Can Knowledge be Gained Through Feelings?

“Ours is not to know but to understand.”
Elie Wiesel

What are the limits of knowledge and how do we transcend those limits? Can knowledge be gained through feelings? Can we trust that knowledge?

For years, I’ve stirred a bit over the rather classic supposition by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman that science enhances our knowledge and, thus, our appreciation of it. Feynman refutes aesthetic knowledge as the only way to process beauty. This is certainly fine. It’s the lengths to which he takes that supposition that stirs me.1

I have a friend who’s an artist and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, ‘You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take all this apart and it becomes a dull thing.’ And I think that he’s kind of nutty…. At the same time, I see so much more of the flower than he sees.

I see so much more of the flower than he sees.

Does that mean without the scientific knowledge our understanding of something is sorely limited? Does that mean any knowledge without science is valueless?

I’d like to make a case for emotional knowledge in its own right.

Canterbury Cathedral. The oldest, most exquisite cathedrals of Europe are monumental expressions of the power of emotions. The size, the use of light and shade, the boundless stretches of seemingly impossible architecture, they bore into our hearts. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Science isn’t the only avenue to arrive at knowledge,” wrote physicist Alan Lightman in his own search for certainty within the unknown of the universe. But what knowledge is outside science? Can we trust that knowledge?

Feynman championed science in the appreciation of a flower. He argued that one need be a mathematician to appreciate the universe and its contents. Stars for example…

And yet, there is Emerson. Glorious Emerson.

“If one be alone, he has only look to the stars,” wrote Emerson in his early work, Nature. “The rays that come from these heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.”

Emerson believed the stars provided some level of knowledge. What Emerson alluded to was an interconnectedness of humans—what I feel when I see stars is similar to what you might feel. What all humans feel.

This kind of intelligence has a modern name. With his 1995 publication of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, science journalist Daniel Goleman changed how we think about intelligence. Goleman argued for a harmony between our rational and emotional minds and coined the term emotional intelligence.

These two fundamentally different ways of knowing interact to construct our mental life. One, the rational mind, is the mode of comprehension we are typically conscious of: more prominent in awareness, thoughtful, able to ponder and reflect. But alongside that there is another system of knowing impulsive and powerful, if sometimes illogical—the emotional mind.

Like Lightman, Goleman argues there is more than one and perhaps incomparable means to arrive at knowledge. Even without understanding the functionality of our brains our feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and happiness mean something.

Il Duomo, Florence. For centuries cathedrals catered to the illiterate and uneducated, bringing community and meaning into lives. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Up against Feynman’s weighty appreciation of science, I proffer beloved film critic Roger Ebert, a man who was the quintessential guide to the emotional core of movies for more than fifty years.

Although Ebert understood technical aspects of film, even he admitted that when he didn’t understand a film, he wrote about how it made him feel.

Applying this advice early in his career to films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ebert developed the ability to connect even the most frustratingly complex films to our most human natures.2

Opposite the critic is the artist, and indeed many artists want their work to be interpreted emotionally. Primarily and sometimes exclusively.

Francis Bacon desired that his work would affect people’s nervous systems directly, while British modern sculptor Barbara Hepworth sought to express in sculpture what was beyond words.

Would Bacon’s paintings mean more if we knew what his studio looked like? Or the exact nature of blue light?

Perhaps. Scientific context certainly embellishes.

But regardless art means something to even the most uninformed viewers. I defy anyone to view Bacon’s work and not feel the artist’s pain. Pain in general.

Rouen Cathedral, France. The grandeur of these places sought to communicate the grandeur of the Divine. Is that the same as knowledge? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Feeling might not be the same as knowledge, but it is some form of understanding.

Understanding of our feelings leads to understand of others’ feelings. This, argues Goleman, is the nature of empathy and the root of our human connection.

When the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built in Berlin, there was controversy that it did not say enough. Few doubted the emotional impact, but the knowledge it was supposed to present – who died and how and why – was inadequate.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin featured in post "Carrying the Burden of Witness."
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Ours is not to know but to understand.” wrote Elie Wiesel in Night, a singular story of the limits of humanity.

Wiesel addresses the issue of collective memory. How do we ensure future generations remember something they never experienced? The purpose of memorials.

Wiesel knew he couldn’t. But what he could do was make people care for him and, thus, for everyone who had been affected by the Holocaust. The emotions one feels when reading Night—and the emotions one feels at the Memorial — create empathy and understanding for things we did not experience and people we will never know.

That feeling becomes our new truth. We become witnesses of those feelings.

Feelings are the binding sinews of humanity and the means by which we “know” one another.

We cannot compel people to listen, to understand and certainly not to care. But we can push our society to allow feelings to mean something. To acknowledge our emotions and find ways to make sense of them.

Feelings are not the end of the knowledge, but they are a critical beginning.

The Elegance of Decay

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
T. S. Eliot

The falling apart. The breaking down. The return to elements. Out of the realm of recognition to simply matter. And then, to not matter at all.

Everywhere, there is a slow constancy of decay. Decay is what happens when time throws itself in full gale against matter. Against nature.1

elegance of decay
The breaking down of London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We exist in time and space. What we lack in space we try to regain in time. Stretching our body’s elasticity. Death happens when matter fails to keep pace with time.2

But stretch as we try, even our time dimension is minuscule compared to tortoises’. To trees’. To oceans’. To stars’.

Notwithstanding tortoises, in the end, all of these—all of us—entangle with decay. And we lose.

That impulse to withstand decay is—at its extreme—one of the creepiest aspects of humanity. It’s the impulse to embalm Lenin. Literally. Vladimir Lenin has avoided decay since his death in 1924. An embalming process that renders the former leader a waxen figure with the appearance of one who has been honey-glazed. I saw him fifteen years ago. Lenin is still lying in Moscow, honey-glazed, and I’ve most certainly begun to decay. Is there comfort in Lenin still being Lenin? (Is Lenin still Lenin?)

Decay is so horrible. We revel in its absence and revile its presence.

elegance of decay
The signs of decay are everywhere. Visible to any curious eye. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

There is a curiosity in Guanajuato, Mexico, where the bodies buried after a 1833 cholera outbreak have been oddly preserved by wrappings and clay soil. Now, they are oddly preserved in a museum. I saw them twenty years ago. They are still there, having changed less than I have. Is there comfort in their consistency?

Not unlike the peoples of Pompeii who were covered instantly with ash and entombed in 79 AD. I saw these remnants maybe ten years ago at the Boston Museum of Science with my mother.

Neither of us were sure if we were supposed to be proud, transgressed, empathetic, or merely in awe of science. Both of us have changed immensely since then. I fear her decay outpaces my own. At a certain age, it happens. I suspect the Pompeiians have not changed.

We think we avoid decay. But there is no such thing. We’ve just pushed it out of our lifespan. (And beyond for those who opt for cremation.)

As I write this, it is the hottest day ever recorded in the United Kingdom, and we have a new Prime Minister. Things are breaking down. The air is cloyingly thick and fecund with rampant atoms and elements. Things returning from whence they came. Time is ravaging everything. Will Nature surrender?

Almost a century ago, American-born British poet T.S. Eliot witnessed and lamented a similar feeling:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Eliot wrote this most famous poem, “The Waste Land,” in the hollowed aftermath of his failed first marriage and the First World War. In this mindset, he held “fear in a handful of dust.” What would he have written today?

elegance of decay
As things decay, the materials rebound in vibrant new colors and patterns. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Although the heat of today is novel, the decay is not. Not in Britain. The disintegration of the once-great British Empire has been a headline feature of the 20th century. A political-scientist friend confessed recently, all this country has going for it is nostalgia.3

George Mikes’s humorous, truthful, and timeless guide, How To Be a Brit, has an interesting chapter on the British penchant for decline.

The greatest days of Rome were its days of decline: The most splendid period of the Bourbon monarchy was the period before the Revolution. It is more elegant wise and stylish to decay than to flourish; better to decline than to pant, rush around, sweat and get hoarse in vulgar bargaining.

Mikes was a Hungarian immigrant to Britain who, like all of us immigrants, adapted to the country best he could and then supposed it would be appropriate to reflect on the British using their own humor against them. Mikes achieved this better than most, which is why this 1946 book is still in print. That being said, except for the quality of writing, it is almost imperceptible from modern accounts.

I agree with the British about this; I too prefer constructive decay to futile progress. But one has to know how to decay; one must learn how to be decadent. You must desire to decay, yet your inborn excellence, your splendid human qualities, your shining character may keep you on the top. Or else, you might overdo it and decay a shade too speedily.

Look carefully: Britain shows us how to decay. Keep calm and carry on (decaying). Elegance.

(Well, it did before Brexit.)

The world, the universe, every single thing we know and don’t know would not work without decay. Its agents (worms and bacteria), its byproducts (cheese and dirt), its sufferers (the entire human race), our beloved pets, empires, old oak timbers, and, with an exceedingly enormous allowance of time, our ever-constant stars.

As Nature tries her best to specialize and grow things piece by piece, to make trees, stars, coral, a human brain (and then those specializations aggregate to make other specializations—we make forests, empires, reefs), Time shakes its head. “I will allow you, Nature, some coral and human brain but only for so long. This is not the state of things.” “What about the stars?” responds Nature. “In the stars you have put your very soul,” answers Time. “They can last longer.”

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, known for his great (permanent) wall, cairn, and arch installations, also makes up to two “ephemeral works” a day.

These works are made for a particular place and may last anything from a few minutes to a few days. They are an exploration of the land, often made without knowing what the result will be. They are intuitive responses to light, material, time, weather. They need to make mistakes, and sometimes to produce bad works is part of the process. I have far more failures than successes.

Wetting leaves on river stones, threading grass through branches, standing ice sheets on end—all ephemeral works. The sharpened teeth of decay waiting in the wings to tear apart this human invention. But its brief existence meant something. Goldsworthy simply makes more, better.

Nature does the same. More complexity, more ingenuity each time, fed with the decay of the old. She has learned how to use decay as part of the process.

elegance of decay
If you look beyond the context of decay, beyond the utility of form, beyond what the item was, you can see the intrinsic value of the materials. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Albeit tyrannical, decay isn’t greedy. It isn’t deceitful. Nothing is present that isn’t needed, and nothing is needed that isn’t present. It is the most tidy of henchmen. It is elegant. To push against it is inelegant.

It is, moreover, its own reward. A beauteous simplicity, suggests philosopher Hannah Arendt:

Although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.

Our contemplation of decay is complex because it is a contemplation of mortality. As I’ve written elsewhere, you cannot always exist. But you will always have existed.

I would hitch up these fragments against my ruins, hold them fast. I would find myself in a forest, under an oak, pressed into coal. Waiting for that drill bit. My atoms released into fires and furnaces, then somehow cleaned, into the air and part of all things.

If you change your notion of being, you will always be. Decay is elegance. There is comfort in that. Much more so than a glazed, petrified Lenin.

Our Unknowable Real Mortality

“'Remember, you too are mortal'—hit me at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau.”
Christopher Hitchens

As I gather and reflect on things that connect us, in which we might find imagined connections,1 I cannot escape death.

As a topic, I mean. Dying—the exact moment of it—is something none of us has experienced. But all of us will.

Each of us walks through life with the unshoulderable burden of not knowing death. Our unknowable real mortality. There’s nothing to know. “Death means you stop being,” thought visionary Jorge Luis Borges. “You cease from thinking.”2 Knowledge is impossible in the unbeing.

That will not, however, stop us fretting, fussing, and dripping anxiety in our wake as we drag our eventual corpses through life.3

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas IV, Dreams, After A.C.” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. A few centuries ago, humans felt death awareness was a moral imperative. Not only would it remind viewers of life’s evanescence, it would also invoke perspective necessary for virtue and contemplation. The contemporary photography of Paulette Tavormina spins a modern perspective of the Old Masters’ Memento Mori paintings. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

Perhaps that is why we take a logistical approach to death. As if packing for a trip. Must sort out the health care and wills. To do: caskets, burials, musical selections. Making peace with all and sundry.

Humans find mental clarity and comfort in planning and executing. Especially related to the thing delivering our death. Susan Sontag kept fierce and constant vigilance over her own deteriorating health until the day she died.4

The reality is the living have no idea how to “prepare” for death because we’ve never journeyed to death before. Never seen it. Don’t know anyone who has. Nevertheless, we push the distraction until death awareness comes upon us. Sizzles and smokes like a spent wick.

The moments we become aware of our own death—I mean emotionally, cognitively, intellectually distraught with the numbing truth that there will be a point when we do not exist—are what psychologist Irvin Yalom calls “awakening experiences.” Like Ebenezer Scrooge seeing his own tombstone in A Christmas Carol.5

“Our existence,” writes Yalom, “is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably diminish and die.” Our preternatural awareness of this truth arrives through dreams, deep discussion and contemplation, literature, and grief.

In 2010, Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most frustratingly wise contrarian, had an awakening experience when his undiagnosed cancer triggered a terrifying physical malfunctioning.

I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs… It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services.

Hitchens’ word choice “came to consciousness” is apt. For this deepening awakeness to one’s own death is an expansion of consciousness.

What began as an overpowering physical assault was soon found to be esophagal cancer, which Hitchens addressed with his classic vigor, intellectualism, and un-sentimentality, choosing to undergo chemotherapy and write about it.6

‘Remember, you too are mortal’—Hit me at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau. My two assets my pen and my voice—and had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends. I’d been ‘straying into the arena of the unwell’ and now ‘a vulgar little tumor’ was evident. This alien can’t wait… The alien was burrowing into me even as I wrote the jaunty words about my own prematurely announced death.

British writer and publisher Robert McCrum suffered a stroke in his early forties, and then, two decades later, a stumble on the pavement made him revisit his unknowable real mortality.

Face to face with mortality, McCrum, like Hitchens, turns to contemplation on the miasma of death that surrounds him as he steps forward every day. His language is similar to Yalom’s. Maybe there are only so many ways we can talk about death.

This book reminds anyone who has lived as if they were immortal that there are no privileges or exemptions—no backstage passes. The remorseless passage of time and the unwelcome intrusion of physical frailty must finally confront everyone with the same inevitable reckoning.

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas VI, Reliquary, After D.B.” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. Using items of her own and others found in markets and shops, Tavormina’s work, especially her Vanitas series, suggests a painstaking amount of work. Envisioning the space, cultivating a sense of life and death simultaneously, and then carefully positioning the objects. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

We cannot avoid the proximity of death. Which doesn’t mean we think of it all the time. Even when it’s close, we jump in and out of our awareness of it.

In Katie Roiphe’s wonderful, wonderful book The Violet Hour detailing the last moment of great writers, there is a passage about John Updike that struck me.

When his children came to visit him at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was, as his youngest son, Michael, put it, ‘a good host.’ The common human impulse to entertain, even in a hospital room, sees to have been especially strong in Updike, though he also saw through the impulse, resented it, examined it. At the same time, he was writing a poem about lying in the hospital, making small talk with visiting children and grandchildren.

Like Updike, who both played games and wrote poetry, John Keats was also in and out of a full death awareness before his death. In his last known letter before dying of tuberculosis, Keats admitted: “I have a habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas I, Treasures, After E.C.” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. Not only do Tavormina’s pieces remind us of death, but many items in her work are in the act of dying. Petals drop, leaves slump, candles extinguish. There is movement, change, even in stillness. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

The death anxiety comes to everyone awake with expanded consciousness. It is the cost of being thus awake.

But it need not be negative. It need not be paralytic. Being aware of death doesn’t change our likelihood of death. (Like denying pain does not make it disappear.)

McCrum’s purpose in writing Every Third Thought was to move through anxiety and arrive at understanding. Christopher Hitchens’ intention in chronicling the short remainder of his life (he died in 2011) was to present unsentimental truth as he had always done. Susan Sontag so fretted about her own illness because she had a ferocity and life that needed letting out.

Irvin Yalom’s “awakening experience” is not just a moment of awareness; it is a moment of change. He writes:

Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.

We can galvanize something from death. We must. There is no other way to live.