07 October, 2006

In praise of curiosity

Lablit has a fascinating article by Mark Haw on the importance of curiosity in culture. Do click over and read it, even if you think you’re not interested in science. He argues that curiosity about the natural world was celebrated in the Victorian era, and that this was reflected in the fiction of the day. Tertius Lydgate, the doctor and scientist in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, is cited as an example, as is Eliot herself. He then argues that modern society places less value on curiosity than the Victorians did, to the detriment of literature and culture in general.

Is he right that fewer people are curious about the world around them now than was the case in Geroge Eliot’s day? I couldn’t answer that without some comparative data. Certainly there are plenty of people around who seem to have little interest in anything beyond the practical, plus the reverse snobs who acclaim ignorance as a badge of pride. But surely it was ever thus. For every Victorian vicar enthusiastically cataloguing hundreds of species of British moths or every George Eliot observing the workings of her society, there were surely others who thought no further than dinner or a new hat.

Conversely, there are enough people today who are curious about the world for programmes like the BBC’s Autumnwatch and In Our Time to find an audience. Curiosity may not be actively encouraged, and one could comment cynically that it tends to be uncomfortable for vested interests such as politicians (“Oh no! Somebody might question our actions!”) or corporate marketing departments (“Oh no! Somebody might try our competitor’s product instead of blindly buying ours!”), but it still exists. I’m thinking of the retired teacher in the next village, studying stag beetles with all the passion and knowledge of a Victorian naturalist. Of the couple I met in a pub in Cumbria, who happily discussed place names, Viking settlement, mobile phone design, the contrasts between Roman and Old English law, the OJ Simpson case, ancient Irish kin groups and historical mysteries until closing time. Of the American business consultant who was far more interested in the history and geology of the North York Moors than in whatever he was supposed to be trying to sell my boss. And probably you, if you’re reading this blog.

Curiosity, you see, is not confined to any particular field of study. History needs it just as much as science. Nor does it require a vast amount of specialised knowledge, though that often follows on as a consequence. You don’t have to be a professional to be curious, as Mark Haw’s article says. Curiosity about the world and the creatures in it - including people - is one of the joys of life, and is open to everyone.

The article made me think about other characters in fiction, beyond those like Lydgate who are recognisably scientists. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I find characters who are interested in the world around them far more appealing than those who spend much of their time agonising over their own dilemmas or showing off their superior knowledge to the reader or the other characters. For example, I was talking about historical mysteries with a friend the other day, and realised that one reason I like the Brother Cadfael series better than many others is because of Cadfael’s insatiable curiosity. He wants to know why things happen and what makes people tick, and whenever he’s offered an opportunity to go somewhere new or do something different, he jumps at it. Not only does this help to move the plot along, nosiness being a handy characteristic for a detective, it also reassures me that Cadfael is going to be good company for the next 300 pages.

What are you curious about, and do you have a favourite curious character in fiction?


Alex Bordessa said...

I guess, as an archaeologist, I'm bound to be curious about ancient cultures in general :-) As for a favourite curious character ... hmmm. Indiana Jones?

I note that the readers of Jack Whyte's Camulod novels often loved the characters' involvement in technology (even if that techology may not have been correct or suspect for the times). I heard similar rapt comments from readers of Harris' Pompeii who loved being told about the workings of Rome's aquaeducts - some could hardly believe it was so sophisticated.

Bernita said...

But then we live in the age of the "expert."
Interesting question.
I'm always curious how certain observed scenarios play out, curious about lots of things...
Would the popularity of murder mysteries/CSI crime shows and detective series reflect a cultural curiosity - of not the "what" but the "how" type?

Anonymous said...

"Certainly there are plenty of people around who seem to have little interest in anything beyond the practical"

I was a teacher once upon a time, and it depressed and infuriated me how little curiosity my students had. About anything. Just spoon the info into their little mouths (when they'd bother to open them), then let them dump the info back out on a multiple choice test (Heaven forbid you actually ask them to synthesize information). If it didn't involve rotting their brains in front of a TV or Playstation, they weren't interested.


I'm the type who'll read a 3" thick book on Australian history and take notes...for the heck of it, just because I'm interested in Australia.

As for characters--my beloved Trixie Belden was forever in trouble because of her curiosity :)

Unknown said...

I'm not sure I have a favorite curious character (unless we're counting Curious George, loved those books as small child).

In my personal experience the world is filled with curious people. How else would all those specialized cable tv channels make it (History Channel, Discover Channel, Animal Planet, etc.). But then maybe I just avoid too much contact with the non-curious type.

Over the weekend I saw an amazing show on the Neanderthal. They built a full Neanderthal skeleton, assembling it from all the partial ones that have been found, and then had scientists work in concert with other specialists (top voice coaches, etc.) to figure out how he would have been in real life (could he have spoken, how fast could he run, how strong was he, etc.). It was so freaken cool.

Carla said...

Alex - I've only read one of the Jack Whyte books so far, but you're right, I remember someone (Merlyn?) inventing the stirrup and this being an important technological breakthrough. I loved the water engineering in Pompeii, so I might have been one of those rapt commenters :-)

Bernita - indeed, and while one may need to be an expert to answer the question, I don't think one needs to be exper to ask. Detective series may well reflect curiosity about e.g. forensics, police procedure, clues, logic, etc, as well as the 'whodunit' aspect - is that what you meant?

Nessili - how frustrating that must have been. I taught physiology for a year and found it very rewarding when I saw the lightbulb go off in someone's eyes - aha! now I understand! - but I was lucky enough to be teaching undergraduates in small groups. I'm with you on reading the 3" book on Australia for the fun of it - though I'm always too disorganised to (a) take notes and (b) file them so I can find them again, so you're way ahead of me there! You raise an interesting point that curiosity can often lead to trouble and is a little bit frowned on - "curiosity killed the cat" and all that. That might go some way towards explaining your students' attitude.

Kalen - That Neanderthal programme sounds fascinating! Agreed, there must be some of it about or shows like that wouldn't find an audience, and they do. And curious people probably find each other's company congenial and so tend to gravitate together.

Bernita said...

More or less, Carla.
The profusion of experts could be construed as a reflection/ result of a consistent societal curiousity.