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When I Was an 18-Year-Old I Did Things with Rats

January 8, 2013 by Reader's Connection

When I Was a Child I Read Books

I got teary-eyed reading the first essay in Marilynne Robinson’s 2012 collection¬†When I Was a Child I Read Books. It’s called “Freedom of Thought,” which doesn’t sound original; and if I paraphrased her ideas about the marvel of human existence, that wouldn’t impress you, either. You have to read the thing.

She made me vulnerable at the beginning of the essay by evoking a dark stretch of my past. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner had been Chair of the Psychology Department at I.U., 1945-1948, and his effect was still felt there when I attended. But Robinson attended Pembroke College in Brown University, and it would seem that rat labs were an important component of their psych program, too.

I was educated at a center of behaviorist psychology and spent a certain amount of time pestering rats. There was some sort of maze-learning experiment involved in my final grade, and since I remember the rat who was my colleague as uncooperative, or perhaps merely incompetent at being a rat, or tired of the whole thing, I don’t remember how I passed. I’m sure coercion was not involved, since this rodent and I avoided contact. Bribery, of course, was central to the experiment and no black mark against either of us, though I must say, mine was an Eliot Ness among rats for its resistance to the lure of, say, Cheerios.

The Death of AdamShe had me in the palm of her hand after that–I was more easily maneuvered than her rat–and her arguments against various sorts of reductive thinking had my support.

The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be “explained,” associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial. We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected “physical” world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word “miraculous.”

HousekeepingRobinson is well known as the author of the unsettling novel Housekeeping and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, but she’s also a wonderful essayist. I had read most of her 1998 collection The Death of Adam, and knew that she was religious and adored the 16th-Century theologian¬†John Calvin, who isn’t popularly ¬†thought of as a lovable guy. Jumping around among the essays in When I Was a Child I Read Books, I think they bear out what one reviewer wrote about her 2010 book Absence of Mind (which I haven’t read and just now requested):
Absence of Mind
Fundamentalists, whether theistic or atheistic, will probably be irritated by this volume; however, readers interested in seriously thinking about science, culture, and religion, and their interrelationships, will find this book rewarding.– Choice

When I Was a Child is also available as downloadable audiobook, read by the author, which could be a trip, and in large print.

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