Monday, May 18, 2015

Something Thoughtful

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


There is a game I used to play with junior history classes.

When did Julius Caesar live? ” I would ask. And after some dithering a bright spark might reply “In ancient Rome”. A really bright spark might even say “In Classical Antiquity”.

Okay”, I would say. “And when did Joan of Arc live?” More dithering, but eventually the answer “In the Middle Ages.”

Fine”, I would say, “and what would you call the age in which Leonardo da Vinci lived?

The Renaissance,” would come the reply – or at least it would if the class had had a little education.

Good, “ I would say, “but you’re all wrong.”

Looks of annoyance and/or surprise, before I produced my killer explanation:

They all lived in modern times because everybody lives in modern times.”

And so I would proceed to one of my favourite lectures.

Everybody in all of history lived in modern times because all times are modern to the people who are living in them. Only centuries later do historians start to periodise by inventing labels such as Classical Antiquity or the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Age of Enlightenment.

Of course all these labels are gross simplifications of the times they designate. Some are simply inaccurate. “The Dark Ages?” This is merely an ignorant way of referring to some of Europe’s confusions between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the so-called Middle Ages. There was still scholarship and learning in these ages. The term “Dark Ages” has basically been dropped by serious historians.

I would then rudely remark that, perhaps in four or five centuries, future historians will have made up a name for our age (The Age of Credulity? The Age of Disintegration?). They will almost certainly, if they are popular historians of the unreflective sort, berate us for our barbarous ideas, ignorance of things that haven’t been discovered yet, social organisation and so on. That, after all, is what populist and unreflective historians always do when they consider past ages. In some form or other they succumb to “Present-ism” – the ignorant superstition that all values and achievements have to be measured by the criterion of our own age. But (do you now understand, class?) our “modern” age is only provisionally modern. It will be somebody else’s antiquity.

If I had the time in delivering this favourite rant, I would add that people in the so-called Middle Ages did not sit around saying “Gosh, if only the Renaissance would start, so that we could enjoy perspective and chiaroscuro in painting!” For one thing, people would not reflect on things that do not yet exist. For another, one so-called “age” does not stop at a certain neat point so that another “age” can begin. Social and cultural change is a slow and gradual thing, and it is only much later that people claim to see where one “age” ended and another began. “Each age is one that is dying, or another one coming to birth.” Quite.

So each age has been modern. Each age exists with its own horizons, not knowing what exactly is going to follow it. Each age considers itself to be normality – indeed the only conceivable normality.

Where I have always been most aware of people ignoring these concepts is, naturally, in historical fiction. It would be wearisome to name all the historical novels in which novelists not only commit anachronisms, but blithely assume that a “normal” scale of values is the one we possess now, and that therefore “good” people in the past thought just as we do. There is always the implication that the past is just waiting to turn into our present, and no real understanding of how what we think of as a past age would have looked to people who saw it as modernity. In other words, there is no real historical imagination.

The most foolish sentence ever to appear in a New Zealand novel by an established author appeared in Witi Ihimaera’s painfully bad The Trowenna Sea (2009), a novel riddled with the sort of Present-ism I’ve been describing. There, a character writes, in a diary or letter “It is 1917 now, and World War One still alarms us.” This nonsense could be written only by somebody who had failed to think himself into the past, and who remained doggedly locked in the perspective of his own age. It was, as one wit said to me, the “Good people of the Middle Ages, let us go and fight the Hundred Years War!” moment of a very bad novel.

We only begin to understand the past when we know that it was modern times, unaware of future wars and upheavals, unaware of what future generations would take for granted. Just like us.

Everybody lives in modern times.

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