I want to open myself!... I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil! (Abigail, end of Act 1)Arthur Miller's The Crucible so powerfully captures the religious fervor and mindless persecution that drove the Salem witch-hunt of 1692. I remember studying this play, sitting with it in my lap and reading of the unfolding madness and religious hysteria. I remember thinking how can any rational person with a mind of their own get so consumed that they become blind to logic and reason and turn on each other? It engrossed me to the point that I spent quite a bit of time reading about the historical context.
In a note on historical accuracy, Arthur Miller writes, "I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history. The fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar - and in some cases exactly the same - role in history." It is chilling to re-live, through this play, the "crying-out" by Abigail and the other girls which unleashes the hysteria that engulfs the town of Salem and ends in executions. "We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!" says John Proctor in Act 2 after the girls accuse his wife of witchcraft. Reason is replaced by superstition, empathy by revenge, openness of mind by fear.
It's been a while since I read this play, but I picked it up again this week, wrapped in thoughts about how ideas frighten people, how their foreign shapes stick uncomfortably in the sides of people's minds like thorns. Part of that reaction is natural; we don't want to be uncomfortable, we don't want to be scared, we want to remain where it's safe. The problem begins when anything that pricks or prods us is resisted and viewed with suspicion. That troubles me. We enter that dangerous, monochromatic landscape of antipodean concepts: black/white, right/wrong, good/evil. In reality, ideas are more nuanced; more often than not they sit somewhere in between clearly defined places. Ideas are a journey and if we are afraid to take that journey we can't learn, we can't grow, we deny ourselves the opportunity of understanding a complex, colourful world.
If we don't take that journey, we risk much. We stagnate, our views narrow and wither, we find ourselves stuck. What is out there is encountered as a threat, as either right or wrong and finally condemned. So what separates us from Abigail's actions, from her hysterical "crying-out", from the madness that engulfed a community?
I'd like to think that it is reading and education. But these are useless unless we are open to them. This was highlighted by a recent article by Jonathan Jansen on tertiary education in South Africa. I read it with a renewed sense of hope that we have indeed come a long way from the darker, more hysterical events of our history. He writes,
"A university is a place in which you are supposed to feel uncomfortable as your views are tested and challenged by other views. If a university simply exists to confirm your culture, your language, your faith and your habits, then it will decidedly not prepare you for the kind of world you will enter on graduation. In other words, you will be a social and cultural misfit in a changing, complex and globalised world."Warning or guideline, if we take heed of these words, then it seems that we are ready for the journey into new ideas.