Monday, 12 January 2015

General Knowledge...

What is general knowledge? As somebody with a diagnosis of autism I find this extremely difficult to answer. But perhaps I can answer it by some examples. It is years since I did an inventory of my books but I guess I have something in the vicinity of six to seven hundred books, many of them duplicates (different editions, impressions, translations), most on similar subjects (liturgy, Tolkien, church history). I do not claim to possess or exhibit even a fraction of the eminent wisdom that they contain but that wisdom itself is vastly circumscribed by its own subject matter. You won't find anything in my meagre library on the French Revolution, women's suffrage or any of the sciences. I have never read anything by Harold Robbins or even Agatha Christie. I'm not interested in pop culture or which boorish celebrity is sharing a bed with another boorish celebrity. In other words, I'd probably flounder if I went onto a modern quiz shew.

My musical knowledge is very limited. I have a rudimentary knowledge of the great "classical" composers, who they were, when they lived and their particular styles. With some, however, they are just names in my head to which there are neither dates nor particular styles attached. For all I know, Strauss could be a contemporary of Gershwin but I think Gershwin was early 20th century, and American. I have a few favourite composers but I think I own less than twenty CD's in toto. I enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan but I have heard only six of the Savoy Operas (and seen only three, one of which was a concert performance which doesn't count). I like Ivor Novello and Noël Coward but can name only bits of their respective oeuvre. I know something of the life and works of Tennessee Williams, but I have never actually seen one of his plays in much the same way that I know that Terence Rattigan was an Irishman and queer; that's it.

With art history, my knowledge is again pretty routine. I can distinguish a Duccio and Giotto from icons; I can recognise Botticelli by his particular style (as unique as William Blake's), even if I have never seen a particular painting, and I can tell the difference between Raphael and his predecessor Perugino. I prefer Michelangelo's sculpture to his painting and I love Titian. I tend to confuse Correggio and Caravaggio; which was the one who dragged corpses from the Tiber? I enjoy the portraiture of Gainsborough and the landscapes of Constable. Turner could paint watery water like no other. With architecture, I have a less-than-routine knowledge of particular styles and architects. I know what Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque mean in a general sense but I could by no means give a definition that would satisfy historians or connoisseurs. I cannot tell the difference between particular gothic or baroque styles, for example, and I would look at you with polite incomprehension if you asked me about 20th century architects. I vaguely recall reading about a proposed "monument to the third international," but whether this was Soviet or Nazi, who knows. I think it was Soviet.

I have read Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, but I cannot really say that I understood them (possibly because I read them in translation). I remember Pythagoras' Rule from school foundational mathematics but can't tell you what that might be. I have no idea who Euclid was and tend sometimes to confuse Aristophanes with Demosthenes. I know that Heracles undertook seven labours but I couldn't tell you what they were, or at whose behest they were undertaken. I never took Classical Greek and learned the vulgar stuff in my Novum Testamentum Graecae, without much success. I even used to think that Maimonides was Greek!

With antient Rome, my ignorance improves a bit. I have read Caesar and Cicero. I have read Virgil (arma virumque cano, and all that), the Eclogues and Georgics; I like Catullus and know something about Tacitus. I struggled to read Horace and still do. Similarly with Roman Britain. I have seen the Vindolanda Tablets and I've been to Fishbourne; I've read about Spanish Hadrian and his wall; about Claudius, the most unlikely Emperor to cow the British chieftains. I know about Cogidubnus and how the Romans dispatched with Boudica (but I think she dispatched herself). I know something vague about the coming of the Saxons to Britain and the withdrawal of the legions and subsequent incremental "collapse" of the Empire in the West. Did St Leo the Great really impress Attila by rhetoric and persuasion alone, and not ransom the City with money?

With British history, again I can claim no expertise in any era. I greatly reverence St Bede the Venerable and much enjoyed his histories and scriptural commentaries. I have a vague knowledge of the wars between the Saxons and the Danes, the Vikings, the coronation ceremony devised by St Dunstan, St Patrick, St Cuthbert, St Caedmon, St Hilda and the great Synod at no means in that order. Like Tolkien I bemoan the Norman Conquest and the subsequent, inevitable adulteration of our language, the subjugation of the English Church to Papal legates brought over by bastard William and the contemptible treatment of the Saxon nobility and peasantry by the Norman conquerors for the next two hundred years. Even so I am fascinated by the 12th century and by its adventurous, pious characters; Orderic Vitalis, John of Salisbury, Eleanor of Aquitaine. The 13th century history remains somewhat mysterious to me and, while I can name a few events like Magna Carta, the provisions of Oxford, the parliament of Simon de Montfort, Good King Edward and the Edict of Expulsion, I remain generally ignorant of the time. The 14th century, again, I can name a few events and persons; famine, plague, peasants' revolt, Watt Tyler, John of Gaunt, the Lollards, Wycliffe, Edward II and III, the Dispensers and their grim deaths, Richard II. And so on and so forth into the 20th century. History, for me, is less a narrative as a map of obscure names fixed to obscure places; altogether very random, even if I enjoy history.

I know nothing about nature. I did read David Attenborough's Trials of Life with some interest as a boy because my father owned it, and I also enjoyed my brother's books about dinosaurs, but I know nothing about geological ages or even how old the earth is. I am not, like my father, green-fingered either. When, as a boy, my father allotted to my brother and me small patches of garden with which we could each do as we pleased I planted snowdrops but nothing could have induced me to scratch, let alone dig, the soil at any other time. I can recognise silver birch but I cannot really distinguish most trees one from another, even though to alleviate this problem I own a number of books about trees. I can distinguish roses from tulips and poppies from pansies but that's hardly distinguishable for the average gardener. Only the other day my father pointed out something about plants that hitherto hadn't occurred to me...and I've forgotten what that was. Beyond pigeons, robins, game birds and the obvious ones like ostrich, penguins and parrots I cannot tell birds apart.

With literature and poetry, I am again a tabula rasa. I know some songs, ballads and rhymes and I can take a guess at quotations and by whom they were first said but my memory is so bad that I am often stumped in conversation. I have read some Shakespeare (hasn't everyone?), Donne, Spenser, Byron, Burns, Hardy, Owen, Yeats and others. I have read Dante, Chaucer, Milton, bits of the Kalevala and Icelandic Eddas; and, of course, Pearl. With most of these grand works I cannot claim to have had any real understanding beyond a general impression of the sense thereof. I found Paradise Lost an impenetrable work and didn't really know who Milton was or what he thought. When I read Dante I was 13 or 14 years old. What did I know then of Italy, of its mediaeval past, let alone of Dante's guide through Hell? I remember getting to the end of the Inferno and wondering who Brutus and Cassius were. These days I'd have said "pearls before swine," and lamented my education. Tolkien was, with C.S Lewis, a member of the Oxford Dante Society; a measure of both their genius. By comparison I stand no chance!

I suppose, for "general knowledge" this is enough to be going on with but there are other kinds of knowledge. Even so I have come no nearer to defining what it means. Does it mean simply the ability to recall obscure dates from history, obscure quote from literature or obscure facts about nature? If that is so then you might say I have a working "general knowledge." But if it means something more profound than that then I can say that I am thoroughly ashamed that I am so ignorant, so rustic and so untutored.

I suppose the photograph at the top of this post (of me in April 2012) illustrates my point. What a boring person I must really be!


  1. I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
    I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
    From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;a
    I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
    I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
    About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news, (bothered for a rhyme)
    With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

    I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
    I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
    In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

    1880 poster

    I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
    I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
    I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
    In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
    I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
    I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
    Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore, (bothered for a rhyme)b
    And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

    Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
    And tell you ev'ry detail of Caractacus's uniform:c
    In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

    In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
    When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,d
    When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
    And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
    When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
    When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery –
    In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy – (bothered for a rhyme)
    You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.e

    For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
    Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
    But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

    Sorry, I just couldn't resist that one!

    1. Did you type that up from memory? I know some Gilbert & Sullivan by rote. "Sing a merry madrigal," "A more humane Mikado" (the real version..."painted like niggers in permanent walnut juice"), "The Criminal Cried," for The Mikado. Erm, what else? "I have a song to sing," "When our gallant Norman foes," for Yeomen of the Guard. "We shall sail the ocean blue," "Things are seldom what they seem," "My gallant crew," and "Little Buttercup," for H.M.S Pinafore.

      I do know bits of the Major General patter but I can't sing it fast enough.

      I also know lots of hymns, both Latin and English, by rote. I know some Marlene Dietrich in German. In the Exeter Book it says "less doth yearning trouble him who knoweth many songs. His possession is his gift of glee, which God gave him."

  2. I do not think you are boring. I recently discovered this blog and I added it to my blogroll... Unless it means I follow boring people (but I don't believe so)!

    I sometimes have the impression that people who have great general knowledge are actually just people with a great memory.
    Maybe a person with general knowledge is someone who is able to handle any given topic with a tiny bit of information and a lot of structure?