The Joy of Lacunae

Late last year, I thought to myself, “You know, I really should watch the original Dracula.” This thought came pretty much out of nowhere, but I acted on it. Short review: Dracula is pretty good, except for the guy who plays Johnathan Harker. He sucks. Other than that, give it a watch.

One of the things that bothered me prior to watching it was that I was familiar with so many of Dracula‘s peripherals: Bela Lugosi in the cape, the accent, the one-liner “I don’t drink… wine.” I had read the book twice, but so much pop culture ephemera and effluvia (from Count Chocula to Anne Rice) has been influenced by the movie that I felt like I had this glaring, weird hole in my pop-culture education. So I watched it, patched up that hole, and saw where so many of the cliches come from. It felt good to do, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time filling these gaps, these lacunae, in my knowledge/experience base.

New things are easy to experience. Friends may want to go see a new movies with you, or recommend a new book. There will be plenty of buzz about a current television show, but not much about one that has passed. Older things you have be cognizant about, you have to seek out. I’ve been doing just that, and it’s fun.

For example: I recently read A Brief History of Time. The book, the title, the cover, the personage of Stephen Hawking are all instantly recognizable. It’s an icon. (That said, I think that most people would probably be at a loss to explain what the books about. Maybe they’d say “black holes” or something to that effect.) I enjoyed reading A Brief History not only because it’s a well written survey of astrophysics, but also because I was conscious of the fact that I was digging into an icon while I was reading it. Going into something whose peripherals, image, influences, and cultural place you already know is weirdly satisfying. All of the ornamentation and latticework around the book was already apparent to me, but it was ornamentation that stood on air. Reading Hawking’s book filled that in, provided a core to a cultural construct that I was already familiar with. Seeing the contours of popular culture fill out and define themselves before your eyes is a particular kind of “ah-ha!” moment.

The downside of this, though, is that once you start thinking about all of the holes in your cultural repertoire, you get into a dilemma articulated by everyone’s favorite pederast, Socrates. “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing,” said the bearded kiddie-fiddler. Socrates was exaggerating a little, but was expressing the frustration of trying to be a generalist. He was a really smart guy, but he realized that he couldn’t actually be an expert on, or know, everything. I’m not given over to to such emo-laden statements (or pedophilia) as Plato’s tutor, but I can share his feeling. Trying to be well-read, as it were, can be frustrating.

Another example: I also read Notes From Underground a while ago, and was happy to do so. This was a seminal work of existentialism and while I’m a big Camus and Sartre fan, Underground has slipped by me. It was okay, but that’s beside the point. Reading it, though, alerted me to the fact that there are huge tracts of Russian literature with which I’m unfamiliar. I don’t think it’s fair to say that I’ve “read” Dostoyevsky, given that I’ve only read one of his books.

Similarly, at the end of A Brief History of Time, Hawking has something of a lament about the distribution of knowledge in the modern world. When a Grand Unified Theory of physics is finally articulated, he says, there will probably be perhaps a dozen people in the world who completely understand and appreciate it. That, he says, demonstrates how wonderfully powerful and knowledgable specialists are, but it also demostrates the difficulty of being a Renaissance man/woman. Back in Newton’s time, says Hawking, intellectuals were expected to be conversant in a variety of topics, from mathematics to literature to biology to ethics. (To be sure, this is probably an idealized version, but let’s go with it.) That’s not the case anymore. Being really, really good at something is what get’s you places. There is no place for generalists.

(At this point, I’m getting a little self-conscious about the high-falutin’ nature of my examples, so I’ll give another: Half Life. I hadn’t played through the Half Life games until recently. I loved them as objects in and of themselves, but was also aware that I was finally getting around to experiencing a key bit of geek iconography. Back to the matter at hand…)

At the crowded, dusty bookstore where I used to work, though, I derived no small amount of joy form the stacks and piles of tomes all around me. There are too many books here to ever read, I thought, and new ones are popping out all the time. Every day. I will be reading, finding things out, until I’m dead. That’s a wonderful thing to realize. The “ah-ha!” moment, the feeling of epiphany and satori, that is the goal. I adore understanding things, but when it comes to knowledge and experience, getting is just as good as having. There will always be things that I don’t know, books I haven’t read, cultural icons that I haven’t explored, and that’s great.

Unlike Socrates who lamented his inability to know everything I say: Wonderful. I’ll take joy in the lacunae, be excited about the gaps. Intellectual and cultural completeness is simply not possible, and one would do well to enjoy that. I will always try to understand more, to patch up the holes, to reach an ideal, but I know I will never get there. Which is fine. More than fine. When I finish a puzzle, give me another, when I walk out of a labyrinth, tell me where the next entrance is, when I close a book, I go to the shelf. Gaps and holes abound. Let them. Socrates lamented his ignorance, but I don’t want to run out of ignorance to obliterate.

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