Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The insidious snares of the Devil

How many of you grew up with the Childcraft series, published by Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, on your parent's bookshelf? It very popular with parents and educators in the 1950s and 1960s. The editorial board and staff was dominated by professors and graduates of Columbia's Teacher's College. John Dewey's fingerprints are all over it.

A clear example of this, one that makes me shudder, can be seen in the general introduction in he first volume, written by Angelo Patri ("Angel of the Father"!). Patri is articulating the philosophy behind the arrangement of the volumes. He first asserts that the symbolic approach to reality is childish phase that we must get over:

This collection begins, as it should, with Mother Goose and other rhymes and poems beloved of childhood. I say that is where it should begin, because children are not little men and women ready to live in an adult world scaled down to their size. The live in a world of their own and they are a people with definite tastes and tendencies and abilities. Theirs is a world of imagination peopled by witches and faries and interpreted by symbols....

Fairies, witches and elves live in the child's world because he needs them. Rhythmic language, lovely poetry, tales worn smooth in their passage down the years are his own forms of expression, happily understood and readily assimilated into speach and action.

Patri acknowledges that there is truth and beauty in the stories, but then goes onto say that adults get beyond the need for symbolic expressions of truth as they begin to understand that the real world has no such invisible realities or relationships as imaginitively symbolized in fairy stories.

The vital spark of truth they contain, the sure touch of beauty that is upon them, justify the child in his love for them.

The time comes when the child emerges from his world of imagination and symolism into one nearer actuality. He demands the true story. Is it true? Did it really happen? Really and truly? These questions indicate a readiness for more actual acceptance of life, for facts and experiences that bear the hallmarks of life. The child is now eager for biography, history, and science told in story....

The next sentence makes little sense to me, except that somehow such prosaic literature, when well told, must and will seem to have the same kind of spark and magic as fantasy, as if somehow our delight is transfered to the "reality" of "facts."

The form shifts but the content must still hold the halo and glamor of romance, the poetical quality of a dream, while it offers the sterner stuff of soul structure: duty and honor and truth.

This is pure Cartesian rationalism. It perpetuates the deadly idea that the real is that which can be expressed in clear and distinct ideas present in the human intellect, using denotative language and the idea that the only real relationships are those that can be described mechanically and quantitatively--that the empirically invisible relationships expressed through
symbolism are less real--the opposite, so to speak, of the sacramental principle.

It reminds me of my father's explanation for his aversion to fantasy. "I prefer realism," he would say. That canard was ably refuted in Tolkien's essay "On Faerie Stories," and by Rollin Lasseter in his 2006 talk, "The Lost Tools of Imagination--the Spiritual Senses," at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture conference on Modernity. Lasseter tells the following story about an incident between him and his son that illustrates the pervasiveness of this Cartesian attitude in our culture:

One Autumn night, too many years ago, I was outside, looking at the stars with my little boys, all under eight years old. I told them about the major constellations we could then see, particularly Orion the giant, large and clear to spot in the southern sky. Suddenly a little wind kicked up and tossed the trees and the dust. I said, "Don't be worried the trees are just dancing." My little son looked up into the sky and said, "Look! They are dancing too!" I looked up and saw that the stars did indeed seem to move about, as their light came through the swirling airs. I told them that the stars were still in their places but that the light was refracted, etc. Sad. My child in his tender age saw dancing. I in my willful, educated intellect saw refractions throught the prism of atmosphere. Sad. Many years have passed, and I have learned a thing or two about dancing. And leanred many things about fathers and sons. There is a disconnect that cries out for reconnection. The imagination of us educated men and women is not working right.
Lasseter then offers allegory, properly understood, as the classic and necessary solution to the poverty of the symbolic imagination.

The symbolic is our most direct access to mystery and to the empirically invisible beings, events and relationships that are every bit as real, if not more so, than those realities, events and relationships that can be described mechanically and quantitatively using denotative language. A rejection of the symbolic robs Sacred Scripture and liturgy of their ability to communicate, in the fullest sense of the word, the truths of salvation and future glory.


Joe said...

Good post Robert. I would say this philosophy is based even more in positivism and empiricism, since Descartes thought that we had clear and distinct ideas of a supreme Being. The philosophy you expose here is simply what Dewey's pragmatism is all about, "the real is the mundane and the mundane is the real."

Robert said...

Yeah, but Descartes did not find such a supreme being very interesting. He was a kind of practical positivist, like a practical atheist who, though not denying God, acts as if He doesn't exist. Algebraic geometry was much more interesting to Descartes.