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The Second Time Around, Or, the Arrogance of Presentism

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It is simple, but true. Something that is good can be appreciated again and again. Each time I reread, re-watch, or view again something good, I see something different, think something different, and gain a new insight. For example, as a child, I read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I recently reread the book and picked up on the allegories and symbolism that I did not notice as a young reader. Songs I belted out in high school, knowing every line, I now hear with horror. As an adult, I know what some of those lyrics actually mean.

the_handmaid_s_tale_by_margaret_atwood_by_stirvinolady-d87j0h2The first time I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I was a graduate student. If you haven’t read it, Atwood’s dystopic novel describes life in the Republic of Gilead. Sometime in the future, the US is no more. Gilead is the new nation-state and has ordered society into strict categories. For reasons that are somewhat hazy, infertility and birth defects are widespread, so Commanders and their wives have access to Handmaids, who are women with (hopefully) viable ovaries that may be able to produce children for the Commanders and their wives. Handmaids are not allowed to read. Their value comes from producing offspring. This is loosely based, according to Atwood’s fictional account, on the Old Testament practice of patriarchs “taking” handmaids and producing offspring through them instead of or in addition to their wives. The Bible is read, but subverted into the passages that emphasize submission, not salvation or freedom in Christ. The Bible is also kept locked up so that only Commanders have access to them. The reader learns about Gilead through the lens of Offred, a Handmaid (yes, named for her current Commander, “Of Fred” – Handmaids are not allowed their own identity, only a derivative identity), who describes her life in Gilead with some flashbacks to her earlier life in the United States where she lived with her husband and daughter.

Not too subtle, Atwood. It seemed quite clear to me, as a graduate student, that the book arose from the context of the mid 1980s and rise of the religious right. The increasingly vocal battles over abortion and the sanctity of human life raged amidst a larger backlash to the women’s movement of the 1970s. Those in power at Gilead seem clearly based on the more conservative branches of Christianity that emphasize submission of women. Atwood’s book is a clear warning of what could happen as a result of the backlash against women’s right, particularly in the area of women’s bodies. Atwood seems quite clear in her critique of Christianity and its treatment of women.

More recently, I reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This time, I was particularly struck by the ending page where Atwood wrote, “As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voice may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”

I am fascinated by the last part, the “clearer light of our own day.” There seems to be an assumption that we, today, living in 2016, understand the world and its history better now than at any other time. Why? Are we smarter now than ever before? More knowledgeable? Or is it just because we can look up virtually anything virtually anywhere on the internet or urban dictionary, provided we have data coverage?

Ironic, isn’t it? Many of us might claim this progressive view of history, that we are stronger, faster, smarter, more knowledgeable and more connected than ever before. This arrogance of presentism assumes that we know more and better here than any time in the past. Yet I can read a book, separated by 6 or 7 years, and have very different insights from the first time I read it. If I read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale again in another 10 years, I’m quite certain I will have different insights than the first two times I read it. So how could I possibly claim I know everything about Atwood’s book right now? Or that I have it all figured out at this very moment? More broadly, how can we, in 2016, think we have it all figured out? We live in 2016, not 1016, and yet we still struggle with wars, violence, poverty, wealth, and power. Sure, we have penicillin. But we can also be killed in cold blood at a nightclub. Or at school. Or in a shopping mall or movie theatre. Does humanity have it all figured out yet?

Will we ever?

Rebecca Koerselman teaches History at Northwestern College

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

4 Comments

  • Heidi Bakker says:

    Well said, Rebecca! By the logic of presentism, (or chronological snobbery, as I have also heard it termed) we eventually make history itself irrelevant. Why study what they did in 1016, since our times are obviously so advanced… But then, as you point out, we still have many of the same global problems. We might study history with respect, knowing that we bring our own context to it, but willing to learn from what has gone before, so as to BETTER our own times! This is a very different perspective than starting with the assumption that we “understand the world and its history better” simply by virtue of living in the 21st Century.

  • Jim says:

    Excellent, Rebecca! The appropriate application of historical relativity.

  • Rebecca Koerselman says:

    Thank you, Heidi and Jim!

  • Roger Gelwicks says:

    It is strange, Rebecca, how you can read a book or view a movie as a child and then years later pick up an entirely different story or meaning than what you had read as a child. I have a feeling that the author of the Wizard of Oz had two thoughts going on at the same time, one, a fictional story for children, but then an entirely different story for adults in which he debunks religion, especially Christianity. Of course, the adult story is much more subtle, but the parallels are many and seem obvious, especially, the depiction of the almighty wizard (or God) who is no more than a small man behind a curtain with a loud amplifier, but in peoples’ mind is all powerful. It’s almost a Pilgrim’s Progress story but with a fatal flaw. I sometimes wonder if the similarities are in the reader’s mind or if they were the intention of the author. I think the arrogance of presentism fits here too, how increasingly our Western culture is becoming post Christian.

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