What do we know and when do we know it? I worry about these questions. In fact, I have an on-going discussion with a friend about this, and we puzzle over what we truly know in life (less and less, it seems, as time goes on). Some people seem to know what they’re talking about, but do they really? In the broad scheme of things, do we really know shit? Possibly not. Some of this may be that we have too much information swirling around, and it’s hard to retain any of it.
For example, my sister and her husband came for Christmas, and since they drove from the Boston area to Indiana, listened to The Odyssey on the way. This may not seem the lightest form of entertainment, but my sister is a theatre director and is always looking for back story when she directs plays. And her husband is an incredibly patient man. So – The Odyssey. My sister had lots of questions for us – figuring out who is who in the mythological Greek world. She told us the story of Tantalus, who stole ambrosia from the gods, and was punished for it (I don’t know what the punishment was – I’ve been on Wikipedia THREE TIMES already). In a fit of pique, Tantalus decided to show his displeasure to the gods by cooking up his son in a stew and serving it to them at a banquet. The gods, being pretty smart, knew what he was doing, and punished him again, this time sending him far down into Hades, to stand in a pool of water that disappears whenever he is thirsty, and under a luscious vine of grapes that is always out of reach when he is hungry. We get the word “tantalize” from him. Tantalus was just the beginning. He was the father to Atreus, who was father to Agamemnon and Menelaus. I think it was Atreus who served up his nieces and nephews in a casserole to his brother because his brother was sleeping with Atreus’ wife. Hence the term “Curse of the House of Atreus” and it just continues from there. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia so that there will be a wind to take his army to Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, is understandably upset by this, and plots to kill Agamemnon. Then their son kills Clytemnestra to revenge his father. Man, this stuff is better than Dr. Phil.
But it took me THREE TIMES looking it all up to get it right. And, I bet you, a year from now, I’ll have to look it all up again.
I went to the great city of Chicago last weekend, and made several trips to the Art Institute. It’s a wonderful museum, filled with old favorites and new treasures. Thinking about my lack of knowing anything, I was determined to find something in the museum, some interesting tidbit, that I would remember for all eternity. So – while looking over the beautiful things in the American Decorative Arts section of the museum, I came across little silver boxes. At first, I thought they were snuff boxes. But no – as the write-up stated – they were “Patch Boxes” – a place to put your facial patches that were all the rage early in the 18th century. People – both men and women I think- at that time would carry around little pieces of black paper or black cloth to use as beauty marks to cover up blemishes. The write-up also said that these beauty marks meant different things, according to where you put them on your face. For instance, a black mark by your eye would indicate “passion”. Fascinating!
An old friend I visited in Chicago, to whom I was complaining about not knowing anything, said that it would take a PhD in some field to have access to that kind of minutiae at your fingertips. Perhaps that’s true, but I don’t want a PhD. I don’t want to be focused on just one area for my entire life. I’d much rather remain a dilettante, knowing a little of a wide variety of things. But the point here isn’t just to show off your knowledge. That’s not what I mean. I think a broader knowledge of history, religion, societal mores – all kinds of things – informs our decisions today. I think we do things better if we have a broad understanding of life, the world, and its people. The more we know, the better we can be, the better we can make things for everyone. I think, too, that knowing something of the past can be humbling, and we, as a society, could use a little humility. We are not the apotheosis of civilization, after all. People did many amazing things long before we were around.