Do we want to know each other?

By Andrei Codrescu

There seem to be two schools of thought about knowing people: one holds that you can never know another, and the other that you can, partially. No one thinks that you can know anyone completely. The question rarely asked is, why would you want to know anyone? The answers may vary: because you love them, because you hate them, because you need them, because you’re curious. The school of “you-can’t-know-anybody” has plenty of historical backup, most famously the nice people of Europe who turned into murderers when they had an excuse to do so. This is probably what caused J. P. Sartre to write that “hell is other people.” Those other people were the ones you could never know. The school of “you-can-know-people” is based on the belief that humans share a commonality that transcends differences.

Both schools ignore whether people want to be known or not. Some people do not want to be known and, to this end, they armor themselves; they construct elaborate structures of rhetoric, superstition, culture and decorative steel, to prevent others’ attempts at knowing them. They build their defenses from everything in the world, including their own flesh. Other people try, on the contrary, to be known as much as possible: they exhibit themselves, confess, lament, blog, and draw their bodies on screens, walls and sidewalks. The ones in hiding may sometimes be disguised as exhibitionists, and vice versa. Too much self-disclosure may actually be self-defense, and some coyness may actually be a stealth probe. Genuine rejectionists draw the line at their bodies; that is where their border is. True exhibitionists are globalists; your body and soul are theirs. Between the two there lies the entire story of consciousness, with its plot points determined by history.

During ages of poverty, political or religious oppression, wars, real or imagined scares, epidemics and big national causes, people do not, generally, like to be known; they’d rather hide, slide by, fly under radar, be thought of as innocuous. In ages like ours, of prosperity, circuses and festivals, everyone exhibits, displays, and makes friendly signs. The zeitgeist demands either anonymity and conformity or openness of borders and bodies. Still, some people simply do not wish to be known, whatever the character of their time: They maintain an inviolable core, and work to harden it against penetration by others. The others, even in times of terror, wish the world to know that they are knowable, that they are “human,” that they are harmless and available. The hidden draw their essence around a small seed, in imitation of what exploded when the world was made, while the worldly expand to fill every nook and cranny like light and water.

The greatest concession to being known made by the hidden is to accept others, to achieve a degree of tolerance. To the open, on the other hand, tolerance carries a pejorative. To tolerate curiosity or difference is not the same as to allow access. Tolerance is a recommended therapy for theists because if what one believes is true is true, then it doesn’t matter if one believes it or not. Tolerance means nothing to one disposed not only to accept but to give oneself away.

Wisdom means feeling sorry for both, but who am I to talk?