Until it killed the cat, curiosity had a somewhat mixed reputation. To some, it implied a strong desire to learn about something, but to others, it connoted strangeness or peculiarity, like the odds and ends sold in Charles Dickens’ “Curiosity Shop,” or, for that matter, Quilip himself, the ill-tempered dwarf who is the villain of that tale. These days, curiosity is still a double-edged sword, one that is both a painful reminder of what we don’t yet know, as well as a beacon that can light the way to an increase in knowledge. Oh, and one other thing: curiosity is also a murder suspect—remember that dead cat over there?
Albert Einstein had this to say about curiosity: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” He must have been eating a slice of humble pie when he said that, but it’s an idea worth consideration. Without curiosity, even the most intelligent among us would eventually reach the limit of his or her intellect. However, if one adds curiosity to the intellectual mix, then our minds would be akin to an ever-expanding universe, one that is limited only by time and our own mortality.
I like funny people, easy-going people, patient and humble people. But I thrive on a curious mind. A good question or a new idea can push me like a gale, taking me to an unknown place and then on to another, and another. Who knows where I’ll eventually end up? In fact, curiosity makes the destination almost superfluous; the journey becomes what is all-important.
But is curiosity really dangerous? Could it really kill a cat? Oddly enough, the phrase we know so well today didn’t start out that way. Both Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare referred to dead cats in their plays (“Every Man in His Humor” and “Much Ado About Nothing” respectively), but it was “care” that killed their felines, not “curiosity.” To these giants of the 16th Century stage, “care” connoted worry or sorrow, not the kind of nosiness we modernists assume would put the kibosh on a cat today. But over the centuries, something must have changed, because by the time James Allan Mair published his “Handbook of Proverbs” in 1873, it was curiosity, not care, that killed the cat. Maybe it was nothing more than a linguistic mutation, but I have another theory: we all worry and fret so much these days that some wordsmith decided to make something else that’s in shorter supply the murder weapon. How about curiosity? Done!
Back in the days when I used to watch “The Wonderful World of Disney,” I seem to remember that Jiminy Cricket’s response to curiosity was to consult the encyclopedia. (In fact, that’s how I and almost everyone else of my generation learned to spell encyclopedia!) But Jiminy never said a word about a dead cat, probably because it wouldn’t have sat well with kindly old Uncle Walt or his demographic audience.
Be that is it may, I’m inclined to vote “Not Guilty” when curiosity goes on trial. Curiosity is rarely lethal, and even if it were, there are more than enough cats in the world—not that I wish harm on any one of them! On the other hand, worry and sorrow have caused more than their fair share of trouble, so I’m curious to know why they’re not on the stand.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is Musingjamie.net.