Only Knowledge

Only Knowledge

Ata Zargarof is, intermittently, a writer. Classes in English and Contemporary Studies have provided him with an incomparable education in a staggering array of works and texts, from obscure tracts penned by medieval peasants to cornerstones of continental philosophy, Einstein to Princess Mononoke, Crime & Punishment to The English Patient. It is his hope that this essay will prompt an open conversation about the role of the university in facilitating the discovery of knowledge.

The well-focused eye may see sharply what it sees, but it studies a lesser reality than the enraptured gaze.[1]

Shuffling jackets and chair legs scraping against the ground signal a coming confrontation with the cold. I was wondering, I venture, flattening myself against the wall to make room for exiting classmates, if I could write a personal essay instead? To my surprise, Melanie does not view me with either mortification or disdain. Instead, she nods vigorously, displaying teeth in a sincere grin. Past Time II projects, I’m informed, have apparently included plays, short novels; a colleague is even creating an art installation. So my idea is not, in fact, an aberration.

I write by candlelight. Consider it an ontological strategy, a way of thwarting the possibility of other eyes. (Am I aware of the unlikelihood of my own words?) Writing literature for a class feels inescapably clandestine; no matter how many times I remind myself of a PhD’s sanction, I can’t shirk the suspicion that, any moment now, somebody is going to barge in through the door and apprehend me. I write in the shadows because every word is subterfuge.

Besides, my subject calls for stillness: I’m writing about my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s from the perspective of the Bahá’í and medieval Islamic philosophies of time. Maybe “solitude” is better: I mean that momentary sense, illusory or otherwise, that the surrounding world has ceased to exist. Forgetfulness in order to remember. We’re four roommates, though—each with frequently visiting girlfriends—with my room stationed just off the kitchen, veritable hub of idle chit-chat, conversations typically ensuing just to pass the time while oatmeal or pasta come to a rolling boil. Given the circumstances, this rare and precious substance—solitude—is only obtainable at either an ungodly hour or well into the night. Having always found it easier to refuse sleep than to adjourn it, I choose midnight as my haven. Billie Marten’s “She Dances” guides my words: “Oh my lonely heart, she could hang around for days”[2] becomes an opening so familiar it mutates into gospel.

Three days later, I’ve written over 10,000 words.

When I go home to Vancouver for the winter holidays, I share the personal essay with my mom—handing her the laptop while I go occupy myself with inconsequential activities, anxiously awaiting her response. When I come into the room some time later, I find her weeping.

The personal essay is an inherently heretical genre. (My professor for The Personal Essay described Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an exemplary text, as “insurgent.”) Integrating personal experience with research, it flagrantly opposes the tacit dichotomy between academia and the rest of the world—a dichotomy analogized in the metaphor of the Ivory Tower (and literalized in obscene tuition fees). Of course, such dualism has ancient roots. I could chart a familiar genealogy for you, from Monsieur Descartes—with his pencil moustache and lamentable mind-body partition—to probably Plato, who famously burned his poems in order to become a student of philosophy. Poetry, philosophy; flesh and soul; matter and mind. The dichotomies are endless—tedious, even. I only mean to suggest that the Contemporary Studies Program isn’t finished ameliorating this original traditional sin. Why, with the exception of a few unorthodox professors, does an ostensibly interdisciplinary program discourage alternative forms of engagement with its materials? If a painting is intellectually rigorous enough to warrant classroom analysis, to fill a lecture hall with students, why is creating a painting for a class suddenly out of the academic question? If “The Wasteland” is a canonical monolith, shouldn’t I be free to engage with Elliot on his own terms? Why can’t I write a poem in response to a poem?

One explanation I’ve come across is that CSP and others of its kind are, in the final analysis (pun unintentional), preparing us for academia; but you don’t need me to tell you the extent to which enrolment would plummet if these programs were designed solely for the future academic elite. The Foundation Year Program is founded on the premise that the liberal arts are universally edifying: a truck driver will find something meaningful in Nietzsche just as much as the next lecturer. Or perhaps they won’t; that’s the freedom of philosophy.

Besides, why should academia remain so epistemologically monolingual? Shouldn’t we be excited about the prospect of transforming the way that we, qua intellectuals, engage with the world? Experience has variegated textures; a poly-lingual mode of knowing can better acquaint us. Just as, in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words, “if a man should live his entire life in one city, he cannot gain a knowledge of the whole world,”[3] so too philosophy is incomplete knowledge. The unexamined life is not worth living; but no life can be fully examined from just one perspective. “To become perfectly informed he must visit other cities.”[4] Truth is a mountain, to borrow an Indigenous expression from Bishop Mark; philosophy is only one path among many.

Throughout my personal essay for Time II, I conflate the sun and God. Historically, I’m not alone in this regard. The painter J.M.W. Turner reportedly said “the Sun is God” before he burst out laughing and died.[5] Meanwhile, Japanese peasants introduced to Christianity in the 16th century mistook “Son” for “Sun.” Hence Father Ferreira, the fallen priest in Martin Scorcese’s film adaptation of Shosaku Endu’s novel Silence, gestures mockingly to the omnipotent sun in the sky: “Behold! The Sun of God!”[6] These are expired instances, however; Billie Marten, meanwhile, is a contemporary compatriot. Hundreds of listens later, lyrics from her song continually surface in the lake of my mind, like native fish. Months pass before I come across an hour-long interview with the UK singer-songwriter. “It’s like my cells turn yellow,”[7] Marten says of epidermal exposure to sunlight. It turns out we share the same affliction—Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, fittingly, “SAD”)—a kind of over-sensitivity to the sky. We mirror—helplessly—its moods, powerless to alter ourselves before the decrees of Zeus et al. This revelation retrospectively transforms certain lines, infusing them with added significance, e.g.: “She is like the trees, the sun that creeps through my window / She knows her body, the kind that turns you into gold.”[8] “She Dances” comprehends my physiological reliance on the light in modern but mystical terms. It makes my illness glow.

Art isn’t arbitrary. Melodies carry their own meaning. “Music sounds the way emotions feel,”[9] which is tantamount to saying that it distills massive, often conflictual experiences into sound. Marten’s album Feeding Seahorses By Hand collapses tracts into tracks—portable bytes I funnel into my ears. I grasp their essence intuitively, without recourse to words. We can explain away art until we’re blue in the face; we can deploy the words “interrogates,” “subverts,” “disrupts,” and so on until we run out of synonyms to describe what art does—but the pith of these things will continue to elude us. If it were really possible to summarize a poem, the poet or poetess in question would have written a summary, not a poem. “Because emotion is illogical,” writes Donald Hall, “—in logic opposites cannot be true; in the life of feeling, we love and hate together—the poem exists to say the unsayable.”[10] A poet himself, Hall cautions us to “never assume that the poem, appearing simple, hides an intellectual statement that only professors are equipped to explicate.”[11]

I don’t mean to caricature the academic as some kind of world-denying, exegetical autocrat. Numerous of my professors have enthusiastically endorsed my most crazed intellectual excursions—exploring apocalyptic resonances in The Dark Knight, for instance, or unpacking the ironic nihilism of Father John Misty’s musical persona. Still, it’s not enough to write about exciting things. Form matters. Can I really fault my 19-year-old cousin, who listens to trap music and grew up on a steady diet of YouTube and Call of Duty, for reporting that he’d absorbed “maybe 10%” of my paper on Kendrick Lamar? I’d written about something common between us, yes; but the academic form valourizes cryptic inaccessibility, priding itself on abstruse contortions. It endeavours to remain unknown.

I’m tired of remaining unknown. Tired of opting for the sterility of silence at family dinners back home in Vancouver, incapable of translating insights from 3-4 months’ worth of classroom analysis into a language that is comprehensible to the average human being. Tired of inducing silence, for that matter, on the scant occasions that I try—the steady, blinking gaze of those around me sufficient testimony to the importance of interdisciplinary engagement, not just texts: learning to communicate ideas through a diversity of methodological languages. I’m tired of writing papers that almost nobody will ever read (at least not willingly)—and that literally nobody will ever re-read. Yours truly might, partaking of that pitiful pastime of luxuriating in one’s prior achievements. “Sunshine in my brain / It’s the lonely kind of pain.”[12] I’m tired, in short, of pouring dozens of hours of frenetic mental energy—of feverish devotion—into papers that will only serve to substantiate the ever-thickening stack accumulating dust on my bookshelf—a sad and doomed collection, the reason I am “melancholy when / Beauty only made you lonelier.”[13]

Since Time II, I’ve grown more brazen. Now I go out of my way to request permission—for classes in both CSP and English—to write personal essays instead of bone-dry academic papers. This past winter semester, for instance, I wrote three: an in-depth analysis of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family interspersed with fragmentary vignettes from my time in South Africa; a massive consideration of COVID-19, the 2017 film Demolition, and Walter Benjamin’s essay “Experience & Poverty”; and finally—abetted by the peerless Jannette Vusich, of whom the universe has cruelly conspired to bereave our institution—a compact hybrid of exegesis and personal anecdote concerning an online exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art. These were riveting experiences, I learned heaps, and I’m proud of the resulting work. Nevertheless, in most of these cases, I had to ask. Class syllabi almost never advertise unorthodox options (Jannette’s and Melanie’s are the only exceptions of which I’m aware). It’s like a secret item on the menu that you can only order at the chef’s discretion. Typically, I was granted permission on the basis of the same justification, some variation of: “So-and-so is an unconventional writer, so it’s fitting.” Why must a thinker be unconventional for me to engage with them through unconventional means? We have no qualms engaging with non-academic texts academically; why not the inverse? Because it isn’t the convention? What happened to philosophy’s timeless interest in relentlessly reckoning with the status quo? Reactionary or bureaucratic justifications are not justifications; they’re excuses.

For my class on The Personal Essay, I decided to write about pumpkin pie. More specifically, I decided to write about the yearly resurgence of my craving for pumpkin pie, which rears its head around Thanksgiving weekend, like clockwork. Maybe I’ve just been culturally indoctrinated; maybe advertisements discreetly sprinkled throughout my day-to-day subconsciously prime me for the season. Still, I felt certain there was a deeper symbolism at play. Intent on its discovery, I stayed home Thanksgiving weekend to write (after purchasing—and then inhaling—approximately two whole pumpkin pies). Midnight before the Tuesday morning deadline, I finished a draft. Checking the word count, however, yielded a disconcerting discovery: it was 1,250 words too long.

How in the name of God’s Sun was I supposed to delete half of my 2,500 words? Desperate, I emailed my professor; she granted me an extra 250-word buffer. That left me with the still-inconceivable task of determining which 1,000 words to trash. Unable to bring myself to destroy the prose, I wound up discarding the expository paragraphs. Slowly, a curious artefact emerged. Transformed by the elisions, the radically-preened piece eschewed certitude. Absent almost any explanation, it was not really a personal essay at all but, rather, a story. Certain lines still thirsted for knowledge, albeit through different means—for example, wondering aloud whether I wasn’t “somehow compensating for the enervating lack of light by ingesting Helios in microcosm,” or concluding the piece with a vignette surrounding an impromptu soup-cooking session. I could probably expatiate for you. I could argue, for example, that I was writing about the porosity of the barrier between the body and the world; that, just like Marten’s song, deep down, I sought to emulate the sun. But explication forecloses possibilities; it fences off unruly pastures. Imagination is boundless—until we seek to chain it with a name.

Literature abstains from knowledge. In Knausgaard’s words, it “is not primarily a space for truths; it is the space where truths play out. […] That is what writing is: creating a space in which something can be said.”[14] This is actually a familiar theme: Anselm exhausts reason, attaining to the summit of thought, submitting to God; The Symposium devolves into a Bacchic celebration; Job remains, millennia later, inscrutable to thought. Maybe truth is, rather, like the sun: it can only be peripherally described, circuitously seen.

Writing about pumpkin pie taught me the discipline of ignorance. Compelled by circumstance (read: word limit and a deadline), I shed a lifetime of intellectual inculcation—years and years of rigorous instruction in the painstaking decipherment of the external world. Accidentally, I remembered philosophy’s original purpose: to master the confession of epistemic helplessness. I relinquished the desire to know in favour of the desire to be known, and the result was philosophy at its finest—which is to say, not philosophy at all.

[1] Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (Faber & Faber, 1973).
[2] Billie Marten, “She Dances,” Feeding Seahorses By Hand (RCA/Chess Club, 2019).
[3] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982) 297.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Turner, J.M.W. Cited by Kate Kellaway, “Mike Leigh on Mr Turner: ‘He was an enigmatic character – conflicted. He was so driven. He never stopped’” (The Guardian, 2014), www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/05/mike-leigh-mr-turner-enigmatic-character. Accessed 26 Oct. 2019.
[6]  Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese (Paramount Pictures, 2017).
[7] We Dive Deeper, “Billie Marten – Being a Musician, Seasonal Affective Disorder & Social Media,” 2019, www.stitcher.com/podcast/we-dive-deeper/e/63308809. Accessed 30 Jul. 2020.
[8] “She Dances”
[9] Carroll C. Pratt.
[10] Donald Hall, Poetry: The Unsayable Said (Copper Canyon Press, 1993) 6.
[11] Ibid 3.
[12] The National, “Sunshine On My Back,” Sunshine On My Back (N/A, 2015).
[13] Laura Gibson, “Tenderness,” Goners (Barsuk Records, 2018).
[14] Karl Ove Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Yale University Press, 2018), 2-3.

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