Jun 13, 2010

Abutting the unknown

For a child, a very young child, anything in the world—anything that's here—can disappear. When a ball rolls behind a chair, it doesn't just pass out of view, but ceases to exist. The same for a mother's face in a game of peek-a-boo.

We are not born knowing the world. We have to learn it. It is not pre-established in our minds and we have to make maps and establish coordinates, feeling things and touching them, according to the theory of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, in order to come to know the world. We learn object permanence. We have to learn. We learn not to cross the road without looking both ways or to touch a stove when it's hot. We learn seasons and times, the lay of the land and what's safe, what's not.

But all that we know has edges; the known world everywhere abuts what we do not know, and so here, there's a choice.

There's a map on the wall of the sheriff's office in Edward P. Jones's novel, The Known World. It's eight feet by six feet, browned and yellow, a woodcut created three centuries before by a German who might have been a Russian who might have been a Jew: a map of the world. It hangs in the sheriff's jail in Jones's fictional Manchester County, Virginia, before the Civil War, even though the sheriff knows it's an outdated, inaccurate map. When he's offered a new map, a better one, he turns it down. "I'm happy with what I got," he says, and, after all, he assembled this world himself. "The map had come," the author writes, "in twelve parts, each weighing about three pounds, and [he] had had a time putting it together. He did it while Winifred and Minerva were away at Clara's, and when Winifred returned and told him she did not want it in her house, he had to dismantle it and reassemble it again in the jail."

This is a choice almost everyone faces in The Known World, the choice not of infants, who must construct a conception of things, but of adults, who see their constructions come apart.

Read the rest of the review of Edward P. Jones novel @ Cardus