“…the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time,” wrote Flaubert to Colet. “They knew everything,” he said. He was writing in 1854 and grappling with a momentous, essentially silent, event in human history: books had surpassed the human brain for universal capacity. The encyclopedic individual to which Flaubert referred–Homer, Rabelais and their ilk–had been eclipsed by the summation of knowledge as contained in the book. The course of flowing knowledge had reversed–no longer would it flow from individual to book. Rather, the book, the compilation and accumulation of knowledge, would forever inform the individual. (In modern life, the flow has again transitioned: book to computer–and most recently, computer to internet.) It is related that Gottfried Leibniz was the last man to know everything that could be known; that after he died in 1716, the knowledge the world contained was greater than what one individual was capable of knowing. There is no fact to support either of these notions, Leibniz’s omniscience or the quantity of knowledge in the world at his time. Regardless, it is a concept that gives me pause.

I want to know everything. Realistically, not everything, just more. I read Guy Davenport, Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Sontag, Robert Nozick; I read them–and so many others–and am reminded immediately and precisely how stupid and thick I am. Obtuse. I read but my mind is a sieve. I read and can’t remember a thing. (Read widely and forget everything, said Montaigne, which comforts me.) If not for my notebook, I might as well be illiterate. I will never know a modicum of what I think I should know, even less than a modicum, whatever that might be. There is nothing I retain. I forget everything. I have to keep this manuscript printed and at hand so I can refer back to see if I’ve previously written the new thing I want to write or if I wrote already, maybe just a week ago. I go to dinner parties and afterward am told that I had previously entertained those same polite people with that same tired story. I submit an essay only to discover that I’d published it a year previously, a month previously. I look at my library and wonder, who read all these books? I am, I fear, seriously and irredeemably lacking. There will no make-up class. This is not Groundhog Day, the movie.

Unlike Leibniz, I know nothing. If I am the sum of the collected existences which preceded me–what Octavio Paz called, “the living tissue of the current situation”–then I am no more than a fragment, a single cell even, of a human self. The whole is a futility. It rests in my mouth like the bitter taste of burned coffee.

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DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

20 responses to “Like burned coffee.”

  1. It’s a fascinating idea that I’ve never thought of before, that someone could’ve actually known everything… or most things… and that the transition was made. I suppose if I’d thought about it and had to guess, I’d have placed it further back in history.

    I’ve been feeling, recently, like an idiot. It might well be the books and the internet, but I’m constantly coming across information that I should know or did know, but most importantly… I don’t know it. I learn and forget. Maybe it’s because when I was younger I was arrogant and thought that I knew everything. Maybe I did. I certainly don’t now, so does that mean I’m becoming stupider, or just coming to accept my limitations?

    Fuck it. I suppose as long as we have Wikipedia we can pretend to be smart.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      I read Johnathan Franzen in the current Paris Review interview say something to the effect that when he’s working on a fiction project he unplugs from the internet, but that for non-fiction the net is the writer’s best friend. Your observation about Wikipedia is dead on, I think. With everything at our finger tips, has the imperative to be well-read/educated/traveled/etc died? I think you’re on to a bigger question…

      And yes, I was an insufferable youth (too)–maybe we’re born with everything we need to know and lose it along the way. An intellectual Benjamin Button situation. Thanks for stopping in and commenting.

      • Douglas Coupland, I think, suggested the idea that there were drawbacks to this much information. He said that in the past we built highways and cars without realising the damage they cause, so what is that damage that will come with the internet and computers?

        I don’t know. But sometimes I wonder if the ease of access to information (and that’s without getting into the whole “How reliable is that information?” think) causes the human brain to lose some of its own abilities. I feel that if information is easy for me to access, I rely less on my memory. It doesn’t matter, just discover it again on Wikipedia…

        Intellectual Benjamin Button… Argh. I hope not.

        • Doug Bruns says:

          Adam Gopnik has a very insightful and intelligent piece in the current New Yorker (Feb 14/21) about this subject. Check it out: Does the Internet change how we think? Topical to our discussion.

  2. It makes me think of double split experiment that seems to prove that anything thought of is possible in any known or unknown universe which makes everything infinite. It’s all scientific and everything and I guess you have to look it up on the internet yourself to understand.

  3. Mary Richert says:

    I clicked on this one because of the title first and foremost. Because I know exactly the smell, taste and look of burned coffee, and if anything was going to be compared to something as distinctive as that, I needed to know about it.

    Hmm… Futility. Yes, that’s the smell of it.

  4. I was just wondering, how come you use thick in the British fashion (“I’m as thick as pigshit, me!” – Terry Fuckwitt, Viz)?

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    Thanks for articulating–and relating others’ articulation–of this maddening reality. I’ve struggled mightily with how to conceive of it, order it, lay it out so that my brain could ponder it.

    The notion that there was a time in which a person could/did know more than what all the books/texts/non-human sources in the world contained and that at some point, there was a shift, is forehead-slapping genius.

    I’ve always said I want to be omniscient (a goal I first heard declared in an interview with a 17 year-old Sylvia Plath). My odds of succeeding, I know, are beyond horseshit, but here’s to trying.

  6. Meghan says:

    I was talking about something similar with my boss earlier today. He had asked if I followed the Watson story at all, which, naturally, I have. Some of the hysteria that people are engaging in around THE ROBOTS ARE TAKING OVER really reminds me of the shift in the way we did knowledge with the onset of that wondrous technology – the book.

    At any rate, I know the feeling of intellectual slipping. Used to be I could hold a whole complex series of connections between everyday objects, theories, songs, paintings, and whathaveyou in my head. Now it’s a bit more frayed. I’m reading Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon. I borrowed the book from my boss, which means I can’t take notes the way I normally would. I feel like I am absorbing a fraction of what I otherwise would.

    But thank you for articulating this so beautifully. It feels good to read things about the way people hold things and think things.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      I am so stupid as to unnaturally follow the Watson story–even know what the Watson story is. I am comfortable enough, stupid to the degree, to confess as much to you, here, without consideration, or remorse even. I am remorseful enough over so many other things. What’s one more?

      “Intellectual slipping” is a phrase which I like and suggests that one might be able to correct the situation; like slipping on ice might be corrected by sudden and innate reaction. The sort of reaction that only the natural athlete can muster. Maybe there is hope.

      Most importantly, thank you for your comment: “thank you for articulating this so beautifully.” That is a phrase which makes a heart soar–and for that this heart is thankful.

      (BTW Appears you have a cool boss.)

      Thanks for reading/commenting.

  7. […] Enough ranting. I have a new (short) essay up at The Nervous Breakdown: Like Burned Coffee. […]

  8. Art Edwards says:

    I forget everything I read too, D.

    Embarrassing for a writer, I’ve always been pretty good with numbers. Why I didn’t become an accountant I’ll never know.

  9. Erika Rae says:

    This sense of forgetting everything and having everything we need at our fingertips must be important for whatever we are evolving into. Not only will we be completely defenseless without the aid of weapons, but we will also be incapable of the most basic intellectual conversation without help from Google. We will, however, reign supreme with thumb dexterity. When in the future we are finally invaded by an alien race, stripped naked of our weapons, clothes and iPhones and taken back with them to serve as slaves, we shall be known in jest as the “Thumb Warriors.”

    • Doug Bruns says:

      Case in point: According to Wikipedia, the thumb of which you speak: “referring to opposition-apposition as the transition between flexion-abduction and extension-adduction; the side of the distal thumb phalanx thus approximated to the palm or the hand’s radial side (side of index finger) during apposition and the pulp or “palmar” side of the distal thumb phalanx approximated to either the palm or other digits during opposition.” Boring.

      Not Boring: “Thumb Warriors.” Now that is something altogether wonderfully different.

      Thanks for stopping by–and the marvelous image. Thumb warrior, indeed.

  10. What an immense relief to have stumbled upon this article, thanks to a very dear schoolfriend of mine! She wrote me about Ovidius’ Methamophoses, mentioned Sarah Bakewell/Montaigne, and I clicked on. As a 10/11 year old my great examples were Leonardo da Vinci and Erasmus of Rotterdam. 26,5 years ago I suffered a nasty car-accident, braindamage as a result. I managed to cope fairly well, considering, untill some years ago : I started to think I was going barking mad, dementia/alzheimer a family condition, thinking it was my turn now. Having been reassured I’m just sufffering normal 60ýears memory-loss, I can happily reassured go on living… Thanks to everybody’s comments, espescially to Doug Brunt for writing about this “coffee-thing”. Read your most recent articles in the Guardian, and am melting at your description of birds seen. YES, I’m experiencing as you all, with the same regret and nostalgia this “memory-loss”, that I feared as soon as I attempted to remaster computer-use; I’m from the 80’s commodore generation, and realised immediatly that today’s use of internet is like “Pandora’s Box” : once opened, impossible to close : addictive. Thanks again for most consoling article/comments, mr. Bruns, and commenters. is.g.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      Dear Isabeau ~ Thank you for your kind words. I am pleased that my little piece “Like Burnt Coffee” found a place in head and heart. It is something when those connections are made, isn’t it? For us both. I cannot image the frustration of the situation you relate, the accident, the fear of losing one’s mind and all the rest. Two days ago I had to put my social security number on a document. I could not remember the first three digits. I’ve had that number memorized for maybe forty years. What is happening? I am still fearful over the incident. Like you, I find comfort that maybe is only “normal [50s years] memory loss. Thank you for reading and comment. Best regards, Doug

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