September 24, 2018

The Creativity of Doubt

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it has been said.

My entire life is by all counts a visible rejection of this dictum, given that I have spent all of my adult years learning or, until recently, teaching in universities.

I suspect I have even at times become a little intoxicated with knowledge, taking it in until I feel larger than myself and those around me. There’s a certain comfort in believing one knows more about a particular subject than most people.

And, believe me, I will never be one to argue against education or the various processes by which we acquire knowledge. For even if a little knowledge is  dangerous, it is also a source of power. Think, for example, of Black slaves in the American past who were prevented from learning to read, or women in certain countries who are prohibited from getting an education. For those in power, keeping knowledge out of the hands of those who are being controlled is critical to maintaining power.

But like everything worth having, knowledge is not without its complexities. I thought about this last week after reading Nicole Krauss’ spectacular new novel, “Forest Dark.”

What Judaism implicitly makes clear
is that it’s OK for our trust in certainty to waver.

Much like her other works, “Forest Dark” tells concurrently a few different stories that may or may not intersect. One thread, told from a first-person point of view, is the story of a woman who travels to Tel Aviv to find inspiration for her next novel. While there, she contemplates the familial obstacles that make it difficult for her to sink fully into her identity as a writer. Among those is her husband, a man who “prized facts above the impalpable, which he’d begun to collect and assemble around himself like a bulwark.”

Yes, I thought to myself, so many of us do this, don’t we? Perhaps especially in the age of easily accessible information, we use facts to erect fortresses around us, protecting us from what lies outside of the walls we build. We assume that the more we know, the less we will be tricked by lies and falsities. While this is obviously true to a degree, the price we pay for this “certainty” is rarely obvious.

A sense of certainty seals us off from the world outside our personal borders. The frenzied acquisition of what we believe to be knowledge causes us to hold more tightly to our own views and listen less to what others have to say.

These days, we read the news — typically from sources that confirm our views — all day, every day. We have, as Krauss puts it, “become drunk on our powers of knowing — having made a holiness out of knowing, and busying ourselves all day and night in our pursuit of it.” We have converted to “the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect.” And we are left with an illusion of the mastery of all things, rather than the mastery of anything at all.

We fear the possibility of diminishing certainty. But what Judaism implicitly makes clear is that it’s OK for our trust in certainty to waver, even to privilege doubt over certainty. Krauss reminds us that when God created light, he also created the absence of light. The world is, for Jews, “always both hidden and revealed.” And it is doubt, along with the questions that inevitably arise, that urges us to look for the hidden and sustain this beautiful tension.

Great novelists have always known this. E.L. Doctorow once suggested that doubt is the greatest civilizer of humanity. It’s what maintains a balance necessary for a life worth living — one composed of meaningful dialogue and real community.

I don’t generally make New Year’s resolutions, but if I were to make one this year, it would be a pledge to doubt a little more. I want to be a little less certain of what I hold to be true in some cases. I want to make way for more questions, even if they threaten to chip away at what I’ve built.

This uncertainty could be the beginning of a less dangerous world.


Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”