Varieties of Curiosity

“I’ve got, I suppose, to a time of life when things begin to take on shapes that have an air of reality, and become no longer material for dreaming but interesting in themselves.”

~ H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay

As a young person (in fact, well into my twenties) all experience was to me material for dreaming, and the value of any particular object was summed up in the associations it suggested. I lived, I suppose, more among the ideas of things than among things themselves.

I was recently reminded of this state of affairs, and surprised by the degree to which it no longer obtained, while hiking with my family. We were climbing among basaltic outcrops in the Columbia River Gorge when my wife began plotting to befriend some unsuspecting geologist whom we might force to join us and answer our questions about the various land forms we encountered.

My teenage son objected that he didn’t believe knowing more about the geology of the place would increase his appreciation of it. Not that he lacked appreciation, but for him (and I paraphrase) the knowledge of the processes that produced environmental phenomena added little or nothing to his enjoyment of the phenomena themselves.

We might consider this an aesthetic perspective. It is more concerned with the ideas and sensations an object may summon in the intellect than with the nature of that object in itself. To fully adopt such a perspective would be to approach the whole panoply of outward experience in the guise of a tourist passing through an art gallery.

It is a popular notion that curiosity belongs particularly to the young, but the curiosity of the young tends toward narcissism (What does this object mean to me?). Maturity offers a more disinterested form of curiosity. It’s as if we are only able to be ask proper questions about things after we’ve grown tired of exploring our own inner spaces.