Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

how little

"There is truth in all churches, and error too. If any church assumes infallibility, that it is right and all others are wrong, that church is guilty of colossal egotism. There is no infallible church. If a man assumes he knows all there is worth knowing, and shuts himself against all the open avenues of truth and knowledge, he is guilty of monumental conceit! How superficial such a man! Great thinkers, the ripest scholars, are humble men because they know so little. They are men who know enough to know how little they know"--Quillen Hamilton Shinn

At the turn of the 20th Century, a serious debate about cutting back on the patent office ensued, on the assumption that most new things had already been discovered. Physicists felt they were almost done with solving the problems of physical reality.

In my lifetime, numerous ennui-laden pronouncements suggest the death of the novel, of God, of western rationalism, of capitalism, and of critical thinking. These theories of departed lives serve the salutary purpose of giving literary journals and academic symposiums fodder for catchy titles.

I like the way that in elementary school, one always felt there is more to learn.
I try my best to feel that way now. I like to cast my net wide, and pray that a few
fish are taken that are not too laced with DDT.

To use a different fishing metaphor, I used to go fish from the pier at Hermosa Beach in California. In southern California, boat fishing in the Santa Monica Bay all but always results in catches for the fisherperson. But pier fishing is much more hit and miss. I used my trusty Zebco 808 reel (the sole exception that my usual rule that if you can't catch it with a Zebco 33, a cane pole, or something bought at Wal Mart for under 20 dollars, it might best be not caught) and placed cut squid down in the water. Roughly half the trips I took, I caught a mackerel or jacksmelt or other worthy fish. I threw them all back.

There is something refreshing and bracing about standing on a 50 or 60 something degree winter California day, a brisk ocean breeze blowing, waiting for a stray mackerel to bite. You're out on the long pier, and only another one or two fellow fishing pilgrams join you. On one day, you have get a few fish. On another, you get only the bracing of the wind in your face.

I like to think that I'm capable of continuing to fish for truth even when all I bring away from a particular outing is a memory of chill wind and empty hooks.
Mackerel steal bait notoriously, so one often experiences that thrill of the rod bending with the nibbles, but ultimately, no fish. It takes a certain fortitude to
continue to go back, and to fish from a pier in which one previously failed to land even a white croaker.

I find disturbing signs of impatience in myself these days. I am allergic to instructions more technical than "plug in and press START". I do not have much skill at detail work. But these flaws have their advantages, in that I am also willing to take steps to get things done, rather than nattering over details all the time. In my work, where I am at home with the devil and the details, I find myself solving elaborate problems, which send me into a kind of ecstasy--a joy in sheer complexity. In every way, though, I enjoy the chase but frankly like to cut towards the end of the chase.

I've been reading a fine book about great literary clashes, written by a Cal State--Northridge professor. He does a good job of writing the setting, describing the clash, describing the aftermath, and then reflecting on the issues.

I read the chapter about the battle between CP Snow and FR Leavis over Snow's "Two Cultures" lecture. Snow, a very popular literary personality in his time, rose from the working class to attain some distinction as a scientist, only to lose standing in the scientific community through a flawed claim he had made a vitamin in the lab which instead was merely sloppy methodology. Undeterred, he turned to novels, and wrote one of my favorite series, Strangers and Brothers, an eleven novel cycle which uses a protagonist who rises from humble beginnings to become first a solicitor, then an academic, then a government official, and ultimtely, a writer.

Snow uses the novel to tell the story of the classes of folks with whom he was familiar, and as a platform for making points that in some way remind me of the modern television show "law and order"--in which the plot is secondary to the issue.

Snow's Two Cultures lecture said something that resonated a great deal in the 1950s, and still resonates a bit today. He said that people of science and people of literature had become estranged. He considered that one culture--the culture of science, was "can do", progressive and offered hope and optimism. He argued that the "culture of literature" suffered from myopia. He also pointed out the inarguable fact that many great novelists and poets of his century fell in line with some of the unspeakable travesties of communism and even fascism, and a wider swath of the modernists adopted a "no hope" outlook. Snow, a solid old Labour type, avoided these excesses. He was of the older school which admired tremendously Churchill's early recognition of the Nazi threat, and also hesitated not at all to vote Churchill out after the war. He felt that science and technology could make a new dawn possible.

Snow, a believer in technology, assailed writers such as Ruskin who called for a return to a "simple" life. Snow, who had grown up without money, understood
how much hardship for the working class went into some of this olden days "simplicity".

F.R. Leavis, a Cambridge scholar and respected critic, revered many of the "modernist" literati whom Snow attacked. He understood, too, that Snow's argument was bit facile, and that the split was more complicated than science v. anti-science. Leavis, quite intelligent, could have written a sharp and capable rebuttal of Snow's analytic generalizations. But instead Leavis leavened his attack with strong condemenation of Snow himself. He condemned Snow as a second-rater as a scientist and as being so ineffectual a novelist as to not be a novelist at all.

The predictable ensued, of course. The feud actually gave Snow's ideas greater currency and circulation. Leavis himself also benefitted from the notoriety of his attack on Snow. An old saying among lawyers is that one lawyer in a small town will starve, but two lawyers, one across the street from the other, and both walking distance from the courthouse, will each become rich.

I'll not tarry on the "Two Cultures" debate, which deserves a separate post someday. I'll just observe that time showed, as time often does, that both men were right, and both men were wrong. As time also often does, both men will ultimately prove more obscure, it now appears,than either imagined during his life.

But I will mention that reading and experiencing these flurries of pique and debate always make me long to be able to absorb all points of view, and to synthesize ideas. I am not saying that all ideas are true. I think that some ideas are true, and some quite false. But the way to sort them out is not always to pretend one knows the answers. On the other hand, though, sometimes a sand blaster uncovers lettering in the rock that a school eraser does not find.

I like that I am able to change my mind on what I think about something. I like that some days I go back to fish where I have not caught a fish before. I also like, though, that I gravitate to fishing holes where the fish bite. There are so many rules, that one cannot state them all.

I like to debate and discuss, but I never like to be ad hominem as I do so.
So much remains for me to learn. There are so many ideas I resist at first, and then absorb.

I think that the best thing I've learned is how little I know. I like to grasp that, with certainty, as my fullness of lack.

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