Sipping from the Pierian Spring or, the Anatomy of Humility
December 5, 2011
St. Paul, Minn. —
"Is knowledge naught to you
Unless another knows that you know all you do?"
— Aulus Persius Flaccus, satirist of Rome, c. 60 CE
"To know a thing and not to express it, is all one as if he knew it not."
Why, oh why, won't wisdom sit still and be grasped?
I stumbled across Persius' verse question in Montaigne's essay "Of Solitude," and sensed a certain authenticity. Yes, easy, silence is a virtue. No one needs, certainly no one clamors for the odd shells I might collect along various beaches of dust.
But then, tripped up (I do have a devil of a time keeping my balance in the world of ideas) by Thucydides, quoted in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (the ultimate collection of the most ancient of odd shells), the conflicting call for public displays of knowledge turned my certain validity of silence to a comic pratfall.
I'm a classical music host, and so I know a bit about comic pratfalls. Of course, they're always unintentional. This work tends to attract, or breed, generalists. A generous term, generalist. It implies a certain self-possessed self-deprecation. What I know is a lake fifty miles wide and an inch deep. It means, generally, that after decades presenting (to name two among the teeming thousands) the eccentric profundities of late Beethoven String Quartets and Bach's dizzying keyboard gymnastics, I know them, at best, as if we'd rubbed shoulders on a train. But have I ever given one of them a good hug?
This lake is also large enough to provide habitat for aesthetic species outside the genus of Classical Music. The massive intelligence of a George Eliot novel moves by like a leviathan. But if the lake is only an inch deep, isn't my perspective by necessity two-dimensional? I spot a biography of Shakespeare, glover's son, social climber, deadline poet, and, oh yes, transcendent genius. I confront Picasso's Guernica, ostensibly two-dimensional but deceptive. I imagine Nijinsky dancing to Stravinsky.
And every once in a while, (here comes the pratfall), I yield to the temptation to draw whimsical connections between these bright stars of the imagination, or even dare to set them in an historical context. Like a kid with a ball who just wants to get into the game.
But for a few, the game is justifiably serious, and before the kid can make a move he might get slapped with an injunction that reads: "A little learning is a dangerous thing." A slap that stings.
I received this handy chastisement once, maybe twenty years ago, from a listener weary of my unofficial analogy-making, pointing out my essential stupidity. This isn't something you forget. The generalist always regards the disdainful specialist with a combination of respect and fear.
But what does it mean that my little learning is dangerous?
Here's the line in its original habitat from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism (1709):
"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again."
The Pierian Spring was a source of knowledge sacred to the Muses, in the shadow of Mount Olympus. It's a peculiar liquor. Sipping is the sin. Binging, in the sense of immersion, is the responsible behavior, taking one beyond giddy enthusiasm to a been-there, done-that wisdom. So the danger in my little learning, it appears, is analogous (there I go again) to being drunk and disorderly. Who knows what I might break? And given my shallow lake metaphor, this is a more or less chronic condition. I'm sure that if you read the entire poem, you'd find more indictments to hand down.
And yet, and yet, and yet... In Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 the Fire Captain warns the protagonist, Guy Montag, about the forbidden reading of books, invoking the very line my largely learned critic used on me, but with a very different purpose. Is this a mitigating context? The message here would be: Go, my ingenuous son, read, think to best of your (however limited) ability, bless your adorable soul. Or am I grasping at straws? With which to sip more.
I admit it. Desultory and distracted, I'll never be a scholar, a vocation I genuinely admire. But I wonder if today — when the electronic mechanisms of communication have spawned the haikus of Twitter, and discourage as unreadable a prolix ramble of 500 words (we're at... 752 and counting; get lost George Eliot) — the man who wagged his finger at me might be more charitable. I wonder if he might even tolerate my clumsy attempts to shake hands with serious music and words and ideas.
Maybe we dilettantes do get a little tipsy from our sips at the Pierian spring. But at least we know it exists. I'm not sure that the truly inspired, certifiably sober chuggers of knowledge can afford to disdain us as adversaries anymore, or "dangerous". It may come as a shock, but even our casual, irresponsible drinks have become almost a rarified taste, and maybe even something of value in a world with little or no interest in these waters at all.