By Tim Kreider, a cartoonist, an essayist and the author of the forthcoming collection We Learn Nothing (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 19/06/11):
When I was 17, I took a record of John Cage’s piano pieces out of the library. The pieces were interesting, but what really arrested my attention was the B-side of the album — a work called “The Dreamer That Remains,” by a composer I’d never heard of named Harry Partch. This was music from another planet: unearthly yowling strings, metallic twangs, rippling liquid percussion. I couldn’t even identify the instruments.
I loaned the record to a friend of mine, the only other person in the world I then knew who liked classical music. The piece’s refrain, in which a chorus of corpses in a funeral home sing, “Let us loiter together/And know one another,” became a two-man in-joke between us. For years, as far as we could tell, we were the only people who knew about Harry Partch. He was, in a sense, ours.
This was in the ’80s, a time when there was simply no way of learning much more about Harry Partch, at least not that I knew of. If I were a 17-year-old discovering Harry Partch today, I could Google him, and I’d immediately find the Harry Partch Information Center and Corporeal Meadows, where I’d learn all about his system of intonation with a 43-note octave and his instruments made of bamboo, jet-engine nose cones, artillery-shell casings and whiskey bottles, with names like the Gourd Tree, Boo II, Zymo-Xyl and Marimba Eroica. I’d even find listings for the rare public performances of Partch’s work. Maybe most important, I’d be able to connect with hundreds of other people who were interested in Harry Partch, avant-garde music and other weird stuff, and not have to feel so eccentric and freakish and alone.
All of which is good, of course. That’s what the Internet is for, yes? Information — zettabytes of information — at our instantaneous disposal.
Except if I’m recalling correctly, adolescents secretly like feeling eccentric and freakish and alone, hoarding pop arcana and cultivating ever-dweebier erudition. They recite lines from cult movies like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Repo Man” and “Napoleon Dynamite” as though they were passwords to a speakeasy; wear buttons bearing the names of obscure music groups as if they were campaign ribbons; and list favorite films and books and bands on their Facebook pages as if they were as essential as name and age and gender.
That proprietary sense that my friend and I had about Harry Partch, our sense of belonging to an exclusive club of cognoscenti, is why teenagers get so disgusted when everybody else in the world finds out about their favorite band. It’s fun being In the Know, but once everyone’s in it, there’s nothing to know anymore.
There was, back then, a genre of literature whose purpose was simply to let you know about cool stuff you might not have heard about. The beloved Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine consisted of stills from half-forgotten horror films like “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” and “Taste the Blood of Dracula.” The copy seemed to have been written not only for but by 10-year-old boys who’d stayed up all night: crazed, breathless and completely exhaustive scene-by-scene descriptions of the entire plots of those movies.
When I was older, I pored over a book called “Cult Films” that described the plots of movies like “King of Hearts,” “Harold and Maude” and “Behind the Green Door.” This was not only before the Internet, but also before home video. The only way you were ever going to see any of these films was if they happened to be on TV late at night or came to a repertory theater near you, which, if you lived in suburban Maryland, good luck.
There are some celebrated films that have long been hard to find on DVD or the Internet: Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, “Fear and Desire,” the British absurdist black comedy “The Bed-Sitting Room,” Joseph Losey’s “Secret Ceremony.” When I found out the former two, at least, had become available, I was almost disappointed. It was fun not being able to see them, not having every last thing a click away. Because what we cannot find inflames the imagination.
Kurt Cobain once said in an interview that long before he’d heard any actual punk rock music, he studied magazine photos of punk musicians and imagined what the music sounded like. It must have sounded to him — who knows? — something like what would later be called grunge.
Instant accessibility leaves us oddly disappointed, bored, endlessly craving more. I’ve often had the experience of reading a science article that purported to explain some question I’d always wondered about, only to find myself getting distracted as soon as I started reading the explanation. Not long ago the Hubble telescope observed that Pluto’s surface is changing rapidly, and noticeably reddening. It’s not a bland white ball of ice, but the color of rust and soot. We’re not likely to learn anything more until the New Horizons spacecraft gets there in 2015. In the meantime, we just get to wonder.
I find this mysterious and tantalizing. As soon as I began reading possible explanations — ultraviolet light interacting with chemicals, blah blah blah — I started to lose interest. Just knowing that there is an answer is somehow deflating. If some cryptozoologist actually bagged a Yeti and gave it a Latin name, it would just be another animal. An intriguing animal, no doubt, but would it really be any more bizarre or improbable than a giraffe or a giant squid?
I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life — why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us — are things we’re never going to know.
Fuente: Bitácora Almendrón. Tribuna Libre © Miguel Moliné Escalona