The Inner Swine Guide to Ignorance

By | April 7, 2014 | 1 Comments

BQ49(This originally appeared in Brutarian Quarterly #49; for a while I wrote a column there about ignorance in general and my ignorance in specific. It was a lot of fun and I figure I’ll post them here now and again.)

Episode Three: META-IGNORANCE

The other day I was sitting in Hudson Bar and Books in New York City drinking single malt Scotch and reading, when I had an attack of Meta-Ignorance.

Hudson Bar and Books is one of the world’s greatest bars for whisky. It isn’t a boisterous place where you can order pints of beer and watch baseball games—I have plenty of other places for that—but rather a jazzy, quiet place with a chatty bartender, the most fantastic cheese plate I’ve ever had, and an seemingly endless supply of good booze. It’s the only place so far I’ve ordered Glenmorangie Madeira Wood and not been laughed at, beaten up, or derisively offered a Dewars. Of course, my visits to Hudson Bar and Books are not without angst-inspiring moments; there is a sign posted in the front window that reads, ominously, PROPER ATTIRE REQUIRED, and there has not been one time yet that I haven’t paused with one hand on the doorknob, staring blankly at this sign, wondering if I was properly attired. So far I have established that proper attire requires pants of some sort, but beyond that it all remains mysterious.

At any rate, I was sitting there recently pretending to read a big, thick book and scheming to hit the bartender over the head, exchange clothes with him, and do his job for the rest of the afternoon—meaning I would lean rakishly behind the bar, drinking directly from a bottle of Scotch, and implore anyone who wandered in to tell me their troubles, in-between humming tunelessly and checking my facial expression for appropriate levels of rakish charm in the mirror—and waiting for my lovely wife, The Duchess[1]. When she arrived, she asked me what I was drinking.

ME: Scotch.
TD: Is that whisky?
ME: Yes.
TD: Is bourbon whisky?
ME: Yes.
TD: What’s the difference?
ME: . . .look! An elephant!

META-IGNORANCE

The problem is not so much that I am ignorant, but that I am ignorant even of what I am ignorant of. I simply don’t even know what I don’t know. The above exchange is a classic example: While I know what whisky is, and even have a vague idea of how to produce it, I can’t tell you much about why some is bourbon and some is not. Well, I mean, I can now, because I did some research. You’d think that over the years I’ve ingested enough of both kinds of booze that my underbrain could genetically analyze each and I’d sort of instinctively know the answer, but as with most situations where you’d think my underbrain would provide some sort of guidance, all I get is static and the occasional urge to take a nice long, hot bath. This leaves me defenseless against attacks of Meta-Ignorance.

Sometimes Meta-Ignorance rears its terrible horned head in situations where I really have no excuse—situations where I suddenly realize I am ignorant about things you might consider knowledge essential to my very survival. I’m not talking about the time The Duchess and I ended up hiking in the White Mountains of Vermont and were almost eaten by bears because I realized I was ignorant of things like which way is north and when lost in the woods what the hell do you do?

No thanks to you—or The Duchess—I now know the answer to the latter question is do not let your wife abandon you to be eaten by bears no matter how hard she tries[2].

But I digress—I was discussing moments of Meta-Ignorance involving basic knowledge you’d think everyone who manages to not be killed during their everyday lives must know, like what in hell a ground wire is. The Duchess and I recently bought our first house, and being a) concerned for my masculine image and b) one of the cheapest bastards you’ll ever meet, I naturally insist on doing all sorts of work around the house by myself, including wiring up light fixtures. Now, wiring up a light fixture does not require an advanced degree or even above-average intelligence, but I still managed to put my life and property at risk because when I opened the box and started the installation process, I had no idea what the extra exposed wire was for. Meta-Ignorance had reared its head: I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about electrical systems. How I didn’t electrocute myself and burn down the house remains a mystery, because I did some creative things with that wire before discovering the truth[3].

On a less immediately-threatening note, there is my Meta-Ignorance about my sad physical decline. Sure, I know that every year after you’re approximately 25 is just a steady boogie-board ride down the mountain to my eventual death, but the specifics of my bodily functions remain elusive and the only time I learn anything about them is when they go haywire. This kind of Meta-Ignorance can easily kill you, of course:

ME: Hmmmn, I have a painful welt on my ankle.
TD: Want to go to the emergency room?[4]
ME: Nah, it doesn’t look too bad.

[TIME PASSES]

THE CONSEQUENCES OF META-IGNORANCE

The real problem with Meta-Ignorance is that it’s impossible to combat, because you don’t know what you’re ignorant of. Ignorance can be cured—all it takes is some research and perhaps a bit of experimentation, possibly a willingness to take risks[5], which I can usually attain by drinking a few alcoholic beverages in a short amount of time. But if you don’t even know what you don’t know, you’re screwed. Think about it: You might be doing something right now that is going to speed you on to your death, and you don’t even know it. Like reading this article. Decades from now stern actors may be appearing in PSAs warning against reading anything written by Jeff Somers, as his words are now proved to cause insanity and blindness and eventual death.

There’s also the hovering specter of humiliation due to unsupposed ignorance. Above and beyond physical harm and death, all men fear public humiliation, which is why we are all so willing to feign knowledge and fake our way through things rather than admit we don’t know something. Sometimes I am convinced that all men are as ignorant as I am, and we’re all just nodding wisely and repeating phrases we don’t understand in order to appear wise. Take, for example, escrow. What in hell is escrow? No one knows. But if you bring it up in the company of men, all of them will nod wisely and say something like “Ah, yes, escrow: Can’t do without the ole’ escrow account.” Much in the same way I once looked my mechanic in the eye and said, “Ah, yes, the solenoid. Can’t get far without one of those!”[6]. But I know I’m ignorant about cars and engines and, well, physics. So whenever the conversation drifts to that subject, I start being cagey with my words—a lot of thoughtful nodding, as if I’m considering my options, replaces most verbal communications in these sorts of situations—and start building mental ditchworks to retreat behind if I get caught out. But what about subjects I think I’m fluent in? For example, my own family: I’ve started to realize I know next to nothing about my family, and anything I think I know that dates from before, oh, about when I was twelve years old is almost certainly bullshit I made up once long ago and have repeated to myself so often it seems true. Only to be revealed as bullshit the moment I relate it, authoritatively, to someone[7].

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Of course, one of the things I may very well be Meta-Ignorant of is how obvious it is to everyone but me that I am ignorant. I like to imagine that with my eyeglasses, my hipster-gone-to-alcoholic-seed fashion sense, and constant clutching of tomes to my concave chest I appear somewhat erudite to people who don’t know me very well, but the truth is strangers on the street are probably moved to pity at the sight of me, and experience the sudden urge to take me by the arm and guide me across the street. If you see me wandering the street pretending to be non-ignorant, however, I’d advise you to resist that urge; if it’s before noon I am hungover and prone to bouts of sudden-onset retching, and if it’s after noon I am inebriated and prone to violence.

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[1] My wife long ago ordered me to never use her name in my writing, so she is now known only as The Duchess. If you know what’s good for you, you will refer to only as The Duchess as well, even if you meet her in person.
[2] See The Inner Swine, Volume 10 Issue 1, “Don’t Be Eaten by Bears: Your Humble Editor has an Adventure”
[3] In fact, for all I know, I did electrocute myself and everything since then, including this essay, has been a delusion like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Although that would mean you exist only in the dying twitches of my brain activity, your poor soul.
[4] This is an imagined conversation, of course. in reality my wife’s response would be: Suck it up, silky-boy, and go fetch me some cookies. And my response to her would be: Yes’m. And then my futile stab at rebellion would be drinking half a bottle of whisky in the kitchen while fetching her cookies and passing out with my head in the dishwasher. Don’t ask how my head gets in the dishwasher. You don’t want to know.
[5] For example, tasting a sample of what’s in the mysterious Tupperware discovered in the rear of your fridge, that may or may not have been left there by the previous tenants.
[6] His look of frank pity remains clear in my nightmares.
[7] Like the fact that I thought my Mother was Lutheran, and told my wife so many times, only to have my outraged Mother correct me at a birthday gathering. The Duchess will not let me forget it.

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