In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, when young Claire Chase asks questions about her mother’s miscarriage – “How could anything so little hurt Mama?” – the family’s housekeeper, Reenie, tells her, “Never mind…What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Her older sister Iris, remembering this scene much later, calls Reenie’s reply “a dubious maxim: sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you very much.”
Iris’s words come from bitter experience, as much of the rest of the novel – and the novel-within-the-novel, written by Claire – deals with people who are badly hurt by things they didn’t, or chose not to, know. Not that “forewarned is forearmed,” which is another dubious maxim, because things we’ve been forewarned about – a worldwide pandemic, for example – can sideswipe us just as fiercely. But it’s a safe bet that most of the things that hurt us are things that we didn’t see coming, either because we are blinded by prejudice, or because we just didn’t look.
My mother was a case in point. When she was in her sixties, she developed breast cancer, underwent a mastectomy, and thought that she was cured. “We got it all,” she was told by the surgeons. Fifteen years later, when my father died, she made plans to travel. She imagined herself going on bus tours with her friends in the Women’s Auxiliary, visiting relatives in Newfoundland, staying in good hotels and eating in the kind of restaurants my father would never have dreamed of going into. When her stomach started to bother her, she put it down to indigestion. She delayed travelling to have a knee replacement. Her indigestion worsened. She worried that, because of her knees and stomach, she wouldn’t be able to sit for hours on a bus or an airplane. In December, I drove her to our house for Christmas, a seven-hour drive with frequent stops. By the time she went to a doctor, in January, she could hardly swallow. And when she swallowed, she couldn’t keep food down. She was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. She must have had it for fifteen years, her doctor said, since the time she’d been treated for breast cancer, but she either didn’t know or refused to acknowledge it. Out of sight, out of mind; another dangerous maxim. What you don’t know can hurt you. She died that April.
The dubious maxim is first found in George Pettie’s 1576 miscellany, The Petite Palace of Pettie his Pleasure, spoken by one of the lovers in the twelve tales pilfered from Latin literature that make up the book: “So long as I know it not, it hurteth me not.” The book, intended by Pettie to be read by “gentlewomen” in the time of Elizabeth I, was a compilation of inspirational tales of love under duress, sometimes triumphing, sometimes succumbing to forces greater even than love – not unlike Romeo and Juliet, which may have been inspired in part by Pettie’s examples. His tales include such timeless classics as “Tereus and Progne,” “Germanicus and Aprippina,” “Icilius and Virginia,” “Curiatus and Horatia,” and the first account in English of “Pygmalion’s friende and his Image.”
The sentiment that what we don’t know can’t hurt us is contradicted in almost every story in the book. In many of the twelve tales, what the lovers don’t foresee comes up to force them apart. For example, in the first tale, “Sinorix and Camma,” a retelling of a story that first appeared in Plutarch’s On the Bravery of Women, Camma is married to the noble Sinatus, but the ignoble Sinorix murders Sinatus and tries to compel Camma to marry him. Camma, resisting, leads Sinorix to a temple of Artemis, where she prepares a poisoned drink for both of them. Sinorix obviously does not know the cups have been poisoned (ought he to have suspected?). He drinks from the cup and dies. Camma, who does know what’s in the cup, also drinks and dies. Apparently, not only can what you don’t know hurt you, but what you do know can lead to your downfall just as surely.
The expression has spawned related misconceptions about the dangers of foreknowledge. “Curiosity killed the cat,” for example, means much the same thing: if you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong, someone’s going to punch it for you. (The original expression, from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humour, had it that “Care will kill a cat,” which is a wiser observation; curiosity can be idle, but care can lead to active meddling.)
And it has been believed since Roman times that in order not to know something that might hurt it, an ostrich will stick its head in the sand. If this were true, it would be a dubious survival strategy. Clearly, a nine-foot-tall bird with its head stuck in a hole at its feet would be easy prey for a cheetah or a pack of ravenous hyenas. Which is undoubtedly why ostriches don’t stick their heads in the ground when they sense danger. They do dig holes, into which the females deposit their eggs to protect them from the addling African sun, and from time to time they may stick their heads into these holes to turn the eggs with their beaks. But when ostriches detect danger, they run. They are the fastest runners on the planet, capable of sprinting up to seventy kilometres (forty-five miles) an hour, and able to maintain that speed for as long as thirty minutes (cheetahs cough out after five or six). An ostrich caught with its head in the sand, hoping that what it doesn’t know won’t hurt it, would be a dead ostrich.