“…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.