December 12, 2003

Dreaming of the Past

"WHEN I WAS YOUNG I, too, had many dreams. Most of them came to be forgotten, but I see nothing in this to regret. For although recalling the past may make you happy, it may sometimes also make you lonely, and there is no point in clinging in spirit to lonely bygone days. However, my trouble is that I cannot forget completely, and these stories have resulted from what I have been unable to erase from my memory."

-- Lu Hsun, Introduction, Call to Arms.


LONG AGO, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, we picked up for the first time a book of Ray Bradbury's stories, and were enchanted from the moment we set eyes on his work. Actually, to be perfectly precise, we were enchanted from the moment we set eyes on the back-cover copy describing his work, which informed us that Mr Bradbury wrote stories of Man's "glorious past" -- and his "dismal future."

As we thumb through a collection of Mr Bradbury's stories this evening, we find that stories of both types are very much in evidence. There are, of course, the stories of small towns and baseball games and endless summers. But there are darker stories as well -- the stories where men fought against their newly-automated life, and sought refuge from cities and worlds ruined by nuclear devastation and leprosy bombs. Indeed, we recall that in one story, Mr Bradbury portrayed a couple who tried to escape into the past itself from a nightmarish future.

They failed, of course. They could not escape the world into which they were born. Perhaps Mr Bradbury's message is that we cannot do so either, no matter how much we try. But, by God, some of us in this life keep on trying anyway.

Now, of course, anyone who has read Mr Bradbury's work in detail knows full well that he is not a fan of Puritanism. Aye, he most certainly is not a fan of those whom he so memorably called the Spoil-Funs, those whom he accused of having mercurochrome for blood, those who would despoil his work in the name of what we now call political correctness.

Sheila O'Malley is not a fan of Puritanism either. Click on the link; read her whole essay; ponder it for a good long time. For if you're like us, it will make you do rather a lot of thinking.

Ms O'Malley writes:

I do believe that there is such a thing as morality, I do believe in a morality that is not subjective and not relative. There is such a thing as Good, and there is such a thing as Bad.

But yearning after the legendary good old days when children respected their parents and families ate dinner together and people went to church and had the "right" values seems foolhardy, ahistorical, and downright simple-minded. People in the 1940s had tormented family lives. You just never heard about it! Parents beat their kids. Girls got pregnant in high school. But nobody talked about it. There was a muzzle over the mess of life. Staring at the past thru rosy "those were the days" goggles seems like a waste of time.

Read Catcher in the Rye. Hell, let's go further back. Read Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Read Wuthering Heights. Read Anna Karenina. Read Oliver Twist. Read The Bible, for God's sake! People behave HEINOUSLY in the Bible, on occasion. There is no utopian past. It does not exist ...

At a later point, she continues:

"So I get very impatient with people who scold me. Who take it upon themselves to scold the entire world. Whose reason for living is to scream at other people, "This world is going to hell in a handbasket!"

Dude, if you'd just stop screaming about that handbasket, then maybe your schedule would clear up a little bit, so that you could actually have some FUN. Why do you care so much about how other people live their lives?

I basically care if people murder people, if people run a crackhouse on my block, I care if people break the law, I care if children are abandoned or abused. But I do not care what music they listen to. I do not care who they have sex with. I do not care if they are married or unmarried. I do not think that it's my business to teach the rest of the world the proper way to live. Plenty of people probably disapprove of MY lifestyle, but that's THEIR problem. ..."

And she finishes with the following:

"Also - as a coda: Little red flags go up in my mind when I hear people say stuff about "these days", or "what'sa mattah with kids today" or "whatever happened to concepts like honor or family?"

Enforced nostalgia. Willful romanticization of the past.

No thanks. I'm not interested."

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. We should again note that we have merely excerpted certain sections of Ms O'Malley's essay, and we very strongly encourage our readers to look over it in its entirety.

As for our thoughts on the matter, we certainly agree that when it comes to people's personal habits or lifestyles, a good scolding is far less effective in changing them than it used to be.

For as the world has gotten "smaller" with the introduction of new technology, it has also gotten much more disconnected. No longer do people worry about what The Neighbors or Folks Down at the Club think about how they live their lives. Gad, we at The Rant don't even know our neighbors, and we doubt that many people our age have more than a cursory knowledge of what goes on in their neighbors' lives -- or in the lives of the guys or gals they see down at the bar each payday. In short, the old aphorism that honey attracts more flies than vinegar is really appropriate in this day and age.

That said, we do think nostalgia can be a force for good. But before we continue, let us say that we are not taking issue with what Ms O'Malley wrote. She's focusing on scolds, not nostalgia. Besides, we made our complaint the last time, and she was very pleasant about the whole thing, and gave us a nice hyperlink and said some very complimentary things about our work, etc. etc. But we really don't intend to be critical; we're just spelling out our own thoughts on the matter.

Ms O'Malley is right that there were things wrong with the past. We didn't treat everyone equally -- that's a big one right there. We accepted familial violence, a point which Ms O'Malley specifically notes. We didn't talk about issues as thoroughly or as openly as we do today -- although we did talk about them. As C.S. Lewis noted about one such issue:

"They tell you that sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing it up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But I think it is the other way round. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess."

Dr Lewis first spoke those words in the early Forties. But of course it was a different world then; a world where some things were better. That was, for example, notable in the area of familial stability -- in 1940, there were six marriages for every divorce; now, the ratio is two to one. The rate for births out of wedlock was about five percent back then; now such births are a third of the total. On this subject, we don't think it's a bad thing to want to turn back the clock. It may be unattainable, we admit; but we think it's still worth trying to do.

So, how do we as a society do that, and many other things for which we ought strive? We don't do it by being cruel, that's for sure; and that said, please permit us one digression.

Even in this enlightened age we are cruel far too often to those who have made some bad choices, or fallen prey to addiction, or otherwise made a mess of things.

That's not to say we can simply give people pass after pass, or that we can excuse the behavior. At some point we have to let them go; and/or punish them accordingly, if they have done wrong against society. But we can certainly give people second chances if they deserve and want them, and we ought to do so. Furthermore, we can act with compassion and charity -- not only to offer them a helping hand, but to show them that there's a better way to live.

But back to the family stability issue. In this case, we think that if we directed more of our resources -- in every respect -- to promoting the importance of a strong family unit, it would help. And God knows we as a society can't get on our high horse about it. We have to admit to ourselves and those to whom we are reaching out (in this case, teenagers) that we have fallen, we have screwed up, we have made a mess of things -- and we just don't want to see them go through the same troubles we have. Let's leave scolding out of it.

And thus, we return to one key point of Ms O'Malley's argument: that nostalgia, instead of being a useful force in life, can truly become disabling. Instead of dealing with the problems at hand, we focus on the fact that (to kind-of expand on her example) we didn't need no welfare state and everybody pulled his weight and gee! our old LaSalle ran great. Then we go about beating everyone over the head -- look how we deal with smoking and drinking, for instance.

The danger of this tactic, of course, is that it lets nostalgia for the past cloud the reality of the present. And again, we shall have Mr Bradbury enter the picture, for he once wrote a good story about that literally happening.

The spacefarers he wrote about had arrived on Mars one day to find that everything -- everything -- was just like their childhoods back on Earth. Their old friends and family were all there, and the town in which they landed was very much like their old hometowns. It all seemed odd, but no one really paid attention -- until that night, when the leader of that third expedition to Mars finally figured out it was all a ruse:

"Captain John Black broke and ran across the room. He screamed. He screamed twice. He never reached the door."

We very much appreciate the need to remember the past. But even as we appreciate and respect how things were, let's make sure that we can get to the door of the future -- and that we open it!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at December 12, 2003 01:44 AM | TrackBack

Beautifully expressed. I especially like the CS Lewis quote.

Posted by: red at December 12, 2003 10:50 AM