Friday, May 3, 2013

"The only thing which the mind can never exhaust...."

From T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”; here the wizard Merlyn is smoking his pipe, and speaking to Wart (the young King Arthur):
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn – pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics – why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that, you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

What's interesting to me in this passage is - aside from the truth of the central premise - that there's not a bit of denial of reality in it.  There's no pretense that fear, loneliness, horror, despair, and torture won't and don't occur; there's no denial that we won't be afraid, lonely, horrified, or depairing.  There's merely (merely!) a desire to look reality in the face - and then to overcome the things that corrupt and destroy by the use of a surprising and indirect means.   Learning doesn't change the facts of reality; it changes you.  Learning, when you think about it, is nothing more or less than the transformation of the mind and soul.

Well, yes.

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