Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In Praise of Ignorance

"A little learning is a dangerous thing." Widely attributed to Alexander Pope, this saying has been around for four hundred years or more; it is generally taken to mean that a small amount of learning can mislead people into thinking that they know more than they really do. It heavily implies that dangerous mistakes are made by the scantily informed, and that more knowledge is, by definition, better.

I beg to differ. More to my taste is another, equally popular saying: "ignorance is bliss." There are some things we are better off not knowing.  By this token, lack of knowledge is a precious resource (think of it as intellectual virginity) which, once destroyed by rakish learning—whether a Google search or a college 101 course—can never be regained.  Many a good word has been ruined for me when I dragged it into the relentless searchlight of objective truth and discovered what it actually meant.

Take, for instance, our family's preferred word for living it up a bit: mallemaroking. As in, "we're off to the pub for a quick mallemaroke. Don't wait up." The dictionary definition of this splendidly specific word is "the carousing of seamen on icebound Greenland whaling ships"—not just any old ship, mark you, but whaling ships, from Greenland, which are icebound. Now, a click of the mouse reveals that "Greenland" is mostly ice, while "Iceland" is covered in grass, and that my husband's illustrious ancestor Erik the Red is most likely to blame for this 10th century foray into deceptive real estate advertising. As to the rigors of whaling, our collective eyes were opened in 1851 by Herman Melville's epic volume, Moby-Dick. 

But it was Sir Martin Frobisher and his short-lived ambition to discover the Northwest Passage that got me thinking about that little word, "icebound." No help from the dictionary: "surrounded by, or covered in ice." Thanks, I think I could have figured that out for myself. The encyclopedia was no help, apparently not covering adjectives, and left me safe in my assumption that icebound was the nautical equivalent of "snowed in." Temporarily stuck in ice, with nothing to do but indulge in wild mallemaroking till the thaw sets in, in a week or two. Worst case: you run out of rum.

I should have left it there. Had it not been for my English friend's well-meaning efforts to see me through the heat of a southern California summer, I probably would have.   

Thinking that there's nothing like reading about people dying of extreme cold to make one forget about being extremely hot, Christine sent me a copy of Endurance, the story of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1915 Antarctic exploration. A key player in the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration, (never mind that to most of us, any polar exploration is heroic, especially in those pre-Goretex, pre-polar fleece days,) Shackleton was a man who knew first hand what being in an icebound ship was all about. Here is how his biographer, Alfred Lansing, described it:

She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.

So the tone of a mallemaroking session plummets from the convivial camaraderie of an evening in a country pub, past the most frenetic drinking binge of a frat party, to a scene of drunken, desperate sailors haunted by the fatal question: should we strike off over the pack ice in the faint hope of finding some outpost of civilization, or just stay and go down with the ship? Professional seamen rarely learned to swim; once they were in the water drowning was inevitable, not something they had any wish to prolong. In any case, in the frigid waters of the Antarctic a protracted death was hardly a concern: death would be swift and sure.

How much more user-friendly the word was before I knew what it signified.

When it comes to mallemaroking, ignorance definitely is bliss.

1 comment:

  1. Just started reading your blogs. Love this and the one about Andrew/Philistines.