THE PLEASURES OF IGNORANCE
A word about the author.. Robert Wilson Lynd (1879-1949) was born in Belfast (Northern Ireland). After his college education, he started his working life as a journalist writing for New Statesman. He was a political activist and was deeply involved in the cause of Irish nationalism. He used the pseudonym Y.Y in his columns and essays for New Statesman. He opposed British dominance over Northern Ireland and was quite vocal about it. Despite such anti-establishment views, he managed to win many friends among the literary elites of his times. The non-conformist tone of his essay reflects his rebellious mind.
About this essay.. The Pleasures of Ignorance truly agitates the readers’ minds and rekindles the desire for rational thinking. Although, it sings the praise of ‘ignorance’, it starts with powerful arguments that show it as a human failing. Later arguments cited by him in praise of ‘ignorance’ are both funny and thought-provoking. The essay readers to take a fresh stand on memory, learning, and academic rigor.
It is impossible to take a walk in the country with an average townsman—especially, perhaps, in April or May—without being amazed at the vast continent of his ignorance. It is impossible to take a walk in the country oneself without being amazed at the vast continent of one’s own ignorance. Thousands of men and women live and die without knowing the difference between a beech and an elm, between the song of a thrush and the song of a blackbird. Probably in a modern city the man who can distinguish between a thrush’s and a blackbird’s song is the exception. It is not that we have not seen the birds. It is simply that we have not noticed them. We have been surrounded by birds all our lives, yet so feeble is our observation that many of us could not tell whether or not the chaffinch sings, or the colour of the cuckoo. We argue like small boys as to whether the cuckoo always sings as he flies or sometimes in the branches of a tree—whether Chapman drew on his fancy or his knowledge of nature in the lines:
When in the oak’s green arms the cuckoo sings,
And first delights men in the lovely springs.
This ignorance, however, is not altogether miserable. Out of it we get the constant pleasure of discovery. Every fact of nature comes to us each spring, if only we are sufficiently ignorant, with the dew still on it. If we have lived half a lifetime without having ever even seen a cuckoo, and know it only as a wandering voice, we are all the more delighted at the spectacle of its runaway flight as it hurries from wood to wood conscious of its crimes, and at the way in which it halts hawk-like in the wind, its long tail quivering, before it dares descend on a hill-side of fir-trees where avenging presences may lurk. It would be absurd to pretend that the naturalist does not also find pleasure in observing the life of the birds, but his is a steady pleasure, almost a sober and plodding occupation, compared to the morning enthusiasm of the man who sees a cuckoo for the first time, and, behold, the world is made new.
Ignorance among men and women, especially about facts of nature, is endemic. Nearly everyone suffers from this shortcoming. Many among us live and die without knowing how an elm differs from the breech tree. Such ignorance makes us argue heatedly among us about the way the cuckoo sings, if during flight or when perched on a tree’s branch. Such ignorance has some bright side to it too. When spring arrives bringing with it its myriad features, a person who has been casual towards nature earlier, discovers some fascinating manifestation of spring, and draws considerable pleasure from it. Even the ubiquitous cuckoo fails to ignite our curiosity, as a result of which almost half among us fail to describe the way the bird sings. Such pathetic ignorance about the cuckoo is because we fail to observe it minutely. We simply let the bird fly past us. An observer of nature is, by instinct, a slow and carefree man. In contrast, the city dweller leads a hectic life and can’t devote time to savor his senses with the pleasures of nature watching.
And, as to that, the happiness even of the naturalist depends in some measure upon his ignorance, which still leaves him new worlds of this kind to conquer. He may have reached the very Z of knowledge in the books, but he still feels half ignorant until he has confirmed each bright particular with his eyes. He wishes with his own eyes to see the female cuckoo—rare spectacle!—as she lays her egg on the ground and takes it in her bill to the nest in which it is destined to breed infanticide. He would sit day after day with a field-glass against his eyes in order personally to endorse or refute the evidence suggesting that the cuckoo does lay on the ground and not in a nest. And, if he is so far fortunate as to discover this most secretive of birds in the very act of laying, there still remain for him other fields to conquer in a multitude of such disputed questions as whether the cuckoo’s egg is always of the same colour as the other eggs in the nest in which she abandons it. Assuredly the men of science have no reason as yet to weep over their lost ignorance. If they seem to know everything, it is only because you and I know almost nothing. There will always be a fortune of ignorance waiting for them under every fact they turn up. They will never know what song the Sirens sang to Ulysses any more than Sir Thomas Browne did.
If I have called in the cuckoo to illustrate the ordinary man’s ignorance, it is not because I can speak with authority on that bird. It is simply because, passing the spring in a parish that seemed to have been invaded by all the cuckoos of Africa, I realised how exceedingly little I, or anybody else I met, knew about them. But your and my ignorance is not confined to cuckoos. It dabbles in all created things, from the sun and moon down to the names of the flowers. I once heard a clever lady asking whether the new moon always appears on the same day of the week. She added that perhaps it is better not to know, because, if one does not know when or in what part of the sky to expect it, its appearance is always a pleasant surprise. I fancy, however, the new moon always comes as a surprise even to those who are familiar with her time-tables. And it is the same with the coming in of spring and the waves of the flowers. We are not the less delighted to find an early primrose because we are sufficiently learned in the services of the year to look for it in March or April rather than in October. We know, again, that the blossom precedes and not succeeds the fruit of the apple-tree, but this does not lessen our amazement at the beautiful holiday of a May orchard.
Quite paradoxically, the more the naturalist is ignorant of nature, the more enigmatic it appears to him. He might have studied about nature quite extensively, yet he yearns to experience their touch and sound. The way a female cuckoo lays eggs on the ground, and then carries them up using its bill to reach its nest seems so very fascinating, only when he observes it firsthand. In the nest, the cuckoo maintains a strict and long vigil over her eggs. Such eye-witness account may be used to prove or disprove the fact that the cuckoo lays or does not lay her eggs on the ground.
After the bird-watcher becomes sure that the cuckoo does lay eggs on the ground, he has to ascertain if all the eggs were of the same color or not. The scientific community even do not mu h about this question, but they seem to worry much about it. For them, there are so many things humans do not know and may not know in future, such as what song the Sirens sang to Ulysses any more than Sir Thomas Browne did.
The cuckoo chose cuckoo as his subject because of no special reason. The only reason could that he had lived for some time in an area infested with cuckoos. The author has no hesitation to admit that he is unaware of many more thins that existed, but were unknown t he author like the Sun and the moon and some flowers too. The author once heard a clever lady asking whether the new moon always appears on the same day of the week. She added that perhaps it is better not to know, because, if one does not know when or in what part of the sky to expect it, its appearance is always a pleasant surprise. Despite being aware of nature’s time-table, nature-observers do feel surprised to see the ushering in of spring and some such events. Even the first blossom of flowers overwhelms a nature lover even if they know about its coming before hand.
And, if we can forget books, it is as easy to forget the months and what they showed us, when once they are gone. Just for the moment I tell myself that I know May like the multiplication table and could pass an examination on its flowers, their appearance and their order. To-day I can affirm confidently that the buttercup has five petals. (Or is it six? I knew for certain last week.) But next year I shall probably have forgotten my arithmetic, and may have to learn once more not to confuse the buttercup with the celandine. Once more I shall see the world as a garden through the eyes of a stranger, my breath taken away with surprise by the painted fields. I shall find myself wondering whether it is science or ignorance which affirms that the swift (that black exaggeration of the swallow and yet a kinsman of the humming-bird) never settles even on a nest, but disappears at night into the heights of the air. I shall learn with fresh astonishment that it is the male, and not the female, cuckoo that sings. I may have to learn again not to call the campion a wild geranium, and to rediscover whether the ash comes early or late in the etiquette of the trees. A contemporary English novelist was once asked by a foreigner what was the most important crop in England. He answered without a moment’s hesitation: “Rye.” Ignorance so complete as this seems to me to be touched with magnificence; but the ignorance even of illiterate persons is enormous. The average man who uses a telephone could not explain how a telephone works. He takes for granted the telephone, the railway train, the linotype, the aeroplane, as our grandfathers took for granted the miracles of the gospels. He neither questions nor understands them. It is as though each of us investigated and made his own only a tiny circle of facts. Knowledge outside the day’s work is regarded by most men as a gewgaw. Still we are constantly in reaction against our ignorance. We rouse ourselves at intervals and speculate. We revel in speculations about anything at all—about life after death or about such questions as that which is said to have puzzled Aristotle, “why sneezing from noon to midnight was good, but from night to noon unlucky.” One of the greatest joys known to man is to take such a flight into ignorance in search of knowledge. The great pleasure of ignorance is, after all, the pleasure of asking questions. The man who has lost this pleasure or exchanged it for the pleasure of dogma, which is the pleasure of answering, is already beginning to stiffen. One envies so inquisitive a man as Jowett, who sat down to the study of physiology in his sixties. Most of us have lost the sense of our ignorance long before that age. We even become vain of our squirrel’s hoard of knowledge and regard increasing age itself as a school of omniscience. We forget that Socrates was famed for wisdom not because he was omniscient but because he realised at the age of seventy that he still knew nothing.
The author returns to his own extreme forgetfulness and how it has contributed to his happiness in life. He cites the many features of nature seen in May, and can reel them off with dexterity. However, in a few months, he would forget them almost completely. He could confuse if the flower buttercup has five petals or six. He could even misidentify a buttercup as a celandine. However, such absurdly poor memory helps him to revisit the same flowers when they reappear in their scheduled interval in the next season. Such re-discovery happens year after year, and become a perennial source of pleasure for the author.
The author feels bemused to think that the bird swift that looks like a larger version of swallow and somewhat similar to the humming bird is compulsive nocturnal flier that wanders in the vast sky at night and never settles on a nest to rest its tired wings.
Having forgotten totally about the cuckoo’s enigmatic habits, the author finds it highly exciting to re-learn that the male cuckoo sings, and not its female mate. Such quirky facts of nature come to him afresh every season, and become great discoveries. His discovery of the peculiarities of the Campion and ash trees come to him as total revelation each year.
Many intellectuals also often appear to be blissfully ignorant about certain elementary facts of life. A British author, when asked to name the most important crop of England said it was ‘Rye’.
Ignorance is so pervasive in society. Men of learning suffer from it as much the illiterate ones do. Common folks who use the telephone, the railways, the printing presses in their daily lives are ignorant about the way these technologies work. We all accept them just as our grandfathers accepted the gospels. Most common folks te d to know about a very limited number of gadgets and products that they use in their daily lives. Those who want to expand their knowledge by learning about other things are ridiculed as being ‘showy’.
However, we, at times, delve into the unknown and try to unravel their mysteries. We think about our afterlife, and many other such abstract things. The secrets that eluded Aristotle continue to elude us. When the fight to dispel ignorance becomes a pursuit of knowledge, it becomes a very meaningful and pleasant experience. Thus, ignorance is not all that bad because it triggers a search for knowledge. There are some lazy people who don’t like to exert their mind to acquire new knowledge. In their laziness, they embrace dogmas. In contrast, there were people like Jowart who sat down to study Physiology at the age of sixty. We even become vain of our squirrel’s hoard of knowledge and regard increasing age itself as a school of omniscience.
Socrates is revered so much not because people accepted him as someone knowing everything, but because at the age of ripe 70, he declared that he was totally ignorant. Such humility was a sign of his greatness.
1. What is unusual about the way the essay opens?
Ans: At the very outset, the author asserts that most human beings suffer from abysmal lack of knowledge about a great many things around us. This leads the reader to assume that the author will proceed to berate ignorance as a negative virtue that diminishes a person’s stature. Strangely, in later lines, he comes out as an ardent supporter of ignorance. He maintains that ignorance multiples our pleasures. Such volta-face catches the readers off-guard.
2. How is seeing things different from observing things?
Ans: When a person sees a thing, the existence of the object just merely recorded as an input, but when one proceeds to observe it, the colour, size, smell, texture, and movement patter etc. are all critically examined and the brain reacts to these inputs with varying feelings like joy, excitement, amazement, disgust, horror, awe etc. Observing therefore, is an elaborate process, and seeing is just a perfunctory act. The involvement of the person varies from light to intense.
3. Why does knowledge of a thing ………………………………………………………….science which murders to dissect?
Ans: If we already know about a thing, seeing it again does not excite us much. The joy of discovery gets considerably reduced. William Wordsworth was a great lover of Nature. He feasted his eyes in the flora and fauna around him. In order to enjoy the beauty of a flower, he could never bring himself to rip it apart and examine its internal parts. However, the scientist has no such feeling. A biologist wanting to learn more about a frog, grabs it, impels his knife into it, and after it dies, examines its internal part. Wordsworth was horrified at this approach.
4. Do you think the ………………………………………………… art?
Ans: The author certainly does not abhor science, because science offers so much to investigate and learn. For an ignorant, but inquisitive mind, science offers the best hunting ground. Art is beautiful, no doubt, but its scope for exploration is rather limited.
5. How does the author …………………………………………………………. renews our vision of things?
Ans: An ignorant man is generally mild and humble in temperament. He is open to receive new ideas, learn new things, and enjoy everything new that comes his way. Innocence is writ large n his nature. Only when we are humble, and apparently ignorant, we open our minds to new experiences. Such exposure, innocently accepted, renews our vision of things.
6. What are the good points of naturalists?
Ans: A naturalist is well-versed in the theoretical knowledge of the myriad of Nature. To augment his understanding of Nature, he needs to observe the outdoors. Such study of the environment complements his theoretical knowledge about Nature’s myriad forms
7. What are the bad points of naturalists?
Ans: The naturalist is essentially a theoretical man. So, his understanding is limited.
8. How does the author prove the limitations of the scientists?
Ans: For the common man, science is too complex and too remote. We use gadgets like phone, cars, televisions etc. that are the products of advanced science. Sadly, by being sophisticated and complex, they remain outside the understanding of the common folks. So, an ordinary person can not effectively delve into science without rigorous studies.
9. What are the two types of reading ……………..?
10. What is the greatest pleasure of ignorance ………………..?
Ans: Ignorance allows us to enjoy every piece of art like a good book, a beautiful flower, or a living creature over and over again without feeling bored or tired. We can read a novel time and again or listen to a certain musical composition many times without any feeling of repetitiveness. This makes our life so much more enjoyable at virtually no cost.
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