The reality of place has weighed heavily on me from a very young age. My knowledge of self has always been inseparable from the place in which I live. My understanding of who I am has been closely tied to those with whom I most often interact—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even those with whom I have a nodding acquaintance (a phrase that has become unfortunately abstract in a world that no longer values simple signs of courtesy and respect). Remove me from familiar places, and I become a stranger in a strange land, longing for my home.
Even when, as a typical teenager, I longed to leave my hometown, my departure always ended, in my imagination, with my return. A life elsewhere, among other people, is an abstraction: Home is reality.
Of course, I no longer live in my hometown—and yet, in fact, I do. In Huntington, as in Rockford, as in Spring Lake, I have walked the streets until they have become a part of me, and found my place among a people who are not simply passing through but are deeply rooted in this portion of God’s green earth and the little bit of civilization that has been built upon it, for all intents and purposes autochthonous and autonomous, a true community made up not of individuals with entirely separate lives but of persons whose sense of themselves is tightly woven with their sense of their neighbor and of their place.
Chaucer was the first to claim that familiarity breeds contempt, and most (if not all) of us can point to concrete examples that seem to prove his adage true. Yet these words are, at best, a half-truth, which makes them (as John Lukacs reminds us) more dangerous than a lie. Because it is even more true to say that familiarity breeds community, and that civilization cannot arise among an agglomeration of rootless individuals, but only among men and women who are rooted in a particular place and in deep knowledge of one another.
These brief thoughts were occasioned by continued reflection on what role, if any, aphantasia—my complete inability to create mental images—may have had on the development of my theological, philosophical, and political understanding. As I mentioned last month, I was initially dismissive of David Mills’s suggestion even to consider this. But the centrality of incarnationalism in my theological understanding, my visceral rejection of abstraction in philosophy, and my preference for localism in politics, economics (broadly understood), and culture, taken together, do seem like the positions one might expect a person who can’t imagine an orange sheep with five legs perched on the dome of the Huntington County courthouse to have arrived at.
On the other hand, shouldn’t we expect a Catholic who has truly encountered Christ to place the Incarnation at the center of his theological thought and, therefore, to reject philosophical abstraction in favor of an epistemology resembling a traditional Aristotelian empiricism? If even God must become man in order for us truly to know Him, why would we think that we can have true knowledge of anything else outside of experience? Even book larnin’ must build on experience, moving from analogy to analogy, and the mental images created by people who are not aphantasic of things they have not directly experienced are still conditioned by their actual experiences. Thus, the presentation of the Blessed Virgin in medieval art as more European than Middle Eastern is no more a form of cultural imperialism than images emerging from other Christian communities at roughly the same time of Mary with Asian or Ethiopian features. We know what we know because we have experienced it. Even those with the ability to create extraordinarily vivid mental images—hyperphantasia, we might call it—cannot conjure up a mental figment that does not correspond in some way to something they have experienced.
Yet there are Catholics today who intellectually accept the Incarnation as a reality but whose theology is otherwise maddeningly abstract, and philosophical abstraction ism, like centralism in politics, economics, and culture, has become more the norm among the intellectual classes than the exception. Over the last century—and accelerating exponentially in recent years—those tendencies have spread beyond the intellectual classes into the broader populace. Mass communications, and now social media, have turned abstractionism into a form of mania, a type of mental illness no longer confined to individuals but affecting society as a whole.
Walker Percy saw it coming nearly 50 years ago, and it’s no coincidence that this Catholic convert made the hero of Love in the Ruins (1971) and its sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), both a psychiatrist and a descendant of St. Thomas More. The answer to the abstraction that’s making us all mad lies in the faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Far from abstraction, that faith is an experience, a personal relationship with the God made Man; not a fantasy, but the ultimate ground of reality.
First published in the March 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.