Knowledge Across the Ages

"No generation has learned to love from another, no generation is able to begin at any other point than the beginning, no later generation has a more abridged task than the previous one, and if someone desires to go further and not stop with loving as the previous generation did, this is foolish and idle talk. But the highest passion in a person is faith, and here no generation begins at any other point that where the previous one did. Each generation begins all over again; the next generation advances no further than the previous one..." — Søren Kierkegaard

We claim to know all sorts of things — the orbit of Jupiter, the seasonal shifts, the return of Halley's Comet — which take place across more or less enormous stretches of time. No one person can possibly know these things. This is knowledge that comes over time and between people — a temporal network. We don't know, then, from our experience but from our faith not just in others but in a relay of others. This is an issue that has come to obsess me: How can we know of cycles that span lifetimes?

This issue is compounded by the fact that we can only know a cycle is a cycle if it repeats at least three times. So a hundred year cycle would reveal itself in, at minimum, three hundred years. "Knowledge," then, is a sum of lots of different perspectives across time — cultural and literal — that come together to become this or that fact: "Halley's Comet returns every 76 years." And there's no way we can prove or disprove it; we believe on the faith of what others knew.

And yet when an older person tells a younger person things about life, the younger person tends to dismiss it as so much hogwash. I'm my own person, says the young 'un, so why should I trust your knowledge, old man?

Indeed, why?

My son, who's eight, is going through an interesting, if typical, stage (it's amazing: human beings go through startlingly predictable phases of development — or so the books tell me). He's noticing lots of things in and of his body — pains, itches, odd sensations — which cause him panic. Dad! My leg hurts! I mean it really hurts! Now, this may sound callous but I know his leg doesn't really hurt. I mean, it may hurt but if it really hurt, he'd be a wreck. However, he thinks it really hurts because he doesn't know yet that, sometimes, our bodies hurt — and then the pain goes away.  Such is the way of the body; pains and tingling and rashes and bumps come and go.

So while he may not know it, I know it. I may forget from time to time — Why the fuck does my side hurt? Is it organ failure? Oh, right, I forgot: shit hurts sometimes and then stops. 

But should my son believe me when I tell him it's nothing? On what grounds? There is a fundamental epistemological gap between us: he can't possibly know what I know because he hasn't lived through it. And so he faces a quandary: does he trust me, have faith in me, and relax? Or does he say: Dad, you're a fucking lunatic — my leg really hurts?

I've recently become much more reflective about my own life, noticing the cycles and patterns of behavior — social, physiological, existential. Frankly, it's a revelation — and a tad humiliating as it is all coming to me at the dehiscent age of 42. On the other hand, when else could it happen? To the ancient Greeks, 40 marked the acme of a man — and perhaps this is why: we finally begin to be able to discern patterns in our lives.  Prior to this inflection point, this point at which cycles are revealed, I treated circumstances as unique, stumbling and bumbling my way through love and life — as if I were eight and my leg really hurt and it was freaking me out — as if every experience were new, that there were no cycles, no patterns, no knowledge to be across the ages.

But then I remember what I tell my son: the pain passes, usually. These are cycles, patterns. Only, unlike my son, I don't have to trust anyone — I know these things because I lived through them (even if this I changes and is often unreliable).

The kids — the 14-35 year olds — will have none of it. This makes talking to them, and their talking to me, tempered. They can be as cocksure or casually cruel as they want, I am privy to a knowledge they can't possibly have. For starters, I know that shit changes. I know that what's cocksure one day sure as shit ain't the next. I know these things — this is not knowledge passed down across the ages — while they can't possibly know these things. But being ardent or emphatic is useless. From the other side of the abyss, no one can possibly understand what I'm saying.

This situation arises often when it comes to discussions of marriage and kids. There is so much societal momentum for these things that my words sound "jaded" when, in fact, they are temperings, not admonitions. I can say that I know some things about being married and about raising a kid — not things other people have told me but things I've experienced and can say, with some certainty, that I know.

But from their perspective, they're thinking: this old geezer's a windbag curmudgeonly loser, I ain't listening to him — what can he possibly know?  And they're not necessarily wrong. My knowledge is not absolute; it's from my perspective. But isn't all knowledge of longer cycles perspectival? 

I've always been intrigued and confounded by the idea of inter-generational conflict. On the one hand, like the young revolutionaries of yesteryear, I'd like to wipe the slate clean, eliminate all those born into the slave-bourgeois mindset and start all over again — just as god marched the Jewish slaves out of Egypt for 40 years until he was sure all those born into slavery were dead so he could found a free state.

On the other hand, age is different than other categories of difference in that it's supersessive: the old were once young. So while the kids' perspective may be different than mine, I know what it is to be young while they cannot possibly know what it is to be old. So the old have some intrinsic value to the young (as well as a threat of limitation) while the young have their instrinsic value — not just nubility but, as the very least, they're the labor and tax base that will support me (I hope; perhaps I should be kinder, jeez).

And so the kids say: But you can't possibly know what it's like to be young now. And they're right. But this calls into question all knowledge about cycles, about seasons and orbits and such. Which is why youth rebellion always has a far reaching impact: it questions the very basis of knowledge. Which is a good thing.

As Kierkegaard writes, each person lives through his own life; he does not begin where the earlier generation left off. Each, on his own, must live through the misery and suffering and joy and whimsy and pain of this life. There is nothing, in the end, I can tell my students or my son — they must experience in order to know.

And yet, sometimes, one can know that the sun will rise tomorrow (unless buried in the San Francisco fog), that that odd piercing pain in the side will pass, that Jupiter orbits the sun every 11.86 Earth years, and that while at times life gets wacky, sure enough that comes and goes, too — like Halley's Comet.


what the Tee Vee taught said...

Thinking of yourself as old — or at least old-ish — could be a trembling experience.

Philip said...

When I became 40, it was the first time in my life I felt my mortality. Like my age felt finite.

I had had an experience in my early thirties where I dated a woman three years older than me and - to my fault - I became her age. We broke up (gratefully) and I had the amazing experience a few months later of suddenly realizing I was three years less than I had thought I was - I had gotten three years back - in some way that I had lost but it was not the same feeling of feeling the roar of the engine finally bounce of the wall far ahead of me.

Great article. I've internalized your point (and will be used on my own son) that while I know what's it like to be young, he does not know what it's like to be old. Very interesting. My son could only describe it on what he sees - I can recollect what I felt.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ TV: It is strange — one day you're a cute kid, the next you're a middle aged, decaying man. Alarming might be another word. But I do feel it's partially because we have such a culture of youth — there is no place for the aged.

@ Philip: Thanks so much for commenting. Age is slippery as we all age at different paces and in different ways. And yet, like your story tells us, there is still a matter of quantitative time and the accumulation of those experiences. I have to say: I'd take 3 years right about now.

Pierre said...

I discover these ideas, I would hardly say anything about halley's comet.

but about your quotation of Kirkegaard... Yes, the civilisation is not expecting to progress and progress again to an achievment point. Some generations lose the knowledge discovered by the previsous generations, see the fall of roman empire or of all the great civilizations.

The exemples at the begining of the text are greatly mystic. And so are daily and usual knowledges, crafting (we forgot building knowledge at the fall of roman empire), and values knowledge (occident lost the tracks of Socrate and others until renaissance. This knowledge, forgotten, nevertheless the thing is.

And that's mystical.

There is something in France called "le tour de France". hey, Not the cycling competition. It is a community of craftmans, excessively needed by economy. Some people say it has a link with free masonnery, but there speculate too much, I think, and it's not the point.

The point is that when you begin to work at 16 as a 'compagnon' (a young member of "le tour de france"), you will learn a work, not a temporary "job" as you silly americans say ( ;-) I am jocking...), but since your 16 a way of being as well as excellence in a economical activity.

And they have secret rituals, that are landmarks in the life of the compagnon.

The funny point is that even in daily activities, usual needs, there is a part of mystical..