Time to restore the fine art of curiosity

Posted 2 months ago by Catherine Colwell

“How alive are you?” asks the French cultural historian, Theodore Zeldin. He maintains the answer lies in the extent of our curiosity. Similarly, Suzanne Zeedyk, author of The Connected Baby, urges parents to displace the fear they harbour over an infant's behaviour with curiosity about this new person in their midst. Curiosity in both cases is viewed, not only as an innate characteristic we all share, but as a muscle we can exercise to enrich and to enlighten our lives.
 
Yet it feels as if occasions for open demonstrations of curiosity are becoming ever more limited. Travelling on public transport – buses and trains – does not provide the social opportunities it once did. At its extreme, say, in the London Underground, you can look along rows of people fixated, from the moment they enter a carriage to the moment they leave it, on their smart phones. Successful conversation, from the earliest inter-changes between mother and baby to adult engagement, depends on eye contact. Yet we make that less and less, till the act of looking itself begins to feel intrusive.
 
The digital world has also created, as neuroscientist Susan Greenfield argues, an “answer-rich, question-poor” society. The pub or café question that once opened up a rich speculative conversation is now often nailed shut the minute someone reaches for Google. Young children have become our most persistent philosophers. “Where does the future live?” a primary one pupil recently asked my daughter. But too often we see curiosity satiated and channelled through the supercomputers in all our hands; curiosity (attention) harvested by the behemoths of Google and Facebook for their own marketing ends.
 
So, where might we look to see curiosity in action? Not to politics. The most powerful man in the world is one of the most incurious ones. Obama, of all modern politicians, carried an aura of curiosity; perhaps one of the most attractive features about him. Meanwhile, in the political shout-fest, no one seems curious about why someone believes what they do: “...when everyone contradicts and is contradicted,” Montaigne wrote in Of the Art of Conversing, “it follows that the fruit of the debate is to suppress and to nullify the truth.” 
 
At the same time, it is perhaps another manifestation of the focus on answers rather than questions that testing has become an educational obsession, that the Liberal Arts at universities has been under pressure to justify its existence (“enquiring minds” have value, critics such as Marina Warner have argued, only if the results can be predicted and measured), and that funding for artistic endeavour evaluates an end-point rather than the curiosity of a creative journey.
 
On the other hand, the re-establishment of the essay as a means of imaginative enquiry is a positive sign that curious minds are still at work. Although Montaigne never wrote an essay entitled Of Curiosity, his work is alive with it. Likewise, contemporary practitioners of the art, such as Emilie Pine, Brian Dillon and Kevin Breathnach, tease out the essay's possibilities and its relationship to memoir, travel and criticism. 
 
Perhaps, some time in the past, curiosity accrued associations which belittled its importance: Cabinets of Curiosities with their marvellous but insignificant offerings; the undesirable (sic) inquisitiveness of young children. Rather, curiosity is a force we neglect at our peril: failure to exercise it, socially and politically, is self-evidently as costly now as it has been in the past. Moreover, acknowledging its call has the ability to shape lives and to make us all feel more alive.
 
A Day of Curiosity 8 June 2019
Wigtown Festival Company, in partnership with A Year of Conversation:
The University of Glasgow's School of Interdisciplinary Studies celebrate its 20th anniversary at Dumfries.
 
Tom Pow
Creative Director, A Year of Conversation 2019
 
Article first appeared in The Herald.
 

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