In Praise of Curiosity

by Ed Simon

The polymathic Argentinean short story writer, poet, and essayist Jorge Louis Borges would sit down with the scholar Osvaldo Ferrari in 1984 for a series of interviews in which he reflected on a life lived in books, the now 84-year-old recalling when his father used to take him to the National Public Library in Buenos Aires. At the time he spoke with Ferrari, Borges was as old as the century itself, but the writer could still recall being a child when he entered the hushed environs of the library (which he would one day be the director of) and because he ‘was very shy . . . I didn't dare request books. But there were reference works on the shelves, and I would simply take down by chance, for example, a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica,’ hoping to consume as much of it as he could in the briefly allotted time. One particularly memorable day, he happened to grab the volume with entries that began ‘Dr’, and so he was 'able to read an excellent biography of Dryden. . . Then, a long article on the druids, and another on the Druzes of Lebanon who believed in the transmigration of souls.’

A wide range of topics, but Borges' fabulist short masterpieces are similarly encyclopaedic and sweeping; in his essays he discussed everything from the Old English prosody to the kabbalah, and his short stories investigated the nature of fictionality, identity, and knowledge by recourse to his favourite metaphors of labyrinths, mirrors, and of course libraries. ‘Yes, that day I was very lucky,’ Borges recalled, ‘Dryden, druids and Druzes, and all those things in the same volume,’ for if there was any operative mode to the authors' perspective it was of the singular importance of curiosity. The image of young Borges sitting in the overstuffed leather chairs of the library, licking his index finger to turn the pages of thin bible paper, is as unmistakably charming as it is seemingly non-ubiquitous today, but it's also only fair to acknowledge that the man who would become one of the greatest authors of the previous century was probably also a remarkable child (they weren't all reading about the seventeenth-century poet John Dryden). Regardless, there is something instructive in the steadfast non-utility of Borges' afternoon in that library, for reading about the ancient Celtic pagan priests known as druids or the Middle Eastern religion of Druze who hold Plato and Aristotle as prophets served him no practical purpose beyond delight, joy, and wonder. Curiosity, such as that of the young Borges, exists not to furnish lines on a curriculum vitae or to train for employment, not to advertise erudition or to furnish rhetorical points for winning an argument, but rather it exists only for itself.

Curiosity is at its foundation estimably humble and brave; the former because it acknowledges the enormity of all that which we personally don't understand or know, and the latter because there is a willingness to let yourself be changed by whatever it is that you might discover. As a virtue, curiosity is infinitely preferable to raw intelligence, since curiosity is in some ways a choice; a choice to be engaged, to be altered, to be fascinated, enraptured, and to potentially lose oneself in mystery. Curiosity, to use the vernacular, has a certain energy which intelligence by itself lacks. That's not to denigrate intelligence, far from it. But intelligence divorced from curiosity ultimately serves a pragmatic master; it is the currency of the technocratic positivist, but there is no actual progress without the delights of curiosity. The Argentinean writer Alberto Manguel, a close friend of Borges, argues that ‘“Why?”, in its many variations, is a question far more important in its asking than in the expectation of an answer. The very fact of uttering it opens numberless possibilities, can do away with preconceptions, summons up endless fruitful doubts.’ Curiosity requires a willingness to embrace negative capability and to be mired in skepticism, but the results of individual questioning — even if the process remains unanswered — is the entrance into a reality more expansive in infinite potential than that offered by mere certainty. Such an ethos isn't that of our current discourse (maybe it never was), for curiosity is a skill like any other, but today its teaching isn't given pride of place.

At the risk of portraying our epoch in sweeping generalities, I'd wager that few people would describe our contemporary moment as being defined by curiosity. We're many things — fearful, divided, enraged, paranoid and exhausted — but curious? Who has time for that? There are, to be sure, incredible technological developments that satiate curiosity; somewhere today a future Borges is following hyperlinks from the Wikipedia article on ‘Druids’. And we should, of course, avoid the reductionism which portrays some imagined halcyon past as an indubitable font of enlightenment, but that we couldn't even lie to ourselves as such about our contemporary age speaks to a certain decadence and deficiency in a culture strung between extremes of absolutism and relativism, both of those epistemologies a noxious poison to being inquisitive. Ironically, for living in a period wherein there is greater access to answers than at any other time in the past, it seems as if incuriosity permeates our interactions. Even worse, but a general ideology of incuriosity seeps through our institutions of higher education; I'm speaking not necessarily of the boogeyman of ‘wokeness’ which conservative critics bellyache over, but the obsessive administrative perseveration on students as consumers and college as a product, where the noble vocation of the natural sciences is reduced to STEM and the liberal arts are reduced to nothing, and the most popular major is learning how to shake your boss' hand. Incuriosity is both what makes it possible for someone to reject an unread novel based on an ideological litmus test, and to violently blanche when discovering that history may be different from what they learned in the third grade; incuriosity fuels the faux-knowingness of all-consuming conspiracy theories and the rejection of expertise; incuriosity assumes that all which can be asked can be answered, be it by scripture, or theory, or ideology.

For curiosity is the antidote to conspiratorial thinking and to rigid absolutism of any variety; it enlivens and extends our perceptions of the world, and provides communion with a reality far larger than mere ego. So intrinsic is the interrogative to what it means to be human (as anyone with a child understands) that in an ironic way peoples' thirst for conspiratorial theories-to-explain everything is evidence for the innate propensity towards curiosity. To peruse any internet message board where people offer convoluted theories without evidence, or watch any cable television documentary on a subject of dubious validity, on subjects ranging from psychics to ancient astronauts, is to see examples of the natural inclination towards curiosity turned on its head. People are curious, but valid curiosity for its own purposes — allowed to flourish unhampered and with no purpose other than that own flourishing — does not fit in with the totalising ethos of our society's economic logic. Instead of curiosity we have ‘innovation’, instead of the free play of ideas, we have entrepreneurship. Endless consumption and novelty are a perversion of the inquisitive birth right of being able to playfully explore ideas. As a result, the cost of such individual curiosity seems prohibitively high, so that culturally, socially, politically, and economically curiosity is valued less than technocratic expertise, or pugilism, or even that most anaemic of virtues, intellectual consistency. An engaged curiosity requires the right to not be pragmatic, the right to not be practical, the right to not be profitable. Curiosity requires the freedom to spend a few hours simply turning the pages.