discovered, and how to do it.

* Einstein wrote, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." Of course he was not embracing ignorance - he was using imagination to push back ignorance and advance understanding. Knowledge is static - imagination is active. Knowledge will always, by its nature, be in the past, a part of the already - imagination takes us somewhere new.

** I do want to separate the kind of ignorance I'm discussing here, which is an exciting kind of mental suspense, from ignorance parading as knowledge or from the poor judgment of people acting without critical knowledge. Ignorance which causes pain and mayhem is not what I'm discussing here. For example, the ignorance of the followers of Robert Mugabe is not a benign or intelligent state of mind. The ignorance of the sheep in George Orwell's Animal Farm is unwise and dangerous. The ignorance of facts that often leads to major mishaps in war is not what I'm talking about. Instead, I am referring to the lovely freshness of the unknown, and a desire to sometimes leave it that way, but only regarding things which are not urgent or important for safety, justice, the happiness of others, etc. And I believe that a delight in the unknown and unknowable, a certain playful attitude about our own mental terra incognita, provides essential perspective as we learn the things which our work and life demand us to know thoroughly. Sometimes the dark is dangerous - sometimes it's fun. We need both, and we need to know the difference.

The illustration above is a psychological self portrait (of my alter ego, Virgil Tangelo), called Virgil's Escape. A bubble bath is a great place to daydream. This painting is owned by a good friend in Tennessee.


MLight said...

I'm even chortlier with glee when you can't identify something (BWEG)!

Steve Emery said...

I deserve that... after all, when we met you referred to me as, "the Epitome of Arrogance."