“…I listen to what has made it to the page. Invariably, things have arrived that I did not invite, and they are often the most interesting things in the story. By refusing to fully know the world, I hope to discover unusual formations in the landscape, and strange desires in the characters. By declining to analyze the story, I hope to keep it open to surprise. […] What I can see is always dwarfed by what I cannot know.”
-Robert Boswell, “The Half-Known World”
Knowing’s a bit of a fool’s game, isn’t it? It’s predicated on the predictable: that tomorrow will be like today, or that it will change according to today’s rules. Which is, largely, true: in a Philosophy class we talked about how momentous it is to realize that the same physical laws that govern our daily lives are at work in the stars. But oh, those stars. Every time I lay on my back and look at them, or at an ant, or an air conditioner, I’m faced (if I choose to be; if I let myself be) by a mystery—a half-known world, says Robert Boswell. Feynman, that great knowing unknowner, remarks somewhere that any question (why does a ball bounce?) followed carefully leads out past the edge of what anyone understands. That doesn’t mean we don’t know anything: we do, and we can use that. But knowing’s a fool’s game, definitionally incomplete. To put it differently, in a Shakespeare play it’s the Fool—the unknower—who might be able to touch the complexity of what’s going.
Boswell is talking specifically about how to write fiction. We should stop laundry listing characteristics, he says. Stop controlling it all, understanding it all, arranging it beforehand. “A crucial part of the writing endeavor is the practice of remaining in the dark.” I’d like to teach from this, too: any time I come to a class from the perspective of my certainty, of my knowing how to see or (even worse) knowing how to “handle” the people in front of me, it all comes tumbling down. Instead I try to remember that I have things to share, and that I’m in the dark about which of those I’ll add (and how I’ll add them) to what’s discovered.
I’d also like to live from unknowing, I think. I knew I wouldn’t be an English major. (Cue Avenue Q: “What do you do…”). I knew I wanted to go to grad school after only a year or two of working. I knew that I wouldn’t like indoor rock climbing as much as outdoor climbing, and I knew that I only wanted to stay in Oklahoma for a year or two. Of course, none of those were true. Sometimes I know how to do everything in front of me, and then I make a hash of things, and sometimes I know I can’t do any of it, and then someone helps me get over myself, or I go to sleep; eventually, I find my way to a maybe, a mystery, a what-if or what-else or well,-there’s-this.
Knowing brings me back to my expectations, back to the little pile of firewood I’ve managed to gather from the forest. That firewood’s good for keeping me warm. But it’s half knowing, I think, that brings me to the woods.