Rumsfeld’s Romanticism

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 11 2011 6:00 PM

Rumsfeld’s Romanticism

In 2003, wepresented


ofDonald Rumsfeld's poetry, including the verse that's become his most famous:

The Unknown
As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say 
We know there are some things 
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don't know 
We don't know.

- Feb. 12, 2002, Department ofDefense news briefing

It's "knownunknowns" that really holds the poem together, and Rumsfeld was smart to evoke thephrase in the title of his new memoir, Knownand Unknown .  But Andrew Kau, agraduate student in the Yale English department, wrote to remind us that John Keatsgot to the concatenation first.

In the secondbook of the English poet's 1818 romance Endymion which begins withthe iconic line, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" Cupid addresses hisbeloved, Psyche, with the same paradoxical phrase Rumsfeld employs:

O known Unknown! from whom my beingsips     
Such darling essence, wherefore may Inot  
Be ever in these arms? in this sweetspot     
Pillow my chin for ever? ever press  
These toying hands and kiss theirsmooth excess?   
Why not for ever and for ever feel   
That breath about my eyes? Ah, thouwilt steal       
Away from me again, indeed, indeed      
Thou wilt be gone away, and wilt notheed
My lonely madness. Speak, my kindestfair!

TheCupid-Psyche interlude is embedded within the larger narrative of the shepherd Endymion'squest to find a mysterious, beautiful woman, a mission Kau sees as a reflection ofRumsfeld's own career:

It is not that much of a leap to seethe "liberation" of Iraq, in neo-conservative ideology, as a version of aheroic quest. Rumsfeld's term, "known unknown," suggests both the ultimateresolution of the quest (we will eventually turn the known unknown into a knownknown), while holding out the possibility of an indefinite deferral of thisresolution (just as the genre of romance, and  Endymion  itself,can tediously spin out its narrative through countless adventures). Thoughsurely inadvertent, Rumsfeld's quotation of Keats jibes with the generalstrategy of the Bush Administration to balance our expectations of closure andopen-endedness.

"Knownunknown" is also a beautifully succinct way of describing the inherent tension ofromance: the notion that, no matter how intimate you may be with your beloved,something at that person's core will always remain ineffable, separate,mysterious. Between that and the fuzzy Patagonia fleece he's sporting on thecover of his book, it's almost enough to make us want to fold Rumsfeld up into aValentine's Day hug.


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