Ignorance is Better

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote the autobiographical Reveries of a Solitary Walker in that late period of life in which, Solon says, 

“A man is still able, but his tongue and his judgment grow soft where things requiring great skill are concerned.” 

On one of the walks recounted in the book, Rousseau pondered Solon’s famous remark 

“I’m growing old forever learning a great many things.” 

After reflecting on the line and its implications, Rousseau concluded that learning–or at least learning certain things–at a late age was in fact a waste of time. 

He had this to say: 

Solon often repeated this verse in his old age. There’s a sense in which I too can say it in mine. But it is a gloomy science indeed which I’ve acquired in twenty years of experience. Ignorance is preferable to it.  Adversity is, without doubt, a great master, but it charges a lot for its lessons, and often the benefit that we derive isn’t worth the cost. What’s more, before we’ve gotten all that’s to be had from the belated lessons, the occasion to use it has passed. Youth is the time to learn wisdom; old age is the time to put it into practice. Experience always teaches, I admit that. But it’s only beneficial in the space ahead of us. Is it really the time, just when we’re about to die, to learn how we ought to live?

Solon 27:

τῇ δ᾽ ἐνάτῃ ἔτι μὲν δύναται, μαλακώτερα δ᾽ αὐτοῦ
πρὸς μεγάλην ἀρετὴν γλῶσσά τε καὶ σοφίη

Solon 18:

γηράσκω δ᾽ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος

Rousseau, les Reveries du Promeneur Solitaire (Troisieme Promenade)

Solon répétoit souvent ce vers dans sa vieillesse. Il a un sens dans
lequel je pourrois le dire aussi dans la mienne; mais c’est une bien
triste science que celle que depuis vingt ans l’expérience m’a fait
acquérir: l’ignorance est encore préférable. L’adversité sans doute
est un grand maître; mais ce maître fait payer cher ses leçons, et
souvent le profit qu’on en retire ne vaut pas le prix qu’elles ont
coûté. D’ailleurs, avant qu’on ait obtenu tout cet acquis par des
leçons si tardives, l’à-propos d’en user se passe. La jeunesse est le
temps d’étudier la sagesse; la vieillesse est le temps de la pratiquer.
L’expérience instruit toujours, je l’avoue; mais elle ne profite que
pour l’espace qu’on a devant soi. Est-il temps, au moment qu’il faut
mourir, d’apprendre comment on auroit dû vivre?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, composer of the most popular opera
of 18th century France (Le Devin du Village) and author of
the period’s best selling novel (Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise).

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Istanbul/Beirut: “We were waiting for the apocalypse and the apocalypse finally came.”

And I have the unbearable feeling that my entire life won’t be enough to remove this drop from my soul.

And the thought haunts me that if I was burnt alive, this persistent moment would be surrendered last.

G. Seferis, London, June 5th, 1932

Κι έχω το ασήκωτο συναίσθημα πως ολόκληρη η ζωή που μου απομένει δε θα ‘ναι

αρκετή για να καταλύσει αυτή τη στάλα μέσα στην ψυχή μου.

Και με καταδιώκει η σκέψη πως αν μ’ έκαιγαν ζωντανό

αυτή η επίμονη στιγμή θα παραδινότανε τελευταία.

Gregory Buchakjian, Sursock Palace after the 4 August blast, 2020, photograph

“We were waiting for the apocalypse and the apocalypse finally came”. Those were the words of Gregory, the Lebanese art historian and photographer with whom I’ve corresponded for almost a decade, during which admiration gave way to friendship, and finally to complicity. He is locked in his apartment on Abdul Aziz street in Beirut, or at his parents’ home in the mountains near the city, avoiding the infernal traffic and the visual field where all the catastrophes of history blend with garbage, with tar, and with the vision of the Last Things. After that spectacular explosion that changed Lebanon forever, and partially destroyed forty percent of Beirut, with their homes shattered, people had to flock into the streets, to reclaim the city, to protest, to scream, to weep, to supplicate, to deny, to fight. There are some moments in history in which certain things can be done only collectively, even if they produce absolutely no result; this was one of those moments. It is necessary to bury Polynices’ body, even if it’s forbidden by law on punishment of death, and the tragic heroine is a whole city, dressed in its rubble.

The death penalty seems like an immaterial punishment in a situation like this; for in Beirut death wouldn’t mean to cross the threshold towards the indeterminate,  but rather and simply, a change of position within the same chessboard, without entry or exit permits. Gregory has spent the last ten years photographing the abandoned houses of Beirut, or at least those that have survived not only the wars (there have been a few of them), but also the reconstructions, restorations, or simply time itself. And that photographic labor, that at first dealt with a historical document, has become an obsession, a terrifying desire, and a species of invasive archaeology, hunting ghosts, recollecting their personal objects, and speculating about the past, as if it were possible this way, to rectify the present without canceling it altogether. All those who seek the truth are punished by the gods with doubt, that little fragment of discrepancy, in which the scientific method and theology meet face to face, for just one second.

After ten years (even though he had been photographing Beirut since his teens in the 1980s, during the first years of the civil war), this passion became a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne in Paris, a book and two museum exhibitions. Then, the photographer, lost in his own distance from the images, has become also a forensic investigator. The corpse is always unprepared, and the circumstances of death unknown. Sometimes, shocking events take place: The dead rises to his feet while the autopsy is in course, and while his condition of being ‘alive’ is immediately recognized, it is also well known that he will never recover, and his identity cannot be verified – the state of decomposition is very advanced. How can matter decompose while being still alive? The generic term life seems to encompass an infinite number of contradictions between biology, inorganic chemistry and historical experience. This isn’t about a loss of memory, for memories are never lost, but they can become so disarrayed to a point where continuity and coherence are lost.

Gregory Buchakjian, Abandoned Dwellings. Tableaux_BF335-Ain el-Mreisseh_ 17’06’2012, photograph

A week after the explosion, Joana, another Lebanese artist and filmmaker, writes me from her shattered apartment in the neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, to say that she and her husband Khalil, survived miraculously without as little as a minor wound, but that they’re not really alive. How to differentiate between architecture, images, the body, living matter and rubble? When we say that everything else has been destroyed, it’s impossible to specify what do we mean by ‘everything’; in the absence of referents that place rational limits on reality, it’s no longer practical to classify particulars and universals as taxonomic categories. Brick dust and molten metal contain all the states of matter. In a video that Gregory produced with Valérie, his friend and companion in the journey of photography, work which resembles more an elegy to the fragment, to loss and disappearance, they meticulously organize and classify personal objects found in the houses. Gregory reads aloud from a found letter: “I shall miss the Orient all my life… People say I live in the past.”

Traveling from Occident to Orient, as metaphor and possibility, every day at dusk, I ride on a ferry boat, from Rumelia, the further corner of southern Europe, towards Anatolia, the Mediterranean border of the Orient with Europe. While on the ferry, I watch Gregory’s video on repeat every day. But it’s not a long journey, it takes not even 20 minutes, and we are still inside the same city: Istanbul. It’s a city larger than some small countries, and with a population more or less as big as Chile’s (some twenty million souls survive in this irregular and viscous space), and here it’s not possible to speak of history proper, except in extremes: Either a ridiculous and touristic version of history, that Turks themselves do not believe but to which they’re condemned, or the other version that is an interminable series of catastrophes and miseries – it’s impossible to count them all, there are not enough numbers. How to tell here the time, date, day and hour? One can leave the house casually to go somewhere and end up in some other day, another era, in some other life.

And since life itself doesn’t really work out here, because there’s too much bureaucratic paperwork for the twenty million souls, we have begun to believe in miracles. Not in the great miracles, like those of Jesus Christ, but in the very tiny ones: Every day you’re grateful that gravity still exists, and that amidst all this chaos, all this hate, all this disarray, all this cruelty, this motherfucking city hasn’t just fallen into the water, killing us all instantly. The city has tried to kill herself in all possible forms – conquests, fires, earthquakes, crises, recessions and evil winds, but nothing has worked out. Half mythological creature, half prostitute, this is a city that carries really deep wounds, but is at the same time immortal and sadly invincible. For all of these reasons, she doesn’t understand history or time, and she’s not even interested. Everything seems to her a foolish game, like an Aegean mermaid, diverting sailors lost at sea, or driving them to madness. But the history of the Homeric mermaids doesn’t end well; some medieval scholia say that they jumped to their deaths after Odysseus’ escape.

Valérie Cachard and Gregory Buchakjian, Abandoned Dwellings. Archive, 2018. Still from film. Cinematography: Malek Hosni.

I know all of this might sound very romantic, but the result is usually something very mediocre – a love without limits or horizons, is also a feeling without specific content, and without concrete promises to anchor it in the present. Everything happens in the optative mode of the verb. There’s a myth that goes like this: When the colonizers from Megara, a city in Ancient Greece, consulted the Delphic oracle, at Apollo’s temple, the Pythia warned them not to go to Byzantion (the first artistic name of Istanbul, in Archaic Greece), because the place was cursed. They didn’t listen though, and went on to found the city. But it’s also possible I’m making up this story or greatly exaggerating it, based on a misunderstanding of a Persian account. The important detail is that for a city so capricious and amnesiac, her greatest disgrace is being a prisoner of history. Sometimes it seems as if this weren’t a real city; its beauty is unbearable, exaggerated, terrifying, impalpable. That’s why she’s always threatened with destruction and bombarded with infernal skyscrapers.

When speaking about history, therefore, Turks are really bad, they only tells lies and slander. The more natural version of what is known as history, is the intrigue and the rumor, which they probably learnt from the Byzantines, great experts in gossip, conspiracy and self-destruction. Time here is completely out of joint, and it already was eight years ago when I arrived in this country as a temporary visitor, en route to some other country, and I ended up stranded like many Syrians, Afghans and Iranians. In those days, when this was a rich country (that also turned out to be a lie), there was a rage in the streets, so desperate, that I was surprised I didn’t get poisoned by breathing the same air as them. But then the protests began in 2013, and since then, we have lived in something similar to a diet version of hell: with room service, currency exchange and stunningly beautiful views of the city, when you stand on fashionable rooftops, posing like fine people, parading yourself on the catwalk of amnesia, enjoying the sunsets.

Hell here is not a metaphor for fire, or even for suffering, it’s more about the interminability of everything that is taking place. The pandemic took us by surprise, but not too much. People are so used to bad news, and they know how to fall on all four without getting hurt too much. The curfews and states of emergency were well known, from the military dictatorship in the 1980s to the self-coup in 2016, and in a city of this enormous size, you have always been alone, and it’s difficult to forge lasting friendships in an atmosphere of so much paranoia and lack of trust. Locked in the house, we began to drink, and to accumulate bottles of wine to mark the passage of time, since the clock no longer had any use. But that experience of being outside of history is not new. That’s why I find it funny when they speak of the end of the world (or capitalism), the end of history, the end of time. The world never ends, insofar as human conversations continue, and time is a temporal structure, not only in the sense of pure time but also of permanence.

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Neither in the Sky nor on the Ground, IFA, Berlin, 2019, photograph by the author

Biblical literature leaves us precise instructions: Time will not last. So in that sense, the end of history is a thesis as ridiculous as the death of God, how can something end of which we have no certainty whether it ever began? If by history we mean the veracity of historiographic accounts, then we are in trouble. But if this refers to the historical experience of human beings, to the conscience of historical contingence, all these concepts are very new and it could be very well possible that history is just beginning. The end of history is the experience of a kind of void, the inability to conceive the future, so that we return to the past obsessively, in order to rebuild it, hoping that this may eventually reorganize the future. But this strategy always ends very bad for Istanbul. When they were building one of the metro lines near the old city, the excavations lasted for a few years and when they reached the layer of the sixth millennium BC, they decided to stop. It’s impossible to live with so much rubble, with so many broken vases. A famous archaeologist used to say that sometimes you find so many things buried in this city, that you need to bury them again in order to continue living.

One of the happiest days of my life was the end of the pandemic lockdowns, and then we got on a ferry to travel to the Princes Islands with Greek artists Mirsini and Mairi who had spent a few months quarantined in the city during an artist residency and who had never seen the islands before. There we walked a few kilometers between the sun and the Marmara sea on the island of Halki, until we reached the monastery of Terk-i Dünya that is translated as “Abandon the world!” (in imperative), and on a certain corner, where there is an eternal tree, quite magical, I directed a long gaze at the infinite blue. I toyed with the idea that some kind of freedom was still possible. But the history of this place is also sad: The islands were places of exile during the Byzantine period, and that tradition continued during the Ottoman empire, at the same time that the monastic foundations began to wither and the islands became summer residences for the elite, and eventually, a district for minorities – Greeks, Armenians, Jews. But then the massacres began again, the exiles, the expropriations, the deep burials, the rotten wood, the lost memory.

Here you need to forget everything, if you want to live even one day. But we don’t want to forget. And that’s why I need to return to Joana: A few years ago, she and Khalil traveled to Izmir, an ancient city on the coast of the Asia Minor in Turkey, on the Aegean Sea, to make a film with the writer Etel Adnan, about the exile of the Greeks of Anatolia that arrived in Beirut in the year 1922 (including Joana’s grandfather). They became very curious about the many headless Greek and Roman statues at the archaeological museum, and they documented them carefully to utilize the footage at a later date.

Terk-i Dünya, Halki, Istanbul, June 2020, photograph by the author

During the pandemic lockdown in Paris, Joana and Khalil assembled the images into an spectacular video on the background of which a fragment of a poem of Seferis (one of the great Greek poets of the 20th century, who was also born in the Izmir area) is read aloud:

They were telling us you will win once you surrender.

We surrendered and found ashes.

They were telling us once you abandon your life, you will win.

We abandoned our life and found ashes.

G. Seferis, London, June 5th, 1932

Μας έλεγαν θα νικήσετε όταν υποταχτείτε.

Υποταχτήκαμε και βρήκαμε τη στάχτη.

Μας έλεγαν θα νικήσετε όταν εγκαταλείψετε τη ζωή σας.

Εγκαταλείψαμε τη ζωή μας και βρήκαμε τη στάχτη.

The first time I heard about this video was in a letter from Gregory, and then I wrote to Joana…

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Where is My Mind, 2020, installation views, “I Stared At Beauty So Much…”, FRAC Corsica.

My letter was sent on the 1st of August, and for a week an answer didn’t come. The 4th of August there was the massive explosion in the port of Beirut. Then a week later, Joana understood my letter as if it had been sent after the explosion… and after finally seeing the video, I also found only ashes. The ashes of the rubble of Beirut.

A year prior, I myself traveled to Izmir, and was also moved by the headless statues, and documented them as well. Soon afterwards, I traveled to Germany to give a lecture about Seferis’ poetry, in which I used images of the statues as visual support material and metaphor for the survival of history through time, deep memory and transmission of trauma:

Our country is a closed place, all mountains

roofed over by the low sky day and night.

We have no rivers we have no wells we have no springs,

only a few underground tanks, empty too, that echo and

we treat as sacred.

G. Seferis, Mythistorima X

Ο τόπος μας είναι κλειστός, όλο βουνά

που έχουν σκεπή το χαμηλό ουρανό μέρα και νύχτα.

Δεν έχουμε ποτάμια δεν έχουμε πηγάδια δεν έχουμε πηγές,

μονάχα λίγες στέρνες, άδειες κι αυτές, που ηχούν και που

τις προσκυνούμε.

This lecture performance was part of an exhibition in Berlin about the history of Pergamon (with reference to both the ancient city and the Berlin museum) by another artist friend, Hera, who lives on the island of Halki – there I spent that precious day after the end of pandemic lockdowns. A few weeks later, in the same venue in Berlin where Hera’s exhibition took place and where I had earlier spoken, Joana and Khalil would present another video, on the intimate relationship between archaeology, architecture and the destruction from the Lebanese wars, a video which is today more pertinent than ever and that hauntingly, ends with a long aerial shot of the Port of Beirut, now destroyed.

We both remembered a future yet to arrive then, through inhabiting a space with images and words, an idea central to Hera’s delicate treatment of historical narratives across long spans of time. In the forest of time, all movements are circular, and we always return to the same starting points; that long lost gaze towards the infinite blue.

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Palimpsest, 2017, still from film. Part of Unconformities.

But during the pandemic, I also found my own ashes: Locked in my apartment with Musab for a few months, I began a very long correspondence with Arca (it’s pronounced Arja) that lasted for something like half a year, in between curfews, prohibitions and lockdowns, punctuated by fear and uncertainty, even though we were at a distance of only about 7 km. And the correspondence encompassed millions of words, that always reminded me of what Joana said to me in 2017, after a major terror attack in Istanbul: “You have to remember the light!”, and in between so many letters, invented memories, fragile promises and intervals, during which life seemed more or less possible, the idea of an encounter acquired certain aura of hope.

In those moments of doubt about the reality of things that occur so naturally during an event as perplexing as a pandemic, we’re not even dealing here with love or feelings, but more with the possibility of reaffirming reality through confirming the existence of the other, who is present beyond yourself, since we don’t have an authentic history without shared memories.

It was a beautiful day in October, when the encounter finally took place in an almost cinematic set: The rays of sunlight filtered through the trees, moving back and forth slowly with the fresh breeze of the end of summer, followed by many hours of casual conversations, without any trajectory – time disappeared until sunset. And that was the last time. The next letter remains unanswered, it turned to ashes.

Lives are complicated, the histories, the bets of luck and chance, the crossed destinies, the fears, and above all, the feeling of having lost the world to a certain degree. We have only fragments left. At the end of the video with Seferis, another part of the poem:

It remains to find our life again,

Now that we have nothing left anymore.

G. Seferis, London, June 5th, 1932

Μένει να ξαναβρούμε τη ζωή

μας, τώρα που δεν έχουμε πια τίποτα.

But there’s another fragment of the poem that Joana and Khalil didn’t include:

I imagine that he who will find life again, out of so many papers, so many feelings, so many disputes, so many lessons, he will be someone like us, only less forgiving in memory.

G. Seferis, London, June 5th, 1932

Φαντάζομαι, εκείνος που θα ξανάβρει τη ζωή, έξω από τόσα χαρτιά, τόσα

συναισθήματα, τόσες διαμάχες και τόσες διδασκαλίες, θα είναι κάποιος σαν εμάς,

μόνο λιγάκι πιο σκληρός στη μνήμη.

Notes and letters, March-October 2020, photograph by the author

And like this the apocalypse came to pass, and passed. Without having told him the story of Arca, I wrote to Gregory a few days ago: “I don’t think there’s a viable way to ‘fix’ our lives at this point. But we have to re-inscribe them poetically, I think this is what Joana meant by ‘Remember the light!’”. And also like this, we return to the starting point, within the same history, like our cities, like the ashes of our cities. We have to find again our freedom, in the metaphysical and in the political sense (we’ve lost even the freedom of movement).

On that same week, I wrote to Nektaria, a Greek writer from Istanbul: “Nobody is condemned to history, to time, to the circumstances. One can always break free. Freedom is really hard, you fall all the time, there’s so much vertigo, it’s mostly a series of accidents and errors, but there’s just no other way.” Nektaria had published recently a novel about Daphne, a Greek-American woman traveling to modern day Istanbul in search of her roots. She had signed a copy of the novel for Arca’s birthday, a few weeks in advance, and that I brought with me to those spectacular hours among the wallowing trees. Is our eviction from the world perhaps a punishment for having constantly violated the rules of time?

As Joana told me in an interview in 2016: “When you superimpose so many temporalities, so many images, little by little there is a kind of duplicity, so you have many suns appearing. Things were happening to some people; this idea of multiple suns when you feel this chaotic time. It’s not only what’s happening to men; it’s affecting nature, it’s affecting the universe, and it’s affecting everything.”

Back in April I was daydreaming with Arca, from the depth of the confinement: “We are still in Beirut, maybe we went to Abu Hassan for dinner, got very drunk, and you met Gregory and Joana and Khalil. It was a beautiful day.” A long human chain now connected us all: The colonizers from Megara, a Hadjithomas grandfather on a journey from Izmir to Beirut, Gregory, Joana and Khalil, Daphne’s journey on the other direction to Istanbul, Hera, Arca, and me (alongside many known and unknown others). A long human chain, connecting these two cities, through a series of long winding promises, made near the end of the world.

But still Nektaria answered with fire: “If Arca or anyone in your life feels condemned to circumstances, then perhaps he is not for you. I have heard so many people use the circumstances excuse (and I have used it myself). It’s a mirage if the person believes it and an excuse if he doesn’t. We can always be free if we choose freedom. Anything else is rubbish.”

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Where is My Mind, 2020, installation views, “I Stared at Beauty So Much”, FRAC Corsica

Note: This piece was originally written in Spanish for literary magazine El Imparcial and translated into English by the author, presented here with substantial edits and additions. The text is part of the extended research of the author for the exhibition “Beirut is a Fragment”, Istanbul, April 2021. Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige’s exhibition “I Stared at Beauty So Much…” at FRAC Corsica, ran from July 7th through October 24th.

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.