Two lies

One pattern of thinking is that everything was better back in the Good Old Days — a point in time that continually shifts according to the perspective of the observer. For much of Europe’s history, it was the Garden of Eden; a modern American might put it in the 1950s. Whenever it was, it was better that now, and we are continually falling from that idyll.

Another pattern is the gospel of progress. We’re getting better all the time. We’re continually climbing from the pit of our unenlightened past, improving on what went before, heading for the stars. Tomorrow will be brighter than yesterday was, and the day after that, brighter still.

The former is more or less a conservative paradigm; the latter is a liberal one (or perhaps it would be better to say progressive.) Taken in their pure form, both are lies.

Because human history isn’t linear. It squiggles and loops and goes in three directions at once. There was a fluorescence of female intellectualism in eighteenth-century London that withered in the nineteenth, but less than we have now; New Kingdom Egyptian metallurgy and sculpture made medieval Europeans look like enthusiastic but not terribly bright seven-year-olds, but their realism doesn’t match Michaelangelo; Minoans had better plumbing than Renaissance Italy, but no hot showers. And the problem is that buying into either lie blinds you to important things: the injustices hidden beneath the happy mask of Leave It to Beaver, the risk of those injustices coming back again in the future. Or new ones. It isn’t just two steps forward, one step back — maybe five steps back and three to the side and then do a backflip and end up facing a different direction entirely.

And yet it’s so tempting. It’s a lot easier to hold onto the notion of a line than an n-dimensional Gordian Knot with multiple strings whose number changes every time you look at them.

I know that I tend toward the liberal pattern of thinking. There’s a lot of truth in it, especially if you pick a certain set of strings and decide those are how you’re going to measure progress. Of course, there’s truth in the conservative pattern, too — especially if you pick different strings. But the more I read of history, the more it all dissolves. (Of course this post is brought to you by my research. I figure the eighteenth-century intellectuals gave it away, if nothing else.) History is really damn complicated, and it really is going in all directions at once. And no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to keep all its twists in my head, never be able to grasp the whole of it.

But I can think about which strings I’m picking, and which ones the person I’m reading has picked. And I can try not to make my own patterns too neat.

0 Responses to “Two lies”

  1. shui_long

    You’re so right that history isn’t linear, and it isn’t neat. Reality is complex, contradictory, and any proper account of the past must reflect shades of grey and not a clear black-and-white picture. If it’s simple it can’t be true…

    It’s probably easier to believe in the Whig view of history in times of economic prosperity, when enjoying the tangible signs of “progress” — though to be fair to the Whig historians, they focussed more on political, social and scientific “progress” than on mere material benefits. I say “progress”, as I’m not sure I believe in it. There is certainly change, and some change may be for the better; some change may only appear to be for the better, and most change comes at a price, even if the price may not be apparent at the time. The Industrial Revolution brought material improvement to many, it brought wealth to nations like Britain, Germany and the USA, but it is now becoming clear that it set the world on a path to global warming.

    The Victorians believed in Progress – they almost worshipped Progress. But it is interesting that prominent artistic movements of Victorian times were based on a return to a (supposedly better) past – the Gothic Revival, the Arts & Crafts movement, and the pre-Raphaelite painters. So you have the interesting spectacle of a Victorian town hall, built in a mock-mediaeval style, using modern technology of mass-produced bricks and terracotta, machine-carved stonework, iron beams and a coal-fired heating system, with decorative art often celebrating a rose-tinted mythical view of the past and a vaguely-benevolent (and probably equally mythical) view of the present. Perhaps they really thought they could have it all?

    It is always entertaining to watch a historian (preferably an eminent one) tying himself or herself in knots by trying to write with a pre-conceived view (whether “good old days” or “progressive”) whilst being honest enough to not actually ignore inconvenient facts. I would like to think that modern historiography is more objective, more able to accept the complexity without trying to impose a simplifying overall theme – but probably contemporary historians are reacting against their predecessors and imposing their own fashions; it was ever so.

    Where did I put that tagline? “History does not repeat itself; historians repeat each other.”
    (But I rather like Ambrose Bierce “God alone knows the future, but only an historian can alter the past.”)

    • Marie Brennan

      Good quotes. 🙂

      I’ll have a more educated view on the Victorians a year from now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the retrograde aesthetic of the time was partly a reaction to the progress gospel elsewhere in their society.

      • shui_long

        The Arts & Crafts movement was undoubtedly a reaction to soulless industrialised mass production, but I think the earlier Victorian advocates of Gothic saw it genuinely as a revival, a re-establishing of a proper (and Christian) style as a basis for moving forward. I’m not sure you can consider Gothic revival in isolation from the Oxford movement: both took a somewhat selective view of the past to redefine a historical basis for rebuilding the present. But we can have that discussion next year…

  2. d_c_m

    One pattern of thinking is that everything was better back in the Good Old Days
    This thinking annoys me beyond endurance. Thanks for posting!

  3. Anonymous

    I don’t think that I could agree with this any more than I do. I come across the leftward and the rightward versions of this pretty common, and they both drive me nuts. The thing I hate most is that they provide a convenient, knee-jerk justification for dismissing any idea without really engaging it. It’s either outdated, old-fashioned, reactionary, neanderthal, or contrary to tradition, rebellious, destructive.

    • Marie Brennan

      They both have merit, or at least I think so; but you’re absolutely right, that they get used in blind knee-jerk ways, which is not the way to extract merit from the ore.

  4. beccastareyes

    I’m a planetary astronomer. One thing that I mention to folks when talking about NASA is that while we sent a dozen men to the surface of the Moon (and more into near-Lunar space), we couldn’t do it today, regardless of funding, without essentially re-inventing the wheel — or the Saturn V. The engineers who worked on the mission are retired or dead, the facilities for construction re-purposed or dismantled, and their knowledge was lost — it could be regained, since we do still have some infrastructure and general knowledge of rocketry. But regaining it takes money and time and will.

    (I myself tend towards the progressive lie, but I at least counter it with the assumption that you have to work to make things go your way — inertia gives history no preferred direction.)

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