The experts – those focused folk whose curiosity has prodded them to explore and conquer narrow realms – inform us that curiosity is not an instinct but a drive, whether primary (innate) or secondary (learned) they can’t agree.  Curiosity’s strange doubleness – it can be good or bad, can lead to cures or kill the cat – is imbedded in its etymology, from L. curiosus “careful, diligent; inquiring eagerly, meddlesome,” akin to cura “care” coming to English via the Normans from O.Fr. curios “solicitous, anxious, inquisitive; odd, strange.”

On the other hand, we have to grant that instincts are good, given that they’ve been selected for survival.  Unlike a drive, an instinct is a fixed behavior, inflexible, the compulsion that impels your dog to wallow in rotting carcasses whenever the chance occurs.  He’s not curious, not wondering what it feels like to immerse himself in that putrefied puddle of dead pelican. No, instinct compels him to mask his smell to stalk his prey more effectively (even though he’s on a supervised walk and has never even successfully killed a cockroach).

Furthermore, this instinct to swaddle himself in stench will never succumb to your vain attempts at behavioral modification; e.g.,  no matter how many times you blast him with the garden hose.  No matter how many times you batter him with Anglo-Saxon epithets worthy of Jerry Lee Lewis with his hands smashed in the door of a Cadillac, you’ll not be able to dissuade your dog from rolling around in rot.

Behavior born of curiosity, however, can be deprogrammed; e.g.,  sticking his nose in a corner and having it snapped by a rattrap might dissuade Mr. Dog from poking his snout there again.

No, if curiosity were an instinct, we’d have no choice whether or not to enter that peep show on Heart Attack and Vine that promises nude contortionist siamese twins who can twist themselves into chinese characters that foretell the future.

No, we walk on by furtively glancing, placing our hands over our pocketed wallets or clutching tighter our purses.   We may wonder what it’s like in there, but most of us don’t wander in, even if we’d somehow tailed Tom Waits down the dark end of the boulevard.

Therefore, because of its double nature, we don’t really classify curiosity as a virtue, although without it, life is arid, impoverished. Alastair Reid’s poem nails the paradox:



may have killed the cat; more likely

the cat was just unlucky, or else curious

to see what death was like, having no cause

to go on licking paws, or fathering

litter on litter of kittens, predictably.


Nevertheless, to be curious

is dangerous enough. To distrust

what is always said, what seems

to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,

leave home, smell rats, have hunches

do not endear cats to those doggy circles

where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches

are the order of things, and where prevails

much wagging of incurious heads and tails.

Face it. Curiosity

will not cause us to die–[*]

only lack of it will.

Never to want to see

the other side of the hill

or that improbable country

where living is an idyll

(although a probable hell)

would kill us all.

Only the curious

have, if they live, a tale

worth telling at all [. . .]

How sad to take someone’s word for it without doing a little digging, to believe an inherited, unexamined ideology.  To sit in front of Fox News slurping Kool-Aid or believing that the cosmo adheres to Marxist economic principles.

*Well, unless we’re really stupid. Google “Darwin Awards.”

In my experience, the most curious students have been the happiest.  I’m thinking especially now of Willy Schwenzfeier, who seemed equally fascinated by the mysteries of quantum mechanics and the denizens of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.  Sitting up front, he was insatiably curious, asking questions, smiling constantly.  I dare say that Willy is probably one of the least bored individuals on the planet.  Whether this wonder of the world was inherent or fostered by his parents, I cannot say, but I do know that it served Willy well in high school.  To be curious is to be entertained, and, let’s face it, despite John Berryman’s great “Dream Song 14″  boredom amounts to an inability to ignite curiosity.

We should, however, like Odysseus, exercise caution in our curiosity, to make sure we’re securely lashed to the mast and all the shipmates’ ears are plugged with wax, and that if we decide to slip into that peep show to keep an eye on the exits and a hand on that wallet or purse.

“Odysseus and the Sirens”, 1902, by Otto Greiner

3 thoughts on “Curiosity

  1. Enjoyed it all, but this was best:

    No, instinct compels him to mask his smell to stalk his prey more effectively (even though he’s on a supervised walk and has never even successfully killed a cockroach).

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