Friday, January 16, 2015

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Skin Of Our Knowledge

My title refers to one of the classics of American theater,
The Skin Of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, whose title came
from the phrase in the biblical book of Job, “...I escaped
by the skin of my teeth...”
Wilder’s play, written in the
darkest days of World War II (the play opened in New York
in 1943) suggests a note of skeptical optimism in the face of
humanity’s seemingly perpetual depravities, weaknesses and

During so-called good times in America, plays like this, and
Wilder’s other classic play Our Town, seem to be dated and
contrived period pieces. At the time of its premiere, some
critics suggested Wilder lifted his theme from James Joyce’s
unreadable and ultra-dense masterpiece Finnegan’s Wake
which celebrates the patterns of life by telling a story with
an invented language that purports to contain much of
language, knowledge and history. (I once attended a class
in school that spent an entire hour deciphering just one
paragraph of Joyce’s book. But who has time for this?)

My point is much simpler. Having spent much of my life
reading books, as well as having a life of experiences,
it has become clear to me that human knowledge is a
very large composition, much beyond one person’s efforts
to read about all of it, much less understand it. Writers
like Joyce, Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes are recognized
for the “depth” and/or “breadth” of their summary of
knowledge in their own time, and for the ability of their
insights to last long after their own time, but it seems true
that each of the generations in each of the world’s places
has to rediscover what has happened in the past.

Pessimists say, of course, that humanity does not learn from
its past, and invariably repeats its mistakes and follies. It is,
for example, very tempting in these first days of 2015, and
including the events of recent decades, to say humanity’s
memory of such recent catastrophes as World War I, World
War II and the Holocaust is in a state of amnesia. There are
persons still alive who experienced these disasters, and yet
the world community seems bent on repeating them.
Optimists say, of course, this is wrong because, as they
assert, look at the tremendous advances of human invention
and technology, its self-understanding in terms of physiology
and medicine, and the overall rise in the level of human life
in so short a time. The optimists hold the belief that all will
turn out well because it always has done so in the past.

I note that what I understand about history is that, while
humanity has been advancing by its use of “knowledge,”
it repeats not only its darkest traits, but for the first time in
history faces not only man-made universal annihilation
(by H-bomb-induced EMT, robotics, etc.), but an awareness
of annihilation beyond its control (from solar flares, comet
collision with the earth, untreatable virus pandemic, etc.).
Knowledge and luck seem to have got us out of our many
past scrapes with catastrophe, and it will have to do it again,
it seems, as we move through a century of turbulence ahead.

I always wondered what it was like for my parents and all
their friends in those darkest days of World War II, just before
I was born, when violence, terror and intolerance stalked the
whole planet as the grimmest of all threats and nightmares.
I grew up in the optimistic and exciting times that came later,
but I have wondered what it was like when hope seemed at best
provisional. Now I am beginning to think I know, even though
the circumstances have different characters, what it was like.

The prophet Job is one of the most singular figures of the Old
Testament, a book of course with many singular figures.
When we first read about him, he seems like an extreme type
of human being on whom disasters fall. It then takes part of a
lifetime to realize he is just one of us, a traveler through a
passage of time who escapes by the skin of his teeth.

We’re, each of us, just passengers in this new century of
renewed turbulences, of more human frailties, of steps
backward as we move hesitatingly forward. There is going
to be turbulence on the ground, not just in the air. It is, I
suspect, no time for mere pessimism and no time for mere
optimism. As in those dark days just before I was born,
there is only time for very hard work to be done.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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