The Recent Past, the Distant Past, and the Depth of Time

One of the obsessions of contemporary media– a perennial story, you might say– is the “we’re as far as” story. We’re as far from the first Apollo moon landing as the moon landing was from Teapot Dome; we’re further from the 1985 Delorean than it was from the 1955 Buick, and so on. Part of this is the endless availability of the physical arcana of recent culture– the gum wrappers of our youth are still with us, a Google Image search away if not actually present in our attics. In fact, Buzzfeed made its stock in trade in large part by documenting this physical arcana, telling the 20-somethings how old they should feel, when recalling the Nintendo games and breakfast cereals of yesteryear.

The blind spot alongside this continual focus on the physical culture of the recent past is a resolute indifference to the ideas of the past, or still less the ideological conflicts that actually animated people not so long ago. We hear about the Laffer curve and tax code changes,  about Reagan and Volcker and breaking the back of inflation, about facing down the Soviet Union, about Iran and Afghanistan and Palestinian hijackers, but they are like pictures in an infant’s board book. Who was arguing against Reagan on tax cuts? When Nixon evilly employed the Southern Strategy, what were the people running against him saying about race? Sometimes I think we are afraid to know how different the past was, sometimes afraid to know how similar to us they are.  I am reminded of something Paul Goodman wrote about teaching college students:


These days, of course, college students are increasingly unlikely to read Milton and Keats at all: I am not kidding when I say that my local Ivy League university’s English department has three courses focusing in various ways on Caribbean music and no survey of 17th and 18th century English literature. (This same department has also lost almost all its majors, of course. But onward not-so-Christian soldiers, marching as to war.) But fear of the past’s ideas can feel pervasive, extending beyond academia into pop culture and television. The Game of Thrones books, which started with a sincere interest in medieval ideas of loyalty and service and family, have given way to a TV show mainly comprised of Mary Sue-style female warriors kicking ass between bouts of nudity and patriarchal assault. The Americans, while exhaustively documenting the clothes and cars and Cold War events of the early 80s, never feels touched by any of the ideas of the past, apart from the occasional true-blue believer in a vaguely defined messianic Communism. Mad Men was still more occluded in its vision, savoring every sweet sip of 60s style while only engaging the ideas of the antediluvian pre-counterculture just enough to expose them as the most transparent of frauds, the self-excuses of well-fed WASP men who wanted a slap-and-tickle after their three-martini lunch. Go read back issues of the New York Review of Books from the 50s– hell, go read the Reader’s Digest– and you don’t feel like you’re listening to people who are blithely seeing the world through Leave it to Beaver glasses. The world had gone through hell, and people were trying to figure out how to build it again. (I’ve mentioned before how much I admire the specifics of the science curricula that were developed as part of the “Answer to Sputnik,” but I also admire a society that was interested in teaching something rather than merely in Closing the Gap.)

Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the sheer depth of time contained in what we label “the ancient world.”  Cleopatra was further from the builders of the Great Pyramid at Giza than she was from the birth of the latest British royalty in 2015 (both temporally and, perhaps, genetically.) More importantly, writers in her days could look back on hundreds of years of literate, technological, capitalist, cosmopolitan (at least multi-lingual) civilization of which they were a part. Were they afraid of the ideas of the past, as we are today? In some ways, no doubt. For them, accessing old ideas would have been much more difficult than it is for us (let alone accessing old gum wrappers.)  But I’m guessing that they understood that regardless of the past’s folly, history is a distant mirror, not one held right in front of your nose.


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