Tuesday, 13 November 2012

On Certainty - Andrew Strong

Most of the time, when I'm starting to think of what to write for this blog, I begin by confidently choosing a topic, then plunge in. I start writing, and before long, often within the first paragraph, I have the overwhelming sense that I have no authority whatsoever to speak on the subject I've chosen, that I'm deluded to imagine that anybody would want to read my thoughts, take them seriously, and even if they get that far, learn anything.

However, by the second paragraph, I've usually restored my self-confidence.  I've come to terms with my inadequacy by considering that if only adequate people wrote anything, then the world presented in the written word would appear even more frightening to those who, like me, don’t think they've really got that much to say, or who don’t know what they’re doing.  The world is already too full of people declaring their certainties or their conclusions.  I rarely have either, so if I can give comfort to those who share my failings, then I’ll have achieved something.

What I'm trying to get at here is this: uncertainty, doubt, confusion are rather splendid things, and should be nurtured. How to cultivate them, though, is a different matter, as I don’t think it’s a good thing for absolutely everyone. I don’t really want a surgeon to have such uncertainty, especially if it came to the matter of which of my legs he needed to remove.  (My legs are both perfectly fine, so there isn't really any serious matter at stake here.)  And I want mechanics, engineers, carpenters, electricians, and airline pilots to embrace certainty, especially when they are in my service.  Although, thinking again, I’d rather not.  I’d like to think these people are cautious, would make sure what they thought was correct, double checked and so on.  A little more self-doubt could save lives. 

But when it comes to matters of less urgency, I find I simultaneously loathe and admire people who are too certain.  These are often politicians, or they are selling something.  Politicians, like William Hague, for example, who made up his mind about what he believed long before he was eighteen, presenting his self-assured young self at a Tory Party conference, and he hasn't changed his mind since. A smug adolescent is determining British foreign policy.  Most teenagers think they know it all, but few of them get to run the world.

There is a wonderful scene at the very beginning of Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda, in which a Rupert Murdoch figure addresses the audience.  He says something like this: 'I have over a ten thousand books in my library, but I don’t need to read any of them. I have already made up my mind.'  I remember laughing and feeling chilled to the marrow at the same time.  I was young when I saw that play, and felt I had to read at least all of the Penguin Classics and have a go at Wittgenstein before I was anywhere near to being educated enough to have a view on anything at all. 

Those of us who concur with Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability’, who are able to suspend judgement, who resist the need to draw conclusions, we are cast aside in the stampede towards the glittering prizes.  People who have made up their minds rule the world, and I am completely unable to make up mine.  It may be I'm timid, that I never like putting all my eggs in one basket, or it could be that I'm a ditherer, a moral coward.

And here is a paradox, for if we are to write fiction well shouldn't we be able to circle around an argument, see things from more than one point of view, to take the role of the omniscient narrator and claim an infinite perspective, rather than just trumpeting our own self-satisfied certainty?  But if we can never make up our minds, then nothing will ever get written.  It’s almost crippling. 

E M Foster wrote: 'How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?' And I sort of know what he meant.  I've finished my blog.  I can see what I've said. 

But I've still no idea what I think.


Joan Lennon said...

I like the Quaker saying: "Think it possible you may be mistaken."

Thanks for posting!

Liz Kessler said...

Brilliant post, Andrew. Really thought-provoking.

And I love that Quaker saying, Joan. Fabulous. I might stick that up somewhere that I can see it every day. It would be great if everyone else did, too!

Stroppy Author said...

What a great post - thank you.

I wonder if uncertainty is the flipside of acknowledging complexity? So we might feel certain that, say, exploiting the poor is wrong, but uncertain about how to prevent it because we see how everything is inter-related in a very complex way. There are probably some fairly solid certainties of principle behind your manifold uncertainties.

Sue Purkiss said...

This post really rings true for me. You've put a lot of the way I experience the world into words. Thank you.

Moira Butterfield said...

This is exactly how I think, too! I find people who are very certain about things quite scary because that's how dictatorships occur. And I love the Keats reference. Spot on!

Andrew Strong said...

Anne - I really liked what you wrote: 'uncertainty is the flipside of acknowledging complexity'. You're dead right. It's a response to feeling completely overwhelmed.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely! Thanks, Andrew