Manvotional: The Know-It-All State of Mind

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 26, 2011 · 23 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

From “New Mexico,” 1928
By DH Lawrence

Superficially, the world has become small and known. Poor little globe of earth, the tourists trot round you as easily as they trot round the Bois or round Central Park. There is no mystery left, we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, we know all about it. We’ve done the globe, and the globe is done.

This is quite true, superficially. On the superficies, horizontally, we’ve been everywhere and done everything, we know all about it. Yet the more we know, superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically. It’s all very well skimming across the surface of the ocean and saying you know all about the sea. There still remain the terrifying under-deeps, of which we have utterly no experience.

The same is true of land travel. We skim along, we get there, we see it all, we’ve done it all. And as a rule, we never once go through the curious film which railroads, ships, motor-cars and hotels stretch over the surface of the whole earth. Peking is just the same as New York, with a few different things to look at: rather more Chinese about, etc. Poor creatures that we are, we crave for experience, yet we are like flies that crawl on the pure and transparent mucous paper in which the world like a bon-bon is wrapped so carefully that we can never get at it, though we see it there all the time as we move about it, apparently in contact, yet actually as far removed as if it were the moon.

As a matter of fact, our great-grandfathers, who never went anywhere, in actuality had more experience of the world than we have, who have seen everything. When they listened to a lecture with lantern-slides, they really held their breath before the unknown, as they sat in the village school-room. We, bowling along in a rickshaw in Ceylon, say to ourselves: “It’s very much what you’d expect.” We really know it all.

We are mistaken. The know-it-all state of mind is just the result of being outside the mucous-paper wrapping of civilization. Underneath is everything we don’t know and are afraid of knowing.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chad Tyson June 26, 2011 at 2:46 am

And how plainly it has been laid out there!

2 Nobbynob June 26, 2011 at 4:20 am

…And then the Internet came. Now we can now get our minds blown all day e’ryday, no lantern-slides required.

So this writer, he observes this behavior where civilized, worldly men skim the surface of things without gaining in-depth understanding; and that’s bad! Okay, fine, we’ve got our ethos there, and a fine ethos it is. But I still think the excerpt is rubbish.

Sure, the ethos is fine, but the logos is shoddy. Having observed this behavior in multiple places from multiple people, he asserts that everyone is doing this with everything! Including me? Shame on me! But wait, isn’t that a hasty generalization? Why yes, so it is: a logical fallacy. If he looked a little deeper at his fellow humans instead of just observing them superficially, he might have found that most people aren’t like that. Practice what you preach, Mr. Lawrence (see, I can be pithy too).

And then he talks about the days of yore, in which people were so starved for mental stimulus that they studied what little stimulus they had in depth. Given this, and given that we have established by ethos that we want to study things more in-depth, the logical conclusion seems to be that we should reduce the mental stimuli available to us all. Luckily, this is already taken care of, as my state has slashed funding for education. Cheers!

But wait there’s more! Look at this: “Yet the more we know, superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically.” In other words, by knowing a wider variety of things, we know those things less in-depth. The corollary: by knowing a narrower variety of things, we know those things more in-depth. But this is a false dichotomy! And the two are not proportional to one another! For example, an infant doesn’t know much beyond sleeping/eating/pooping, while I certainly do; despite this, I am certain that I know a great deal about sleeping/eating/pooping than any infant. A man both broadens and deepens his knowledge – I think we all know that. It happens naturally. Especially when it involves sleeping/eating/pooping!

You know, I’m not too enthused about the pathos in this excerpt either! It comes off as very negative, and possibly even fatalistic! That’s not manly at all :(

3 Don E. Chute June 26, 2011 at 6:01 am

Wow who pissed on ‘Nobbynob’s’ Wheaties this morning?….Know it all I take it.

If DH were alive today he probably would write the same thing…”There is no mystery left, we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, we know all about it. We’ve done the globe, and the globe is done”.

With exception, the Manly thing would conclude, “It ain’t DONE till I say it’s DONE!”.


4 Mr Writing III June 26, 2011 at 9:40 am

Odd piece but I think the author has a point. You can be discussing a game from 15 years ago and 20 yr old will pull “a fact” of the game and state something as though he knows all about it. If you actually watched the game you know in depth the nuances and momentum shifts, etc beyond just QB so-and-so won the gave is MVP.

5 G. Schuster June 26, 2011 at 10:54 am

The piece makes a good point, although in a way that makes it easy to misunderstand. He uses the rhetorical device of hyperbole to give it punch. He’s not foolish enough to claim that all of us moderns skim the surface of life. Yet, many of us do, and in any case, the danger of lateral exploration to the exclusion of depth is quite present in our mechanized, consumerized, globalized, information-rich world. One obvious example: American high school, with its leave-no-child-behind, lowest-common-denominator curricula. I teach freshmen philosophy courses at a large state university, and I can say from daily exposure that these kids, for the most part, consider knowing to be a collection of surface-level facts, not depth of thought. Anyway, this piece is more of a warning than an accusation.

Also, his indictment is conditional. He points out at the very beginning that the view that the world has become superficial for us is itself superficial. That’s how it appears, not how it is. If we don’t look beyond the surface of our own worldviews, we will be doomed to approach the world as if it were only superficial.

It’s a clever piece. To understand it, you have to look beyond it’s surface. Just the process of thinking about it illustrates its point.

6 Adrian June 26, 2011 at 5:51 pm

I would have to agree with G. Schuster’s interpretation. I don’t believe that the author is making broad sweeping generalizations as Nobbynob seems to suggest; but rather he seems to be issuing a warning as to a rising trend which he had been observing at the time of his writing.

I believe that the rapidly dropping cost of international travel during his time reflects very closely the effects that the advent of the internet has provided us in recent times. While new experiences are more accessible and attractive to the masses due to their novelty, I do find that many people seem to enjoy travel simply for the sake of it. The modern tourist is a phenomenon that I believe has only risen in the recent decades. Going “sight-seeing” is currently defined as travelling around the world observing the temples and landscapes of different cultures. Yet very few of these tourists engage with the people and understand the culture that exists within the populace rather than the ancient buildings and government sanctioned monuments and historical sites. In the centuries past, those who would travel to a far-off place would often stay for years (as opposed to a few days) in order to let the local culture percolate throughout their soul. Such “fast-food” tourism that is so common today is what I believe the author is describing.

As a corollary, the internet very much encourages the same type of personalities. While allowing many people to find and learn about a multitude of subjects, it is also prone to “fast-food-ism”. One example of this is the declining population of those who read books compared to the ever increasing population of those who read Twitter updates. Therefore, as “netizens” of the 21st century, we must be vigilant in terms of the information that we take in. And as a result, the publication of this excerpt is very timely indeed.

7 Brett McKay June 26, 2011 at 6:24 pm

I don’t think the passage is odd or that it means what Nobby thinks it does. Adrian and Mr. Schuster get more to the heart of it.

I think the passage is interesting to ponder itself, but perhaps it will help to add more context. It continues:

“We are mistaken. The know-it-all state of mind is just the result of being outside the mucous-paper wrapping of civilisation. Underneath is everything we don’t know and are afraid of knowing.I realised this with shattering force when I went to New Mexico.

New Mexico, one of the United States, part of the USA. New Mexico, the picturesque reservation and playground of the eastern states, very romantic, old Spanish, Red Indian, desert mesas, pueblos, cowboys, penitentes, all that film-stuff. Very nice, the great South-West, put on a sombrero and knot a red kerchief round your neck, to go out in the great free spaces! That is New Mexico wrapped in the absolutely hygienic and shiny mucous-paper of our trite civilisation. That is the new Mexico know to most of the Americans who know it at all. But break through the shiny sterilized wrapping and actually touch the country, and you will never be the same again.

I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me for ever. Curious as it may sound, it was New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilisation, the great era of material and mechanical development. Months spent in holy Kandy, in Ceylon, the holy of holies of southern Buddhism, had not touched the great psyche of materialism and idealism which dominated me. And years, even in the exquisite beauty of Sicily, right among the old Greek paganism that still lives there, had not shattered the essential Christianity on which my character was established.

But the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.”

The idea then is not about the amount of stimuli we take in, or even breadth vs depth of knowledge. although that is part of it too, but the key is a sense of wonder. Getting past the idea of something, to really experience it. Our great-grandparents knew more because they knew they didn’t know everything. Or as Socrates said, “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”

8 Nobbynob June 26, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Just because I see something to criticize and then do so doesn’t mean anyone pissed in my Wheaties. Just because I spent a lot of time futzing over it doesn’t mean that I’m mad, or that I’m raging. I mean, I just spent half an hour futzing over “Wriggle’s Lantern vs. Bloodthirster in League of Legends” and that was certainly out of love, not rage (lol). It also doesn’t mean that I myself am only skimming the surface here.

What I did here was read the excerpt posted. I felt a niggling; something in here doesn’t fit. So I read the excerpt carefully. In-depth. I analyzed it, and figured out what was bothering me. What I did not do was find the full text; after all, there was nothing here to imply that this was only a part of a larger work. It could just be a short essay. But if I did do so, I would have been broadening my experience, not deepening it.

“But wait Nobby, why would that be broadening instead of deepening?”

By posting a selective portion of the text, the message is being changed.

Suppose Smith says, “I swear whenever I stub my toe. Of course, I stub my toe a lot… so I swear a lot.” Now suppose Bob tells Joe that Smith said, “I swear a lot.” Joe might conclude that Smith has a potty mouth, when in truth he just stubs his toe a lot. But it isn’t Joe’s fault that he drew this conclusion; the information from Smith to Joe was transferred incorrectly by Bob.

Again: the excerpt sends a different message than the full text does. If you say to yourself, “Oh I know what this excerpt is saying, because it has many similarities to the full text I read elsewhere,” then you’re skimming the surface here and basing your conclusions on what you knew before. When you say, “the message is not what you’re thinking, because the full text I read elsewhere says all of this,” you’re not asking yourself, “If that part was so important, why did they leave it out, and how does it change what is being said here?”

Which one am I supposed to address, the excerpt that got sent to my RSS feed, or the full text that did not? I don’t know, but I can reasonably expect it to be the one posted here for my perusal. It’s true that

9 Nobbynob June 26, 2011 at 8:31 pm

“It’s true that” at the tail-end there. It was the start of something I ended up moving elsewhere in the post for readability, then failed to clean up… so just ignore it ;)

10 Joe Anzaldua June 26, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Brett, please provide the complete reference for dh Lawrence’s essay “new mexico”. Thanks!

11 Brett McKay June 26, 2011 at 11:37 pm

after all, there was nothing here to imply that this was only a part of a larger work.

“From ‘New Mexico,’ 1928.”

“From” is always a good indication that the selection is part of a larger work.

Taking an excerpt from a work does not necessarily change the message. It just makes it harder to figure out. And it allows people to bring in other meanings which the author may or may not have had in mind when writing. Which can be a good thing. But there are some readings which the text does not support, such as Nobbys’ initial reading, which in my mind was not supported by the excerpted text or the fuller text. I first encountered the passage as it is presented here, and the meaning I got from it did not change when I then read the rest of the essay; on the contrary; I thought the extra bits just muddied up the clarity and power of it, which is why they were left off.


That is the full reference. It is from the essay “New Mexico” by DH Lawrence. That essay has been republished in various books.

12 Joe Anzaldua June 27, 2011 at 7:29 am

Thanks, Brett. I’m not sure what prompted your expanded reply. I was simply asking for a reference. I checked amazon and couldn’t readily find this title. If it’s buried in some book(s), then it is that book ( reference) that I seek. Thanks again!

13 Brett McKay June 27, 2011 at 11:00 am


Only the response after your name is directed at you, of course. You can find the selection in a variety of places:

The most accurate place is in the book:

Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of DH Lawrence.

If you’d like to read the essay online, this book has a few variations from the original but will let you do that:

14 Bradley Ashby June 27, 2011 at 12:05 pm

What I see here is Mr. Nobby demonstrating how the idea of vertical knowledge can, when taken to the extreme, can be just as bad as only having horizontal knowledge. This excerpt encourages delving into things more, despite the temptation to skim across the surface of life. Since this was written in 1929, some things are going to be dated, or out of context a little, no matter how much of the source we read. While the references to village school rooms are 80 years old, the idea can still be young and fresh.

The mistake, then, was to dive into each paragraph and sentece far too deeply. Mr. Nobby here seems to have lost the forest for the trees. Where he seems to see a call to cut back on education, I see an example set forth to provide illustration of how a narrower focus can increase the depth of experiecne.

The fact that focusing on a narrower field provides deeper knowledge really can’t be disputed, just look at all the myriad of medical fields. No longer is the title of “doctor” enough to cure any ailments, there are 55+ specialty fields. And even those specialists have a hard time keeping up with changes in their fields. However, I think this excerpt (or what I take away from it, which is honestly more important; one’s own interpretation) is more about gaining experience as opposed to knowledge. It’s just that when we think we know all there is about a subject, we lose the opportunities for experiencing more about it. It’s not our actual knowledge that gets in the way: it’s our assumption of knowledge.

Once you’ve decided there’s nothing new under the sun, there won’t be. Not for you, not once you’re so sure. And it would be sad to miss out on everything the world has to offer.

15 Ask A Nice Guy June 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Nice post.

To me, this read cautions users of arrogance and of being too boastful. Too many are out there readily and willing to show what they’ve done and will do. But if we only watch carefully, their accomplishments might be exaggerated or worse, their bar of success is set mightily low.

Learning doesn’t finish when we’ve closed a book. It’s important to know this one fact: That learning never ends.

Perhaps it is better to be an unassuming man who radiates — not talks — confidence; who displays strength, who carries power within himself with ease and defines the very word of manliness.

16 Eric June 27, 2011 at 2:40 pm

I was having this discussing with my wife the other day, in relation to magic tricks. When I was growing up, pre-internet but not so very long ago, a good magic trick left you wondering if maybe, just maybe, there was real magic at work. Sure, you probably knew a few card tricks and maybe had one of those little plastic boxes that allowed you to perform the “drive a nail through a penny” trick, but a professional magician would leave you with a wondrous feeling that maybe you had just seen something that defied nature, or interected with nature in some privelaged way.

Nowadays, even the youngest kids just automatically assume there is a technical answer to any magic trick they see. It may be a cool experience, but there is nothing transcendental about it. The answer is only a google search away.

Now, I’m not so much of an old codger as to say this is some horrible thing that is killing the soul of our society. I love knowledge. But this is a new dynamic, and it is changing the way we approach the accumulation of knowledge, for better or for worse, or perhaps a bit of both. At any rate, it has motivated me to work harder with my daughter to teach her to let herself be surprised from time to time, to not look up the answer to every riddle on the internet, to not sneek a peak at your Christmas presents before it is time to open them, and to not google the plot spoilers of movies you haven’t seen and books you haven’t read.

Anyway, great discussion. Here are two of my favorite quotes on the subject:

“Real curiosity now gets little chance to develop — it’s smothered with information before it can draw a natural breath.” –Larry McMurtry

“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.” –Mark Twain

17 mattoomba June 27, 2011 at 3:29 pm

This was a great post. And, unlike others, I completely appreciated Nobbynob’s questions. Was he acerbic? Perhaps; but it struck me as light-hearted and good-natured…and he was just as self-deprecating as he was Lawrence-deprecating. His post helped me appreciate the original text all the more.

And no need to be overly sensitive to him, or worry about prepositional accuracy. Sure it was “From ‘New Mexico’”, but that could’ve been the name of an anthology, of which this piece could’ve been an isolated essay. The fact that this piece was an excerpt from a larger work could have been relevant; No need to get snarky about the “From” accuracy. That said, the piece is pretty powerful on its own.

And thanks to Eric, for his quotes of relevance as well.

18 VirginiaFellow June 27, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I’ve been reading this site for a while and love most everything you guys post here. The problem with DH Lawrence, for me, is that when people discuss his work they start writing like him. The same thing happens with Bukowski. I was never a big fan of Lawrence’s writing though I do like some of the things he has to say. I guess that’s my problem with 20th century English literature in general.

Concerning this article I think that it’s important to note that depth of experience is a very subjective thing. I do not travel much on the surface of the earth but I do walk to work each day. On my walk I am aware of the world around me – the birds, the trees, what flowers have bloomed that were not open yesterday, the same people I see on a daily basis and where on my walk I see them. I wonder where they are going, what job they work, how the landscape will change when the property for sale is developed, etc. I work with computer technology all day, I am a child of the internet (I’m in my mid thirties), and I do not own a television. I embrace digital media and all of the information it can give me, but I also know enough when to say when.

The world is always changing. He wrote that essay more than 80 years ago and felt overwhelmed by the world’s progress. Though, to be fair, he was English.

19 Brett McKay June 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm


Actually, quotations marks around a title indicate an essay. If “New Mexico,” had been an anthology, the title would have been italicized. So if you’re going to be putting on intellectual airs, and then say there’s no indication that this selection came from a larger work, as Nobby did, I will give just a bit of a snarky response in return. Although I wouldn’t classify it as such–more like irritation. As someone who loves plain talk, I’ve never understood the need to adopt a cute tone like that. So poor Nobby touched on one of my personal pet peeves. But maybe that’s the DH Lawrence effect Virginia mentions above! And of course everyone has different style preferences–one man’s irritating acerbity is another’s light-hearted romp.

20 Xenophon June 30, 2011 at 8:34 pm

The first evidence of this type of reasoning, so far as I have experienced, is in Plato’s Socratic dialog The Phadeo. Here he argues that the new knowledge gained from books and education was inferior to direct experience. Mankind has been steadily going downhill since then as more perceptive thinkers, like Lawrence and Plato, point out that we are simply not up to understanding the world through our books and, for Lawrence, even direct experience. Fortunately, reality isn’t dualistic – there isn’t a ‘deeper reality’ – and what I experience I really truly experience, and though superficial, gets me by. Lawrence was simply another gnostic, and as flawed in his reasoning.

21 chris December 28, 2012 at 10:08 am

I really love this. The piece is not at all about knowledge , as such. I think DHL is referring to our sense of wonder more than anything. We can know and understand the most amazing facts about the universe. Breathtaking discoveries, even in the 1920′s, lacked the power to take ones breath away.. The latest discoveries, however extraordinary, fail to move or produce any reaction at all in us. We are somehow more dead to the experience of the world and life itself. than our forebears. Our forebears would be attuned to the wonderment of nature and could read the world for themselves and be joyous about discovering things through their own observations and conversations. When did you last hear a bird sing…or pause to listen to its song when you heard it? Our great grandfathers would know all about the bird from its singing and be able to mimic it, even. It would have had a significance for them that would be lost to
A lantern slide show would have been, the pinnacle of technology at some stage -. an awesome device that had the potential to change the world, Please don’t laugh at its clumsy size and primitiveness .(A laptop serves exactly the same purpose, The television was often referred to by my father as ‘the village idiot’s lantern’.). If the world survives another three generations we will all look comparatively like cavemen, . But as I said earlier, this essay is not about knowledge so much as our reaction to and connection with life and the world we live in.
I book my vacation in a four star hotel in some paradise and spend three months in Africa and have a marvelous time without having to step out of the hotel or the safari bus. Cosseted with all manner of comforts like air con., running water and abundant food I return home with a worse ignorance than I left home with,simply because I saw none of the struggle and poverty that was only a couple of blocks away.from the hotel. What was shocking or astonishing to our great grandfathers leaves the modern man unmoved and arouses not the slightest curiosity. Lawrence was writing about the universal deadness that afflicts humanity. TS Eliot offers much the same view of how we are disconnected from not only nature but our own natures, the Earth and the divine.. We are so blase and arrogant – simply above it all. The wind and weather doesn’t bother us unduly. Food exists in shops that are always overstocked with everything we could want. It would look seriously different if electricity failed for a few weeks – and then we would realise that we are.actually quite puny in the face of the icy blasts that reality would throw at us. The churches would be full once more to overflowing.
Maybe add some T S Eliot to your reading list as he is on a parallel track with DH Lawrence here – The Four Quartets or The Wasteland.
In fact, ask yourself when was the last time you were truly moved by something that induced in you a sense of awe and wonderment in being alive?

22 jerry March 6, 2013 at 9:58 am

I think I suspect the ramblings of any man when he ends his written rambling with a cutesie face.

23 Fred September 24, 2013 at 9:55 am


My thoughts exactly

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter