Confucius knew what he was talking about when he said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” No matter how much we, both in reference to us as a species and us on an individual or group basis, think we learn or understand, we want more. Is this desire a good thing?
In the last portion of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, we see the narrative shift from Maud and Roland sharing their secret research, while learning more about the past, to a near battle royalÃ© among Maud and Roland; Leonora and Blackadder; and Cropper and Hildebrand Ash: all to know the fate of LaMotte and Ash’s child. Normally in a book, this isn’t that big of a deal; that’s just called plot. However, what makes this interesting is that in hopes of unearthing the answer, Mortimer Cropper decides to dig up Randolph Ash’s grave. This may be crossing the line between scholarship and lunacy. In lieu of the title of the book, this character is possessed by the desire for knowledge.
But, Mortimer Cropper seems to be a fringe case, a character that happens only in books and movies, right? He’s the Gollum of Possession ““ twisted by greed over material objects! Actually, maybe it’s not that odd; Cropper’s possession does stem from the human desire to learn and understand, which is fundamental in all of us.
This desire is familiar to everyone, especially to us gathered here pursuing higher education. Though our topics of studies vary impressively, we all came to the U of C, and to ASHA, to learn. Whether that learning is directed towards our majors, or to prospective careers, or simply to university life, our desire to learn is still present. Most importantly, we are in the belief, or maybe we simply accept when we are told this, that our learning here is good! But why is it good?
Let’s not focus solely upon post-secondary education here either. Why do we believe it is good to learn? Is it possible to lead a life like Maud and Roland in their later portion of their time in the Bay of the Dead, of not caring what a day shall bring; of being in contact with one another, but not exploring those connections; of letting nature’s clock tick away and us remain the passive observers, interacting with our environment simply when we get hungry or cold?
Without a doubt, our desire to learn has brought us innumerable wonders. It has allowed minds to explore nature’s mysteries, it has brought us beautiful mosaics of culture, it has given us soap, it has produced focused works of art that simply leave us in awe and amazement. We have successfully shrunken our world, figuratively. We have technology and capabilities now to do what no person may have thought we would be capable of in Ash’s time. We communicate to friends across the world in real-time, we express ourselves globally within the comfort of our own homes, we explore our place in the universe with newer and more intricate meaning brought to us through science, and we don’t stop! Our desire to learn, and by extension apply, grows exponentially and so we have built up fantastic, collective intellectual momentum. Our desire to learn has done so much for us because we have done so much for it.
But, it brings us problems as well. It has granted us the ability to lie, it has produced counterproductive argument and war, it has cultivated superbugs, and it has given us reason to generate images of hate and discrimination towards one another. We have gained abilities both beneficial and detrimental to us. World leaders, if they so choose, may eradicate entire landscapes and populaces with nuclear and chemical weapons, the populaces themselves damage the delicate balance Earth has taken billions of years to create, and we develop apathy to one another as we lose our time to more and more distractions. Along with very, very good things, our desire to learn has produced some very, very bad ones, as well. I’ve asked a whole lot of little questions through this, but my big question is: Throughout our human history, has our desire to learn really left us better off?
It’s interesting to think of what would it be like if we remained in the intellectual dark, if we told Prometheus “Hey, that fire thing you have there is pretty cool, but I don’t want it. Thanks for thinking of us, though!” The mind, or at least mine does (let me know what you see!), pictures us back to being Neanderthals, of us picking berries and hunting whatever thing that does not look like us. But it would be 2012! Yet, we would have no idea what a calendar is, or what the number 2012 means! The most interesting thing about our day would have been eating a bug, or an “ugga-bugga”, as we may have called it. Is this any way to live? Art would be incoherent expression, linguistic communication would be obsolete, science would just be an odd vocal sound, and commerce would be decided by who could hit harder. Yet we would not have to worry about chemical warfare, of global warming, or of checking our Facebook accounts! Could we live without the advances our forbearers have gifted to us, to live as extremely retroactive Amish?
Though all this is more of an imaginative extrapolation, Possession does certainly raise questions about the value of scholarship, and I simply extend it to all learning. Maud and Roland ponder on the value of it as their research continued, losing sight of their intellectual drive that drove them to where they were. Yet, all around them, their colleagues would buzz like bees over a dead man and woman, with Ash never having expressed the desire for such post-mortem attention. They desecrated his grave as they had desecrated LaMotte and Ash’s romance. The characters’ endings only receive the positive note they do because of A. S. Byatt’s choosing, whether she wished to follow the happy-ending literary practice, or maybe even parody it by doing so. In reality, things would not wrap-up as if some higher-dimensional author noticed they were running out of pages to write on. The story would continue, as it always does. But at this point in our story of humanity, has our struggle to learn been worth it? Is our satisfaction in learning truly just a human construct, or is there a deeper meaning behind it? Again, are we better off than we used to be millennia ago, or still just as confused as our ancestors were, but with new questions? Who knows”¦