Update from Italy: The Cloud of Unknowing

Photo by Michael Voroshnin on Unsplash

“I don’t know.”

“I just don’t know.”

“We don’t know.”

How many times have you said this since February?

There are so many things that we don’t know. Past, present, future. What does it mean to not know? How often have you said, I don’t know? What is your excessive not-knowing quotient, compared to the same time period in 2019?

Are you comfortable not knowing? Is the time and space to not know something a privilege? If you have time and space to not know, you have fewer exigencies pressing down on you to know something immediately. Like Jeanette Winterson, a writer whose work I adore, I find that couching abstractions in metaphor grounds them to better illuminate their signified concepts.

The wise one knows that she does not know. She possesses some idea of the vast uncharted expanse of her un-knowledge. We cannot label it ignorance, because she is aware of it; it sails around at the corners of her dreams, rounding the cape, from time to time anchoring tantalizingly in some dark, deep harbor. Merchants have been known to row up to land in their dinghies with wares to trade and sell, knowledge from near and far: an enameled fact, the amber and bitter gall of past disasters, the tightly wound silk of precious dreams, waiting for the right day to unfurl and flutter in the wind.

Every morning she rises, knowing that she doesn’t know. Sometimes she reviews the handful of things she has learned, perhaps long ago. Or they might be facts or bits she picked up as recently as yesterday. This I know. That I know. Always on Square One, every day Square One, in a world in which she wakes every day and which she must decipher anew, untangling the past and its messages to make sense of nonsense. 

This she knows: every day is a new Square One. This is not a bad thing. Square One is a precious gift. And yet. And yet. As a merchant of knowledge, she yearns to fill her warehouse, stuff it with goods and imports and local harvests, even as she knows there is no warehouse that can possibly hold it all. Still, she sorts her stock; she values, she sells, she barters what she can for other knowledge that she lacks.

Knowing that she does not know is her greatest treasure of knowledge. It keeps her curious, questioning, confirming, asking, watching, observing. Not knowing is a gift; coming into knowledge is a literal revelation, an epiphany so grand that she would never forego it, the sheer pleasure of coming into knowledge that illuminates, even were the ship to sail back out from the harbor again to crest the high seas. She keeps her warehouse modest; you can find it on Square One.

Where is Square One?

“I don’t know.”

Here.

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