on the way to knowing

Kate Dwyer: I worry that—in America at least—the act of critical thinking is being devalued from a cultural perspective. Do you notice that as a thinker or teacher?

Anne Carson: That’s part of the thing that made me start thinking about hesitation. The last few years I was teaching, I was teaching ancient Greek part of the time and writing part of the time. And the ancient Greek method when I was in school was to look at the ancient Greek text and locate the words that are unknown and look them up in a lexicon. And then find out what it means and write it down. Looking up things in a lexicon is a process that takes time. And it has an interval in it of something like reverie, something like suspended thought because it’s not no thought because you have a question about a word and you attain that as you go through the pages looking for the right definition, but you’re not arrived yet at the thought. It’s a different kind of time, and a different kind of mentality than you have anywhere else in the day. It’s very valuable, because things happen in your thinking and in your feeling about the words in that interval. I call that a hesitation.

Nowadays people have the whole text on their computer, they come to a word they don’t know, they hit a button and instantly the word is supplied to them by whatever lexicon has been loaded into the computer. Usually the computer chooses the meaning of the word relevant to the passage and gives that, so you don’t even get the history of the word and a chance to float around among its possible other senses.

That interval being lost makes a whole difference to how you regard languages. It rests your brain on the way to thinking because you’re not quite thinking yet. It’s an absent presence in a way, but it’s not the cloud of unknowing that mystics talk about when they say that God is nothing and you have to say nothing about God because saying something about God makes God particular and limited. It’s not that—it’s on the way to knowing, so it’s suspended in a sort of trust. I regret the loss of that.

- Anne Carson, in interview with Kate Dwyer over at The Paris Review. You can read the whole interview here