Sometimes it seems that we live under the illusion that what is, what exists right now, is pretty much the way things have always been. Our movies help us to believe this prestidigitation. We see some contemporary actor in a historical setting and we automatically assume something like, “Right. That is how it would have been.” And of course what we now consider to be heroic prevails: usually someone fighting for the right to pursue their deepest desires against forces of containment and repression and to naturally in some way come out of it victorious. There is always the temptation to believe that we have at last come to pinnacle of history, or even better evolution, and can now look back at the miserable past with the confidence that at least we don’t have to live in that slop anymore.
Or perhaps we can imagine a Romantic epoch where the knights and princesses of old would be as clever and cynical as we are now and still, while eating our cake yet still possessing it, get to have all of the old trappings of royalty and nobility. The distant heroes in our fictional myths are always the people we would believe to be the hero now, in this quicksilver moment; the princess who understands medieval politics from a contemporary post-feminist perspective, the boy who fights to be himself no matter what others may think, the decadent aesthete who, while drenched in delicious vice and squalor, is far more admirable than the hypocritical religious folk who look down their self-righteous noses at him.
And so it is possible to both imagine the darkness of the past to be now safely behind us and paradoxically to feel that had we lived back then we would have changed everything, we would never have given into the blindness of that age.
And indeed every era does have a blindness to it, especially our own. And while it is impossible to entirely escape all of our ‘sightlessness’ nevertheless we can actually use the past to call into question the blindness of our times. Things that seem obviously self-evident to us at this moment can be called into question by using the past as a measure of the present, much as we measure the past by our current beliefs
Here are a couple of examples: People today take it for granted that there has always been music that expresses existential anger or rage. Punk, Metal, forms of Industrial or Rap often specialize in this kind of expression. But I can tell you this with certainty, prior to say Iggy Pop or the Sex Pistols,depending on how you reckon the origins of Punk rock, there was never such a thing in music… anywhere: no tribes in Africa or on the Amazon, no Jazz nor Pop, no obscure Russian folk styles. There were tribes who might use music to stoke the warriors for war. But it was not the bellowing inarticulate rage of the postpunk world. There was no sense of bewildering aimless raging loss. (Feel free to challenge me on this.)
Or take another example: It is easy to think that cuteness is an eternal concept; that people have always looked at creatures with big eyes and said “Awwww how cute!” But again, the concept really isn’t that old. The word ‘cute’ in English hardly goes back two hundred years and then it was closer to the word ‘acute’. ‘Cute’ in contemporary usage means something more akin to ‘baby-like’. And what am I doing even suggesting that there is something off with ‘baby-likeness’? I’m sure there are a few people who might read this who are already wondering why I’m even going on about the word. But that is exactly the point. ‘Cute’ things are beyond the pale of discussion. It’s like questioning a baby. What sort of sick monster would suggest there’s anything wrong with a baby? And I’m sure the Disney Corporation came to exactly that conclusion when they changed Mickey Mouse from looking like a rodent to looking baby-like by giving him a round head and huge eyes. And my what big eyes so many cartoon characters have! The better to smuggle ideas in with!
Disney stands in a preeminent position here in raiding the past and changing it. Starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and moving on through much of their oeuvre they have consistently deformed the past by making it both a wonder land and a commodity. It’s hard to convince many people today of how brutal many fairytales were in the past before being bowdlerized by Walt and company. Read the original Grimm’s Brothers. But then again those fairy tales came before the concept of ‘family friendly’ entertainment. Many folks today, of many religious and agnostic stripes, simply give all ‘family entertainment’ a free pass because, well, it’s just so ‘cute’. Never mind that some of the propaganda concepts buried within them are amongst the most self-serving and selfish that could possibly be imagined. The message can often be summarized as, “You can be whatever you choose to be.” Or “Don’t let anyone ever tell you ‘No’ ”. But has anyone in the past ever had such messages so relentlessly driven down the gullets of their young?
The answer would be no. Those old fairytales did more than just warn you about the dangers of the forest. They told you that life had darkness in it. And that in order to get through the dark forest, you’d better not leave something as silly as bread crumbs.
The past was truly different than the present. The people living there, while subject to the same lust, greed, envy and pride as we all are, did not have the same outlook on the world that we do. Jane Austen was not a contemporary woman just waiting for the 21st Century so that she could escape the 19th. No one had a ‘geeky’ ‘fanboy’ mentality about anything collectable prior to somewhere in the late 20th Century. We folks today are far more self-conscious than anyone ever has been in the past, thanks to all of the equipment we have for recording voice and image. And it is quite possible to see that not that long ago people had a fuller understanding of how to make music than we do. There were people who knew how to eat together, how to hold discussions, how to make shoes. These things are often lost or problematic to us.
In the last very few years things have already disappeared that once seemed like part of human nature. Whatever happened to letter writing? Serious book learning is imperiled in many quarters. The relationship to music is changing yet again as people enter a sort of record and erase mentality. CDs, interestingly enough, will probably die out, but in a rare streak of good news the vinyl LP will probably survive as a kind of specialty artifact.
For me the thing to keep in mind in all of the chaos of rapid change is that the past can come to our aid in helping to both measure what is lost and to strengthen the good things that remain and inspire us to experiment anew. Maybe dinnertime has become a media feeding frenzy for you and yours. But with a little thought and a few simple rules you can probably bring good discussion back to your table. Maybe you live now in a highly distractible world. Well turn the stuff off and read an actual book. There are dozens of ways to begin to reclaim human existence from the swirl of technology and the bloated media illusion.
But first an foremost I would suggest that you turn off the drone of the present on occasion and discover that the past is a country with rights of its own and it has words for us that we would do well to heed.
I will let C.S. Lewis have the last word from his essay entitled: On the Reading of Old Books
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”
And a little further on he writes…
“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”