|01-09-2009 - Traces, n. 8
Back at Home
by John Waters
Many years ago, on my first school outing, I asked a science teacher to explain something to me. Why, I wondered, if I stood on a seat on the moving bus and dropped my lunchbox in the aisle, did it fall directly below the point where I had released it–as though I had dropped it in a stationary bus, or, indeed, a room–rather than, since the bus was moving, whizzing backwards and smashing against the back window of the bus? The teacher told me not to be ridiculous, that it was a stupid question, and anyway it was against the rules to stand on the seats and that I should sit down and be quiet.
Infinitely nurturing. Please don’t expect me to relate the precise details of these experiments. The Galileo exhibition was in Italian, and the English translation, though adequate in conveying the general sense of the master’s work, was a little woolly on the details. Anyway, my daughter is the scientist in our family. But, no matter. The main thing is that, after forty years, I discovered that I was not as stupid a child as I had been led to believe. This knowledge, I can assure you, was for me a tremendous event. This is just one fragment of memory of the 2009 Meeting. But it is also emblematic of the experience of encountering knowledge in the particular way that is the hallmark of the Meeting. Never have I been present at an event other than the Meeting that manages to convey information in such a way: by offering facts and information, discussion and experience on a basis that is in its essence gratuitous, but in its detail infinitely nurturing. There is no ulterior motive, no concealed purpose, other than the imparting of knowledge for its own sake, so as to feed the recipient with the joy that true knowledge brings. And this feeding seems to open the recipient up in a way that could almost be called intoxicating. No other kind of “knowledge” event has this sense of excitement, this sense of shared meaning, this celebration of everything that happens or might happen, all leaning pointedly toward the infinity of possibility. For me, this year was defined by my first encounter, also the Meeting’s first encounter, between myself and Harry Wu, the Chinese dissident who spent 19 years in one of his country’s laogai, or prison camps, and who now lives in the U.S. and campaigns to draw attention to the abuses of human rights in his native land. It was for me a difficult encounter, because I was conscious of the cultural misunderstandings likely to emerge in any attempt to comprehend why the West remains so ambivalent about China. Harry Wu is a somewhat truculent and uncompromising man. If he feels something, he is likely to say it, rather than allow the misunderstanding to rest out of politeness. We had a few such moments in our discussion but, in the end, these contributed to the drama of the encounter, which I believe succeeded in conveying Wu’s experience without sentimentalism or piety.
Boundless curiosity. All through the following week, I encountered people who were fascinated by what they had seen and heard in this discussion, who wanted to know if their understandings were the same as mine and, while feeling a deep sense of empathy toward Wu, had also become aware of the complexities and paradoxes that seemed to rise up out of his story. What we saw was connected to the meaning of freedom–for Harry Wu, for ourselves, and, beyond that, in the very air and words we shared. For me, as for those I encountered in this way, nothing was finally realized, nothing wrapped up in a neat package. Harry Wu opened us up to the confusion as much as to the clarity of what his experience conveyed, which means that, even now, several days after the conclusion of the Meeting, having already written one article about Wu, I am still struggling with the questions and challenges his experience presents. This, I belatedly begin to understand, is the path of true knowledge–along which we can expect to be engaged, confused, moved, intrigued, annoyed, and challenged, and never simply offered pieces of information to share at a dinner party. True knowledge is, yes, an end in itself, but it is always too a beginning, an impetus to discover more, to discover everything, to feed that boundless curiosity that defines our humanity.