A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 17 April 2015


The field of knowledge is vast, limitless.

A book I'm reading at the moment is Jon Thompson's How to Read a Modern Painting. Among many other artists he features Monet, Manet, Seurat, Van Gogh — all people we've heard of, of course. But he also mentions Charles Gleyre, Frédéric Bazille, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson. Have you come across them? Me neither. But they were all well-known painters of their day. It's just the leading innovators and charismatic celebrities whose names survive in the common consciousness and crop up in quiz questions and factual digests. But beneath this top tier of artists who outwitted obscurity and became eternal (Van Gogh after death), there's another bigger tier of tireless practitioners who peaked in their time but whose names have now faded from view; and beneath that an even bigger tier of talent never popular when alive, still unknown now, and perhaps never destined to be recognised; and beneath that thousands upon thousands of striving creators, some struck (stuck?) with genius, others merely amateur followers of their craft . . .

Our knowledge of art — and of all things — is usually confined to the top of the pyramid, the tip of the iceberg of knowledge (unless we happen to be a specialist in that subject — and, even then, our specialism may cover only one deeply-worked seam of the whole mine).

We can never know everything; indeed, we can only ever know a small proportion of all there is to know. And even if we knew everything, there are still all those things which remain to be discovered, and there's also that huge and barely-explored realm of universal space-time knowledge and spiritual God-knowledge which is normally beyond the grasp of our comprehension.

And to go back to MonetManet and Seurat: to be honest, how much do we really know about them? Not a lot, if we're truthful — perhaps a few picture reproductions and potted biographies and soundbites. It all depends on what we're interested in, what our specialities are, how much time we've got, the condition of our memories, and so on.

Speaking for myself, I'm a generalist at heart, and like to think I know a little about a lot. I'm under no illusion, however, that I'll ever know all the fascinating things there are to know. In fact, I realise that I'll only ever know a tiny fraction of all these things, only ever nibble away at one corner of the enormous loaf of knowledge, and this only imperfectly and often half-heartedly, leaving undigested crumbs in my wake. With every book I read I'm only too aware that the list of books I want to read extends daily. With every journey I make and every place I visit I'm only too aware that the number of journeys I'd like to make and the number of places I'd like to visit is infinite.

The key here, I think, is to adopt a Zen-like calm and acceptance about this complex, brain-numbing affair of knowledge and experience. We can only ever know and experience a few things, so let's try to ensure we know and experience them as profoundly and as radiantly as we can. Let's explore depth and quality rather than surface and quantity.

As HUGH OF ST VICTOR (c. 1096-1141) wrote:

Therefore I beg you, reader, not to rejoice too greatly if you have read much, but if you have understood much. Nor that you have understood much, but that you have been able to retain it. Otherwise it is of little profit either to read or to understand.

Whatever we know or don't know, do or don't do, have experienced or have not experienced, it doesn't matter; the important thing is to live one's life as beautifully, as resonantly and as meaningfully as one can. 

Live all you can — it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had? . . . What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that . . . The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have . . . Live!

HENRY JAMES The Ambassadors


George said...

Yes, after many decades of questing for knowledge, never doubting that the truly important things could be discovered and digested, most of us eventually come to terms with the indisputable fact that there is very little we can ever know with certainty. Reality, as the comedienne Lily Tomlin once observed, is just a collective hunch. That said, we must still live fully in the mystery of it all, and as the James quote recognizes, the only time to do that is the only time we have — NOW!

Loren said...

This certainly resonates with me as I'm in the process of paring down my huge collection of books that I've collected over the years.

I've been amazed how many poetry books I've read where I can't remember a single poem in the book.

I feel guilty that I'm not reading more, but going over thousands of old photographs I can almost instantly remember where and when I took each picture.

Experiencing nature, not reading about it, has become my ultimate reality.

donna baker said...

Well, if your brain isn't already filled up, here is a book I think you'd find very interesting. THE OBSTACLE RACE by Germaine Greer. Many of the female artists, unrecognized in their day, were every bit as good as their male counterparts. Some of my favorites were Cecilia Beaux, Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, Rosa Bonheur and Marie Laurencin. I'm not a feminist, but I think you'll find their stories very interesting. The first edition has beautiful, full colored plates.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, George, I've come to believe that the accumulation of knowledge in the traditional sense does not lead to the palace of wisdom.

The Solitary Walker said...

'Experiencing nature, not reading about it, has become my ultimate reality.'

Sounds good to me, Loren. I understand you when you say that photos have such an immediate and memorable impact. Some poems, though, lodge themselves in quite subtle ways: a turn of phrase, a rhythm, and you're right there. Sometimes the 'feeling' or 'mood' remains rather than the words.

The Solitary Walker said...

Such a relevant comment, Donna. So many female artists, musicians and writers were sidelined by the predominantly male literary establishment over the centuries. In the UK the publishing house Virago did a good job in bringing some of these names back to our attention — and it looks like Germaine Greer has done the same in this book.

Anonymous said...

Your quote from Hugh of St Victor made me think of Montaigne: "From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honourable pastime: or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well..."

He goes on - and this is what I like about the little I've read of Montaigne: the sense that he is a human being like myself and that although our worlds are hundreds of years apart and often wildly different he just as often shares, confidentially, things I feel myself:
"If I come across difficult passages in my reading I never bite my nails over them: after making a charge or two I let them be. If I settled down to them I would waste myself and my time, for my mind was made for the first jump. What I fail to see during my original charge I see even less when I stubborn it out."
The centuries between myself and him dissolve: I find myself taking to him. "And if we can't work out what the writer means," I want to say, "perhaps the fault lies with the writer, not myself, the reader."

It is an interesting thought that almost as much time passed between the lives of Hugh of St Victor and Montaigne as has passed between Montaigne's life and our own lives.

As for Monet and Co., fame is a strange thing. Who we've heard of goes in and out of fashion, too. In music (which I'm more familiar with than I am with art and literature), Vaughan Williams has been in, then out, then in again. Michael Tippett is currently out but will almost certainly fade in again in the future. Being famous after death does not mean you will always be famous. One is famous so long as what you have to say serves a purpose. There are other important reasons for it but how fame comes and goes is an expression of your contemporary use-value. I would argue that the artists, musicians and writers who "float to the top" in any given era do so not only because of their excellence but because they tell best the story the State and its people want to hear about where they are and how they got there.

The Solitary Walker said...

What a fabulous comment, Dominic — thanks very much. I found myself nodding in sympathy and agreement.

Like what you say about Montaigne, and what Montaigne says about reading and understanding. As you observe, Montaigne seems so very human and close to us.

Anonymous said...

Re Montaigne again. I often think of him, casually, as the Orwell of his day in terms of a writer who explores how to write about what he thinks. It strikes me now that the passage I quoted is not a million miles away from the spirit of Politics and the English Language.

Susan Scheid said...

This is brilliant advice: "We can only ever know and experience a few things, so let's try to ensure we know and experience them as profoundly and as radiantly as we can. Let's explore depth and quality rather than surface and quantity." It's so easy to become overwhelmed by all there is to know that one wants to know that it can be paralyzing. I am constantly reminding myself how much more fulfilled I feel if I stop long enough to get to know one poem or one piece of music as well as I can, rather than skipping over the surface like a stone on water. There was a point, among your list of painters, when I did become captivated with a painting by Bazille. I knew nothing about him at all, but found myself standing in front of a painting of his, Porte de la Reine at Aigues–Mortes, at the Met Museum. Here's a link: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/435626 His personal story is striking, too. He came from a wealthy family and was generous in supporting fellow painters. (His friends included Monet, Manet, and Sisley.) He died at age 28 in the Franco-Prussian War. Had he lived longer, I wonder whether he might not have been much more well known.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, both masters of the popular essay, both critical and both say directly what they think, Dominic — though Montaigne much more 'philosophical'.

The Solitary Walker said...

I like that painting of Bazille's, Susan (I love that area of southern France).

Indeed, the amount of 'stuff' out there to be absorbed and digested can seem overwhelming at times — especially in these frenetic days of rolling news, internet, social media and information overload. Like you, I always feel so much better and more fulfilled if I slow down, pace myself, stay relaxed, and concentrate on one thing at a time, on on the things I'm REALLY interested in. Poetry, I find, you just can't read quickly in the main, and the more times you read a poem and the more slowly you read it, in a focused way, gives so much 'deep' pleasure. It's the same with travel and walking: one short trek done in a deliberate and mindful way is so much more meaningful than rushing around all over the place.