As far as literary companions go, Dante and Montaigne are some of the finest ones to have when in pursuit of one's own curiosity.
Excerpted from Curiosity, by Alberto Manguel, published by Yale University Press (footnotes omitted). Copyright 2015 Alberto Manguel. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
On her death bed, Gertrude Stein lifted her head and asked: “What is the answer?” When no one spoke, she smiled and said: “In that case, what is the question?”
—Donald Sutherland, Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work
I am curious about curiosity.
One of the first words that we learn as a child is why. Partly because we want to know something about the mysterious world into which we have unwillingly entered, partly because we want to understand how the things in that world function, and partly because we feel an ancestral need to engage with the other inhabitants of that world, after our first babblings and cooings, we begin to ask “Why?” We never stop. Very soon we find out that curiosity is seldom rewarded with meaningful or satisfying answers, but rather with an increased desire to ask more questions and the pleasure of conversing with others. As any inquisitor knows, affirmations tend to isolate; questions bind. Curiosity is a means of declaring our allegiance to the human fold.
Perhaps all curiosity can be summed up in Michel de Montaigne’s famous question “Que sais-je?”: “What do I know?” which appears in the second book of his Essays. Speaking of the skeptic philosophers, Montaigne remarked that they were unable to express their general ideas in any manner of speech, because, according to him, “they would have needed a new language.” “Our language,” says Montaigne, “is formed of affirmative propositions, which are contrary to their thinking.” And then he adds: “This fantasy is better conceived through the question ‘What do I know?,’ which I carry as a motto on a shield.” The source of the question is, of course, the Socratic “Know thyself,” but in Montaigne it becomes not an existentialist assertion of the need to know who we are but rather a continuous state of questioning of the territory through which our mind is advancing (or has already advanced) and of the uncharted country ahead. In the realm of Montaigne’s thought, the affirmative propositions of language turn on themselves and become questions.
My friendship with Montaigne dates back to my adolescence, and his Essays have since been for me a kind of autobiography, as I keep finding in his comments my own preoccupations and experiences translated into luminous prose. Through his questioning of commonplace subjects (the duties of friendship, the limits of education, the pleasure of the countryside) and his exploration of extraordinary ones (the nature of cannibals, the identity of monstrous beings, the use of thumbs), Montaigne maps out for me my own curiosity, constellated at different times and in many places. “Books have been useful to me,” he confesses, “less for instruction than as training.” That has been precisely my case.
Reflecting on Montaigne’s reading habits, for example, it occurred to me that it might be possible to make some notes on his “Que sais-je?” by following Montaigne’s own method of borrowing ideas from his library (he compared himself as a reader to a bee gathering pollen to make his own honey) and projecting these forward into my own time.
As Montaigne would have willingly admitted, his examination of what we know was not a new venture in the sixteenth century: questioning the act of questioning had much older roots. “Whence then cometh wisdom?” asks Job in his distress, “and where is the place of understanding?” Enlarging on Job’s question, Montaigne observed that “judgment is a tool to use on all subjects, and comes in everywhere. Therefore in the tests that I make of it here, I use every sort of occasion. If it is a subject I do not understand at all, even on that I essay my judgment, sounding the ford from a good distance; and then, finding it too deep for my height, I stick to the bank.” I find this modest method wonderfully reassuring.
According to Darwinian theory, human imagination is an instrument of survival. In order better to learn about the world, and therefore be better equipped to cope with its pitfalls and dangers, Homo sapiens developed the ability to reconstruct outer reality in the mind and to conceive situations that it could confront before actually encountering them. Conscious of ourselves and conscious of the world around us, we are able to build mental cartographies of those territories and explore them in an infinite number of ways, and then choose the best and most efficient. Montaigne would have agreed: we imagine in order to exist, and we are curious in order to feed our imaginative desire.
Imagination, as an essential creative activity, develops with practice, not through successes, which are conclusions and therefore blind alleys, but through failures, through attempts that prove to be mistaken and require new attempts that will also, if the stars are kind, lead to new failures. The histories of art and literature, like those of philosophy and science, are the histories of such enlightened failures. “Fail. Try again. Fail better,” was Beckett’s summation.
But in order to fail better we must be able to recognize, imaginatively, those mistakes and incongruities. We must be able to see that such-and-such a path does not lead us in the aspired direction, or that such-and-such a combination of words, colors, or numbers does not approximate the intuited vision in our mind. Proudly we record the moments in which our many inspired Archimedes shout “Eureka!” in their baths; we are less eager to recall the many more in which those, like the painter Frenhofer in Balzac’s story, look upon their unknown masterpiece and say, “Nothing, nothing!... I’ll have produced nothing!” Through those few moments of triumph and those many more of defeat runs the one great imaginative question: Why?
Our education systems today by and large refuse to acknowledge the second half of our quests. Interested in little else than material efficiency and financial profit, our educational institutions no longer foster thinking for its own sake and the free exercise of the imagination. Schools and colleges have become training camps for skilled labor instead of forums for questioning and discussion, and colleges and universities are no longer nurseries for those inquirers whom Francis Bacon, in the sixteenth century, called “merchants of light.”9 We teach ourselves to ask “How much will it cost?” and “How long will it take?” instead of “Why?”
“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. It may bring, in its wake, a few tentative answers, but if the question is powerful enough, none of these answers will prove all-sufficient. “Why?,” as children intuit, is a question that implicitly places our goal always just beyond the horizon.
The visible representation of our curiosity -- the question mark that stands at the end of a written interrogation in most Western languages, curled over itself against dogmatic pride -- arrived late in our histories. In Europe, conventionalized punctuation was not established until the late Renaissance when, in 1566, the grandson of the great Venetian printer Aldo Manutius published his punctuation handbook for typesetters, the Interpungendi ratio. Among the signs devised to conclude a paragraph, the handbook included the medieval punctus interrogativus, and Manutius the Younger defined it as a mark that signaled a question which conventionally required an answer. One of the earliest instances of such question marks is in a ninth-century copy of a text by Cicero, now in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris; it looks like a staircase ascending toward the top right in a squiggly diagonal from a dot at the bottom left. Questioning elevates us.
Example of punctus interrogativus in a ninth-century manuscript of Cicero’s Cato maior de senectute. (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS lat. 6332, fol. 81)
Throughout our various histories, the question “Why?” has appeared under many guises and in vastly different contexts. The number of possible questions may seem too great to consider individually in depth and too varied to assemble coherently, and yet some attempts have been made to gather a few according to various criteria. For instance, a list of ten questions that “science must answer” (the “must” protests too much) was drawn up by scientists and philosophers invited by the editors of the Guardian of London in 2010. The questions were: “What is consciousness?” “What happened before the Big Bang?” “Will science and engineering give us back our individuality?” “How are we going to cope with the world’s burgeoning population?” “Is there a pattern to the prime numbers?” “Can we make a scientific way of thinking all-pervasive?” “How do we ensure humanity survives and flourishes?” “Can someone explain adequately the meaning of infinite space?” “Will I be able to record my brain like I can record a programme on television?” “Can humanity get to the stars?” There is no evident progression in these questions, no logical hierarchy, no clear evidence that they can be answered. They proceed by branching out from our desire to know, creatively sifting through our acquired wisdom. And yet, a certain shape might be glimpsed in their meandering. In following a necessarily eclectic path through a few of the questions sparked by our curiosity, something like a parallel cartography of our imagination may perhaps become apparent. What we want to know and what we can imagine are the two sides of the same magical page.
One of the common experiences in most reading lives is the discovery, sooner or later, of one book that like no other allows for an exploration of oneself and of the world, that appears to be inexhaustible yet at the same time concentrates the mind on the tiniest particulars in an intimate and singular way. For certain readers, that book is an acknowledged classic, a work by Shakespeare or Proust, for example; for others it is a lesser-known or less agreed-upon text that deeply echoes for inexplicable or secret reasons. In my case, throughout my life, that unique book has changed: for many years it was Montaigne’s Essays or Alice in Wonderland, Borges’s Ficciones or Don Quixote, the Arabian Nights or The Magic Mountain. Now, as I approach the prescribed three score and ten, the book that is to me all-encompassing is Dante’s Commedia.
I came to the Commedia late, just before turning sixty, and from the very first reading, it became for me that utterly personal yet horizonless book. To describe the Commedia as horizonless may be simply a way of declaring a kind of superstitious awe of the work itself: of its profundity, its breadth, its intricate construction. Even these words fall short of my constantly renewed experience of reading the text. Dante spoke of his poem as one “in which lend a hand heaven and earth.” This is not a hyperbole: it is the impression its readers have had from Dante’s age on. But construction implies an artificial mechanism, an act dependent on pulleys and cogs which, even when evident (as in Dante’s invention of the terza rima, for instance, and accordingly his use of the number 3 throughout the Commedia), merely points to a speck in the complexity but hardly illuminates its apparent perfection. Giovanni Boccaccio compared the Commedia to a peacock whose body is covered with “angelic” iridescent feathers of countless hues. Jorge Luis Borges compared it to an infinitely detailed engraving, Giuseppe Mazzotta to a universal encyclopedia. Osip Mandelstam had this to say: “If the halls of the Hermitage should suddenly go mad, if the paintings of all schools and masters should suddenly break loose from the nails, should fuse, intermingle, and fill the air of the rooms with futuristic howling and colors in violent agitation, the result then would be something like Dante’s Commedia.” And yet none of these similes captures entirely the fullness, depth, reach, music, kaleidoscopic imagery, infinite invention, and perfectly balanced structure of the poem. The Russian poet Olga Sedakova has noted that Dante’s poem is “art that generates art” and “thought that generates thought” but, more important, it is “experience that generates experience.”
In a parody of twentieth-century artistic currents, from the nouveau roman to conceptual art, Borges and his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares imagined a form of criticism that, surrendering to the impossibility of analyzing a work of art in all its greatness, merely reproduced the work in its entirety. Following this logic, in order to explain the Commedia, a meticulous commentator would have to end up quoting the whole poem. Perhaps that is the only way. It is true that when we come across an astonishingly beautiful passage or an intricate poetic argument that had not struck us as forcibly in a previous reading, our impulse is not so much to comment on it as to read it aloud to a friend, in order to share, as far as possible, the original epiphany. To translate the words into other experiences: maybe this is one of the possible meanings of Beatrice’s words to Dante in the Heaven of Mars: “Turn around and listen, / because not only in my eyes is Paradise.”
Less ambitious, less knowledgeable, more conscious of my own horizons, I want to offer a few readings of my own, a few comments based on personal reflections, observations, translations into my own experience. The Commedia has a certain majestic generosity that does not bar entry to anyone attempting to cross its threshold. What each reader finds there is another matter.
There is an essential problem with which every writer (and every reader) is faced when engaging with a text. We know that to read is to affirm our belief in language and its vaunted ability to communicate. Every time we open a book, we trust, in spite of all our previous experience, that this once the essence of the text will be conveyed to us. And every time we reach the last page, in spite of such brave hopes, we are again disappointed. Especially when we read what for want of more precise terms we agree to call “great literature,” our ability to grasp the text in all its multilayered complexity falls short of our desires and expectations, and we are compelled to return to the text once again in the hope that this time, perhaps, we will achieve our purpose. Fortunately for literature, fortunately for us, we never do. Generations of readers cannot exhaust these books, and the very failure of language to communicate fully lends them a limitless richness that we fathom only to the extent of our individual capabilities. No reader has ever reached the depths of the Mahabharata or the Oresteia.
The realization that a task is impossible does not prevent us from attempting it, and every time a book is opened, every time a page is turned, we renew the hope of understanding a literary text, if not in its entirety, at least a little more than on the previous reading. That is how, throughout the ages, we create a palimpsest of readings that continuously reestablishes the book’s authority, always under a different guise. The Iliad of Homer’s contemporaries is not our Iliad, but it includes it, as our Iliad includes all Iliads to come. In this sense, the Hassidic assertion that the Talmud has no first page because every reader has already begun reading it before starting at the first words is true of every great book.
The term lectura dantis was created to define what has become a specific genre, the reading of the Commedia, and I am fully aware that, after generations of commentaries beginning with those of Dante’s own son Pietro, written shortly after his father’s death, it is impossible to be either comprehensively critical or thoroughly original in what one has to say about the poem. And yet, one might be able to justify such an exercise by suggesting that every reading is, in the end, less a reflection or translation of the original text than a portrait of the reader, a confession, an act of self-revelation and self-discovery.
The first of these autobiographical readers was Dante himself. Throughout his otherworldly journey, having been told that he must find a new path in life or be lost forever, Dante is seized by an ardent curiosity to know who he truly is and what it is he experiences along the way. From the first verse of Inferno to the last verse of Paradiso, the Commedia is marked with Dante’s questions.
In the whole of his essays, Montaigne quotes Dante only twice. Scholars are of the opinion that he had not read the Commedia but knew of it through references in the works of other writers. Even if he had read it, possibly Montaigne might not have liked the dogmatic structure within which Dante chose to conduct his explorations. Nevertheless, when discussing the power of speech in animals, Montaigne transcribes three verses from Purgatorio XXVI in which Dante compares the penitent lustful souls to “dark battalions of communicating ants.” And again he quotes Dante when discussing the education of children. “Let the tutor,” says Montaigne, “pass everything through a filter and never lodge anything in the boy’s head simply by authority, at second-hand. Let the principles of Aristotle not be principles for him any more than those of the Stoics or the Epicureans. Let this diversity of judgments be set before him; if he can, he will make a choice: if he cannot then he will remain in doubt. Only fools have made up their minds and are certain.” Montaigne then quotes the following line of Dante: “Not less than knowing, doubting (dubbiar) pleases me,” the words Dante addresses to Virgil in the sixth circle of hell, after the Latin poet has explained to his charge why the sins of incontinence are less offensive to God than those that are the fruit of our will. For Dante, the words express the pleasure felt in the expectant moment that precedes the acquisition of knowledge; for Montaigne, they describe a constant state of rich uncertainty, being aware of various opposing views but embracing none except one’s own. For both, the state of questioning is as rewarding as, or even more so than, that of knowing.
Is it possible, as an atheist, to read Dante (or Montaigne) without believing in the God they worshiped? Is it presumptuous to assume a measure of understanding of their work without the faith that helped them bear the suffering, bewilderment, anguish (and also joy) that are the lot of every human being? Is it insincere to study the strict theological structures and subtleties of religious dogmas without being convinced by the tenets on which they are based? As a reader, I claim the right to believe in the meaning of a story beyond the particulars of the narrative, without swearing to the existence of a fairy godmother or a wicked wolf. Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood don’t need to have been real people for me to believe in their truths. The god who walked in the garden “in the cool of the evening” and the god who, agonizing on a cross, promised Paradise to a thief, enlighten me in ways that nothing but great literature can. Without stories all religion would be mere preaching. It is stories that convince us.
The art of reading is in many ways opposed to the art of writing. Reading is a craft that enriches the text conceived by the author, deepening it and rendering it more complex, concentrating it to reflect the reader’s personal experience and expanding it to reach the farthest confines of the reader’s universe and beyond. Writing, instead, is the art of resignation. The writer must accept the fact that the final text will be but a blurred reflection of the work conceived in the mind, less enlightening, less subtle, less poignant, less precise. The imagination of a writer is all-powerful, and capable of dreaming up the most extraordinary creations in all their wishful perfection. Then comes the descent into language, and in the passage from thought to expression much—very much—is lost. To this rule there are hardly any exceptions. To write a book is to resign oneself to failure, however honorable that failure might be.
Conscious of my hubris, it occurred to me that, following Dante’s example of having a guide for his travels -- Virgil, Statius, Beatrice, Saint Bernard -- I might have Dante himself as a guide to mine, and allow his questioning to help steer my own. Though Dante admonished those who in tiny skiffs attempt to follow his keel, and warned them to turn back to their own shores for fear of becoming lost, I nevertheless trust that he will not mind helping out a fellow traveler filled with so much agreeable dubbiar.
Alberto Manguel is a Canadian writer, translator, editor, and critic, but would rather define himself as a reader. Born in Buenos Aires, he has since resided in Israel, Argentina, Europe, the South Pacific, and Canada. Today he divides his time between Canada and a small village in France, surrounded by more than 30,000 volumes.