The Past is Never So Far Back

One thing I’m really enjoying about Fits, Trances, & Visions is that Taves goes to great lengths to make sure her reader understands that an experience–like let’s say hearing a voice–means very different things in different paradigms. In a psychiatry paradigm, it may be a sign of mental illness. In one religious paradigm, it may be a sign of an embarrassing lack of control. In another, a sign of God and in another, a sign of the Devil. In a Spiritualist paradigm, it may be a sign of a visiting spirit. Anthropologists may read it as the start of a shamanic episode.

She’s also very clear that which meaning we privilege for an experience has as much to do with our own sets of biases than it does with the meaning of the experience itself. So, say, for instance, I tell you I hear a voice threatening to tear my body apart (for the record: I do not). Based on you being the blog-reading sort you are and knowing that I’m a white woman in the middle of the United States, you might begin to seek a scientific understanding–am I experiencing some kind of schizophrenic episode? Am I being poisoned by some strange gas leak?

But if I tell you I went to the Amazon and met a tribe’s spiritual leader and he heard a voice threatening to tear his body apart, we’d be much more likely to assume he was having some kind of spiritual episode.

And that that kind of sorting is a bias of sorts–these are the people to whom we’d ascribe a psychiatric reason, those are the people who could have a religious reason. And that our own privileging of the scientific explanation, looking to understand what’s going on scientifically, means we look back at history with a distorted lens (I think this is always true, but it’s important for anyone who likes to look back at history to know her own biases are shaping how she understands what she’s reading.). You choose one way of seeing things without realizing that you’ve made that choice and you don’t realize the other ways you’ve inadvertently discounted.

So, this morning I was curious about whatever happened to Lurancy Vennum and it turns out that she got married, had some kids, and eventually died in LA in the 50s.

This blew my mind. I mean, it shouldn’t. A lot of folks of her generation and the one right after it went west. But I understand her so firmly as a 19th century phenomenon that learning she died in LA in the 50s was like learning that, after being the Watseka Wonder, she went to the future.

Which, in a way, I guess she did.

7 thoughts on “The Past is Never So Far Back

  1. Coble, as I’ve been reading it, I have been thinking two thoughts–1. that you, of all people I know, should read it because I think you might have the same experience I’m having of feeling like you see how you fit into history and 2. that it sure would be nice to be able to make the print bigger and one could do that on a Kindle.

    So, I hope it is available on a Kindle or at least as an ebook of some sort.

    And I hope it doesn’t begin to suck later as I’m really in love with these first chapters.

  2. It’s not on Kindle. So library, here I come. Between this book and my Harry Potter reread my November and December will be interesting months for sure.

    I looked at the details on Amazon and this looks like one of those books I could just fall in love with.

  3. “She’s also very clear that which meaning we privilege for an experience has as much to do with our own sets of biases than it does with the meaning of the experience itself. ”

    I love this thought (and it is one I ponder more and more the older I get). And, maybe there is no “meaning of the experience itself” outside the set of biases we bring to the experience. I think our biases are the entire meaning, not in addition to or separate from a context-free meaning. Which is maybe the point you’re making about why it is so hard to undistort (I just made that word up, sorry) the lens?

  4. Coble, I’m excited to hear what you think of it. It really is the kind of book where I wish there was some mixture of graduate course/Sunday school where I knew we were going to spend a couple of weeks discussing this.

    Julie, I think you’re right about there not being a firm meaning outside of the biases. I mean, it is, in part, the biases that give something meaning.

    It puts me in mind, just a little, of Wallace Stevens, right? There are thirteen (or a million) ways of looking at a blackbird and the point is not to pick which one is right, but to realize that you’re looking at a bunch of distortions that each kind of get at what’s going on (some coming closer than others).

    I was reading this morning a message board in which people were trying to figure out if the Vennum home still stood in Watseka and everyone on the board seemed pretty married to the idea that this incident was so rare and that the people of Watseka were trying to run Lurancy out of town because they didn’t understand her gift (or her illness, whichever).

    But it was not rare, what she was going through, especially not when you see that the two religious groups that took an interest in her situation were the Methodists and the Spiritualists. Both would have had an immediate cultural context for understanding what was going on with her from a religious standpoint. The Roffs were Spiritualists. Now, it’s not clear if they were before their daughter died, but they were by the time Lurancy channeled her, which means they would have experienced spirit visitations as a part of their religious practice.

    It’s only because we live in a time where “Methodist” doesn’t mean “holy rollers” and where “Spiritualist” conjures up lone mediums that we read Lurancy’s story as one of isolation and fear instead of one that is about religious interpretations of what’s going on with her v. scientific.

    So, I think that’s important to keep in mind.

    Still, I wonder about her later life. I’d be curious to know if she had this happen again or not.

  5. Hearing that Methodists=Holy Roller just cracks me up. Being raised a Baptist, Methodists were basically Baptists who could drink. How funny.

  6. It’s funny to me, too. By the time I came along, an exciting time with the Methodists was eating popcorn for dinner and playing poker for sugar packets with the youth group.

    It helps me understand why my dad was so unconcerned about the Assemblies of God when I was young. Back then, they were regularly burning records and denouncing Satanism and the other ministers were all up in arms and my dad assured them the AoGs would become bland, just give them 20 years.

    And here we are and they are. Little did I know he was speaking from knowledge of what the Methodists had been through.

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