Three Questions (Or More)

Pablo Picasso once said that “computers are useless, because they can only give you the answers.” It is, of course, the questions that are important. And, I doubt whether computers can answer the really important questions.

Tolstoy was much concerned with questions. Many people do not realize that the great writer gathered and wrote thoughts which he organized for daily reading. I’m told that the original version had weekly stories inserted, but the translation of A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul that I have does not include them. However, one of the readings for October 19 was as follows:

Who am I? What should I do? What should I believe in and what should I hope for? All of philosophy is in these questions, said the philosopher Lichtenberg. But among all these questions, the most important one is that which is in the middle. If a person knows what he should do, he will understand everything he should know.

Three questions, one of which is the most important (according to Tolstoy), and no answers. But well worth thinking about.

Of course, this is reminiscent of the three questions Gauguin plastered right on the front of his magnificent painting (in French): Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? While Tolstoy seems to be struggling with belief, Gauguin is struggling with existential angst (aren’t we all?).

And, surely our questions come out of our beliefs. Here is Jeannette Winterson:

“To live for art… is to live a life of questioning. If you believe, as I do, that to live for art demands that every other part of life be moved towards one end, then the question, ‘How shall I live?’ is fierce.

Yes. And the questions are related. How shall I live? is much like Tolstoy’s What should I do? and dependent on Gauguin’s Where are we going?

But back to Tolstoy, who also wrote a story called “The Three Questions,” where – at least in the context of the story– there are actually some proposed answers. The story starts like a fairy tale (my italics):

It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

When, who, what? The king asks. After visiting a hermit in disguise and having a series of adventures, the king gets these answers from the wise hermit:

Remember then: there is only one time that is important — Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

Tolstoy is forever interested in morality and happiness, and, for Tolstoy, moral goodness equals happiness. In my opinion, this is not necessarily an absolute truth. And how certain can we be what “moral goodness” actually consists of? One might be reminded (as I was recently listening to an interview with the novelist Deborah Levy) that the only people who are absolutely certain about things are psychopaths.

What are your questions? When I was young my questions were open-ended and expressions of angst rather than clear frames for inquiry. “Is this all there is?” screams the young protagonist in Ryan’s Daughter. By old age, most of us have vented enough. For me, old age has given me the time to start formulating questions and resisting easy answers. You see many of my questions in this blog and most of my novels and stories are attempts to frame and explore questions. For example, as I approached old age, I wrote a novel about what might happen if the middle generation was wiped out, and only old folks and very young children were left. Surely, one of my more fanciful ideas, but one which gave me an opportunity to think about whether being old was different in very fundamental ways (other than the obvious physical changes).

Please, though, try to formulate your questions. When we are young we are full of questions and we express them freely. Talk to any three-year-old. When we are old, we feel vaguely confused about what the questions are. But they are there and you can express them. Not necessarily answer them, but you would be surprised how much framing the questions helps.

Tolstoy wrote another story to answer a question: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It is about a greedy man who dies trying to maximize his holdings. The answer to the title question is in the last lines: “His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

This week’s very short story, “Eye of the Needle,” is about questions we never get a chance to ask, and – perhaps – some answers (or hints to answers) that we didn’t realize we knew.

3 thoughts on “Three Questions (Or More)

  1. I suppose scientists are certain about well established things. I’m 77 and settled into my twilight years . At the moment I have my wife and occasional family visits as we had four children. My main lesson is the uncertainty of just about everything leading me to make the most of things while they last.


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