Scruting the Inscrutable

In an American Spectator review of the book, Curiosity and Its Twelve Rules for Life, by author F.H. Buckley, the reviewer, Shmuel Klatzkin, relates a story told by “novelist and prankster,” Ken Kesey. In that story, Kesey recounted that his dad upbraided him once, declaring to him, “Your problem is that you keep trying to scrute the inscrutable!”

As I read that line, and let it penetrate, I began to sense that it was the best assessment of my fundamental nature that could be rendered in a single sentence. True to form, I had to immediately begin an attempt to “scrute” it. I’ve always liked the word, “inscrutable.” I understood its meaning, but had never once thought of its origin. Looking at it, considering its prefix and suffix, the word meant, simply, “not able to be scruted.”

Inscrutable

I had long been familiar with its companion words, “scrutiny,” and “scrutinize,” but had never considered the root for the words. So, now being drawn to “scrute” the word, I started searching for the etymology of “inscrutable.” That search led to learning that the term dates to c. 1500, and derives from the Latin (I assume, as it was not so stated) “scrutari,” meaning “to examine, or ransack.”

Now, that gave me pause. “Examine,” I could understand. To scrutinize was understood to mean, to examine. But, “ransack”? That word is not what I would have included in a list of synonyms for the word, “scrutinize.” The usual definitions of ransack are “to plunder, to pillage.” But I also learned that it derived from an old Norse term literally meaning “to search the house.” Now that was interesting.

Searching the whole house

For the pillaging and plundering Norsemen, that meant finding everything in the house that might be of some value to them. What I quickly perceived was that for me, the word “scrutinize” meant to “find everything of value” in whatever the particular issue might be. And similarly, “inscrutable” meant that, whether in an idea expressed or of a comment made, the real meaning, the thing of value, could not be found, would remain hidden. Although I without doubt implicitly had that attitude, it had never before been presented to me in such a meaningful way.  

Standing in contradiction to the accusation that I have a rather overly developed tendency to “scrute the inscrutable” is the comment made to me, years ago, by my mother-in-law. For her last several years of life she lived with Colleen and me at our Homestead House, near Dallas, Texas. On this particular day, she was in the front seat with me, Colleen in the back, as we backed out of our drive to run an errand.

As I was wont to do, I was voicing some aggravation over something or other. After a moment of this, she says to me, “Del, you just think too much.” It was said in such a way that it sounded not so much a criticism, as an expression of sympathy. I nodded in understanding, if not agreement, the subject changed and that was the end of it. Except that it wasn’t, as I’ve never forgotten her observation of her son-in-law.

And perhaps she was correct. Perhaps I did, and do, think too much, scrute the inscrutable too much. Perhaps we are all guilty of that, in various ways. Life could perhaps be simpler, with fewer aggravations and annoyances, if we simply let life play out in its own way. As Doris Day once sang so beautifully, if not plaintively, “Que Sera, Sera.” Whatever will be, will be.

Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living

And yet…

 There is standing athwart the problem of “thinking too much” the claim attributed to Socrates, in response to being charged by authorities of corrupting youth with his ideas. Plato, in his Apology, claimed that Socrates stated

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

And therein lies my problem, my dilemma (a word very apropos to the point, meaning dual postulates that are contradictory). No matter how correct my mother-in-law may have been, no matter how much attempting to “scrute the inscrutable” may resemble Don Quixote’s jousts at the windmills, I have to go with Socrates. I seem pathologically incapable of not attempting to examine my life. To do so would, indeed, leave me feeling it would be a life not worth living.

So, good for me, or not, I will continue to “ransack,” to “search the entire house,” of all I read. And if that leads me, at times, to respond in ways that may perchance be at odds with something I read, blame it on Socrates. Or the Norsemen.

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