Friday, May 4, 2012

Words and History

I watch a show called Once upon a Time, and an episode (4/1/12, "The Stable Boy") had an interesting way of approaching a problem. An author character was talking to the sheriff, and suggested that she get past her block on an investigation the same way he gets past writer's block: Reread, now knowing how the story so far goes.

This is great for moving forward, I think, because we already know how we saw the story at that point in time. But, it works because it adds a perspective. There is something important about this perspective. There is also something important in how the author saw it the first time through.

History is a study in retrospect. We work like the author rereading a work to see where it was, in relation to the moment of where it is. The problem is, we don't always remember to think back on what is was when it was.

The first time I remember coming into contact with this was a biology class. We were learning Lamarckian evolution--which is wrong. My previous teachers had said, "This is what he thought; this is why it is absurd. Now, look at this Darwinian stuff!"

And then, one teacher said, "Now, this is wrong, but it's still important, because Lamarck came up with some theory for how it worked. He was trying to figure it out."

Which was a complete revelation to me, at the time. And I've thought about such things, since.

I've thought, Now we're in a world where, "Lamarckian evolution," "alchemy," and "magic" mean "fake," or "wrong," and where, "religion" means "unchanging."

It was not always so. It is not always so.

Lamarckian evolution and alchemy were attempts to understand the world. Attempts that came before us. They look no stranger to us than we will to those who follow us. Magic obviously exists--it describes anything people don't understand. And religion could change as things became more useful. It still does.

I have never heard anyone who was complaining about religion actually complain about religion. I have heard people complain about small-minded people, people who will not listen to reason, people who hate other people for what they are rather than who, people who cling too tightly to old ideas, but never about religion. I have heard some people say that all Christians are against gays, and that all gays are against Christianity, and I know that both ideas are absurd.

Were I placed in an English-speaking nation a few centuries ago, I would find the language difficult to incomprehensible, and they would find mine the same. The same language is entirely different a few centuries apart; individual words change even more quickly. Outdated concepts were not always outdated, and the words around them had not always shifted so.

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