Sunday, May 6, 2012

Without History, In What Sense Do We Exist? A Re-flection on Sebastian Barry's "The Secret Scripture"

I walked into my building yesterday and a student was venting about the stress not only of taking finals, but also the stress of what these finals and the subsequent grades might mean about his future. Mostly, I listened. It was an amusing rant, because his friends had just heard it and were laughing, which I took as cue to mostly listen, sometimes joke, and throw out just one or two challenges to his thoughts (like how it isn't the grades that get jobs and grad schools, it is properly using experiences gained and knowledge learned).

During his rant, he talked about his history class. He started off with one of those disclaimers that belie themselves: "I know history is important and you've got to know it." By this admission, I knew he didn't think history was truly important. He thought you need to know history simply so it doesn't repeat itself. Certainly that adage contains some truth, but implies there is some judge who knows which parts of history are "bad" and therefore need not be repeated.

"But nobody wants to know it," he continued. "We've got to be worried about the present and the future." Although I am comforted about what could be the passion of a young idealist, I am disheartened by his idea of history. Perhaps his history professor did fail him in the classroom. Sometimes history isn't just about teaching the facts, but also about "history appreciation," to borrow a common name for art classes in many schools' core curricula.


I just finished reading Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. The novel's story is told through two different speakers: William Grene, a psychiatrist, and Roseanne Clear McNulty, a 100-year-old patient at the mental hospital where Dr. Grene works. Roseanne's voice is heard as she secretly writes her story, which includes details and her reflections on her past and present with a few mentions of her future. Dr. Grene's journal begins as a professional tool for reflection on the case of Roseanne, but permeates the boundaries between personal and professional as he reflects on Roseanne's past, present and future and his own, although most of the details on his life are the immediate past.

When Roseanne began to recount her story, her history, she began with her father, even in the novel's opening, mystical meditation: "The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death it ends. Or did not think he needed to" (3). As she switches to details about her story, she begins with the life of her father, as if to say her story started before she was alive, as if to say we are all born before we live. When can a birth be said to have occurred? Penetration? Conception, as pro-life advocates are wont to reiterate? When the mother's water breaks? When the contractions start or dilation reaches a certain diameter? When the first body part breaches from the mother's body or when the last part emerges? When the umbilical cord is cut? 

Then, when can Roseanne say the world begins anew? Perhaps the world began/begins once with all personal beginnings, a confluence of all births into one that reverberates Genesis' "In the beginning" with every beginning. Indeed, Roseanne and her father suggest the world is not necessarily the planet Earth, but life as we know it, as the way we interpret the world from our perspective, as one's personal "world." And all of these worlds are interconnected, intwined, perhaps unified and atoned (in the sense of at-one-ment) by narratives, by history(ies) and her-story(ies) and scripture(s).

Even as the novel goes back and forth between past and present, between Roseanne and Dr. Grene, their stories become intwined and even conflated. Roseanne looked first to her father's story to understand herself and, in order to understand himself, Dr. Grene looked into Roseanne's story of herself and stories of Roseanne from others, piecing together yet another story of Roseanne in Dr. Grene's writings.

The novel borders on didactic when it brings the topic of history explicitly into question through Dr. Grene's journal: 
Well, I supposed all these things [about Roseanne and others]. It is not history. But I am beginning to wonder strongly what is the nature of history. Is it only memory in the decent sentences, and if so, how reliable is it? I would suggest, not very. And that therefore most truth and fact offered by these syntactical means is treacherous and unreliable. And yet I recognise [sic] that we live our lives, and even keep our sanity, by the lights of this treachery and this unreliability, just as we build our love of country on these paper worlds of misapprehension and untruth. Perhaps this is our nature, and perhaps unaccountably it is part of our glory as a creature, that we can build our best and most permanent buildings on foundations of utter dust. (293)
Personal history and corporate history of the sort my student disdains are one and the same, as the novel also portrays by continually referring to war, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the like. And history is not just how we maintain a semblance of sanity, as Dr. Grene says, it is who we are. Indeed, some of us cannot maintain sanity in history, as the novel brings into question the veracity or historicity of much history and also the sanity and clarity of the tellers, specifically Roseanne and Dr. Grene. But even as we question their sanity and their stories, we are prodded to consider our own history and sanity. Can we trust everything we've been told by family members? Would public records show something hidden? Where do our individual stories begin? Who could tell the most factual story of who we are, who could tell the most true story of who we are, and would those two stories sound the same? In what sense would we exist without any of these stories?


I didn't share these musings with the student at the beginning of this story. He wanted to express himself, not listen to a lecture about history and identity. But he stirred something inside of me that I, too, wanted to express, something I often quote from Joan Didion's The White Album: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." We exist in narrative, in fiction, in history. By understanding them--the sacred scripture, gospel, and Christ inside each of them--we understand and are saved from and to ourselves as individuals and as an atoned species.

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