Saturday, December 11, 2010

Figments of Our Imagination

Day 306 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and today I return to The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson, because this is a book of essays I have been reading slowly and carefully, as required by the author's content and style. She has depth and breadth of knowledge as a historian, and specificity in providing evidence for any claim and in building a subtle argument, and a clarity of style and slow flow that help it all come through. If you have read her novels Housekeeping and Gilead, you know that you need to read them slowly and pay close attention. There is such beauty! There is such wonder! (I am going to read Home, the follow-up novel to Gilead, next, if circumstances allow.)

But today I offer Robinson in a compare/contrast mode to Figment, an exciting new writing website for literary teens, that might interest Donna and Nancy (and other blogger teachers). You can read about its founding in the New York Times, here, and visit some of its offerings here. I think this might be very fruitful (heh heh, see apples above) in a classroom, to spice things up and encourage reading and writing, as well as outside it, for teens who already love reading and writing.

And part of me cringes, as it might just encourage more of the "all about me" mode of personal and expressive writing and sharing that I see out there in the web-based world of writing and blogging, and in the truncated print-based world of education. It was a thrill to read that teens were not interested in just more "social networking" at a website like this, but I've got to hope that there is sustained actual reading going on somewhere, whether on screen or in print, that strengthens the muscles of attention and clear thinking.

I see a lot of clicking going on these days, the search for images, and the insistence on minimal text. And now, back to Robinson, who is discussing the guy we in America call John Calvin and tend to disparage as a super-prim religious prude, but who, according to her sustained scholarship, was not like that at all!! His real name, in France, was Jean Cauvin, which Robinson uses to distinguish him from his reputation.

On the topic of images and idols, Robinson says, "Cauvin rejected the 'old saw that images are the books of the uneducated' remarking, 'I confess, as the matter stands, that today there are not a few who are unable to do without such "books"...those in authority in the church turned over to idols the office of teaching for no other reason than that they themselves were mute.'" OK, it's true that he is saying the educated are the ones depending on images, not words, here, a sort of insult, on the one hand, but, on the other, he is saying that those unable to read (unable to be educated in their times) have a right to the images if no one will take the time to teach them in words.... And, hey, some of us are visual learners! Cauvin wouldn't use that term but was certainly smart enough to imagine that concept, that real possibility.

Robinson doesn't pretend that Cauvin was some kind of angel, or model human. She discusses his shameful association with the death by execution of Michael Servetus for religious heresy, an event wrapped in various ironies as 1) Cauvin opposed Servetus's views, but authorities used Servetus's trial as a weapon against Cauvin! 2) Cauvin was all about religious reform and religious freedom and was himself hounded out of various places for his views, including Geneva, where this trial took place, which had banished Cauvin and then brought him back, and 3) Cauvin's refutations of Servetus prove his great respect for God's covenants with various peoples, including the Jewish people, even though he is now associated, by wrongful reputation, with a particularly stringent and unforgiving Puritanical version of Christianity. Sigh...

But (still with me? as this is rather a lot of text), Robinson notes that slow burning and other horrific tortures and styles of execution were common, not made up by Jean Cauvin. The Wikipedia article I've linked here even clarifies that Cauvin suggested beheading (a quicker death) rather than slow burning for Servetus, but the angry town burned him at the stake "atop a pyre of his own books." This is what people did back then. We have hanging and electric chairs, and death by injection. Until we get rid of capital punishment altogether, we are stuck with whatever versions of barbarity we choose. And whatever mistaken executions.

And now to Robinson's conclusion of that particular essay in the book. She has noted all along that we take the easy digested version of history, however wrong it might be, instead of reading closely and carefully all of what's actually there, and making real choices based on real scholarship. "Yet, lacking curiosity and the habit of study and any general grasp of history, we have entered a period of nostalgia and reaction. We want the past back, though we have no idea what it was." And this is a definition of nostalgia--a longing for a sense of well-being in the past that might never have really existed.

A figment of our imagination.

"Our ignorant parody of history," Robinson goes on, "affirms our ignorant parody of religious or 'traditional' values." This is important, because despite the beheadings and burnings at the stake, it turns out that the real Jean Cauvin was rather more tolerant than some of today's fundamentalist Christians. "This matters, because history is precedent and permission, and in this important instance, as in many others, we have lost plain accuracy, not to speak of complexity, substance, and human inflection. We want to return to the past, and we have made our past a demonology and not a human narrative."

We have made our present such a thing, too. Look at all the demonizing that goes on in the news.

Demons are figments of our dark imaginations.

And this particular Adam and Eve is a projection of Albrecht Durer's imagination.


Kim said...

Jeremiah happened to look over my shoulder just as I started reading tonight, and instead of focusing on the drawings (as one might expect a 9 year old boy to do) he saw the name of your blog and started laughing and said "At first I thought that said...'Wait! I have a Dog?'"

Post or not as is your hearts desire!

Kathleen said...

Wait? I have a dog?!

Only sometimes. When I'm dog-sitting. A dog named Wolf!