May 25, 2005

A little learning

There is a baleful date on the library stamps today. The standard loan is for three weeks: the date I have been stamping on the labels, the date three weeks hence, is the same date as my fortieth birthday. This is an event which, it seems to me, holds much the same promise as a Siberian winter, but without the prospect of redemption on the other side. I do not want it to happen. As it is going to happen regardless of my wishes, I do not want to be around other people when it happens.

So I am going to Tromsø, several hundred miles the other side of the Arctic Circle. That being so, there will be daylight for the entire period of my visit and for several weeks either side of it, which will not really be appropriate to the mood. I would have preferred unbroken night, but alas, I was born in June and not December, and I can no more change the movement of heavenly bodies than I can prevent the passage of inevitable time. I will, presumably, get drunk, for the first time in eighteen months, but in the manner of a wake rather than a celebration.

I shall be inviting nobody to join me for the occasion. I am, in fact, intending to issue "uninvitations" to my friends, advising them of the impending catastrophe and suggesting they wear black armbands on the day. I have searched around for a suitably gloomy text, a quote, a motto to accompany the notification. Some extract from the classics. Something that will not only reinforce the mood, but communicate, as quotations do, the sense of the knowledge and the learning of the person able to produce them - and by extension, the waste, the passing of that learning. Here is what I know, the quotation says, and here is all the use that I can put it to. And soon enough, even that will be gone.

In truth I know, or I remember, only fractions. Phrases, parts of sentences, wrenched free from their original surroundings, reduced practically to gobbets. Sometimes I wonder whether they actually serve any function other than to demonstrate the fact that I remember them. What function do quotations really have? Any function, other than to transform learning into demonstration? Than to turn education into show?

I stopped doing pub quizzes, years ago, for much that reason. I found them uncreative, pointless: almost to the point of obnoxiousness. They reduced everything one knew to showing off. I know this, and you do not, and therefore I am better than you.

What reason is that to know anything? It is not intelligence, nor is it education. There is no questioning, which ought to be the very root of both. De omnibus dubitandum, was Marx's motto: doubt everything. But here there is no doubt, no interrogation. No asking what information means, no development of that information into something useful, no alteration of the information as time passes and more is learned. There is only the production of the information. The information is not supposed to benefit the world in general, nor even the individual who produces it. Its only value is in its own existence. In its learning and repetition. And the only value of that process is that it allows the proclamation of superiority of one person over another.

That is a waste. A waste of the learning and a waste of the capacity to learn. It matters little enough when it comes to a pub quiz - it is our leisure time, and we may waste it as we wish. But it is also the story of education. Of how education becomes the presentation of itself, of how education becomes reduced to an expression of superiority. It reminds me, as too much reminds me, of Oxford, of its prevailing atmosphere of smugness and superiority. Of importance placed on never admitting one was wrong, rather than on never really knowing one was right. Such is the capacity of education, when it becomes a tool of social advancement and a means of comparing oneself with others, to close one’s mind, rather than to open it. To make one complacent rather than equip one’s mind with the tools to investigate a lifetime and a universe of doubt.

I hated all that, the showing off, the intellectual pissing contests, the pettiness. And if truth be told, I hated it all the more, as one does, for being aware of my own tendency to do the same. Everybody with education does, to some degree. We want people to know what we have got and to acknowledge we have got it. It is mere flaunting, just as it is flaunting to wear a gold watch or to drive a fast car.

So why present a quotation? For any reason, other than to demonstrate it as something I know? But I do it all the same. I am who I am, and have been for nearly forty years. And a quotation, there must be.

So I searched my mind for one, for one that would communicate world-weariness and pessimism at the passing of my years. My first thought had been of time's wingèd chariot:

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near.

That seemed to communicate the sense I wanted. Time, running out. Life, a journey towards certain and ever closer death. But, not remembering the source of the lines, I looked them up and found that they were Andrew Marvell’s. They belong to his poem To His Coy Mistress, and that was not at all the sense that I was looking for.

So I tried again, and lit upon Donne:

therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

I had not realised that it was Donne. Still less had I realised that it was prose rather than poetry. I had been under the impression that the line was from Gray's Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard, presumably because of that poem's opening line:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day

which would, as far as mood is concerned, have serviced admirably. And, had I been going to Tromso in midwinter rather than midsummer, the fourth line would have worked as well:

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

But looking for my line, and finding it in Donne, I was knocked siedways bythe sentiment that precedes it. A sentiment which I had not previously seen, and which I would like to have known about some days ago. Because this is exactly what I was trying to say, only said better, more precisely, more swiftly and more memorably:

any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

That is what I think. By God, I thought, on reading Donne, that is it. That is it. We are all part of one another. We are mutually dependent. If there is anything that I have learned in nearly forty years, it is that. That we live, really live, only with other people, only through other people. That there is no point, no value in expressing one's superiority over others, that to do so is to humiliate others and thus to diminish oneself. That we cannot survive without the help of others. That without others, we are not ourselves. And that this is the purpose of education, not to dominate others but to enhance them. Not to separate oneself from others but to bring you closer to them and offer them what you have got. It is not a pedestal on which to place oneself. It is a gift which one must offer to others for it to have any meaning.

It is why I am a librarian. It is why any of us are alive. And it is because I have succeeded,as far as I can feel, so little in that task, that when I come to forty, I shall do so by trying to get as far away as I can from the world I know. As far away as I can, and then to contemplate that distance on my own.

That is the purpose of quotation. It illuminates. But I shall not use the Donne quote, in the end. It says what I want to say but it says rather more than I wish to say. It advises me the opposite of what I shall be doing. So I shall settle for Horace:

Eheu fugaces, labuntur anni.

Alas, the fleeting years slip by. And so they do, and slip by faster than they did, and I have no way of slowing them down. There is a baleful date on the library stamps today. Where did the years go, and the people? It is too much to think about. Too much, and not enough.


At May 25, 2005 7:45 pm, Blogger Phil said...

I'm sorry 40 is getting you down. Numbers don't mean anything. Some wonderful things have happened to me since I turned 40 (and some dreadful ones). Be good to yourself.

Quis scit an adiciant hodiernae crastina summae tempora di superi?
Cuncta manus auidas fugient heredis, amico quae dederis animo.

At May 26, 2005 1:01 am, Blogger AngusF said...

Good, thought-provoking, piece.
I like your sentence: 'Of importance placed on never admitting one was wrong, rather than on never really knowing one was right'. I am sure that I prefer doubt to certainty. Doubt makes one think and spawns creativity, doesn't it? Certainty I associate with rigidity and unthinkingness... Anyway, hasn't anyone told you that '40' is the new '30'? Having just crossed over to the other side I have wondered (only fleetingly though): how did that happen (so quickly)? Which I suppose means: shouldn't I have achieved more by now? But so what?... Of your quotes, my favorite is 'any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind'

At May 26, 2005 10:07 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phil has certainly showed his superiority in latin. It was fun trying to translate it....I give up though.
I will be 40 soon and agree that commiseration cards are in order.
The in-laws think it is the time to throw a surprise party so I will need to disappear too.
Does the sentence about "any man's death diminishes.." extend to the Pope?
If people understood the concept about us all being part of mankind and "treat others as you would want them to treat you" the world would be a better place.
We should be sad on hearing of death and suffering. Your 40th birthday pales into insignificance. In fact we can look forward to more thought provoking articles from you as your wisdom continues to grow with your age!

At May 26, 2005 1:40 pm, Anonymous J said...

I prefer "time flies when you're having fun"...

At May 26, 2005 7:21 pm, Blogger Phil said...

Phil has certainly showed his superiority in latin. It was fun trying to translate it....I give up though.

Try Google. It's Horace in slightly more cheerful mode, pointing out that we're all going to be dust and shadow before too long and concluding that we should enjoy life in the mean time. (I said 'slightly'.)

At May 27, 2005 11:21 am, Anonymous 586 said...

I was 37 a couple of months ago, and took it rather badly I suppose. Youth has gone, and most of my first year students were born in 1986, the year I went to University. The past is truly a different country.

However, the yoke of conformity and the desire to be liked has ebbed since 1986, and that is a good thing. I hope you use the time in Tromso to reflect on your essential singularity, and in a positive sense.

At May 29, 2005 2:14 am, Anonymous John said...

I'm a mere twenty years old, something I find hard coming to terms with as it is. No longer having the teenager tag attached to everything I do, I am somehow expected to behave in a manner befitting. Already I find myself wondering what has happened to those I knew just two years ago, both friends and enemies just in an attempt to justify myself in having progressed to where I now am from who I was then.

What makes it worse in a way is guilt. There are many I know and knew who I meet when I return home for my brief top-ups on family life. When asking 'so what have you been up to' their usual reply is a small humourless laugh, a smile that belies uncomfortable truth and then the familiar words 'oh, y'know same as always'. For people who I was once closer to than my family, at times, seeing them stuck in the amber of the drink, drugs and parties saddens and worries me.

But always, always with this there is jealousy as well.

C'est la vie, most appropriate all round.


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