And yet I feel, with utter confidence, that I know whiskey, that I know tequila, that I'm coming to know gin. I know the experience I want — the experience on my tongue, in my throat and belly, the experience I want from my buzz and how I want to feel the next morning. I love going into bars and describing exactly what I desire to the barkeep who is presumably, and hopefully, thoroughly versed in the various experiences this or that booze offers. Sometimes, they steer me well.
Now, this barkeep of course knows whiskey in a way that I do not — and in a way that I do not care to. The only reason for me to know regions and the production process and the variations of casks and different aging methods is to make the selection of the exact experience I want easier and faster. And that sounds great. And, over the years, I've certainly acquired more knowledge that has made choosing the right booze for my mood easier.
But, frankly, I like how I know booze. I don't want to know all the genera and species, the regions and vicissitudes of aging. I enjoy my mode of knowing that begins and ends, more or less, with my experience, an experience that is at once palpable and ethereal. Because, really, what else matters? I can't make whiskey; I couldn't buy it wholesale at a good price. Oh, but I can drink it and I can enjoy it and I do, yes, I do.
Am I saying that I know whiskey better than the barkeep? Does she know it better than I? What counts as better? Is knowledge something we quantify so that one can know more or less? Sure, sometimes, in some areas, in some circumstances. My point, I suppose, is this: there are different ways of knowing things and there are some ways of knowing that don't involve what we usually call facts.
When I was in college, over 20 years ago, there was a renowned class, taught by a renowned scholar, on James Joyce's Ulysses. Many of my friends took the course; I did not. They had all these names for each chapter that usually referred to this or that classical reference. It was as if they'd been handed some special decoder ring and could now decipher Joyce's arcane text. And the rest of us were just ignorant.
I read the book the summer after college and loved it — well, most of it. Not being a classicist, I missed the Homeric allusions. I am sure I missed hundreds of other allusions. On the other hand, I didn't miss anything at all. There are moments in that book that resonated and resounded in my very cells — and still do. And there are moments that passed me right by. I left the book feeling like I knew it just as I wanted to know it.
I am woefully ignorant of fauna. But when I was 16 and tripping on my first ever hit of acid in the Fall of 1986 and the leaves had vacated their trees leaving my lush little town to sit beneath these branches that were anything but bare, I came to know trees with a certain intensity, a certain intimacy. With nothing to mask their fine and endless articulations, the trees spoke to me. Alternately wise, witty, buffoonish, and deadpan, we conversed. The conversation lasts to this very day — not as intensely but as one might converse with any old friend.
I have plenty of friends who know trees better than I do — and better in every possible sense. They know the facts and they know the articulation of which I speak and they know so much more. I have a friend who would strip naked in the winter and head into the woods of the Pennsylvania Poconos and make a shelter with these trees. In a very real way, he made — and makes — love to the trees and to fauna of all sorts.
What is it to know something? Consider all these different ways of knowing trees: a child who loves climbing them; someone with allergies; a botanist; an environmentalist; a 16 year old stoner Jew on acid; a gardener.
I want to say that to know something, to really know it and not just know of it, is to go with it. To know, then, is not to know about something but to know with something, to be moved with that thing.
Anyone can look up facts on Wikipedia. And those facts can be great and may be necessary (or not). But to know something is to go with that thing. And there are so many ways of going with, so many ways of knowing.