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History and the Architecture of the Soul: Why the Echoes of Our Past Do Not Define Us

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            “I cannot think of a more authentic form of representation of [something] than its beginnings”. I’m surprised at how abrasive I find my own words, barely written more than a couple months ago at the beginning of my first semester at Bryn Mawr. My old window of perspective, which I now find rather limiting, has expanded to allow me much more room to see the different nuances in my environment, and has therefore helped me reorient myself as a part of it. I used to be enamored with the past, convinced that it could foreground significantly more about an individual or place than the present could. However, after reading works such as Terry Tempest Williams’, An Unspoken Hunger, and J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, I’ve learned that while our history is a necessary reminder of how everything is connected, it sets a very narrow frame for the present. The past does not, and should not, define who we are. While our history is, in a sense, the foundation to the “architecture of the soul”, it does not determine the development of values that we acquire from life experiences.

            History can be thought of as the foundation to this “architecture” but it does not define an individual’s human experience, and the values she develops as a result of that experience. As much is clear in author Terry Tempest William’s essay collection, An Unspoken Hunger, in which Williams reminisces about how her grandmother’s hobby of shell collecting impacted her childhood. She writes that “each shell is…architecture of the soul. I can hold [one] to my ear and hear not only the ocean’s voice, but the whisperings of my beloved teacher”, also commenting that the “beauty, awe, and curiosity” that arose from this intimate experience with nature illuminated the values that would later become a focal point of her life. Although Costello was introduced to this intimacy with nature during her childhood, it only served as the underlying structure of her beliefs, and did not define or nourish them into what later became a deep understanding of ecology; William’s intimate relationship with nature evolved as she located herself in the world as a woman. However, William’s choice to include the essay, “The Architecture of a Soul” was a very deliberate one, and cannot be ignored for its significance to her project as a whole. William’s concluded that the collection of shells she had kept from the walks with her grandmother “reminded [her] of [her] natural history”, which helped orient Williams in the natural world, and laid the foundation for her work with ecology.

            Although the past influences the way in which an individual perceives themselves in the world, it doesn’t determine the ways in which she may evaluate those perceptions. In many cases, there is a disconnect between the values and social expectations between younger and older generations. Author J.M. Coetzee portrays this generation gap in his book The Lives of Animals through an illustration of a tenuous relationship between mother Elizabeth Costello, an animal rights speaker, and her son, John, who has adopted neutrality on the subject. In regard to his mother’s obsession with animal rights, John narrates that, “he himself has no opinions one way or another. As a child he briefly kept hamsters; otherwise he has little familiarity with animals” and goes on to say that, “his mother is entitled to her convictions…if she wants to spend her declining years making propaganda against cruelty to animals, that is her right.”(218) Interestingly enough, although Elizabeth’s beliefs regarding animal rights are strong—strong enough for her to make a direct comparison between the killings of animals to the murders during the Holocaust—John has clearly not adopted the same moral convictions that have defined, and consumed, his mother’s life.

            Both authors have persuaded me that history does not define us, but simply lays a foundation that we will be able to build upon with our own experiences. The past connects us back to our roots, and in that way, helps us orient ourselves in the world because it provides a starting point. While I still believe that history has deep intrinsic value in what we can learn from it, I’ve come to realize that it does not, in fact, provide the most authentic illustration of the individual. In order to progress, as a society or individually, it’s important to understand our beginnings, but those beginnings do not, and should not, predestine the values that are shaped from life experience.












Works Cited:

Coetzee, J. M., and Amy Gutmann. The Lives of Animals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

Williams, Terry Tempest. An Unspoken Hunger. New York, NY: Vintage, 1994. Print.