Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Urge To Explain

Herewith some further notes on yesterday’s perhaps too-dense riff on Graves. Staring at the darkness before sleep rescued me last night, I wondered why some delight in the most obscure discoveries and bring them to the world still mostly shrouded in mystery—while others bend themselves into tortured pretzels to make even the simplest things as intelligible as possible. Graves delighted in his discoveries but also complained, with some bitterness, when specialist scholars, undoubtedly as deeply versed as he was, ignored him—this especially regarding his discoveries of Celtic roots in The White Goddess. Paradoxically Graves also greatly admired other ancient riddlers among the Celtic poets who hid secret wisdom unfit for those who hadn’t penetrated the deepest mysteries—and never might.

One no doubt facile explanation waiting for me as I woke up this morning was that the urge to explain, to make things plain, may be the consequence of birth order—always assuming that the first-born is not an only child and that younger siblings are therefore present to instruct. Putting on my sweater, still in the dark, I thought: “I’ll bet you money that Graves was not a first-born child.” And, indeed, he wasn’t. He was the third of five children, significantly, I think, of a school inspector and Gaelic scholar Alfred Perceval Graves. And his mother, A.P.’s second wife, Amalie von Ranke, was a great-niece of a famous German historian, Leopold von Ranke. Ah! To be the third of five—in a family of this flavor. That, to me, explains a lot: parents bright as shiny new coins and infinitely wiser. They would, of course, understand whatever mysteries he brought them, Look Mom, Look Dad! He wouldn’t have to explain the mystery; discovery would be enough.

The first-born are always explaining to younger sisters, brothers. It is the hand that they are dealt—and if the requisite gifts are there anyway, it becomes natural. Clarity of explanation is a virtue at that level; the younger are stubbornly ignorant, it seems. They must be made to see. Hence—the urge to explain. Life, alas, isn’t democratic. First-borns are also loners, at least at first; or they certainly don’t suffer as much when left alone. Those in the middle tend, on the whole, to be more naturally at home in society, first-borns more at home in a hierarchy—provided, of course, that they are at the top; they feel almost naturally troubled by being in the middle. Deep sigh. So many challenges, so difficult to explain them all…


  1. very profound, thank you, and do consider expanding this reflection-- fo instance, can first borns be good listeners? :) faiz

  2. Faiz: My answer is Yes, but it depends on who is talking.