The Galileo exhibit at the 2009 Rimini Meeting. Via Flickr

Back at Home Hungrier than Before

John Waters explains how his experience at the Meeting has launched him on the path of true knowledge through the testimony of human rights activist Harry Wu, a tour of the exhibit on Galileo, and other dramatic “encounters.”
John Waters

Many years ago, on my first school outing, I asked a science teacher to explain something to me. Why, I wondered, if I stood on a seat on the moving bus and dropped my lunchbox in the aisle, did it fall directly below the point where I had released it–as though I had dropped it in a stationary bus, or, indeed, a room–rather than, since the bus was moving, whizzing backwards and smashing against the back window of the bus? The teacher told me not to be ridiculous, that it was a stupid question, and anyway it was against the rules to stand on the seats and that I should sit down and be quiet.

In the intervening decades, I have occasionally pondered the same question. From time to time, I have asked people (never, for perhaps obvious reasons, professional scientists) if they think it a reasonable question but, of these, only my 13-year-old daughter has seemed to think that it is. At the Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples this year, however, I was able to see reconstructions of some of the instruments used four centuries ago by Galileo to show how and why this happens, using a related proof to demonstrate the falsity of the then-prevalent belief that the Earth was not moving.

Infinitely nurturing. Please don’t expect me to relate the precise details of these experiments. The Galileo exhibition was in Italian, and the English translation, though adequate in conveying the general sense of the master’s work, was a little woolly on the details. Anyway, my daughter is the scientist in our family. But, no matter. The main thing is that, after forty years, I discovered that I was not as stupid a child as I had been led to believe. This knowledge, I can assure you, was for me a tremendous event. This is just one fragment of memory of the 2009 Meeting. But it is also emblematic of the experience of encountering knowledge in the particular way that is the hallmark of the Meeting. Never have I been present at an event other than the Meeting that manages to convey information in such a way: by offering facts and information, discussion and experience on a basis that is in its essence gratuitous, but in its detail infinitely nurturing. There is no ulterior motive, no concealed purpose, other than the imparting of knowledge for its own sake, so as to feed the recipient with the joy that true knowledge brings. And this feeding seems to open the recipient up in a way that could almost be called intoxicating. No other kind of “knowledge” event has this sense of excitement, this sense of shared meaning, this celebration of everything that happens or might happen, all leaning pointedly toward the infinity of possibility. For me, this year was defined by my first encounter, also the Meeting’s first encounter, between myself and Harry Wu, the Chinese dissident who spent 19 years in one of his country’s laogai, or prison camps, and who now lives in the U.S. and campaigns to draw attention to the abuses of human rights in his native land. It was for me a difficult encounter, because I was conscious of the cultural misunderstandings likely to emerge in any attempt to comprehend why the West remains so ambivalent about China. Harry Wu is a somewhat truculent and uncompromising man. If he feels something, he is likely to say it, rather than allow the misunderstanding to rest out of politeness. We had a few such moments in our discussion but, in the end, these contributed to the drama of the encounter, which I believe succeeded in conveying Wu’s experience without sentimentalism or piety.

Boundless curiosity. All through the following week, I encountered people who were fascinated by what they had seen and heard in this discussion, who wanted to know if their understandings were the same as mine and, while feeling a deep sense of empathy toward Wu, had also become aware of the complexities and paradoxes that seemed to rise up out of his story. What we saw was connected to the meaning of freedom–for Harry Wu, for ourselves, and, beyond that, in the very air and words we shared. For me, as for those I encountered in this way, nothing was finally realized, nothing wrapped up in a neat package. Harry Wu opened us up to the confusion as much as to the clarity of what his experience conveyed, which means that, even now, several days after the conclusion of the Meeting, having already written one article about Wu, I am still struggling with the questions and challenges his experience presents. This, I belatedly begin to understand, is the path of true knowledge–along which we can expect to be engaged, confused, moved, intrigued, annoyed, and challenged, and never simply offered pieces of information to share at a dinner party. True knowledge is, yes, an end in itself, but it is always too a beginning, an impetus to discover more, to discover everything, to feed that boundless curiosity that defines our humanity.

Detached from the schemas. It is easy to be deceived by the content of the Meeting, which on the whole appears to be a bumper accumulation of the things we deal with in our everyday culture. But the approach is different in that it opens everything out in the direction of what is unknowable. Everything, then, is immediately seen to lead somewhere else, to become detached from the schemas that our culture creates to accommodate knowledge that is contingent or provisional or partial. This is at the root of the exhilaration that the Meeting infuses, right from the first moment. What is unleashed within the human heart is the boundless curiosity that elsewhere is afraid to declare itself for fear of revealing what will seem like something baneful–ignorance or stupidity–but is really something good, being connected to the values of humility and wonder that define the capacity for true knowledge. When these channels are reopened, the advent of new understanding is always tremendous, always an awakening, always an event that opens up questions about the meaning of all things.
I come away from the 30th Meeting longing to know more: about China and its history; about Galileo and his discoveries; about the St. Paul so vividly conveyed by Fr. Carrón; about Maria Zambrano and why it is that someone who has long been embraced by the Spanish left wrote the kind of ideas that get other people, myself included, dismissed by our cultures as reactionary conservatives.

The Galileo exhibit at the 2009 Rimini Meeting.

For me, the highlight of the Meeting was the keynote talk by Carmine Di Martino, “Knowledge is Always an Event.” I do not claim to have understood everything, for it was a dense and difficult delivery of, as Di Martino cautioned on several occasions, fragments of the overall analysis. But everything about this encounter suggested that it was essential for me to achieve a clear understanding of the path of knowledge sketched out by Di Martino, as the next step in penetrating the Giussani method. It struck me that what was being imparted was pure knowledge–not abstractions as such, but refined concepts that render visible some of the core dilemmas of our culture, in the way mathematics renders science accessible to reason. The next step, I felt, was for myself: to grasp these concepts and translate them into analogies, experiences, and words that occur in everyday culture, so that I can begin to see more clearly the problematic conditions the maestro so deftly crystallized.

I came away from the Meeting, this year more than other years, hungrier and not a little bereft. I have resolved to get books about Galileo and Zambrano. I intend to provoke my local branch of Amnesty International to do something useful and invite Harry Wu to Dublin.

I am struggling with the enormity of what I have seen. There is an infinity of things to know. It would be easy to feel that I have wasted much time already, and cannot afford to waste more. But this would be to miss the point. I cannot know everything, or even anything in its total depth. I can only adhere to my desire to understand as much as is possible, while accepting that this desire is insatiable. This is what I really learned at this year’s Meeting: that my time is not infinite, but my curiosity is.