31 May 2008

I Drink the Wine... But the Taste Lingers!

(Hullo! Dana Hunter here, sneaking out of En Tequila Es Verdad to yammer about writing and wisdom for a bit. NP's been kind enough to invite me over as a guest blogger. We've swapped places for the Carnival of the Elitist Bastards - make sure you don't miss her post!)

If I told you I'd acquired my passion for ancient scholarship from a book by Louis L'Amour, author of countless Westerns, would you believe me? If I told you a novel of adventure, passion and edge-of-your-seat combat cited no fewer than 21 ancient texts within its pages and still kept the story rushing along, could you credit it? No? Can't say as I blame you.

Very few books present the man of intellect and learning as a dashing, debonair swashbuckler. When you think of a man using the wisdom acquired through such books as Avicenna's Canon and al Farabi's treatise on Aristotle to conquer his enemies, you likely think of a wan, pale academic hunched over dusty manuscripts in a musty library. Bulging muscles and a wicked sword arm weren't even in it.

But L'Amour's Mathurin Kerbouchard wields both sword and pen to wicked effect in The Walking Drum. He shows that you can have brains and brawn and the girl. He makes intellect cool. He makes going to the library an actual adventure, as exciting as any quest for treasure hoards could ever be.

How different would our culture be if the thirst for knowledge and wisdom were portrayed like this more often?

Knowledge is precious. Learning is sweet. Wisdom is without price. And the seeking of them is as fraught with drama, mystery and excitement as any other quest, if not more so. Kerbouchard knows this. He also knows that quest is endless:
The wider my knowledge became the more I realized my ignorance. It is only the ignorant who can be positive, only the ignorant who can become fanatics, for the more I learned the more I became aware that there are shadings and relationships in all things.
Any seeker after knowledge will recognize Kerbouchard's lament. This is something few people seem to grasp: the more you know, the more you're aware of the things you don't know. The difference between the people who give up because they'll never know everything and heroes like Kerbouchard who never let a little thing like insurmountable odds stop them is curiosity, and a realization that learning all you can is just as important as a strong sword arm:
In my knowledge lay not only power but freedom from fear, for generally speaking one only fears what one does not understand.
Later, he says:
Wit and wisdom are the keys to open any door.
He uses those keys to open the door to fame and fortune, not to mention women. He uses them to defeat his fear and to turn his enemies' fear on themselves. He uses his mind in a fight as often as his sword. Plenty of books have cunning fighters, heroes with what you might call street smarts, but Kerbouchard's a breed apart: a true warrior-scholar, a man that makes you salivate for the taste of wine, women, and wisdom.

Kerbouchard blazes across most of twelfth century Europe, leaving behind those parts of it still mired in the superstition and ignorance of the Dark Ages. He travels throughout Moorish Spain, where conquering Islam had established a paradise of literature, learning, and luxury. He meets legendary scholars, physicians and proto-scientists. The freedom of their inquiry contrasts sharply with the men he left behind. The two do not compare favorably, and Kerbouchard leaves us in no doubt that he values seekers over the pious:

It is a poor sort of man who is content to be spoon-fed knowledge that has been filtered through the canon of religious or political belief, and it is a poor sort of man who will permit others to dictate what he may or may not learn.
This is the sort of phrase we should tack to every schoolroom wall. In a civilization that is once again elevating deliberate ignorance as a virtue, this devastating counter-blow becomes ever more necessary. It's a poor sort of man, not a good and virtuous one, who swallows reflexively the poor fare he's fed. And a poor sort of man can't create a stunning and vibrant civilization.

We hear so much about the need for more religion. Society, we are told, will go to hell in a handbasket without it. But too many religions teach unquestioning obedience and seek to impose their questionable authority on every aspect of life, impoverishing our intellectual life, crippling progress. And so I find myself in complete agreement with Kerbouchard when he states
...What the world has always needed is more heretics and less authority.
Civilization has never advanced by getting stuck in a rut. The heretics are there to jolt us out, while authority, fearing loss of its control, orders us to stay in. Intellectual pursuits are anathema to dogma and authority, and thus ridiculed by them, denegrated and declared evil. If that's how they feel about it, well, I'm happy to be an evil intellectual, thank you so very much. Kerbouchard, not some meathead who can't think his way out of the pages of his society's sanctioned norms, is my hero.

And I hope the heroes of my own books will be as wise. I owe it to the world to give it role models who seek, who learn, who question and challenge. L'Amour gave me a great gift in this book: the keys to thousands of years of human endeavor, and the passion to seek out everything wise and wonderful in a hundred civilizations. Because of this book, I can quote from the Qabus Nama, a ninth-century Persian manuscript that Machiavelli might have wanted to get his hands on before writing The Prince. "Ever remain aware of your enemy's activities, secret or otherwise," it advises, and we would do well to remember it.

Outside of science fiction, scientists are rarely portrayed as heroic although they are among the greatest heroes our world has ever known. Too often, the scientist in popular fiction is an amoral enemy, or a supporting character, or the bumbling egghead whose pursuit of knowledge endangers the whole of civilization until a meathead saves the day. The heroism of science, its power to save millions of lives, the enthralling search for the solution to a mystery of the cosmos, the turmoil of seeking answers, is seldom portrayed. Why did it take a book set in the twelfth century, long before the Enlightenment brought us the scientific method and launched the Age of Reason, to show us just what it means to be a scientist?
...Question all things. Seek for answers, and when you find what seems to be an answer, question that, too.

We only become impatient with endless questions because we are taught to seek one answer and then stop. Too much in life and literature mocks continued inquiry. It doesn't portray that endless quest with the excitement and awe that The Walking Drum does. It's really time we got into the habit of enjoying the journey more, don't you think? After all, the Taoist masters teach that "the journey is the reward."

A book can change a life. The Walking Drum changed mine. It showed me a world I'd never known and left me starving for more. It destroyed my certainties, but gave me something far more valued than certainty: wonder and delight, curiosity and excitement. It gave me a deep draught of intoxicating knowledge and left me with an abiding thirst for more.

Kerbouchard was speaking of women when he spoke of that thirst, but he would apply his words equally to wisdom:
I drink the wine and I put aside the glass, but the taste lingers... The taste lingers!
Let us bring that taste to the rest of our world. We can even buckle some swashes while we're drinking deep of wisdom's wine, and that heady bouquet will never leave our tongues.


  1. The 'Walking Drum' is one the top 50 novels of all time. Love it. People have lost a bit of courage and along the way are content to drift through life. Come out to the Bitter Hinterlands some time Dana, we're not all asleep.

  2. Must add this book to my amazon wish-list - sounds fascinating.

    Thanks for your skillful navigating of the good ship of Elitist Bastards, Cap'n!

  3. Lord Of The Rings did it for me. I read Tolkien's masterpiece seven times! I have two copies on my bookshelf as we speak. I will certainly seek out "Walking Drum"
    , because the more inspiration I can get the better.

  4. Wow. I don't read much fiction but will have to put that one on the list.


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