In 1893, Henry James complained about the recent publication of Gustave Flaubert’s letters. The French novelist was famous for his stylistic perfectionism. What treachery, then, to publish his casual missives, ones that he hadn’t had time to labor over. To James’s regret, the new collection left Flaubert’s “every weakness exposed, every mystery dispelled, every secret betrayed.”
James understood why the book existed. As he wrote, humans possess “an insurmountable desire to know.” When we love someone—a writer, a friend, a mistress—we want to know everything about them; when we hate someone, we want to know everything about them too. This desire applies to more than people: We start a novel and need to know how it ends; we feel a pain in our chest and head over to WebMD to determine its cause.
If the desire to know is insurmountable, so too are the consequences. Many books, including ones by James himself, dramatize the dangers of knowledge. (Adam and Eve, meet apple.) Perhaps more interesting, though, are those books that envision the joys, even the wisdom, of what the essayist Emily Ogden calls “unknowing.” We yearn for revelation and epiphany. But what if, Ogden asks in her book On Not Knowing, we refused this desire for certainty? What if instead we cultivated “a capacity to hold the position of not knowing yet—possibly of not knowing ever?”
Here are some books that suggest the exhilarating, if difficult, gifts of not knowing—what it means to remain open to that which is beyond the self, to the experience of beauty and wonder, to the strangeness of others and the world.
On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays, by Emily Ogden
In this collection of short, blazing essays, Ogden is interested in experiences—giving birth to a child, reading a poem, having a one-night stand—that don’t lead to final and clarifying knowledge. This zone of the in-between, where we lack both total ignorance and absolute knowledge, has its own virtues, she argues: flexibility, humility, wonder, playfulness. Ogden’s essays follow a train of thought for a bit, then drop it only to return to it in a different key. At one point, she praises “riffing” in music but also in prose, where one begins by “starting with a single idea and putting it through a series of changes, embellishing it, making it more and more elaborate and even absurd.” Her essays riff in precisely this way. They try things out; they don’t begin with a point but provisionally approach one through the writing itself. Right now, our political and aesthetic discourse seems less a genuine conversation than a competition of mutually exclusive certainties. How wonderful it is to read Ogden, a writer who says that “the question mark’s business with me will never be finished” and means it.
Washington Square, by Henry James
Though every James novel is a drama of knowledge, Washington Square presents us with the romance of unknowing. In this early tale, the meek but rich Catherine Sloper, a girl with a “plain, dull, gentle countenance,” falls for the charismatic but poor scoundrel Morris Townsend. She hopes that Morris loves her, too, that his interest is motivated not by financial concerns but by passion. Because she believes that she might be adored, because she doesn’t know that she isn’t, Catherine becomes worthy of the love she hopes for. Her beauty increases; her will strengthens; she turns into a true heroine. She’s wrong about Morris’s nature, of course, and the novel ends in devastating fashion. Yet for that brief moment, Catherine was transformed. Hope allowed Catherine to thrive; the desolation of knowledge leads to her spiritual death. Despite the consequences that may come, it’s far better, James suggests, to live in a fiction—far more beautiful, far nobler—than to live within the harshness of reality. In Washington Square, uncertainty is another word for possibility.
Shadow and Act, by Ralph Ellison
This might seem an odd choice, because one emerges from this essay collection admiring just how much Ellison knows: 19th-century American fiction, ancient folklore, contemporary jazz. Yet each essay suggests that critics should approach their task with fundamental openness—with a mind that knows that it doesn’t know. Critics often misread Black fiction, Ellison argues, because they confidently see it as a monolith, an unrelenting stream of pain and humiliation, when it’s actually quite varied. Sociological approaches to literature misfire, he contends, because they “would rather kill a novel than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality.” For Ellison, presumption is the gravest of critical sins, and humility the greatest of critical virtues. All serious writers, he argues, “begin their careers in play and puzzlement.” Critics do, too, and Shadow and Act shows us a strong critic at his strongest.
Holy the Firm, by Annie Dillard
“It is November 19 and no wind, and no hope of heaven, and no wish for heaven, since the meanest of people show more mercy than hounding and terrorist gods.” So writes Annie Dillard after describing a plane crash—real or imagined, the reader isn’t sure—that has left a 7-year-old girl named Julie Norwich with her face burned off. In this unclassifiable book (is it prose poetry? philosophy? memoir? fiction?) Dillard worries, with anguish and ferocity, over the problem of suffering. Whatever else it is, Holy the Firm is a work of theodicy: a consideration of how, if the world is created by a benevolent God, pain and other evils can exist. Like most works of its kind (or at least the good ones), Holy the Firm argues that knowledge of divine providence is impossible—and that the pursuit of such knowledge is itself harmful. Care, not certainty, is what is required; justifying the ways of God to men distracts us from the real task at hand. “We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all,” Dillard writes. We’ll never discern why planes crash or fires burn. Our business is not to know but to love.
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
This book is unknowing all the way down. Delany’s science-fiction classic takes place in the aftermath of an mysterious catastrophe. A fire, or a bomb, or a plague, or something else altogether, has struck the American city of Bellona. (Where is Bellona? Similarly unclear.) At the novel’s center is the Kid (sometimes called “Kid,” sometimes “Kidd”). He’s a wanderer who doesn’t know his name, or his age, or what he’s doing in “a city of inner discordances and retinal distortions” where the geography shifts daily, where time “leaks; sloshes backwards and forwards,” where sexuality is fluid and meaning unstable. Science fiction regularly exposes us to what isn’t yet known. Delany exposes us to what can never be known. This relentless estrangement starts off as frustrating but ends as clarifying: When language, plot, and character don’t work as they typically do, we come to see them with greater truth. As William Gibson writes in his foreword, “To enter Dhalgren is to be progressively stripped of various certainties.” Dhalgren demands that you become a different kind of reader: less rigid, more limber, responsive to rather than repelled by strangeness.
The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Blue Flower offers a fictionalized account of the life of the 18th-century German Romantic poet and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg. (He published under the name Novalis; in the novel, he goes by the decidedly less Romantic-sounding Fritz.) Fitzgerald’s historical details locate us with great specificity: Fritz reads both Franz Ludwig Cancrinus’s Foundations of Mining and Saltworks, Volume 1, and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. This grounding in history makes the book’s marvels only more luminous. It’s a text filled with dreams and visions, where transfiguration—a lowly girl or a household object suddenly becomes radiant, ghostly, strange—is always imminent but never fully understood. The novel centers on two different mysteries. Fritz inexplicably falls in love with a plain young girl named Sophie, and he has a vision of an otherworldly blue flower and begins writing a story about it. Fritz can’t explain why he loves the unremarkable Sophie or what the beautiful flower means. He just knows that he’s called to them, and that this calling has to do with their incomprehensibility. Love is unreasonable, and beauty refuses to be contained or fully known. These are the lessons of Romanticism and of Fitzgerald’s short, perfect novel.
In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, by James Lee Burke
Detective fiction, by definition, might seem to move from ignorance to knowledge. You start by wondering, Whodunit? Once that question is answered, the novel is over and you’re satisfied. But by the end of the sixth James Lee Burke novel featuring the God-haunted, po’boy-loving Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, things are still confused. The book fires up the engine of plot early. A woman’s body is found “at the bottom of a coulee”; another body is discovered wrapped in chains in a nearby marsh; Dave starts having visions of a troop of Confederate soldiers. After the murders are solved, Dave still doesn’t know many things—were his visions real? What evil lives in the souls of men?—and neither does the reader. Dave is a good detective because he’s attuned to that which exceeds reason; Burke is a great writer because he makes us see that mysteries that remain mysteries provide their own kind of pleasure.
Jawbone, by Mónica Ojeda, translated by Sarah Booker
This novel of horror and desire considers, in Ojeda’s words, “the vertigo of what’s unexplored.” Some bored teenagers enrolled at a strict Catholic school in Ecuador begin hanging out in an abandoned building. They egg one another on to greater and greater dares—some silly, some sexual. They begin swapping scary stories, drawing from and expanding upon “creepypastas”—urban legends and spooky tales found on the internet. Most dramatically, they imagine, and then worship, a deity they dub the White God: a divine figure who terrifies and attracts precisely because of its blank ineffability. Ojeda’s teenage girls are told that they’re irrational, baffling, even monstrous. Her characters don’t apologize for the urges they can’t explain or the bodily changes they can’t understand. Rather, they turn this inscrutability into a form of power. You’re scared of our bodies? they seem to ask. Very well. We’ll celebrate them, constructing a theology “composed of all the things you cannot even imagine.”
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