Two Views of the River


Mark Twain struck a chord with me in high school when our American Lit teacher made his essay “Two Views of the River” required reading. The students moaned and groaned about it, including me; I had little appreciation for nonfiction at that time, especially essays.

Yet what I read changed my perception of reality both profoundly and subtly.

“Two Views” is about seeing versus knowing, grasping intuitively versus logically. Twain grew up with the Mississippi, and it features in many of his works, both fiction and nonfiction. In his essay, recognizes that his initial view is romantic, uninformed, and unshaped (unwarped?) by Knowledge. He is held rapt by it. But when he becomes the pilot of a riverboat, the River loses its mystery, and as a consequence some of its beauty. Perhaps the greatest loss, though, is that he loses some of his original Knowing of the River. As a child and a young man, he knew the River in such a way that he will never get back after he has “learned” it; learned its hazards, its turns and bends, its sandbars and eddies and hidden dangers.

In the same way, I have lost my original Knowing of Cambodia: the more I learn, the less I remember of my first impressions. The more I learn, the more the romanticism and beauty wear away. This is not to say I “know” or “understand” Cambodia, in some larger or more profound sense; I can only compare these Two Views between my younger Self and my current Self. And they are different.

I do feel this as a loss, just as I feel the loss of my original Perception. Everyone experiences this, I imagine– perhaps this is a sign that one has “grown up”? Slowly but surely, our original Knowing transforms and transforms again, and maybe what was once Known can never be known again.

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3 thoughts on “Two Views of the River

  1. When I was in highschool, I had a similar thought about gaining a greater understanding of natural phenomena (something as simple as how clouds are formed, for example). What I found, though, was that I ended up re-finding beauty in such things. I found beauty through the knowledge that I had gained, and my new view.

    I’m sorry you’re losing your original view of Cambodia. I hope you can find beauty in your new view, as well. And when your new view changes, I hope you can find beauty in the one after that.

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    • Yes, I agree, I don’t think it’s always true that beauty is lost when you “learn” something. Funny you mention clouds, because K.C. Cole’s book “The Universe and the Teacup” gives scientific perspectives on all kinds of phenomena (including clouds), which only increased my aesthetic appreciation of them. But beauty is not the loss I lament– it is original Knowing that I regret losing, because to compare it to my present views would be very valuable, I feel. Ah, among other things, which I maybe I will have more time to ponder later!

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  2. Surely this is the primal desire to go back into the garden. Where I experience this lack most is not in place but in person; in my own self. When I look in the mirror I see the advance of grey over the head, but I protest! I still feel (or, as I have come to appreciate, ‘want to feel’) eighteen. Then I was a man-becoming, now a man known to me. I am not who I wanted to be, I am as I am. But, you know — I’d still like to go back.

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