A Conceptual Revolution

The creative side of culture change

Does Our Obsession with Knowing Keep Us from Living Fully?

Our love of knowledge may be getting in the way of love.

 

I had a uniquely terrific experience in the theatre last week. In the off-Broadway Minetta Lane Theatre in NYC’s Greenwich Village, 15 actors played 100 parts in 57 scenes—each scene (whether 30-seconds or 3-minutes long) sharply and poignantly depicting the myriad ways people are obsessed with knowledge and how this obsession permeates our everyday conversations and relationships. The play is Love and Information, the latest from Caryl Churchill, the British playwright of world renown. 

As a psychologist, the play resonated strongly with my experience that information- and knowledge-seeking/assessing are the norm. People do it with each other and they do it with themselves. It’s become what we talk about and share with each other. Even more, it’s come to define what it even means to carry on a meaningful conversation. 

All the scenes in the play “deal with the ways we lust for, process and reject knowledge,” as The New York Times theatre reviewer put it. 

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One scene entitled simply “Shrink” is an obvious choice for this column. It consists of two characters (who know each other) having a conversation. One of the character’s relentless search-and-assess strategy has her missing the significance of what the other is telling her, failing to connect with her, and being snarky to her as well.

Here’s the dialogue: 

It used to be just pain

the memories of what happened to you when you were a child

and

and the things I wasn’t letting myself remember of course

the things you’d

yes and now

so the analysis has stopped it hurting

not so much stopped

as what?

changed it into

changed it into?

transformed it

into what though?

It has meaning.

Because you see where it comes from?

partly that

and how it’s affected the way you are?

partly that

and partly what?

It just has meaning now.

What does it mean?

It doesn’t mean something. There isn’t exactly another thing that it means.

Then what do you mean when you say it has meaning now?

You spoil it. You completely spoil everything. You always do.

That must be painful for you. You can take it to your analyst and have it turned into meaning.

In these few lines we are witness to the conceptual revolution in its everyday-ness. The characters exemplify two ways to be in the world and understand what happens to us. It’s encapsulated in their talk about meaning (what kind of a thing it is, how it’s judged, the necessity of meaning being about something, etc.) One character insists whatever experience the other is sharing is meaningful only if she knows about it; experience, feelings, thoughts, and the like don’t count as “real” unless you know and can explain what they mean. In contrast, for the other character, meaning doesn’t require this kind of ‘knowing about.’ As she says, “It has meaning…It doesn’t mean something. There isn’t exactly another thing that it means.”

Put another way, here’s how another reviewer summed up the play:
 “Love and Information could go by many titles. Feeling and Knowing, perhaps, or Experience and Science, or Right Brain and Left Brain. Each of these pairings suggests, albeit less elegantly, the paradox that British playwright Caryl Churchill has used her new play to explore. How, this play asks, do we handle the gap between knowing the world and living in it?” 

 

 

 

Lois Holzman, Ph.D., is the director of the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy.

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