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Raising The Dead

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Okay, you know, what the heck.  It’s Easter.

But I was thinking about the responses to the last post, and once again it feels to me as if I didn’t get myself across.

What I was going for was a matter of cultural climate, I think, although that might be the wrong term.

To me, a world that photographs is different in thought and feeling than a world that produces only portraits.  Certainly you can lie with photographs just as you can lie with portraits, but it’s a different kind of lie.

And when you make this particular kind of mistake–when I think of Hawthorne as being “back then” but Emerson, who was a contemporary, as being “modern”–you tend to distort the reality of an era in ways that significantly affect your interpretation of it.

I get this a lot with another figure from just a little earlier in history–Jonathan Edwards.

It is nearly universally assumed, even by people who pride themselves on their education, that Edwards is a figure from the early days of the  Massachusetts colony, an old  Puritan from the time when witches were hanged in Salem and local gossips spent time in the stocks.

But Edwards was not only from Connecticut and not  Massachusetts, he was a contemporary of  Benjamin Franklin, and if he hadn’t died relatively young from what would now be a treatable illness, he would have seen the Revolution and the founding of the new country..

What’s  more, he not only did not oppose Enlightenment thinking, he shared many of its enthusiasms, especially for the natural sciences and mathematics.  He was, in short, nothing at all like the sort of person people who have read only “Sinners at the Hands of an  Angry  God” imagine him to be.

It’s just that this book has made me start to wonder how much of intellectual history  I’ve been distorting in my mind, how many assumptions I’ve been holding that do not realy fit the time and the place.

It’s one of the virtues of timelines that they can present a picture of the ways in which various ideas and thinkers related to each other in time that is often conterintuitive otherwise.

To me, as to most Americans with anything like a decent grounding in American history, 1776 is the high point of the Enlightenment, the place where Enlightenment ideas (at least, the ideas of the English Englightenment) brought forth a practical result, the United States of America.

But the Romantic period, the revolt against Reason, began with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young  Werther, and The Sorrows of  Young  Werther was published in 1776.  It’s common to say that the Enlightenment died in France in the  Terror, but the fact is that it was already over even as the  United States was beginning.  For better or worse, the educated “elites” of  Western Europe had already rejected the idea that life could be founded on reason alone long before the first guillotine was erected in  Paris.

For me, that phrase–“by reason alone”–will always have connotations that are essentially medieval.   To the medieval Church, and especially to the Thomists, “by reason alone” meant without recourse to Revelation. 

So the Church of the middle ages believed, and it is to this day a dogma of the Catholic Church, that men and women could know some things–the existence of  God, the basics of the moral law–even if they’d never had the gospel preached to them, and even if they’d rejected it.  God had so created our minds, our wills and our hearts, and so created the world they inhabited, that we could discover those things for ourselves.

It was how the Catholicism of the time solved a paradox–how could God be just if he condemned millions and millions of people to Hell whose only real fault was to have lived in a time or a place where the Gospel was not available to them?

Still, the habits of mind of the two eras were different, what came before the Enlightenment, although it necessarily provided the foundation for what came after, was a different world in a far more fundamental sense than we usually accept.

And I still say that photographs, no matter h ow meretricious, chaned the way we thought about ourselves and our fellow himan being, that we werenot the same kine of people, or the same kind of societies, in a culture where they had become commonplace than we were in that same culture before they existed.

And I’m

Written by janeh

April 12th, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Raising The Dead'

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  1. On photographs, I’m unconvinced. I wouldn’t rate it with printing, cheap paper, the telegraph, radio or moving pictures. I’m not sure I’d rate it with the mimeograph. HOW are we a changed people?

    Yes, Werther predates the French Revolution, and its philsophical underpinnings are earlier still. That’s normal. The political peak comes after the literary one, wich is itself after the philosophical one. An intellectual history of communism–or of the divine right of kings–would look similar. A rough 70 years from founding document to political success isn’t a bad approximation, and by then the philosophers will have moved on. Notice the “best” people–the intellectual cutting edge–had abandoned freedom and democracy well before manhood sufferage and commercial freedom were widely accepted.

    But some people and institutions–indeed some entire nations–just don’t keep up with the intellectual times, insisting on individual rights in the era of the stendestaat, traditional liberties in the age of rational rights and responsibilities, trial by jury in the time of scientific criminal investigation and national sovereignty in the world of international bodies–not to mention Christianity in the era of Gaea worship. Barbarous, perhaps, but very common, and I’m proud to say I’m as much out of intellectual step as anyone I know.

    Fortunately, being right or wrong has absolutely nothing to do with adhering to philosophical or literary fashion.

    The self-appointed guardians of high culture find a new cause every generation or so, but no one has to follow them, or even take them seriously.


    12 Apr 09 at 10:53 pm

  2. I’m with Robert on this one. I don’t see the introduction of photography itself as making that big a cultural difference.

    Of course, being the beneficiaries of lots of development of photography and related arts? crafts? we may tend to assume that someone of whom we only have a portrait is far older than someone of whom we have an early, rigidly posed photograph who in turn is much older and more conservative than someone in a modern relaxed snapshot or professionally-produced video, but that’s a reflection of our own assumptions about the past, not the actual experiences of the person whose images we are looking at.


    13 Apr 09 at 5:42 am

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