Throughout our convoluted histories, stories have had a way of reappearing under different forms and guises; we can never be certain of when a story was told for the first time, only that it will be not the last. Before the first chronicle of travel there must have been an Odyssey of which we now know nothing, and before the first account of war, an Iliad must have been sung by a poet who is for us even fainter than Homer. Since imagination is the means by which our species survives in the world, and since we were all born, for better or for worse, with Ulysses’ ‘ardore’, and since stories are, from the very first campfire evenings on, our way of using imagination to feed this ardore, no story can be truly original or unique. All stories have a quality of déjà lu about them. The art of stories, which seems not to have an end, in fact has no beginning. Because there is no first story, stories grant us a sort of retrospective immortality.
We make up stories in order to give a shape to our questions; we read or listen to stories in order to understand what it is that we want to know. On either side of the page, we are driven by the same questioning impulse, asking who did what, and why, and how, so that we can in turn ask ourselves what it is that we do, and how and why we do it, and what will happen when something is done or not done. In this sense, all stories are mirrors of what we believe we don’t yet know. A story, if it is good, elicits in its audience both the desire to know what happens next and the conflicting desire that the story never end: this double bind justifies our storytelling impulse and keeps our curiosity alive.
In spite of being aware of this, we are more concerned with beginnings than with endings. Endings we take for granted; we even sometimes wish for them to be eternally postponed. Endings tend to comfort us: they allow us the pretense of conclusion, which is why we require memento mori – to remind us of the need to be conscious of our own end. Beginnings trouble us daily. We want to know where and how things start, we seek wisdom in etymologies, we like being present at the birth, perhaps because we feel that what comes first into this world justifies or explains what comes afterwards. And we dream up stories to give us starting-points towards which we can look back and feel a little more secure, however difficult and questionable the process. Dreaming up endings, instead, has always seemed easier. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” Miss Prism tells us in The Importance of Being Earnest. “That is what Fiction means.”
The fiction of beginnings is a complex invention. For example, in spite of the countless narrative possibilities offered at the start of the Bible, it is other, more explicit stories that provide the religions of the book with a beginning. Two narratives of creation follow each other in the first pages of Genesis. One tells that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (1:27). The second, how God, in order to provide Adam with “an help meet”, made him fall into a deep slumber, took out one of his ribs, and from this “made he a woman” (2:18, 21–25). Implicit in the divine creative act is the subservient function of women. Countless biblical commentators explain that this is the reason why a woman, as an inferior being, must obey a man; fortunately, a number of others reinterpret this patriarchal reading in a more egalitarian light.
Saint Augustine declared that Adam and Eve were created with all their spiritual and physical characteristics present in a virtual state that would flower into material existence. That is what you call having your original cake and eating it too.”
In the first century C.E., the Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria, curious about the double narratives of Genesis, proposed for the earliest biblical narrative a Platonic interpretation, suggesting that the first human created by God was a hermaphrodite (“male and female created he him”), and for the second a misogynistic reading in which the male half is conceived as superior to the female. Philo identified the male half (Adam) with the spirit (nous) and the female one (Eve) with the physical senses (aesthesis). Severed from Adam, as if she represented sensation severed from reason, Eve is denied, in the act of creation, Adam’s primordial innocence, and thus becomes instrumental in the Fall of humankind. Two centuries later, Saint Augustine, in his literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, reinstated Eve’s primordial innocence by declaring that in the first narrative, Adam and Eve, still unnamed, were created with all their spiritual and physical characteristics in potentia, that is to say, present in a virtual state that would flower into material existence, as described in the second narrative. That is what you call having your original cake and eating it too.
Scholars more or less agree that the book of Genesis was written in about the sixth century B.C.E. Some three centuries earlier, in Greece, Hesiod reported a different version of the story of female culpability. Zeus, Hesiod tells us, furious at Prometheus for having robbed the gods of the Olympian fire and given it to humankind, decided to avenge himself by sending down to earth a beautiful maiden, crafted by Hephaestus, dressed by Athena, adorned with gold necklaces by Peitho and with garlands by the Horae, and with her heart filled by Hermes with lies and misleading promises. Finally, Zeus bestowed upon her the gift of speech and the name Pandora, and presented her to Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus. Forgetting Prometheus’s warning never to accept a gift from Olympian Zeus, Epimetheus fell in love with Pandora and took her into his household.
Until that time, humankind had lived unburdened by care and disease, all of which were kept in a covered jar. Pandora, curious to know what the jar contained, took its lid off and unleashed into the world all kinds of pain and suffering, along with the illnesses that haunt us night and day silently because Zeus deprived them of the use of their tongues. Horrified by what had happened, Pandora tried to put the lid back on, but our sufferings had all already escaped, leaving nothing but Hope at the bottom. So central is Pandora’s story to our conception of the contradictions implied in our impulse of curiosity that by the sixteenth century Joachim du Bellay was able to compare Pandora to Rome itself, the archetypal Eternal City, and all it stood for, everything that was good and everything that was evil.
Curiosity and punishment for curiosity: the Christian typological readings of the stories of Eve and Pandora date from as early as the second century, in the writings of Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus. According to both authors, the godhead bestowed upon humankind the gift of wanting to know more and then the punishment for trying to do so. Leaving aside for a moment their misogynistic resolutions, both stories concern the question of the limits of ambition. A certain curiosity seems permissible, too much is punished. But why?
Dante’s Ulysses seems to have met his end as a punishment not for the fault of evil counsel but for going beyond what God has deemed a permissible curiosity. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, Ulysses is offered the whole of the knowable world to explore: only past that horizon he must not venture. But precisely because the horizon is the world’s visible and material limit, just as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the limit of whatever can be perceived and therefore known, the forbidden horizon and the forbidden fruit implicitly admit that something else can be achieved beyond the commonplace. This is what Robert Louis Stevenson, in the nineteenth century, confronted daily in the Presbyterian Edinburgh of his youth, where the gray facades displayed one after another the Ten Commandments, in a perseverance of Thou Shalt Nots that Stevenson was later to call “the law of negatives”: that is to say, the pleasurable temptations offered, as in a dark mirror, even to those who have not yet conceived them.
To Ulysses’ fateful curiosity, Dante counterpoises that of Jason, captain of the Argonauts, who set off with his companions to collect the Golden Fleece and returned home victorious with his booty. As Dante is approaching the end of his journey in Paradise, when he finally sees the ineffable form of the entire universe, he compares his astonished vision to that of the god Neptune seeing the shadow of Jason’s ship gliding by, the first human craft to sail the god’s desolate waters. This comparison grants Dante the blessing of a quest that has been allowed and is therefore meritorious, as opposed to the damned quest of the unfortunate Ulysses in search of the forbidden unknown.
Ulysses’ quest is physical, material, overly ambitious; the brave words that Tennyson puts in his mouth in his inspired translation of the passage – “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” – are partly wishful thinking. Striving and seeking, as we know all too well, do not always lead to finding, and yielding, in certain cases, may not be offered as a choice. Dante’s quest is spiritual, metaphysical, humble. For both men, curiosity is the essential attribute of their human nature: it defines what it is to be human. But while for Ulysses this “to be” means “to be in space,” for Dante it means “to be in time” (a distinction that the Italian language conveys much more clearly than the English, with stare for being in a certain place and essere for existing). Three centuries later, Hamlet tries to solve the problem by blending both in his famous question.
To understand what we are asking, we disguise our curiosity as narratives that put the questions into words and open them to further questions. Literature is in this sense an ongoing dialogue.”
As both Eve and Pandora knew, curiosity is the art of asking questions. What is the knowledge of good and evil? What is my role in the Garden? What lies inside the sealed jar? What am I allowed to know? What am I not allowed to know? And why? And by what or whom? To understand what we are asking, we disguise our curiosity as narratives that put the questions into words and open them to further questions. Literature is in this sense an ongoing dialogue that resembles the Talmudic form of argument known as pilpul, a dialectical method for reaching knowledge through ever keener questions (though it is sometimes used merely as a hair-splitting debating exercise). So essential is the art of questioning that in the eighteenth century Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav was able to say that a man who has no questions about God does not believe in God at all.
In a very concrete sense, writing stories, collecting stories, setting up libraries of stories are activities that give roots to the nomadic impulse of curiosity: the curiosity of a reader who seeks knowledge of ‘what happened’ and the curiosity of a traveler are intimately intertwined. Ulysses’ quest leads him physically into a maelstrom that swirls his ship around three times and then closes the sea over the crew; Dante’s leads him poetically to the final point of coherence.
There in its depths I saw
gathered with love in a single volume
the leaves that through the universe have been scattered.
Dante’s vision, in spite (or because) of its immensity, prevents him from translating that volume into comprehensible words; he sees it but he cannot read it. Assembling books we mirror Dante’s gesture, but because no single human book can fully translate the universe, our quests resemble Ulysses’ quest, where the intention counts more than the result. Every one of our achievements opens up new doubts and tempts us with new quests, condemning us for ever to a state of inquiring and exhilarating unease. This is curiosity’s inherent paradox.
Extracted from Curiosity, Chapter 2: ‘What Do We Want to Know?’
Alberto Manguel is a writer, translator, editor and critic, but would rather define himself as a reader. Born in Buenos Aires, he has since lived in Israel, Argentina, Europe, the South Pacific and Canada. Today he divides his time between Canada and a small village in France, where he keeps a library of more than 30,000 books. Curiosity is published by Yale University Press. Read more.
Author portrait © Melik Külekci