I am in a classroom filled with books. Long books, short books, pamphlets, academic journals. Were I to stay in this room for a while, six months maybe, I could read them all. This would make me smarter, better informed, better at reading, better at writing. A better person? Probably.
But I have my doubts.
Knowledge is power, they say, but they also say power corrupts. This leads us to ignorance is bliss. And yes, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, but the pig doesn’t know that. Besides, who says that Socrates is sad? He said it himself that he didn’t know anything. Assured of his ignorance, he might well have been in bliss.
There are a lot of things I don’t know, and I try to keep it that way. I don’t know what it’s like to lose my spouse or to feel profound estrangement from my mother. I had a chance to get a glimpse when, during my freshman year of college, I tried reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? concurrently. I didn’t cry while I was reading them, but I found myself mysteriously bursting into tears at other times. I switched to David Sedaris and the fog dissipated. It was bliss.
It was bliss, too, when I stopped reading the news. I got my news from Twitter. I followed hundreds of journalists, some of them corporately mandated to tweet multiple times a day. And really, what’s the point of all that information? It just made me impatient when people would explain a news story to me that Twitter had already exhausted three days prior. I don’t need that.
And whenever I think about being ignorant of the news, I think of those reports I’d see as a teenager that such-and-such percentage of the American public couldn’t locate Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. How dare they be so cavalier with the countries at which we were at war. Utter disrespect for the people dying over there. The criticism was fair enough, but a part of me wished, maybe, that one of those ignoramuses was in charge. You can’t bomb what you can’t find.
Learning about something, for better or worse, gives you ownership of it. It becomes a part of you and the way you see the world. When they’re unhappy with their country, expatriates sometimes disavow their citizenship. They wash their hands of the matter. They will their fingerprints off of their country’s deal with the devil, whatever crisp piece of letterhead that entails.
And I wonder, could a similar process work for an expatriate of the mind? Their fingerprints are erased not because they denounced the deal, but because they never knew it existed? You’re skeptical, I can tell. Such an arrangement would perpetuate the status quo, give undue credence to ignorant complacency. But not if we all did it. We’d know nothing except what is pure and what is good. Imagine a world where we are free of corrupting knowledge.
It’s possible. Your mind is a half-filled bucket, pale blue water sloshing inside. There are two ways to empty it. First is to fill your mind so quickly that your mind short-circuits. Your bucket fills to the brim and then tips over. This route has its appeal. You get an intoxicating rush of power. You know all there is to know about politics, world religions, languages, biology, chemistry, math. Then just when it gets to be too much, it’s over.
The second way is a boycott on learning. This is my preferred path. I will stop acquiring any new information and let the knowledge I already have evaporate over time. I could go the first route, but I don’t know if I want to learn anything more, even for a temporary period. I don’t want to learn what a Tomahawk missile is.