THE LIMITATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE
Education is a great shield against experience. It offers so much, ready-made and all from the best shops, that there’s a temptation to miss your own life in pursuing the lives of your betters. It makes you wise in some ways, but it can make you a blindfolded fool in others.
--Robertson Davies, World of Wonders
I have been rereading the Deptford Trilogy and finding this extended, completely engaging meditation on the nature of art (among other things) even more profound than in previous readings.
The above quote made me catch my breath, because of course what I have been doing with every spare moment over the past several days is pursuing my betters, i.e., Davies. And Davies himself was an academic (and so much else); one of the most highly educated, literate writers I have ever been exposed to.
But Magnus Eisengrim, the actor/magician who makes the above claim, is a genius—ignorant of literature, history, and much other knowledge we generally consider essential to civilization, but observant, creative, engaged and alive in ways that give great weight to his statement.
Later in the book, another brilliant artist, a filmmaker, states, “The truth of the past is to be seen in museums, and what is it? Dead things, sometimes noble and beautiful, but dead….Once a man showed me a great treasure of his family; it was a handkerchief which somebody, on 30 January 1649, had dipped in the blood of the executed English King Charles I. It was a disgusting, rusty rag. But if you and I...had the money and the right people, we could fake up an execution of King Charles that would make people weep. Which is nearer to the truth? The rag, or our picture?”
And Eisengrim again: "Everything has its astonishing, wondrous aspect, if you bring a mind to it that's really your own--a mind that hasn't been smeared and blurred with half-understood muck from schools, or the daily papers, or any other ragbag of reach-me-down notions."
What is happening here? I wondered when I read these passages again, with a novelist’s eyes. Is Davies having fun with us? Or did he really believe that immersion in facts, in the “dead” past, in literature and history, impedes the creation of art?
It couldn’t be the latter, given his own immense range of knowledge, but I don’t think it was the former, either. I believe his point is that all of the erudition in the world doesn’t make an artist; that education and knowledge can back us up if we don’t allow them to master and blind us, but that real creativity takes place in the moment, in an open and undefended place.
At least that’s what the lesson is for me, this reading. I’ll let you know what comes up when I read it again in a few years.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity(Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.