Dedication: For My Students @ Middlebury
To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life
Common myth says that a person doesn’t choose a horse—the horse finds his owner.
We’re unsure when or how our accumulated knowledge becomes our very own signature—nor if it ever becomes so since our antecedents are eternally lurking, ghosts whispering in our ears; we are not even sure how much experience and study will be required for us to lay claim to the recognition that this or that is known, completely ours.
So what we do is wait—we prepare and we conjecture and we project, we assume, and we wait for the dawn of the day when we’ll rise and pull open a curtain on to the universe we’ve imagined and suddenly there it is, a slight tug, a pull, a subtle but simple realization that everything we do is somehow interconnected. And we smile—but we don’t know exactly how we got to this point, to this intimate acquaintance with ourselves, a state of familiarity with everything we do, every gesture. Since we have been so used to waiting and projecting, so accustomed to assuming what might be us, when a moment of certainty comes we mistrust it. Take you as ‘twere some distance knowledge of him, says Shakespeare in Hamlet. We see a ghost of ourselves—a version of some imagined being; we’re not quite sure what to make of what we see and feel then. We look to the poets and philosophers—are they the true antecedents to who we are? —to help us along and fill us in on what we may be silently feeling and thinking. W. B. Yeats tells us that the “aged man” is nothing but “a paltry thing”; nothing but “a tattered coat upon a stick.” What hope is there when the single most significant recognition we can lay claim to is that life has passed us by much too quickly? That the world is moving much too rapidly for our desperate need to recognize ourselves in it all—the trees and the birds; the oceans and the sky; the people; the mountains and the deserts; the buildings and the bridges, the made-made wonders of iron, steel and plastic; the bits and bytes of our metaphorical expressions of ourselves?
We have to be ready for it—the ah ha moment; be alert and aware; sense ourselves in the world. See the world for what it is—and what it’s not.
But our world—fast-paced, information driven, globally networked through fiber and nature and plastic mechanisms—works against our need to attain knowledge through time—time enough to be aware, time enough to realize ourselves within a moment in history and define its relevance, and time enough to be, simply to be in it, the world, and thus define who we are.
To be knowledgeable is to possess a great deal of awareness. This suggests that intelligence is achieved through maturity—the condition of being ripe or fully grown, especially mentally or emotionally. For this we need nurturing. Our age, though, is really about setting forth, being independent, growing up fast and furiously, consuming early. “Every spirit makes its house,” says Emerson; “but afterwards,” he tells us, “the house confines the spirit.” The houses we’ve built protect us, we assume—but they also confine us and create border conflicts among us. We appear destined to rebel against our very own architectures. There is something there that does not love the confinement of our house; it is the knowledge, gained almost too late, that what we have erected is marred by ways to obfuscate and avoid, defer and repress, alienate and accuse.