Tuesday, August 08, 2006

So little time

Bernard Berenson, the connoisseur and writer who specialized in Italian Renaissance painting, wrote in his diary for November 30, 1953:
I have paid twenty visits to the illuminated manuscripts exhibition at Palazzo Venezia [in Rome] and what have I carried away? Only a vague feeling of how much there is to study. To master them artistically and philologically would take a lifetime.
Berenson added that the first time he goes to an unaccustomed place, the most he can bring back from it is an idea of what to see on his next visit.
Long ago I concluded that all we did on earth (no matter how long we lived) was to decide what topics we should pursue if we had eternity at our disposal, with time for everything, no haste, no interest treading on the heels of the last interest.
I understand what he meant. I find that new experience increasingly feels incomplete. There's more in the past to compare it with, which raises new possibilities, new aspects to investigate.

Probably most people who follow any interest discover that there is much more to the subject than they ever dreamed about. And that, even as they amass knowledge in a field, more knowledge does not automatically lead to greater understanding.

As we get older, we realize that our curiosity and imagination can never be permanently satisfied. There is so much to intrigue us, so little time to explore it.

Rembrandt: Aristotle Contemplating
a Bust of Homer

Last night I browsed through the excellent Rough Guide to Italy. One thing that distinguishes this guidebook is its detailed descriptions of many smaller towns and cities in obscure (to most of us) parts of the country. It seems that there is hardly a place with a name in Italy that doesn't have historic buildings, sites, or associations, dating from the time of the Etruscans, Greek colonists, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque … I read about some of those places and wished I could see them all. Even though I would be temporarily surfeited and would need to take a break, I could resume visiting them with just as much enthusiasm.

I never will see them all, of course. A few, if I'm lucky, but that's it. Even if I somehow acquired the means to travel from one historic and artistic site in Italy to another, that would preclude exploring many other places and interests.

Long ago, a single gifted and well-placed individual could take on board and try to understand all that was known. Herodotus told his contemporaries about all the past and present (although much of what was "known" was a fable). Aristotle comprehended, to some degree, every skill and science of the fourth century B.C. Even in the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas made a breathtaking attempt to squeeze the ultimate meaning from all human experience. Today, of course, people have trouble even staying au courant with their own specialties.

Fascination with the things of the world makes life interesting. But most religions have recognized this craving for sense experience as a spiritual danger. We become so dazzled by amazing, beautiful, and complex objects that we are distracted from looking within for the Pure Absolute Perfection that no sense perception can report to us.

According to Hinduism and Buddhism, it is precisely this attachment to worldly experience that binds us to the Wheel of Life and Death, forces us to reincarnate again and again to satisfy our hunger. Mediums and occultists say that some apparitions (ghosts) are the spirits of dead people who hang around the living because they're so desperate for corporal pleasures or addictions, and sometimes even take over the bodies of the living so they can continue to enjoy the thrills of physical existence.

Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism, offer an alternative: see truly into the essence of anything — letting go of all attraction or repulsion, all verbal knowledge — and you know everything. Even some sensitive Westerners have suggested something similar: Blake with his "To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour"; Tennyson's "Flower in the Crannied Wall" ("If I could understand What you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is").

Wisdom indeed: we must learn to see, not only more, but more deeply.

Meanwhile, though, while we are not yet saints or mystics or yoga masters, our worldly selves ask or pray (depending on temperament) not for insight, but for the gift of more time.


Anonymous said...

It seems that there is hardly a place with a name in Italy that doesn't have historic buildings, sites, or associations, dating from the time of the Etruscans, Greek colonists, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque …
Those places exist because the Italians were smart enough to switch sides in World War Two early enough to avoid the complete destruction that was visited upon Germany. Remember Monte Cassino?

Rick Darby said...

I have read about Monte Cassino. My guess is that the Italians booted Mussolini off his throne and didn't oppose the Allied invasion to save their skins more than to preserve historical monuments, but I'm very glad that Italy was spared the destruction visited on Germany.

Italians are often accused of having so much history all around them that they're indifferent to it, but I have not found that to be so on my visits. They seem to be much better custodians of their historical sites than the French. Or than the English, who now tend to treat their Gothic cathedrals merely as tourist attractions.