Socrates says the only way we can understand anything is by remembering it. After all, how could I possibly get my footing on a territory that I can’t see and don’t even know how to find?
Well, how do I understand this Platonic idea? Well, it’s a clear architectural narrative, visually and logically. I literally see the steps. Which is not to say, I only see it. I also see it with different faculties, some kind of conceptual or sensical apparatus that works in conjunction with my more familiar senses. How else am I capable of ever discerning anything invisible such as someone else’s mood (not to mention my own)?
So Socrates’ remembrance just doesn’t do it for me. I understand it but I don’t believe it; it doesn’t jibe with my experience. And, well, thinking about how we understand something new without remembering is more beautiful, strange, exotic. It conjures truly exquisite images.
There is something incredible — exhilarating, inspiring, erotic — about understanding something new: to learn a new way of going, a possible mode of becoming, a way of distributing the world. Whether I’m trying to understand Deleuze’s notion of repetition or how to do a proper downward dog, I have to be trained in its ways, learn how it goes and what it wants from me.
I get to watch my son, now 8, grapple with all sorts of new things. I see him move from nonsense to sense, from befuddlement to understanding, often and it never ceases to amaze me. But what’s even more amazing to me is watching him learn how to wrestle something he doesn’t understand. It can be frustrating — for him and for me. Recently, we’ve been discussing division — as in math — and I see him catch glimpses of it but, more often than not, I see the blank stares, the miasma that encases him.
There are of course many things I can’t understand — not things I don’t understand but things I can’t understand. Newtonian physics, for instance — no matter how many times I am told what happens to a ball when dropped from a window of a moving train, I fail to digest it. At the moment someone is drawing the picture for me, it seems to make sense. For a moment, in my teacher’s sketch, I can see the idea —which is strange for something invisible — and then, woosh, it’s gone.
This is pretty much how I feel when someone shows me certain yoga stretches: I can’t bend like that. All my Socratic memory is of no use. My body just doesn’t go like that.
Understanding is not just about access to the realm of ideas. No, it’s wound up, bound up, with my body — with my constitution, both physical and metaphysical, with my health, my age, my flexibility, my metabolism (some ideas are too rich for some people; gives them indigestion, or worse). Coming to something new, whether it’s a concept or a yoga pose, demands that I be able to move my body as it asks. And sometimes, this body just doesn’t want to bend.
This may seem strange as concepts are invisible. They are of the ether and hence equally accessible to all, right? Well, no. I have a terrible sense of direction. I should be able to see the virtual map of where I am — I see others do it — but I just can’t. Like my kid trying to understand division, when I try to orient myself, I draw a blank.
This is true of concepts, too: there are some I can grasp — bend to, bend with, hold, move with — and some I cannot. It took me years to understand Deleuze’s book, Difference & Repetition. He was asking me to bend in odd ways. In order to be able to do it, I had to train with him for two very difficult years which entailed doing things, thinking things, seeing things that I’d never done, thought, or seen.
Back in grad school, when I couldn’t understand something — say, Kant’s Critique of Judgment — I’d plan an evening with the book. I’d make a date. This was pre-cell phone but I would’ve turned off the phone. I’d dim the lights (mood is everything), smoke a joint (to loosen up tired thinking), sit in my big ol’ vintage cushy chair (comfort matters), place the book in my lap (as a mnemonic, a totem), and I’d set myself to understanding. I’d read some passages. I’d look up. I’d take a swig of whiskey. I’d walk around. And, by night’s end (hopefully; sometimes, it took days, weeks months, even years), I could see what I didn’t understand: I wasn’t necessarily doing the most graceful Kantian pose but I knew what he was asking of me. After that, it was just a matter of practicing.
Here are some of the things I do when trying to understand something:
- Drink coffee: This is probably the most important thing. Coffee is an incredible epistemological tool, opening up channels, speeding up flows that can flounder with languor.
- Tap my foot: Gotta keep blood flowing to the extremities
- Chew my pen: Salivation lubricates conceptual digestion without busying the metabolism with food.
- Stroll outside: Changes in scenery —what I literally see — help me see new things
- Close my eyes: Sometimes, the things I see with my eyes closed are more vivid than with my eyes open.
- Repeat: I’ll read the same passage over and over again but differently each time, imagining the italics.
- Read aloud: Often, reading in different tenors and timbres — lending an air of drama — helps the ideas come to life.
- Scan for a foothold: I flip through the book looking for some fragment — a sentence, a phrase — that I understand: a foothold in this new, strange land. And then I build out from there. This is the most practical thing I’ll tell you.
- Use a totem: I keep a physical marker of whatever it is I’m trying to understand, whether it’s a person, my own motives, or an idea. This marker helps me more easily conjure what I need to grasp.
- Write: The coercion of grammar can be a catalyst revealing logics that are not at first obvious. This is rarely effective. The blank page stymies as much as it liberates.
- Draw: As in pictures and diagrams and such. Similar to writing, images have a logic that can coerce new pathways.
Sometimes, I have to lean into the idea, literally push my body — my comportment, my memory, my associations— into it. Other times, I need to lean back, let it come to me, wash over me. Usually, it entails a moving back and forth, a davening, as in Jewish prayer, a rocking back and forth.
Consider Russell Crowe’s Maximus before he heads into battle. He squats, takes the soil in his hands, runs it through his fingers, and smells it. This is a great model for understanding anything: hold it, consider its weight, let it run through your fingers — of your hand, your memory, your conceptual facility.
To understand is to feel and see and smell and hear how something goes — how it shapes the world. And how it shapes you. To understand is to be able to bend with whatever it is, jibe with it, resonate with it, play with it. Understanding is not solely an abstract endeavor. It is thoroughly sensual. To understand something is to get jiggy with it, in every sense.