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The Redemptive Imagination
Biography of America logo
Interactive Timeline, 1876 - 1999 interview Transcript Webography

Page 12345

Imagemap: link to IRC Credits

Golden: Every history is an interpretation. It takes a very, very long time for a human being to start from nothing at birth and put together a framework on which to hang things in your mind, and a complicated enough understanding of the world and of himself and of his place in it. Then things begin to mean something.

Miller: You have the capacity for memory.

Golden: Well this issue of framework is terrifically important, I think, because there's something that I call-- I named it after myself. Nobody had ever named it, so I named it Golden's Phenomenon [laughter]. And it is that thing that happens when you've never heard of something, and then you hear of it, and you hear it about six times over the course of the next two weeks.

Well actually what happens is, it's been out there all along, but you never were aware of it. You become aware of it. And now it gets stuck in the screen; it doesn't pass through any longer. I think that is such an important issue...

Miller: So we start to become these memory haunted beings. But a lot of times, as you've once said to me, you want to forget; you almost have to forget.

Santiago: I think for oppressed people, history is a burden. There's a part of you that just doesn't want to know. Because as you've pointed out, it's been negative all along, for example; or it's been ignored; or it gets in your way in one way or the other. And when I was writing my novel, I had this sense of America Gonzalez dragging her history behind her. And it is such a burden that it is hard for her to move at the speed at which she would like to move, because it's there. And the thing is that if you have the history but you don't know what to do with it, that's when it really weighs you down.

Johnson: You have to understand how you got here. That doesn't mean that you are entrapped by history, you know what I'm saying? Because again, every history is an interpretation. Really, history is liberating, rather than entrapping.

Miller: And also, every history, I think, what history shows is that we're all of us constantly in a process of invention and reinvention. And so in the collective as the country...

Johnson: I think we are very mutable. I think we are about becoming rather than being. You know, we are verbs; we are not nouns.

Golden: But, I think that as you're changing, you're always lagging. Your sense of yourself lags behind the reality.

Miller: Your character in the book, I remember that one really tremendous scene where she looks in the mirror, and she's in the process of moving from what she had been, living in a small seacoast town, simple fishing village, to being a geisha. And she's about there, and she looks in the mirror, and she can't even find and see her former self. That's how far she's gone. That morning she wakes up, and she's not quite sure who she is. Yeah. Because she's in transition.

Countries do this, too, I think. I don't, maybe at the end of the 20th century we don't quite know where we are, because so many huge changes are taking place. And we know we're supposed to know about them and where they're headed. But we're not quite sure.

Santiago: If you change cultures, you constantly feel like that's happening, because you're constantly negotiating those two aspects of yourself, the one that you are, and the one that you're becoming.

Golden: But human beings do change, because we're able to transmit culture. And the culture accretes. You know, it changes over time. And that's the only thing that keeps us from being what we would call animals.

Miller: Yeah. I'll raise that very question with my students. I mean, what separates you from your dog? Because your dog has a kind of memory, reflected memory. You know, put him near the fire, he pulls away; "Come, Spot," things like that. But...

Golden: But there's no transmitted memory.

Miller: No transmitted memory. And because we're hooked into our memory, as you pointed out earlier, we're haunted by it! Or liberated... We're burdened, or liberated, or haunted. Yeah! We're these dream-haunted creatures...

Words on screen: Dream-haunted creatures falling out of history.

Johnson: It's been true from the beginning of time. Man's need to tell stories. From the cave paintings at Lescaux to the graffiti on the Berlin Wall, the stories we write and tell have contained our fears, expressed our joys, and given shape to our uncertainties. Whether we are talking about the African griot, the medieval bard, the contemporary novelist, or the historian, their stories define who we are, as individuals and as a people.

In his masterpiece, Invisible Man, the late, great novelist, Ralph Ellison, speaks of a character who falls out of history. At first a reader doubts that this is possible, because doesn't history encompass everything? What Ellison wants us to think about is something every historian and storyteller knows: namely that history is only the events that have been seen and recorded. And that means most of life remains invisible to us most of the time.

So if one falls out of recorded history, one falls into not only the realms of imagination and the possible, but also into a universe of lives and events long hidden by official interpretations of what has been. One job of the storyteller in our time is to make the invisible visible; to put marginalized lives at center stage; and remind us again and again that all our knowledge is provisional, tentative, and always in need of revision.

Words on screen: And so it goes.

[picture of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.]

Vonnegut: It is the past, not the future, which scares the heck out of me. Military and political and financial histories of this century alone, never mind all the other numbered nightmares, can only persuade a sane and decent person of the following: Human beings are much too vile for a planet as salubrious and enchanting as this one has been for millions and millions of years now. We do not deserve to live here.

Histories of our humane imagination, of our fine arts, and especially of our music, I would have to say, can make us seem like angels. Angels, to be sure, with tears in their eyes. Our artists have again and again done what so many mothers have asked their gifted children, or even their ordinary children, to do if they can: Make this a better world than it was before you got here.

My synonym for the fine arts again would surely include our wisest histories of every sort. Humane imagination. Our Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights of our Constitution, and Abraham Lincoln's address on the battlefield at Gettysburg, are literature. So is the speech Martin Luther King, Jr., made in 1963, in my time, in our time, which begins this way: "I have a dream that one day...." Music maestro, please. God bless us all.



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