Friday, February 27, 2009

You Cannot Go Back

The "conservation" experiments of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget are tried-and-true classics. Show a child of five a short, fat glass of juice; pour the juice into a tall, skinny glass; and suddenly there's more of it. Lay out a row of quarters, then spread the row out. Suddenly . . . more quarters.

It's not magic, it's just the way children that age see and think. (Watch them.) In a few short years they'll be thinking differently. They'll be able to see quantities, and "conserve" them, the way adults do. And--something Piaget never addressed--they won't be able to remember how they used to think.

I became aware of this curious amnesia when I'd describe Piaget's experiments to college freshmen. I was amazed at their amazement. This was a surprise! Yet why should it be? Weren't the students thinking this way just a dozen years before? How could they have forgotten? How could you and I?

It seems that when thoughts are encoded in a new, more complex structure--as they are around the age of six or seven--it becomes impossible to remember the older, simpler one. It's like water from a stream that's absorbed in a river. It cannot go back.

And yet some insist it can. There's a "child within," they say, and you can recover it. If you take a microscope to what they recover, however, you'll find evidence--in their speech or writing, for example--of an adult perspective. Psychiatrist George Vaillant said it best: once a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it doesn't remember being a caterpillar. It remembers being a little butterfly.

Several weeks ago I listed some of the transitions experienced by sacred stories in the West. They started out being spoken; then they were written, codexed, printed, and placed before a camera. They started out as simple narrative, and then became creed, science, and "objective" history. Knowing of these transformations, one wonders: can we go back? Can we hear the stories the way they were heard the first time, millennia ago, with all the creed, science, and history squeezed out of them?

The answer is clear: not any more than we can recover the eyes of a child. (Try a conservation experiment: can you get yourself to believe there's really more juice in that tall, skinny glass?) You can describe a child's perspective. You can analyze it. You might even explain it. But you can't re-experience it.

When it comes to sacred stories, fundamentalists will say they can. They believe you can get to the "originals within," and they believe they have. But if you look at the history behind the stories, you'll see that what is "fundamental" is often far from what's "original." It's another case of anachronism--of remembering a butterfly when there was only a caterpillar.

You can preserve a tradition's stories but not its earliest eyes and ears. Where, then, is "inspiration"? More important, when is it? At the time of the original speaking? The original hearing? In whatever the stories meant to an ancient mind that is foreign to our own? If that's the case, we're in something of a pickle. We cannot recover those ancient eyes and ears, so we're cut off from inspired text. How, then, do we hear the Word of God?




Anonymous said...

Food for thought, John. The Word of God has been translated, revised, edited, and refined over time, to the extent that not only is it not a caterpillar anymore, it is not recognizable as a "small butterfly" either. If a lector, or priest is able to read The Word of God and "inspire" the listener to follow the examples, laws, and teachings it is a diluted experience at best. The Word of God is not easy to read and comprehend, so suffice it to say, that "caterpillar" of inspiration can never be experienced again.

I like the analogy though. The caterpillar, crawls humbly along the ground, and must die in order to become a butterfly, emerging from the cocoon in a totally different life form, with wings to fly, and in colors that defy description. I visited a butterfly farm on one of the Caribbean islands a few years back, and found the death/life cycle most interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for summoning me to reflect upon the transformations in my own self-awareness. Indeed I cannot go back to the simple self-awareness and perceptions of childhood. Nonetheless I can trust that I was once a much more simple, less complex individual.

So too our creedal narratives were most probably much more simple and less complex than they now are. My guess is that Muslim faith displaced Christianity overnight because it has a faith that is extremely simple: "There is no god but God. Mohammad is God's prophet."

Why not embrace such simplicity?

Anonymous said...

Amen to such simplicity!

Anonymous said...

“You can't go home again.” Was this phrase in the caterpillar's mind as he looked at the discarded casing? “You mean I once fit in that casing? I don't remember.” In some ways, I feel like the caterpillar: I don't remember what or how the knowledge got into my brain when in high school or the university. I changed even after earning a Master's degree. I can read a pseudo-biography from those schooldays, but I am reading the past events from a different perspective, an older woman. I can revisit the school, but not as the fifteen-year-old. As for hearing the Word of God, pastors can repeat the same biblical verse, but some paraphrase, some read directly from a Bible, and some speak as storytellers. I can revisit the biblical verses but the interpretations makes me hear God's words differently each time. While I won't hear God's word the same way each time nor return to the young woman attending high school classes, a part of me does remember.

Sharon Lippincott said...

What fascinating implications this has for memoir writers!