About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Illusion of Nostalgia

Modern Problems

In our current, nostalgically enframed world view, we think that the past is better than the present and definitely better than the future.  It envisions a perfect time when men were strong and brave, women were respectful and obedient, young ladies were demure and virginal, and children were seen but not heard.  It is at it’s core, a desire to return to the Garden of Eden when everything was paradise.

We ascribe a nobility to the past that is probably not warranted. 

We tend to reminisce about the good old days, which always seems to be the period when our grandparents were children.  As we enter our declining years, the good old days morph into the period when we were children; it always seems to skip our parents' generation.  That time never seems to be what we describe as the good old days, probably because we are too close to them and we remember them too clearly to ascribe a nostalgic fog to them.

We need to have about fifty years of elapsed time before an era becomes the good old days that we long for.  We need to be able to hear about that time in wistful reminisces from beloved elders.  Right now the good old days are the 1950's, when America was at it's zenith, home life resembled "Leave it to Beaver" and a good job was something you had for life.  When I was very little, I remember the good old days being the depression (yes, really) because "that was when people worked together, communities were tight knit, and even though they didn't have much money, by God they were rich in love within their families."

This nostalgic view of history is false.

It makes us feel good, and we love the bittersweet quality of those days, but the reality of the past is more "Blue Velvet" than "Leave it to Beaver."  There is always a dark and sinister underside to the past.  We think about all of the good of the 50's, and gloss over the bad parts, the "duck and cover," the McCarthy Hearings, Jim Crow Laws and Little Rock.  The reality of this side of the fifties can be seen in "Good Night and Good Luck," "Rebel Without a Cause," and "Death of a Salesman."  These are not happy reminisces.  

Nostalgia carries connotations, buried deep within the coded language of melancholy remembrance, of racism, sexism and other, even more unpleasant “isms.” There seems to be a veiled desire in nostalgia for people to return to their "proper" place.  Anne Coulter recently told an audience of George Washington University that women should not have the right to vote, that it was bad for the country, because they are the reason that Democrats elected.  (For the full article on the debate, click here)

We can layer nostalgia onto anything to create a false memory of how wonderful it was.  We can impose nostalgia on horrific events like the Great Depression and World War Two, calling people who lived through those times as the “Greatest Generation,” and talk about how much better that group was than any other in history. 

Never mind that they were often violently racist, anti-Semitic (yes even in America), and just plain violent at times.  Although the Axis far superceded the Allies for atrocities during the second world war, our side was responsible for horrors such as the Dresden Firebombing.  And remember, prior to Pearl Harbor, public sentiment in America would probably sided with Hitler.  Prescott Bush (W's grandfather) and Charles Lindbergh were two outspoken proponents of this alliance.

But to return to the point, this nostalgic impulse has always been there.  I’m sure that in the 1400’s there was even nostalgia for the time of the Black Plague.  I can probably even reconstruct some of the discourse:  “At least then, people knew the absolute power of God.  Back then, they didn’t question Divine Right.  The plague made those who survived strong.”  The conservative of society, and certainly the nobility, must have been nostalgic for the feudal society that the plague shattered. 

Nostalgia must be recognized for what it really is, the most radical revisionist vision possible.   It is not a desire to return to the past, it is a desire to recreate the past the way it should have been.  It is a pure fabrication, created out of whole cloth, of a time that never really was.

And coupled with this nostalgic view of the past is the certainty that today's problems are unique, and if we just had the morality of the past and all of the other things that made it so perfect, our problems would cease to exist.  Just take away a woman's right to vote and contraception, and the world will be a more moral and better place.  Bring back Jim Crow, and those "uppity" people will be put back in their place.  All we have to do is return to the way we were in the past and everything will be perfect and all of our problems will be solved.

The nostalgic impulse warps our perceptions of the actual past.  We envision issues such as rape, out of wedlock babies, pedophile priests, prostitution, divorce, affairs, religious hetrodoxy and other "modern" problems as being the result of our current lax morality.  We think that these were not a problem is the past.

That view is also false.

I am currently reading an excellent book called "Montaillou" by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, which chronicles life in a small region of the Pyrenees during the early 14th century, just before the Black Death.  This book is based on an exhaustively detailed register kept by Jacques Fournier, who later became Pope Benedict XII.  His records were made during the Medieval Inquisition at Pamiers, and provide one of the most complete records known of 14th century village life.

In reading that book, I was somewhat surprised to find that many of the things that are currently in the headlines were also occurring 600 years ago.  And these things were not even happening in a large city of the time like Paris or London, which both had populations at the time over 100,000, but in a series of tiny villages in the mountains of Southern France, with a total population of maybe 1,000.  In our nostalgia, we also think that problems are the bailiwick of the urban condition, and that if we returned to our agrarian roots, we would be better and more moral.

For example, the last fifteen years have had revelation after revelation about pedophile priests, and we act as if this is a brand new problem, certainly one that has only been occurring for the last few decades.  However, the Fournier Register documents numerous pedophile priests, especially one Arnaud de Verniolles.  He was introduced to homosexuality by a fellow classmate, who also became a priest, then was made a catamite, along with other students, by the master of his school, Pons de Massabucu, and ultimately became a violent pedophile rapist himself.  There is a description in the Register of him raping a young man at knifepoint in an encounter that seems to be ripped from today's papers.  There are also accounts of him "grooming" his victims with small gifts and other indulgences, almost identically to today's scandals.

Rape was common in that time as well, with the only major difference being that many times the girl would be forced to marry her rapist.  Now, they just want her to have his baby if she's unlucky enough to get pregnant.  Most of the shepherds used prostitutes for their entire lives, since most of them were too poor to marry.  Prostitution was also one of the few ways a woman could earn living without a husband.    

The men, especially the rich and powerful ones, had numerous affairs, while one notable woman, the only noble described in the book, slept with both a priest and one of her servants.  The two richest brothers, the priest and the bayle, seem to have slept with half the women in the town.  Also, because many marriages were arranged people only found love connections in extramarital relations, with the woman often becoming a formal mistress, or concubine.

Pre-marital sex was the norm, as it is now, and often marriage happened if the woman got pregnant, which happened, then as now, when their contraception failed.  And yes, they did use contraception, mostly local herbs, but the condom was probably known to them as well.  There is a detailed passage about the priest using contraception when he wished to "know (her) carnally." 

Gossip ran rampant, as did heresy.  People right and left rejected the teachings of the church, yet went to mass on Sunday, and seemed to all outward appearances to be good Catholics.  Even the village priest (the one who slept with the noblewoman and many others) was a mix of Cathar and Catholic.

In all, most of the ills that we blame on modernity were as common 600 years ago, in a tiny rural setting.  This should teach us that nostalgia about morality really is a false view of the past.  Human nature does not change significantly, and none of the sins of the present are particularly original.

Which leads me to my final question, why do we want to recreate the world that we imagine in our nostalgic daydreams?  Even with all of the bad things in the world, so much is actually better now.

We can cure common illnesses that just a few decades ago would have been a death sentence.  We live longer, healthier lives than even our grandparents did.  Our families may not be as traditional as in the past, but we still manage to raise fairly well adjusted, successful children.  Even though there is still poverty and hunger in this country, there is at least some sort of a safety net in place.  Our children are not working full time in factories at the age of ten.  My god, we even have decent toilet paper, which trust me, is probably mankind's most important invention.

We need to build a future from the present, not to be haunted by ghosts of a past that never was.  Our world is not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination.  But rather than try to wind back the clock, we need to look at what is good in the world around us and build off of it.  We need to strive to build the future we want to give to our kids, a world without hunger, war, discrimination.

We don't want to give them the failure of a world that never was, and never could be, and instead we need to give them a real future, full of hope for a better tomorrow.

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