Thoughts on the Pleasures of Half Understanding

For about a year now I’ve been finding it hard to read novels.  I’ve enjoyed a handful of them but have been drawn far more compulsively to non-fiction.  Specifically, I like books about niche subjects I know nothing about.  Most of what I read in this fashion flies straight over my head, but bits of it stay with me as little marooned facts or adrift anecdotes.  These sometimes lead to other non-fiction book purchases, or lengthy Google sessions reading about things I can only hope to half understand.  I take great pleasure in the state of half understanding.  I don’t trust anybody who claims to fully understand anything about the world we live in.

The most recent book I’ve read along these lines is James Kale McNeley’s brief but fascinating study, Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy.  In keeping with the above explanation, my sincere apologies if this is something you happen to know a lot about already, in which case I will sound like a half-understanding buffoon.  But let me just say that through reading it I have discovered, even though I only half understand it, that the Navajo belief system is downright beautiful.

The Navajo (or Diné, as they term themselves) believe in the Holy Wind (called the Nílch’i), which is essentially the entirety of the atmosphere.  It’s the air we breathe, the thermal currents that propel the birds, the tickling breeze and the destructive hurricane.  It’s a supreme being.  In various guises it enters us and informs our actions, and the whorls on our fingertips and toes are the marks it leaves when it enters or exits.  It carries/blows our speech from tongue to ear, but it can also blow our thoughts and prayers.  The Diné believe in various smaller weather phenomenonen that can advise us or bedevil us, and if my half-understanding doesn’t fail me they conceive of these more situational phenomena as facets of the Holy Wind, a bit like the three aspects of the Christian Holy Trinity.

The Diné’s is a meteorological belief system, a pantheon of weather where dust devils are ghosts and whispering breezes are holy messengers.  McNeley’s book will provide a far better explanation of its intricacies than I could ever hope to, but I mention it on this blog because I want to recommend to you the pleasures of half understanding.  Our culture seems to place a great deal of emphasis on absolute comprehension: we are either experts or idiots.  But I would suggest that if we pick up and read a non-fiction book that we cannot hope to fully understand, then it can lead our minds towards weird and wonderful new places.  And after we have toured enough of those, maybe we’ll know the world better than the experts…

A dust devil, after all, is kind of spooky.

Comments 3

  1. Elise wrote:

    As usual, very well said. I’ve always been partial to the Hopi’s belief in cyclical time, a concept that can really turn one’s grey matter inside out.

    PS. Also, isn’t Stornoway just fantastic? Thanks for posting the 4AD link.

    Posted 09 Sep 2010 at 5:10 pm
  2. Katie wrote:

    That’s a fantastic way to put it. I feel like that could very well describe my university experience. Right now, I’m *trying* to read Ulysses with a year-long discussion group organized by my local library (it helps that it’s held at a pub). Even though the book is fiction, the pleasure of half understanding definitely applies! I’ve accepted I won’t recognize or know most of the literary and historical references sprinkled throughout the text. But I refuse to let that ruin the fun 😉

    Posted 09 Sep 2010 at 5:13 pm
  3. Ali wrote:

    I’d not come across the Hopi stuff before, but a quick Google fix has amended that and it looks fascinating. And yep, Stornoway are such a great band. Worth trying to catch live if you can, as they never disappoint. I’ll try to embed the link on this blog.

    As for Ulysses, I definitely agree that that’s a book for half understanding.

    I’m sure there are people who would fiercely oppose this as a terribly non-academic point of view, but I like to read books like that (The Wasteland is another good example) as impressionistic works rather than endlessly complex puzzles made from symbols and obscure references. Arguably they ARE endlessly complex puzzles made from obscure references, but if I want that I’ll try to do a cryptic crossword, not read a book.

    I don’t understand cryptic crosswords either, by the way.

    Posted 10 Sep 2010 at 3:51 pm