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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Curiosity

Alberto Manguel
Publisher
Yale University Press
Price
£10.99
ISBN
9780300219807


EXTRACT COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

From the Introduction

On her death bed, Gertrude Stein lifted her head and asked: "What Is the answer?" When no one spoke, she smiled and said: "In that case, what is the question?"
Donald Sutherland, Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work

I am curious about curiosity.

One of the first words that we learn as a child is why. Partly because we want to know something about the mysterious world into which we have unwillingly entered, partly because we want to understand how the things in that world function, and partly because we feel an ancestral need to engage with the other inhabitants of that world, after our first babblings and cooings, we begin to ask "Why?"1 We never stop. Very soon we find out that curiosity is seldom rewarded with meaningful or satisfying answers, but rather with an increased desire to ask more questions and the pleasure of conversing with others. As any inquisitor knows, affirmations tend to isolate; questions bind. Curiosity is a means of declaring our allegiance to the human fold.

Perhaps all curiosity can be summed up in Michel de Montaigne's famous question "Que sais-je?": "What do I know?" which appears in the second book of his Essays. Speaking of the skeptic philosophers, Montaigne remarked that they were unable to exptess their general ideas in any manner of speech, be­cause, according to him, "they would have needed a new language." "Our language," says Montaigne, "is formed of affirmative propositions, which are contrary to their thinking." And then he adds: "This fantasy is better con­ceived through the question 'What do I know?,' which I carry as a motto on a shield." The source of the question is, of course, the Socratic "Know thyself," but in Montaigne it becomes not an existentialist assertion of the need to know who we are but rather a continuous state of questioning of the terri­tory through which our mind is advancing (or has already advanced) and of the uncharted country ahead. In the realm of Montaigne's thought, the affir­mative propositions of language turn on themselves and become questions.2

My friendship with Montaigne dates back to my adolescence, and his Essays have since been for me a kind of autobiography, as I keep finding in his com­ments my own preoccupations and experiences translated into luminous prose. Through his questioning of commonplace subjects (the duties of friendship, the limits of education, the pleasure of the countryside) and his exploration of extraordinary ones (the nature of cannibals, the identity of monstrous beings, the use of thumbs), Montaigne maps out for me my own curiosity, constellated at different times and in many places. "Books have been useful to me," he con­fesses, "less for instruction than as training."3 That has been precisely my case.

Reflecting on Montaigne's reading habits, for example, it occurred to me that it might be possible to make some notes on his "Que sais-je?" by follow­ing Montaigne's own method of borrowing ideas from his library (he com­pared himself as a reader to a bee gathering pollen to make his own honey) and projecting these forward into my own time.4