On Having and Knowing

 I was reading about the First World War the other day (as usual) and came across a fact of which I had been vaguely aware but had forgotten:

“Among American soldiers there were very few who did not go into battle with a Bible in their pocket, particularly since they were supplied free of charge by various Protestant or Catholic charitable organizations. Some soldiers read them, but most did not feel the need to do so. The presence of the sacred book on their bodies, the physical contact with the object rather than the spiritual contact with its contents, was what gave reassurance. The entire Bible was thus utilized as an amulet. (quoting a chaplain) ‘Perhaps they carried them as a charm, a sort of magic, perhaps because they felt more than they know that “such things” contained the secret of life and death and immortality, perhaps because they had a deep love for them. None can say.’ ” (A. Becker, War and Faith: the Religious Imagination in France, 1914-1930, Berg 1998, p. 99).

And I’ve run into similar stories about British soldiers – objects carried as amulets, photographs, Bibles with bullets lodged in them that had protected the carrier from harm, etc. I’m pretty sure this isn’t something specific to the First World War (no doubt today’s soldiers carry items of significance), but it got me thinking about having and knowing something.

The soldiers’ uses of the Bible shows that faith (and I use the term broadly here, not just Christian faith) can’t be understood in epistemological or rational terms alone. This is not a new claim, of course, but it seems to me worth asking what roles objects play in our lives, particularly as they connect to some part of our beliefs and memories and understanding of self. And re-reading this post after finishing it, it definitely steers toward memory – be warned!

But first, let’s flesh out the example: the soldiers carried the Bible and had a particular faith that it would keep them from harm. What the book said, however, effectively didn’t matter – it was the book itself, the material object called “The Bible,” not the text and/or teachings of the book, from which they drew comfort. I wouldn’t wonder if a soldier drew the same comfort from having only the cover of the book, say, and had lost the pages inside (even if it would offer less “protection” as armor). While the lack of Christian feeling confounded priests and chaplains at the time (particularly in Britain), they were perhaps actually responding to a model of faith which resting on having, in this case the Bible, rather than knowing about the religion on which it was based. Like any other amulet of superstition, the “Good Book” became a good luck charm.

This seems to me a classic case of “high” (church) versus “low” (popular, folk) religion, in which the former advocates knowledge while the latter insists on relating to the objects as objects. (This would apply most to Protestant Christian churches, as the symbolic objects and images of Catholicism offer a more complicated story).

But anyway, to (hopefully) be less pedantic, let’s come back to having and knowing in a more general sense. And I’ll take “knowing” in a very general sense, which includes knowledge of facts, ideas, etc. but also of memories and mental representations of things. Owning a copy of your favorite novel or remembering what your childhood bedroom looked like, for example.

If we could know or remember everything we have experienced – or at the very least, be satisfied with what we have retained – it seems we wouldn’t have much need for objects which we might call “sentimental” (old photographs and letters, childhood toys, etc.) Or conversely, if we perceived no need or desire to store our knowledge or experiences, we wouldn’t bother to even invest meaning in objects, let alone go out of our way to produce or keep them. Theorists of individual and cultural memory suggest that in the last several decades we as a society have increasingly valued the archive, not sure what to save about our past so we just save everything, often with the vague hope that we (or someone) will sort through it later. We make vain attempts to keep things and have things – home movies (now DVDs), scrapbooks, old clothes, receipts from twenty years ago, things we inherit from dead relatives. Why do people tape their weddings? They were there – such an important event should stick pretty clearly – do they ever watch them again? Will we start taping funerals soon? Or maybe people already do… I wouldn’t be too surprised.

This doesn’t mean we save literally everything. Aside from the pack-rat contingent of the population (no doubt larger than anyone would like to believe), we throw away items as they have no use – the old toothbrush, the broken plate, the spent lightbulb. But for things to which we attach meaning – whether decorative or once useful or simply for its own sake – we store away, or even put on display. Do we not trust ourselves to remember what things were important to us? When we take photographs of our family and friends, are we afraid we’ll forget what they look like? Why are people so devastated when they lose their “sentimental” possessions in, say, a flood or fire? Could we really do without these objects? A few possible answers suggest themselves.

First, keeping objects in order to bridge a sense of past (or possible future) loss. We may keep our ancestors’ heirlooms in absence of having them with us, or take photographs of our friends to remind us of when they are not around. And, of course, objects of memory of the dead – we may not save things with the conscious thought of losing the person with whom we associate them, but they become very important the moment we do.

Second, in a more strict sense of the word “knowledge,” as references. Regardless of the size of one’s vocabulary, for example, a dictionary is always a useful thing to have. We keep old bank records or resumes or other records around to verify what becomes at best faulty memory, at worst financial or other crisis requiring evidence of “what really happened.” We know we can’t keep everything in our heads; we can store them in physical spaces in our lives; sometimes it’s more useful to know how to find out something than to remember the something itself.

Third, maybe we get a sense of comfort from having these objects, like the soldiers protected by their Bible-amulets. Perhaps our memory even relies on having these objects around, that without referring back to them we don’t trust ourselves enough to remember what’s important, to remember in the right way, to verify what we believe or remember or know against something outside ourselves. And maybe this relates back to the first idea – that having a meaningful object which stands for a past, now lost, relationship can give us some small sense of connection to what otherwise only exists in our heads.

And I’d love to hear more ideas on this.

As a grad student and general bookworm, I then thought more specifically about the idea of the library – and here I mean the individual’s collection of books, not a public or archival library. Professors’ offices are marked first and foremost by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, crammed with volumes and usually with a few books lying horizontally across the rows (and second by piles of unread articles and students’ papers). Some of these books they have read once and might refer to at most once every five years; others they might have read so many times that the only reason they would look at them again is for a page number reference. And similarly, a professor recently recommended a reading list to us (the class) because “these are books it would be really good to have.” Not just have read, but actually own. And as I look at my shelves, I see reference books, academic books, travel books, and my favorite novels and comic strip collections – I knew I wouldn’t have time to read any of the fiction books on my shelf when I moved this year. Why did I bring them anyway? I guess because they serve as a sort of intellectual decoration (and certainly for some, status symbol), but more because they have become objects of comfort for me. I know (roughly) the content of Coupland’s Generation X, but having it on the shelf makes it not only readily available for reference, but also a comfort object, and a reminder that I like that particular book and what it has to say. For the same reason, I’ve held onto a number of my children’s books (currently not with me, but on a safe shelf) – I read them once in a while, but they are more important to me simply because they’re still there.

So if we like having things, and “knowing” (or remembering) a thing or event or place or person isn’t always enough, are we – like the soldiers and their Bibles – protecting ourselves from something? Maybe it’s not a perfect parallel, but if we can be said to be protecting ourselves, I’d have to say it’s from our own forgetfulness and the reality of an intangible and completely inaccessible past. Forgetting is of course a part of memory, as others have said, and why we also choose what to keep and discard. But to want to have reminders around us suggests to me that in this case, forgetting is seen as the problem more than as part of the process.

In myself, at least, this impulse toward having rather than simply knowing has been made more complicated, but no less strong, by digital storage and availability over the Internet. I don’t always print my digital photos, but I diligently save them in subcategories of folders; I build up a music collection, even when I could easily stream the song via video or audio or Internet radio; I even create a screen shot of my desktop now and again to remember where the icons are supposed to go, if they ever get rearranged. On the one hand, digital information and communications make duplicate storage unnecessary – in theory one with consistent computer access wouldn’t need to buy a dictionary, for example, because dictionary.com is always there (not to mention the OED, the Wiktionary, and a number of others). But on the other hand, somehow I still feel the need to create my personal “archive” – Dilbert comics, funny or striking photographs I didn’t take of things I’ve never actually seen, quotes from books I already own, on the off chance I might ever want to refer to that specific item again. Which isn’t often. Not all of these things could be called “sentimental” objects of memory, of course, but the basic principle remains the same: we protect ourselves from time and our own weakness by archiving bits of ourselves – who we are, what we remember, what we know, our past experiences and relationships – in the things around us.

Umm… that got really long.  Sorry!

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1 comment so far

  1. Curtis Plowgian on

    One thing I’m not sure you talked about: What about when possessions give us a sense of companionship? To point to a famous film example, think of Wilson in “Castaway”. Or, to use a real life example, when I was young, I kept stuffed animals (I’m assuming that I’m not crazy at that other people did as well). My stuffed animals had assigned personalities and I considered them my friends. To some extent, we regard our friends and lovers are “ours” (although if we are to aggressive in trying to assert this it can drive those people away). Things that “belong” to us can be comforting, because in a way we belong to them, and they make up a part of who we are. Anyway, this is very abstract and I need to go do some shopping, so I can “have” some food in my belly tonight.


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