Sunday, April 29, 2007

Seeing Spiders

Leontes in A Winter' Tales laments the curse of knowledge:

'Alack, for lesser knowledge! how accursed
In being so blest! There may be in the cup
A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.'

This is how genius says ignorance is bliss and makes you shiver in the process. This story reminded me of the speech. Body parts of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan have been mixed up. Families now know this so they cannot be sure they have the remains of their soldier. They have seen the spider. What would be different if they did not know, if they partook of no venom? This relates to the matter of the noble lie, is it any longer possible? Whole industries now exist to show us spiders and so, of course, we find them everywhere.


  1. The absolute stupidity of the First World War was based on noble lies and hidden truths....but the white lies of "your son died quickly and painlessly" that helped to assuage the grief of loved ones will not be so easily received in today's world.

  2. Good thinking, Sand. It's also worth asking did the lies cause or simply perpetuate the war? The further question is: will things be better if we don't accept the lies? I honestly don't know.

  3. We may never know whether a loved one suffered, and probably don't believe the "lie" that they did not, but are comforted not to hear the truth, when we ask. We don't want to see the "spider".

    The families now face the possibility of a "spider" - the uncertainty over their loved ones' remains. If families should have the correct body parts, then the truth is necessary to ensure the lie ends here.

    More widely, society should not accept lies that seek to cover up truths that are better known. If we realise the brutality of such deaths, society is better able to determine what is acceptable. We, and particularly the politicians, have to recognise the reality - and be more honest not sugar coat the deaths of soldiers.

  4. I agree that it's a really difficult area. We feel driven towards the truth, at any cost, and the costs can be awful, as in this particular example of the bodies. We don't want to see the spider at one level, but at another level it's imperative that we do. I think when we say that we don't want to know the truth, we mean really that we want the truth to be different. But there is a need to know how things really stand if we are going to come to terms with the situation.
    So in one sense it doesn't help to know the truth (if the truth is awful) because one has to come to terms with it, but maybe it helps in the long run,assuming that one is capable of coming to terms with it, and i guess that there are some things that one does not come to terms with.

  5. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.

    For in much wisdom [is] much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

    Ecclesiastes 1: 17-18

  6. That's a wonderful quote. I suppose the other thing worth mentioning is that the truth doesn't have to be terrible. There are wonderful truths as well, the knowledge of which can be so enriching - knowing that the scan was clear, that he wasn't killed at war, that one's feelings are returned etc. So wisdom doesn't have to lead to madness, and i'm not sure whether it has to lead to madness even in the scenario where the relevant truths are awful. Maybe it can pave the way to a sanity of sorts, even for the grander truths relating to the human condition etc. dunno.

  7. This is a pretty good book on the question. It's not preachy, but it does show why anybody today who wants to argue there are things we are better off not knowing hasn't a hope. There are often very good reasons for demanding the truth, but those who just assume it will lead to a happier, more peaceful world are in the realm of faith.

  8. Some things we're better of not knowing about. The whole realm of genetic engineering scares the shit out of me. How long before some overzealous scientist splices the genes of a great white shark and a fly together?
    Knowledge brings many benefits, but like the thousands of nukes round the world it's also a curse.

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