The problem with knowing everything.

“The interesting thing about irony for me is that real irony is far more sincere than earnestness. To accept the absurdity of a situation is to accept the humanness of it. Utter sincerity suggests a kind of belief that one knows all there is to know about a given circumstance. That is not to say that one should ever make light of serious and grave and important issues, but that open and genuine intellectual curiosity should never be a casualty in any situation. Irony is not always funny. Humor is not always ironic.” –“Coming Home from Irony: An Interview with Percival Everett, Author of So Much Blue

This course epigraph reminded me of a quote from Thoreau’s Walking where he discusses man’s search for knowledge. He states, “which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks he knows all?” In the following pages Thoreau explains that the man who admits to knowing nothing learns more than he who believes he knows all. The first man asks questions, remains curious, and is open to new ideas, whereas the second closes his mind and disregards information from other sources. My interpretation of Thoreau’s message is that sometimes people need to put away their pride in order to gain deeper knowledge and understanding of ideas.

I believe that Everett is suggesting a similar meaning in this epigraph. As defined in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, irony is a contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality. It is often a discrepancy between what someone says and what he or she means. In the form of dramatic irony, a character believes that they know everything about a situation. This ignorance and overconfidence cause a catastrophic event that leads to their ultimate downfall.

One example of this is in Pentheus’ character in Euripides play The Bacchae. Pentheus mocks his grandfather Cadmus, and the seer Tiresias for going to worship the god Dionysus. He states “This is the man who says that Dionysus is a god, this man who says he was once sewn into the thigh of Zeus, when in fact he was destroyed by the fiery lightning bolt, he and his mother, because she falsely named Zeus as her lover! Is this not monstrous, does it not merit the hangman’s noose.” In this proclamation, Pentheus believes he knows all the facts about Dionysus and threatens to hang the man that claims to be a god. Like the second man Thoreau refers to, Pentheus believes he knows all. Ironically, it is his own head that is displayed at the end of the play. His refusal to listen to anyone else lead to his own death.

To understand the first sentence of the epigraph I consulted the Merriam Webster dictionary which defined sincerity as “free of dissimulation: honest, pure.” This definition reminded me of a conversation between the characters of Dionysus and Vlepo in Percival Everett’s novel Frenzy. In this conversation Dionysus says “Wouldn’t you hate to be a literal meaning? To be a single-meaning expression. I suppose one would be pure.” Dionysus says that sincerity refers to literal meaning and expression that is completely pure. When a character believes they are utterly sincere, Everett states that they “believe they know all there is to know about a subject.” Therefore, purity can be related to ultimate knowledge about a situation.

This epigraph helps the reader to seek to understand the purpose of irony in literary works. Irony is a powerful tool that can be used to show the qualities of a character. One message that I have taken from Everett’s quote is that people must always be open to learning more. If someone believes they know all there is about a situation it is likely to lead to their misfortune. Even with earnest and grave issues it is important for people to stay curious, and open minded.

I think this message can be applied to understanding literature in English 203. It reminds me of a warning that Dr. McCoy started one of our classes with. She said to be cautious with scorn and that when used as a habit it loses its value. Scorn as defined by Merriam Webster is an expression of contempt or derision. In order to scorn, one must believe they know all there is to know about a topic and that no one else has anything more to add to the conversation.

My takeaway is that when trying to understand and analyze literature I must be willing to accept the fact that there can be many interpretations. This epigraph reminds me that I must come from a place of curiosity and openness throughout this class. When we act like Thoreau’s first man and admit to knowing nothing, we gain the most understanding and the deepest knowledge.