Wednesday, July 8, 2009

More about walking and knowing

[Tried to post this on Friday, then was out all day Saturday, so here it is, the belated story from Thursday]

Yesterday’s walk was all about the comforts of reiteration, the knowledge that comes from re-inscribing. I wanted to walk the same path I knew, so I could say to myself: there’s where the men were loading the corn onto the pony that the women had gathered; there’s where the the skirts of the Flower Hmong were drying on the wall, semi-circles of brilliance against mud and dust; there’s where the children ran out of the house to say hello. For a few moments I want to not learn something new; I want to already know something. This got me thinking about my relationship with learning and knowledge.

In academia we say we like to learn, to experience a new field or an unread book as an open prairie. An epistemelogical song of the lark moment. But, really, it’s temporary, or, rather, artificial, contrived. It’s like a carnival ride that simulates tumbling and falling and not knowing up from down, but we never genuinely lose our bearings. In a sense we come to know new things because we already know them, never truly losing our place on the map of the known and knowing world. We have access to powerful uses of language, unlimited resources, and people around us who know why we ask the questions we do. This, on the other hand, is real not knowing, and I am not used to it.

I did not know; I have not known; I shall not have know; I will not know. That’s my condition in all its conjugational permutations. I did not know, for example, when I got back from my walk yesterday, hot, and red as a tomato, how long the power had been off and when it would come back on. I deduced it was off in the whole town because the squawking loud speaker was silent. I tried to ask someone in the hotel, but couldn’t formulate the right question or understand the responses. So I just hosed myself off with cool water, closed my windows and curtains against the afternoon sun, and lay down on the bed to wait. As it got closer to sundown, panic crept in. What would happen when there was no more light even to read? How would food be cooked for dinner? Can I just go to bed in this stifling room at 7:30 and hope to be awakened in the middle of the night with the lights and the a/c coming back on? It’s not the heat, or even the palpable humidity, it’s the close darkness of aloneness and not-knowing. So, the sun went behind the mountain, and dusk came to the town, and the streets filled with families. The sun off my balcony, I pulled out my chair, got a Bia Ha Noi from the now sweating cooler downstairs and watched everyone adjust. Dinner came later tonight, the ladies who walk the circuit around town in their plastic sandals doing those wacky floppy Vietnamese exercise arm movements came out a little later. Everyone adjusts to what is there and what is not. It’s possible to be and to not know, but it feels like somersaulting through space.

The walk that was supposed to be about reiteration turned out not to be. A dog that didn’t chase me the first time, did this time; they are about to kill a pig up ahead and I have to turn back

1 comment:

  1. See, I think taking the same path again gives you a starting point to explore new paths and have observe more. Like in reading a book, when you read it again, you already know where the plot is going and can better appreciate the subtleties of the story. And learning a new field you can't start with Calculus, you have to start with something familiar and work your way into it.

    I'm enjoying your blog and it sounds like you're having lots of fun.