The Tantalizing Tree Of Knowledge
From Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto XXIV (Hollander). The poet and Virgil, accompanied by Statius, approach the end of the terrace where Gluttons are purged of their sin. We have seen them near-starved from fasting, yet joyful that they are being purified, and will soon be granted entrance to Paradise. Near the exit, this is what Dante, Statius, and Virgil see:
Suddenly a second tree, its branches green
and weighted down with fruit,
caught my eye as we came nearer.
I saw a crowd beneath it raising up their hands
and calling — I don’t know what — up at the foliage,
like headlong, foolish children
who beg, but he from whom they beg does not reply
and, to make their longing even stronger,
holds the thing they want aloft and does not hide it.
Then they went away as if enlightened,
and it was our turn to approach the lofty tree
that turns away so many prayers and tears.
“Pass on, do not come any closer.
This is the offshoot of that tree above
from which Eve plucked and ate the fruit.”
It was Eve’s gluttony — her immoderate appetite, unrestrained by divine command — that caused the downfall of the human race. This tree, laden with fruit at the end of the terrace of the Gluttons, is a final temptation to them. It shows them what awaits them, but only in God’s good time. Metaphorically, this image teaches us that we must not be greedy for knowledge that is more than we can bear. In time, after we mature and advance in perfection, things will be made known to us that, if we received them now, would ruin us.
The message: Wait. Stay on the path. Your hunger will soon be satisfied, but in God’s time, not your own.
I needed to hear that very much right now. You too, maybe. How often we hunger for knowledge and experience that is too much for us to bear in our particular state. That has always been a fault of mine: I want to know, and I want to know right now! One of my schoolteachers once called me Kipling’s Elephant’s Child; “And still he was full of ‘satiable curiosity.”
UPDATE: In response to a comment in the thread below, I said:
Do you know the literary critic Roger Shattuck’s book Forbidden Knowledge? It is a (mostly literary) study of the concept of, well, forbidden knowledge. It’s a great book, and kind of politically incorrect, in the sense that we today tend to react strongly against anybody who says that any knowledge should be forbidden, because it could destroy us.
I wrote here last year about Shattuck’s rich and challenging book; please read that post if you’re interested in exploring the topic further. I was inspired to write it by the following quote from Auden:
“In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.”
Think of that: the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to.