Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Fetishizing an Era
"Latin's not used in diplomacy or law any longer," I would tell her. "What good is it?"
Mrs. DePue passed away last October, still lamenting about the very trend I had warned her of decades earlier.
Don't get me wrong, a study of Latin can help us understand Indo-European Romance roots in the same way that a study of Old or Middle English can show us how shire-reef became sheriff. It's just that we shouldn't expect to gain much practical knowledge from something that has passed into history.
I feel the same way about classical studies of Greece and Rome. We owe a lot to both cultures for injecting into the ancient world new concepts of organizing civilization, improving individual sentience, and writing about the results. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a little Heraclitus or Pliny the Elder over a glass of wine from time to time. But let's get real. Natural scientists tell us that most of what Archimedes or Galen had to say was flat-ass wrong. And even in the realm of speculative philosophy, cognitive neuroscientists tell us that Plato's notions of ideals and forms simply don't hold much water as describing the real way a conscious mind interacts with the external environment.
Of course, all this is to be expected. These folks lived 2000 years ago, in pre-Baconian, pre-Enlightenment times, when our knowledge of the world around us was primitive. It's fun to study these times. But it was a little annoying to see students of the Enlightenment Era become such fetishists over classical studies - memorizing Roman poets, taking the "Grand Tour" of ancient sites, and figuring Cicero and Tacitus had more to tell Europe about politics than any plebe of the Sun King era. Again, this is understandable. The scholars of the 17th and 18th century compared ancient texts to those of the 14th-century Scholasticism period, or the ignorant religious Medieval period that came before, and those Romans looked pretty smart.
Unfortunately, historical fetishizing is still alive and well in the 21st century. Some study Newton without the asterisks placed by Einstein and Heisenberg. Some remain obsessed with Freud and Marx, without acknowledging how much the ideas of those two 19th-century giants were unique to conditions in that century - and are largely invalid today.
Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking a healthy respect for all historical eras. The worst cultures are those, like Jacobin France, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Salafist Timbuktu, who want to toss out all historical referents and say that "Year One" starts today, stripping the landscape of all cultural signposts. But the worst sin after the Year-One nihilists is that of the people that focus only on historical high points, without recognizing that human history is supposed to be a tidal ebb and flow, is supposed to be a series of peaks and troughs, and that the study of dark corners and silent troughs and still backwaters is critically important.
In the last couple decades, perhaps as a side effect of growing old, I have started experiencing the fourth dimension more as an omniscient landscape than as an arrow. Some folks get confused by my experiments in essays and poems with time-space mashups, and I tell them that Clovis and Richard III and Ray Lewis and Iggy Pop seem equally alive and equally present every waking moment. But if one is to experience time in such a way, succumbing to historical fetishism is akin to becoming obsessed with celebrities.
It's easy to see this in history books. Why write yet another book about the fall of the Roman Empire, if one could write a study of the Ostrogothic King Totila, attempting to re-take Rome from Byzantia in the 6th century CE? Why write yet another study of Gettysburg, if one had the opportunity to explain how the Young America cult influenced the presidency of Franklin Pierce? Some might say they're giving the public the kind of books they want, but I'd call that the same sort of lame-ass excuse offered by musical composers who say they're always writing for the platinum-seller, rather than aiming for the obscure and inventive music only enjoyed by the same 50 or 500 people.
I see historical fetishes everywhere these days, and they're nearly always annoying. There was no "greatest generation" of the 20th century, no matter what Tom Brokaw may tell us of the 1940s, or Ken Kesey may tell us of the 1960s. There was no "golden era" of modern jazz in the 1950s or of rock music in the 1960s, where music was better than any other decade. There is an ebb and flow of musical genres that is always with us, and the musical gems to be found at ebb tide are as beautiful and worthy as the ones that arrive with a new tsunami.
Experiencing human history as a single flowing, undulating landscape is a wonderful experience, but it requires smashing pedestals. It requires paying attention to the shells and driftwood left washed up on shore after high tide passes. It requires avoiding the fetishization of particular eras, particular cultures and peoples. Yes, we need to understand more silent cultures of indigenous people, women, workers, but we also need to savor the knowledge of dead white guys - in appropriate context.
To hell with Greece and Rome, the Baroque Era, the Victorian Era, or the greatest generation, when taken out of context. Immerse yourself in the flow and admit that it's all good, even those backwater portions of history that are usually overlooked.