Thursday, January 17, 2019

On a Dwarfish Contempt for the Present (and Related Topics)

My title is taken from a G.K. Chesterton essay, "The Philosophy of Sight-Seeing", in which he wrote: "It would be really interesting to know exactly why an intelligent person-- by which I mean a person with any sort of intelligence--can and does dislike sight-seeing. Why does the idea of a char-a-banc full of tourists going to see the birth-place of Nelson or the death-scene of Simon de Montfort strike a strange chill to the soul? If there is one thing more dwarfish and pitiful than irreverence for the past, it is irreverence for the present, for the passionate and many-coloured procession of life, which includes the char-a-banc among its many chariots and triumphal cars." (A char-a-banc was an open-topped carriage which held a large number of people, and was used for excursions.)

When I first read this passage, it was one of those occasions where I found Chesterton challenging my own outlook. Such occasions don't necessarily result in me changing my attitude-- I revere Chesterton, but I don't idolize him-- but in this instance it did. I realized that I had myself harboured this disdain for tourists and for sight-seeing. I also realized that Chesterton was entirely right to condemn this as "dwarfish and pitiful".

Chesterton strikes a similar note in his more famous essay, "Christmas and the Aesthetes", a chapter from Heretics. This passage was one I could read with an easy heart, as I have always loved Christmas, but it's worth quoting here as it's relevant to my topic:

There are in the modern world an admirable class of persons who really make protest on behalf of that ancient beauty of which Augustine spoke, who do long for the old feasts and formalities of the childhood of the world. William Morris and his followers showed how much brighter were the dark ages than the age of Manchester. Mr. W. B. Yeats frames his steps in prehistoric dances, but no man knows and joins his voice to forgotten choruses that no one but he can hear. Mr. George Moore collects every fragment of Irish paganism that the forgetfulness of the Catholic Church has left or possibly her wisdom preserved. There are innumerable persons with eye-glasses and green garments who pray for the return of the maypole or the Olympian games. But there is about these people a haunting and alarming something which suggests that it is just possible that they do not keep Christmas. It is painful to regard human nature in such a light, but it seems somehow possible that Mr. George Moore does not wave his spoon and shout when the pudding is set alight. It is even possible that Mr. W. B. Yeats never pulls crackers. If so, where is the sense of all their dreams of festive traditions? Here is a solid and ancient festive tradition still plying a roaring trade in the streets, and they think it vulgar. If this is so, let them be very certain of this, that they are the kind of people who in the time of the maypole would have thought the maypole vulgar; who in the time of the Canterbury pilgrimage would have thought the Canterbury pilgrimage vulgar; who in the time of the Olympian games would have thought the Olympian games vulgar. Nor can there be any reasonable doubt that they were vulgar.

William Morris
Chesterton himself could fall into this trap. He did not see the romance of the cinema-- all he could see was how unfavourably it compared to the theatre. He wrote: "Cinemas are so numerous, so cheap, and so changing and disconnected, that I do believe that the spectators soon lose, if they ever had, that romantic and almost religious intensity in the experience." He was also withering about the Edwardian top hat and frock coat, something we tend to find very elegant today.

Most of the time, however, Chesterton possessed an admirable instinct (in my opinion) for discerning which innovations had merit and which did not. Few today will mock him for lamenting the passage from fireplaces to central heating, as much as we appreciate central heating on a cold winter's night. And he has been entirely vindicated in his disdain for Freudian psychology and free verse poetry. And this a very important point to bear in mind: sometimes things do deteriorate, and that loathsome phrase, "People said the same thing back when..." rarely heralds a valid argument.

The whole subject is very interesting and very complicated. I doubt it is possible (or even desirable) to come to a completely objective view of it. Nevertheless, I do think a knee-jerk and unthinking contempt for the present is a trap to be avoided, as it might diminish one's own enjoyment of life, and make one excessively irritating to others.

The reason I think it's a complicated subject is because we need to take human nature into account. "Where ignorance is bliss", wrote the poet Gray, " 'tis folly to be wise". Human nature, surely, must be permitted its harmless follies, vanities, and exaggerations. Too much wisdom, or at least too much reflection, might dry up spontaneity and make us inro prigs of the worst sort. Who could seriously disapprove of an old man lamenting over how better things were in his day, even when he seems deluded? Or who could disapprove of a teenager demanding the whole economic, social and political system of the world be reformed from top to bottom? These types seem like part of life's pageant, something it would be a shame to lose.

G.K. Chesterton
So, when it comes to contempt for the present, let us note the various impulses which seem to spring naturally to the human breast, all of which we must take into account when it comes to attitudes towards the past and present. I can think of three in particular:

1) Nostalgia. I will never say a word against nostalgia! I despair of the man or woman (we will give children a pass) who is immune to nostalgia. In fact, such people (and they do seem to exist) frighten me. They seem inhuman.

Most of us, however, do experience nostalgia. I experience it to an extraordinary degree, and I always have. The ne plus ultra of my own nostalgia, I believe, was when I caught myself feeling sad that the code on a staff door had been changed, after it had been unchanged for a long time.

Nostalgia is sometimes self-conscious and sometimes unconscious. It's reasonable to warn against unconscious nostalgia; presuming that some time or some state of affairs was superior simply because you are seeing it through "nostalgia goggles". However, it's hard to see any objection to self-conscious nostalgia; to nostalgia which is acknowledged as such, and which is a deliberate indulgence of the "warm fuzzies".

(Come to think of it, though, I can think of at least one objection to such nostalgia; sometimes, people will dismiss their admiration of a particular time as sheer nostalgia, out of fear of acknowledging that it was superior in some way to the present. Progressives often do this.)

In general, however, pure nostalgia is universally accepted as harmless, or even desirable in moderation.

2) Human beings also have a delight in the new, in the novel. At least, most people have it to some degree.

This includes me. However, my own delight in the new tends to be on the "micro" rather than the "macro" scale. I might take pleasure in a new book, for instance, but I rarely take any pleasure in social innovations or new inventions. On the contrary, I regard them with great suspicion and trepidation. When I hear of some actual or potential technical breakthrough, such as 3D printing or the cashless society, the first question I ask is: "What will we lose?". And besides this, the mere fact of historical discontinuity bothers me; I like continuities in the drama of life, the drama of history. Change is guaranteed, whereas continuity is precarious. At least, so it seems to me.

Sometimes, though, I come around to celebrating some innovation or other. For instance, I think the internet has generally been a very good thing, despite obvious drawbacks. Certainly, I think a world with television and the internet is much better than a world with television but no internet. And I have come to value the "poetry" of the internet; the poetry of blogs, wikis, forums (or fora), and so on. I may write a blog post about this in the future.

The launch of Windows 95

3) Human beings also seem to have a tendency to perceive particular things as having declined, even when there seems to be little evidence of this. I've noticed this very often, and I've also noticed that it's by no means confined to conservatives.

It happens in workplaces a lot, if my own workplace is anything to go by. (For instance, every five years or so somebody decides that management no longer listens to staff, compared to the glorious prelapsarian era of consultation.) I'm bemused at the amount of times I hear colleagues bemoan some perceived decline which, as far as I can see, is completely imaginary. It's often surprising how specific this is, and how recent.

There seem to be some narratives of decline which are perennially popular. Business is always becoming more impersonal and cynical. Workmanship is always becoming shoddier and things are no longer built to last. Educational standards seem to be in perpetual decline and teenagers of every generation are taken to task for their lack of literacy, imagination or concentration. Decade after decade, children are criticized for their inability to "make their own amusement", in supposed contrast to the generation before that. (I felt the sting of this in my own childhood, when watching television filled me with intense shame. One of my favourite writers, Keith Waterhouse, reports the shame he felt in reading comics as a child. Today, I hear people in their twenties denounce children for their addiction to phones and computer games, as though they themselves had been running around in the fresh air and building tree-houses all day long.)

Even to say all this is a cliché. But the cliché continues to apply.

In general, I would say that criticisms aimed at identifiable deteriorations are reasonable, but vague criticicms-- criticisms aimed at a spirit, or atmosphere, or ethos-- are likely to be imaginary. (But not always. Sometimes I engage in this very activity, and obviously I think I have it right!)

Of the three impulses I describe, this is the one towards which I have the least respect. There is no poetry involved. Nostalgia is poetic and discovery is poetic, but mere kvetching is not poetic at all. It's also depressing, whereas both of the other impulses can be uplifting.

Rather than dwell on the faults of others, I will look at some examples of my own "dwarfish contempt for the past", aside from those already mentioned.

The first example that comes to mind (and, indeed, that prompted this whole post) is my formerly hostile attitude to internet memes.

For a long time, I was disdainful of internet memes. I'm sure you all know what internet memes are. But just in case you don't, they are this kind of thing:

I was disdainful of internet memes because they seemed anti-creative to me. What was the point of using somebody else's witticism, even if you adapted it? Surely a person should come up with their own witticisms?

But over time, I came to rethink this attitude. Couldn't the same criticism be made of proverbs, riddles, and many other forms of folklore? Folklore might even be called anti-creative by its very nature.

Also, memes can be extremely funny and insightful, and are especially good at puncturing the idiocies of political correctness.

Another example of my dwarfish contempt for the present is my former attitude to the superhero genre.

I grew up reading British comics like Eagle, Battle, and Transformers. Superheroes (in the classic sense) didn't really feature in them. Superheroes did not play a large part in my childhood or teens. When the current boom of superhero movies came along, I was withering about them.

A friend, disagreeing with me, pointed out that superheroes were simply the mythology of our era. I dismissed her argument-- they were quite different, I argued. Hercules and Odin and Finn McCool were not invented by scriptwriters and their adventures were not passively imbibed by millions of people sitting in cinemas. They were shared around the campfire or in the mead hall or in some other less passive environment.

Over time, however, I have come to agree with her. I think superheroes are a genuine contemporary mythology. My reading of the website TV Tropes, which often refers to comic books, has inclined me to this view. At this stage, the stories of Batman, Superman, and Spiderman (as well as many others) have penetrated so deeply into our cultural consciousness, it's hard to class them simply as characters in stories. Like mythological heroes, many superheroes have no single definitive backstory or biography. They have entered into that shimmering, timeless realm occupied by archetypes and legends.

I still think there are far too many superhero movies, but I no longer dismiss the genre out of hand.

I have written this blog post over a couple of days, so I have had more time than usual to reflect on the subject. And it occurs to me that it touches on another theme which preoccupies me; the conflict between aspiration and spontaneity, idealism and tolerance, standards and empathy.

Sometimes we have a contempt for the present because we undervalue it; we dismiss something wonderful because it is contemporary, and miss the fact that it really is something wonderful.

Right now, however, I'm talking about something else: a hostility to the present, or some element of it, which comes from standards which (arguably) are too high, too exacting.

Here's another example from my own experience: modern poetry.

I think modern poetry is rubbish. I'm talking about the poetry that is published by prestigious imprints, that appears in literary journals, and that is studied by English professors. I can't think of any famous poet whose work shows any serious merit since the death of Philip Larkin. (Wendy Cope and Roger McGough are genuine poets, but I would consider them minor talents.) Indeed, I would argue that the vast majority of what is called poetry today is not poetry at all. It's not even bad poetry. It's prose arranged in irregular lines.

Philip Larkin
And surely it's not simply the case that mankind mysteriously lost the ability to write poetry. Proper poetry is actively kept down by editors and academics wedded to the ideals of free verse and obscurity. Who knows what we have lost?

So what do we do? For many years I treated contemporary poetry with utter disdain. 

More recently, however, my attitude began to thaw. I first became conscious of this when I found myself listening to a radio interview with a poetess-- almost certainly a perpetrator of obscure free verse. Nevertheless, the interview was quite interesting. Hearing someone talk about their poetry is nearly aways going to be interesting, even if the poetry is dire. After all, they are opening a window to their own soul-- and, if they are speaking in prose, they are at least making sense.

I've come to the view that it's better to have poetry of some kind, or something called poetry, than no poetry at all. So now I will even go so far as to attend a poetry reading, as I describe in this blog post, despite my near-certainty that the poetry on offer is going to fall short of what I would consider poetry. Because I am glad that there is a poetry reading of some kind.

I think this tension, this conflict-- between standards and tolerance, or standards and positivity, or standards and something else-- recurs again and again, especially when it comes to making the most of the present. In the context of this blog post, I'm thinking more of cultural standards than moral standards.

Here is another example that sticks in my mind from a long, long time ago-- the early nineties. I remember, back then, reading an issue of Which? magazine (a UK-based consumer magazine) which was devoted to the subject of toys. In one article, the author was describing a visit to a toyshop with his daughter. He wanted to buy her educational toys, while she was more interested in the collectable toys which are promoted by various TV shows and comics. In the end, they compromised with some of each. (Funnily enough, the same conflict is dramatised in an episode of Frasier, "Frasier Grinch").

This makes me think of my own childhood. I loved collectible action figures, especially Transformers. Was there any value to them? Would I better off if I had been denied them, in favour of more educational toys? It's impossible to say, but I'm very glad I was not denied them. I can still remember the joy I took in them, and how much they meant to me. I can remember that very vividly. They might have been trash, but I loved them, and I don't think they did me any great harm. The memory of the Christmas morning I got Optimus Prime from Santa Claus is one I wouldn't part with for anything.

The conflict of the educational toy vs. the plastic collectible action figure is symbolic of a deeper conflict, one that I often feel in my own heart. I tried to describe it in this post, from many years ago. On the one hand, I am a cultural conservative and a romantic nationalist who finds much of modern life tacky, banal, garish, homogenized, and alienating, and I long for a society that is more traditional, dignified, organic, ceremonial, rooted, high-thinking and plain-living, spiritual, and so on. Here I am in the company of Friedrich NIetzsche, WIlliam Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, Patrick Pearse, and any number of others.

However, there is another part of me which simply delights in the actual-- in newspaper kiosks, traffic jams, social media, TV game shows, text speak, advertising, hidden camera shows, and the whole panorama of contemporary urban and suburban life.

And even when I don't delight in the actual, even when the actual grates on me, I find myself thinking: well, people only have one life to live on this earth. We all have sentence of death hanging over us, as well as all the other afflictions of life; loneliness, disappointment, sickness, depression, boredom, failure...the list goes on, and on, and on. Isn't anything that gives harmless pleasure or diversion, anything that isn't outright immoral, to be welcomed? Especially anything that people can bond over-- thought it may be video games, or celebrity  culture, or Harry Potter fan fiction? 

I think these two poles of my personality, these two attitudes to life, can be summed up in two different snatches of poetry. The first one expresses my priggish side, and comes from Yeat's poem "The Rose in the Deeps of my Heart". I think it can describe the emotions of someone in love with a tradition or an ideal, as much as a human love object: 

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water remade, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart. 

The other is from the devastating Philip Larkin poem "The Mower", in which the poet discovers that a hedgehog he has been feeding was accidentally killed by his own lawnmower:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

This is a tension I cannot resolve. Let go of the concern for tradition, for standards, and what do we get? The lowest common denominator. Banality. Boredom. Sameness. Mush. Let go of the tenderness for the actual, and what do we get? Snobbery and sourness and cynicism. Both impulses have to learn to live together-- somehow!

One final word about the present, and the need (in my view) to retain an affection for it. In a previous blog post, I wrote: "Why are we appreciative of character and diversity when it comes to geography, but not when it comes to time? Every conservative is happy to discover a local custom or a regional tradition, and wishes to keep them alive. He is usually even more anxious to preserve national and regional character. So why are conservatives so unappreciative of "character" in the order of time?"

Can even the most hardened reactionary believe that everything about his era is bad, or regrettable? Here is another quotation from G.K. Chesterton, three paragraphs in which he argues that the true lover of humanity should take a sporting relish in its differences: 

Suppose that two men, lost upon some gray waste in rain and darkness, were to come upon the light of a porch and take shelter in some strange house, where the household entertained them pleasantly. It might be that some feast or entertainment was going forward; that private theatricals were in preparation, or progressive whist in progress. One of these travellers might lend a hand instinctively and heartily, might play his cards at whist in a fighting spirit, might black his face in theatricals and make the children laugh. And this he would do because he felt kindly towards the whole company. But the other man would say: “I love this company so much that I dislike its being divided into factions by progressive whist; I love so much the human face divine that I do not wish to see it obscured with soot or grease-paint; I will not take a partner for the lancers, for that would involve selecting one woman for special privilege, and I love you all alike.” The first man would undoubtedly amuse the whole company more. And would he not love the whole company more?

Every one of us has, indeed, been lost in a gray waste of eternity, and strayed to the portal of this earth, over which the lamp is the sun. We find inside the company of humanity engaged in certain ancient festivals and forms, certain competitions and distinctions. And, as in the other case, two kinds of love can be offered to that society. The prig will profess to join in their unity; the good comrade will join in their divisions.

If the stray guests see something utterly immoral in the distinctions, something utterly wicked in the ritual, doubtless they must protest; but they should never protest because the distinctions are distinctions, and therefore in one sense exclusive, or because the ritual is ritual, and therefore in one sense irrational. If the stranger in the house has a moral objection, for instance, to playing for money, he ought to decline, though he ought not to enjoy declining. But he must not ask, “Why am I arbitrarily made a partner with So-and-so?” He must not say, “What rational difference is there between spades and diamonds?” If he really loves his kind, he will, as far as he can, and in the great mass of things, play the parts given him. He will preserve this gay and impetuous conservatism; he will throw himself into the competitive sports of nationality; he will walk with relish in the ancient theatricals of religion.

Well, I'm sure the reader sees the point of the quotation. I think we should have the same sporting attitude towards our era. I would be ashamed not to enter into the spirit of Christmas, of Halloween, or St. Patrick's Day. Why should I not be ashamed (as far as it is compatible with my beliefs and sensibilities) to enter into the spirit of the twenty-first century?

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