Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Curiosity Killed the Cat, but ...
Curiosity killed the cat. (Nine times?) Curious George is continually in trouble. And yet ... we want our children to be curious. (Well, most of the time--sometimes we punish them.) We praise others for the trait. (Well, most of the time--sometimes we put them in prison--even execute them.)
Any culture is a collection of contradictions.
My Dictionary of American Proverbs (Oxford UP, 1992) says that the first published use of the expression about curiosity and cats occurred in 1909. The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings (1996) confirms that 1909 date--and notes that it's "one of the 101 most frequently used American proverbs" (48).
So ... the saying is more or less the age of my father and mother, who were born, respectively, in 1913 and 1919. Of course, the saying was certainly in conversational circulation before someone published it.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of the word curiosity to mean the "desire to know or learn" back to 1384.
Well, hang with me a minute ...
Curiosity certainly can be a perilous trait--especially uninformed curiosity. (Think: sticking a paperclip into a wall socket--just to see.) Especially risky is curiosity about things that (powerful) others wish to keep concealed--everything from the location of Dad's extra cigarettes to Edward Snowden-ian political secrets. As all watchers of mob movies know: Asking the wrong person the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time can result in a long walk in a set of cement shoes on a short pier.
History has shown us as well that being curious, say, about the movement of celestial objects--or about the origins of life--can be risky, even fatal.
And, so, yes ... curiosity can kill all sorts of cats, feline and human.
Not too long ago, in search of something to stream, Joyce and I settled on HBO's 2012 miniseries Parade's End, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens, the central character in Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy (Parade's End), a series of novels (published in the 1920s) dealing with events before, during, and after World War I.
We loved the miniseries, and after it was over, curious, I decided to read Parade's End, among the most famous works I'd never read.
Yesterday afternoon (Monday) I finished the final page (#836) in the single-volume edition of the novels. Novel four is called "The Last Post" (1928). And when I read the last word ("I"), I felt the sorrow I've always felt when I've finished something I've grown to care for--e.g., the last book by Jack London or Mary Shelley or Edgar Poe or Dickens or Thackeray or Trollope or Rowling or Raymond Chandler or Robert B. Parker or ...
And that sorrow lingers until my curiosity arouses me once again--until I once again dive into an unfamiliar stream, hoping it will carry me somewhere miraculous.
For I learned long, long, long ago that curiosity may well kill a cat. But it keeps me alive.