Monday, May 6, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I don’t know if you’ve ever been offended by a quotation routinely misused or routinely interpreted as meaning something quite different from what its author intended.

I have one particular bete noire in this field. It’s a line from one of Shakespeare’s less illustrious plays, Troilus and Cressida. The line is “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. Time and again I have heard or seen this line used as if it means that we human beings simply have to recognise our shared human nature and we will at once become loving brothers and sisters. Just let us feel “nature” without worrying about artificial things and there we will have Utopia.

The line was popular among hippies, communards and their apologists during the 1960s and 1970s and it still turns up sometimes as an inspiring motto.

But what did the line originally mean?

In the play, Achilles, Ulysses and others are having a discussion. Achilles is put out that people are now admiring the boastful Ajax rather than admiring him. In a long speech the shrewd Ulysses comments that “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. And that “one touch” of [human] nature is the idiotic human habit of chasing after novelties rather than admiring what is known and reliable. So in context the line means “There’s one very stupid habit that we all share”.

It has nothing to do with the healing or virtuous powers of nature in any modern sense.

All this popped into my mind recently because of two things.

The first is that I have just been commenting on two books that touch on communes.

The second is that recently, members of my family and I were delayed for 24 hours from returning home from Vancouver, because there was a “maintenance fault” with the aircraft upon which we were booked. The airline put us up for those 24 hours in the airport’s on-site hotel, and I found myself idly flicking through Canadian and American TV stations and finding them as banal as TV stations internationally are.

But one programme held my interest. It consisted of shorts by independent Canadian and American film-makers.

One was a film told in two tenses. In 1988, the film-maker visited people in a hippie commune in backwoods Washington State and shot footage of them. In 2012 (i.e. 24 years later) he re-visited some of the people he had interviewed to see if their ideals had endured and if they still saw things the way they had in 1988.

1988, it must be admitted, was already rather late in the day for the flourishing of hippies. By that stage Flower Power had well and truly wilted in most places where it had first manifested itself in the 1960s and 1970s. Even so, the 1988 images showed all the expected things – bandannaed and tasselled and bearded young men, and long-haired and sandalled and sometimes bare-breasted young women, dancing in circles in the sunshine and smoking various substances; and some little children running around; and troubadours of either sex strumming guitars and singing things that sounded vaguely like folk-songs. When speaking to camera, the communards said how good it was to get back to nature and away from artificial things; and how they didn’t want to be enslaved by modern industry and urban or suburban lives.

It was all quite charming in its retro way. But, silly grumpy old me, I had the same reaction that I had when hippiedom was fresh. It’s all very well to talk about going “back to nature” when you live in a highly-industrialised country where all the necessities of live are ready to hand, where your sandals and shirts have been made for you (not to mention the guitar that was doubtless also made in some factory); and where the land on which you squat has been tamed. Watching 1988’s Washington State communards, I thought of the Native American tribes who would once have lived there, not to mention the hungry bears that would once have roamed there. You can be a hippie when those harder and rougher people who fought nature have done some of the dirty work for you.

The interviews from 2012 were a little more guarded. Most of the (grey-haired) old or former communards still exalted going back to nature, still criticised industrial society and were still rather nostalgic about their commune days. But most now conceded that people can live decently and ethically in cities and suburbs as well, and that their own preference for the open country was more a “lifestyle choice” than anything. One woman lived (on her own now – not in a commune) in a quite well-appointed, book-lined house in the country, with picture windows overlooking a beautiful landscape. She spoke of communing with nature.

And I thought “What factory printed the books on your shelves? Which industrial glaziers made your picture window? I bet those fittings weren’t made by muscle power.”

And so on in a rather obvious monologue.

Truly, going back to nature is a lovely dream, but only that - unless you want to walk across the Antarctic continent or bash your way through some stretch of uninhabited jungle or contend with some area that has genuinely never been modified by human beings. You would have to be very churlish indeed not to enjoy getting away from cities and their woes sometimes. But you would also have to be very stupid to imagine that your bucolic holidays are really going “back to nature”.

Maybe “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin” in the sense that Shakespeare’s Ulysses intended. There is one very stupid habit that we all share. And that is the habit of imagining that we are not part of the wider society that we inhabit.

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