What Do I Know? by Jack Remick

Review by Jack Smith

Jack Remick, novelist, poet, and nonfiction writer, arranges his current book according to calendar dates, beginning with January 5 and ending on June 16—or, beginning in the winter and ending in the spring.  What we have here is close to a Thoreau’s Walden, an inner quest, but in this case for the meaning of wisdom.  He considers his entries pensées, much like Pascal’s.  These are “thoughts—no coherent or far-reaching plan, just thoughts about love and doubt, about silence and love . . .” From one insightful entry to another, he interrogates his subject, working toward a definition of “wisdom.”  Overall, it’s an exhaustive inquiry.

His opening chapter addresses the loss of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in today’s world.  What happened to that period characterized by rationality?  This was the age that separated church and state and established a separation of governmental powers. He’s puzzled: “why is there so little wisdom left?”  For him, the loss of enlightenment ultimately means “hundreds of Nagasakis and thousands of Hiroshimas.”

Two critical questions he explores: What is wisdom? And how is it be obtained?  At age seventy-five, he states, “what I know seems to have no relevance beyond my knowing it.” This belief in the irrelevance of what he knows as far as being useful to the present generation becomes a refrain in the book.

An epistemological question: Which human faculty brings wisdom? “Is wisdom knowledge or is it intuition? Is intuition learned by small observations of plus and minus, of good and bad?”

Can wisdom be dormant? “Still there,” says Remick, “but not brought out. Not to be confused with advice, wisdom must lie in the past needing a stimulus to bring it into the present.”

Now a bottom-line question: How can there be any wisdom at all? What kind of being are we humans?  For Remick, we’re not as the Western philosophical tradition has viewed us as having a mind separate from the body.  Instead, our mind is a product of brain, which is a product of evolution.   How, he asks, can humans be more than “a residual evolutionary response?” When we engage in thinking, our cerebral cortex, which makes thinking possible, “is working, guiding the pen as it pulls words out of a lexicon buried in my brain.” The brain produces the mind.  Ego is a “product of the mind.” Maybe, he conjectures, “wisdom is learning how to avoid this raging beast that lives somewhere in my mind and screams me, me, me…”

Perhaps, though, he speculates, “wisdom isn’t consciousness at all.  Maybe wisdom is the result of acceding to the inevitable residual evolutionary responses we call love, anger, fear, need, and greed.”  But does philosophical materialism rule out conscious choice—moral choice, for instance? Choices of whatever kind are programmed in us. We are not autonomous creatures as Kant would have us.  “Maybe wisdom is knowing how to choose rather than react, but right now every decision, while it seems to be mine, is actually the residual action repeated through time by those who came before me.”  This is philosophical determinism, based on a mechanistic view of human behavior.

He raises an interesting philosophical question about the brain: “Is it possible that the world we see is a construct of the brain and what we see is not there but merely a reality-of-mind that the brain constructs in its need to make sense of perception?” This question takes us, as Remick says, “to the eighteenth century, when the question about reality was brought again out of the classical mind into the mind of Enlightenment.” That is, it takes us to Bishop Berkeley, the Irish empiricist, and to Kant’s Copernican Revolution. 

A key question to ponder: Is knowledge wisdom?  There’s a time factor, he says. “I think that wisdom has something to do with knowledge through time.  That’s the temporal side of wisdom. But wisdom wears out.  A man whose wisdom has worn out finds that he is irrelevant. Waiting to die.  He’s obsolete, his wisdom has passed into nothinginess. He is redundant.”

In fact, says Remick, we have no wisdom after age forty. “After forty your ideas are obsolete, irrelevant, redundant.” At forty, he says, “you are out of sync with the culture, out of sync with the age, out of sync with the times.” Why? Because “how can knowing from the past be of any value to anyone in the present?” For instance, he says, “Now there are no card catalogs in libraries.  Everything I learned, everything I knew about libraries is passé.”  Today everything is computerized, with research time “measured in milliseconds.” And as to writing a novel? He used carbon paper for his first novel, and now it’s all electronic—in terms of composing as well as submitting and editing.  

Perhaps doubt is a necessary part of wisdom.  How can this be the case?  “Doubt feeds that corner of wisdom.  Is what I know necessary?” If, for Descartes, doubt became a means of determining certainty of knowledge, for Remick, the function of doubt is to consider, pragmatically, whether our knowledge serves a useful function.  As we age, and as times change, our knowing is of no use to the present generation, which has passed us by.

An important aspect of wisdom, as Remick sees it, is the function of silence. 

In fact, one refrain in the book is: “Wisdom is knowing when to speak your mind, but also wisdom is knowing when to keep your silence.” Why silence? “Wisdom is, for me, silence, age, experience, knowledge. But can I teach my grandchildren to adore silence? Why should I? Let them experience noise, music, voices, the sound of birds chirping.”

Wisdom, for Remick, is not related to intellectual matters only. The craft of a skilled laborer can amount to wisdom.  Think, he says, of the “right tools for the right job.” A job has a limited time-frame.  When “the work is done,” he “knows the work is done.”  This is a mastery: “he has done it many times, for many days, for many people, and his wisdom is knowing when to do it, why to do it and when it is done.” But like other matters of wisdom, there is a “waning” of such wisdom, “the dying of an art.” 

Can there be such a thing as “impractical wisdom,” the kind of knowing that is “of absolutely no use to animal or plant? Is that even possible? Can there be perfectly useless wisdom? Does wisdom imply usefulness?”  His answer: “Wisdom seems to have at least two traits—practical and temporal.”

As fiction writer and poet, Remick is naturally interested in the state of literature today.  Is there wisdom there?  If, at one time, there was some wisdom, now, for the most part, there is none.  In terms of evolution, he says, “In the structure of the brain there is embedded already all the characters, all the plots, and what we learn from writers such as CG Jung and Claude Levi-Strauss is that we simply cloak characters and plots in some temporal garb.” Given this fact, fiction writing is “Re-storytelling. Nothing more.”  So-called “creative” writing is merely imitative.  Instead of judging work for its creativity, Remick is interested in “how the writer did it.” Namely, he’s interested in structure and style. “What is the idiolect of the writer?” As far as the loss of wisdom in today’s writing, “the writer comes to grips with the vacuum of the modern world. The myths no longer yield allegory.” This leaves the modern writer, who is “an ignorant unread scientifically stupid person” to write about one thing: “the self.”

A crucial question arises.  What about books and the question of usefulness? Remick claims that he has no feeling of loss when he gives books away, even his own. “How many of us re-read books? Novels? Books of facts?  Why re-read old books when every day the universe floods us with new ones?” At the time of his writing this book, he’s reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  This book has lasted, he points out, two thousand years.  “The Meditations have survived for two millennia because what Marcus saw and thought and wrote is either artifact or wisdom for all ages.”  Which books, then, are the ones we should keep, reread, study? Are there any? Where does the Great Tradition figure in?  Are the ideas illuminated in the classics “irrelevant and obsolete”? Clearly certain practical things are, but literature?  Philosophy?  As a confirmed atheist from his youth, Remick doesn’t like Marcus’s references to god, though they are lowercase. Does the mention of god, or gods, make Marcus “irrelevant and obsolete”? He draws out.

This is a book that will make you think.  Make you question the foundations of knowledge—and wisdom—and the nature of both.  It deals with a wide variety of topics, from pain to death, from sex to marriage, in each case examining the question of wisdom.  In thirty-one entries, or pensées, he poses questions with, as we take it, only tentative answers.  His final line is: “I don’t know.” A good Socratic response.