Knowing vs Understanding

(661 words)

William B. Yeats—Irish poet—said John Stuart Mill—philosopher of democracy—had a good handle on where good prose comes from when he said—I’m paraphrasing—”rhetoric is spoken but poetry is overheard.”

I think he means that poetry is what you get when you’re not trying too hard.  Have you ever said “wow, I should write that down, that’s poetic”?  Me neither, but some people, I’m told, do feel this from time to time.  It’s like that feeling of beginner’s luck all the time.  Rhetoric, on the other hand, sounds like trying too hard, that it has some agenda and, at bottom, feels put on and calculating and less truthful—maybe even worse.

What we call art is already scattered around inside our subconscious, in little bits and pieces.  So, when we hear and look at and read something that brings it into focus it doesn’t seem overdone.  It seems obvious—in the good way—and familiar, even, especially in hindsight.  A great sculptor once compared his or her work to uncovering the statue that was already hidden inside the great block of stone.  Their job is to uncover it.

Regarding good characters in a good piece of writing, they are integrated types representing authentic natural aspects of “the everyman.”  If you write them correctly and truthfully, Hemingway would say, they will be understood by your friends.  And by friends, I mean readers.  Johnathan Franzen, author of “Corrections,” said that the “reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.”  Well, what is the definition of a friend?  I’d say its someone who wants you to succeed.

Putting This Into Action

It works this way.  You set a big, high goal and go for it.  Some of the things you understand/make/render on the way won’t fit exactly into the overarching structure of the vision you have for what you’ll eventually make.

But, these products, too, have a use and are not wasted.  An author’s short stories is one example.  They rarely pay a whole lot but they do pave the way for what may come next.  Artists, and everyone really, already know their characters before they find them out, just like the sculpture.  But it takes work to uncover the truth and share it.

Put Another Way

One of the first things you learn in law school is that the law is really very simple.  It’s because we all—you, me, everybody—know it already, deep in our bones.  Almost all of the concepts have been worked out by everybody on the playground in grade school.  But, knowing is not enough.  We have to understand it, otherwise we can’t apply it.  That’s what lawyers do.

You have to dig out what’s already there, chip away the excess stone to reveal the masterpiece.  Once you understand it, you wonder what the big deal was to begin with.  It’s sort of like riding a bike.  There are exceptions, however, in this law example.  The Rule Against Perpetuities is one.  It’s a California property law and I’m sure if you google it you can figure it out for yourself.  I never did, though I thought I did several times until I realized, again, that I didn’t.

But, anyway, the law got worked out over time and it makes sense because people with very similar wants, needs and fears to you and I, the world over, are the ones who worked it out for us and they are all dead and gone, now.  And over time is good enough for us.  That will work for us right now.  Because we are not “over time.”  We are right smack dab in the middle of time, right now.

Law is just one timeless example of what I’m driving at, mainly for my own edification.  We are always seeking to understand the things we already know, deep inside and its downright joyful when someone hits the nail on the head and shares it.  That’s art.