Ulysses: Know the whole world.
~SHAKESPEARE, Troilus and Cressida
In Curiosity, Alberto Manguel dedicates each chapter to a single thinker, scientist, artist, or other figure who demonstrated in a fresh way how to ask “Why?”
Leading us through a full gallery of inquisitives, among them Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Lewis Carroll, Rachel Carson, Socrates, and, most importantly, Dante, Manguel affirms how deeply connected our curiosity is to the readings that most astonish us, and how essential to the soaring of our own imaginations.
Space for imagination and reflection
In the seventeenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argue that a school had to be a space where imagination and reflection were given free range, without any obvious practical purpose or utilitarian goal.
The civil man is born, lives, and dies in slavery. At his birth he is sewn into swadling clothes; at his death he is nailed into a coffin. As long as he retains a human form, he is chained up by our institutions.
A question carries an expectation
The interrogative mode carries with it the expectation, not always fulfilled, of an answer: however uncertain, it is the prime instrument of curiosity.
The tension between the curiosity that leads to discovery and the curiosity that leads to perdition threads its way throughout all our endeavors.
The twinning of the curiosity that leads to travel
And the curiosity that seeks recondite knowledge is an enduring notion, from the Odyssey to the Grand Tours of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The fourteenth-century scholar known as Ibn Khaldun, in his Al-Muqaddima, or Discourse on the History of the World, noted that travel was an absolute necessity for learning and for the molding of the mind because it allowed the student to meet great teachers and scientific authorities.
No story can be truly original or unique
Throughout our convulted histories, stories have had a way of reappearing under different forms and guises; we can never be certain of when a story was told for the first time, only that it will be no the last.
Since imagination is, as we have noted, the means by which our species survives in the world, and since we were all born, for better or for worse, with Ulysses ‘ardore’, and since stories are, from the very first campfire evernings on, our way of using imagination to feed this ardore, no storyc an be truly original or unique.
All stories have a quality of dejà lu about them. The art of stories, which seems not to have an end, in fact, has no beginning. Because there’s no first story, stories grant us a sort of retrospective immortality.
We make up stories in order to give a shape to our questions
We read or listen to stories in order to understand what it is that we want to know. On either side of the page, we are driven by the same questioning impulse, asking who did that, and why and how, so that we can in turn ask ourselves what it is that we do, and how and why we do it, and what will happen when something is done or not done. In this sense, all stories are mirrors of what we believe we don’t yet know.
A story, if it’s good, elicits in its audience both the desire to know what happens next and the conflicting desire that the story never end: this double bind justifies our storytelling impulse and keeps our curiosity alive.
We are more concerned with beginning than with endings
Endings we take for granted; we even sometimes wish for them to be eternally postponed. Endings tend to comfort us: they allow us the pretend of conclusion, which is why we require memento mori–to remind us of the need to be conscious of our own end.
Beginning trouble us daily. We want to know where and how things start, we seek wisdom in etymologies, we like to be present at the birth, perhaps because we feel that what comes first into this world justifies or explains what comes afterwards. And we dream up stories to give us starting-points towards which we can look back and feel a little more secure, however difficult and questionable the process.