Monday, December 19, 2011

99% Royal Fantasy

Why do we romanticize the past? This question has often been on my mind, cropping up regularly in my life; after a friend's nostalgic comment, after reading some Luddite/ Green argument for slowing down the pace of economic expansion or innovation, or other such rubbish, or while watching people get wrapped up in agrarian fantasies of life on a quiet plot of land with a big garden and a few chickens and goats, and just “what we need.”

I think there are many reasons for this, for the human tendency to always imagine that the past held some Golden Age that we are slipping away from, never to be recaptured, only poorly imitated. There is the very human tendency to fear change, to fear the unknown, and to run, blindly, in the opposite direction. Then, as I have noted many times before, there is people's appalling ignorance of historical fact. There are surely many others. But there is another, a literary reason, that I don't think gets discussed very much, that I would like to point out here.

The very first civilization in the world, the Sumerians, were already writing about their lost innocence, lost happiness, in the world's very first surviving work of literature, Gilgamesh. In Gilgamesh, the subjects of the “hero” of the story, King Gilgamesh, the king who drove his people like slaves to construct the walls around his capital, Uruk, called upon the gods to send someone to stop him. The gods send Enkinu, a wild man, who allegorically represents life outside the city walls, life “the old way.” Ultimately, Enkinu and Gilgamesh battle to stalemate and become friends, then set out on god-flouting adventures which ultimately get Enkidu killed, settling the wild man/ civilized man question once and for all.

Classical scholars may disagree with my interpretation, but one point here I think is inarguable: by the 7th century BCE, 2,700 years ago, people were already complaining about “modern” life and all the changes that came with it.

So the question is: was there ever really a time when people really were satisfied with their present, and acknowledged that life really was as good now, or better, than it has ever been? No, probably not. Because, in some ways, evolution has designed us to be jealous, ungrateful and selfish A-holes. And since we have no possible experience of the future to be jealous of, we get jealous for the past. So does that mean the past was always better? Well, I don't really see how it could be, if every single generation for the last three millenia thought the ones before them had it better. So even if there was a time when things were really swell, the people who lived it didn't seem to notice.

I think literature has a role to play here. One, as in the example of Gilgamesh cited above, it can remind us that people have always pined for the past. The examples are too numerous to count, so hopefully one more will suffice. The Homeric Greeks pined for their lost Golden Age, idealizing the manly and womanly virtues of their forebearers in The Iliad and The Odyssey, completely believing that never again would roam the world men so brave as Ajax, so fierce as Achilles, so honorable as Hector, so cunning as Odysseus, so loyal as Telemachus, or so faithful as Penelope. With the passing of this Golden Age, men and women, and their lives, are but mere shadows of their former glory.


Look. I love great literature, as Homer certainly is. But really? Have some self-respect, for god's sake.

But I think literature has an even more insidious role to play here than just glorifying the exploits of men and women in days gone by. And I think it has a lot to do with the history of literature, the history of economics and the history of culture.

Think about your favorite work of classic literature, if, hopefully, you have one. Now think about the hero, and the cast of characters. Now, raise your hand if the hero of the story is a king. A queen? A princess? A prince? A noble warrior? A witch or wizard? Not many poor farmers, poor laborers, slaves, serfs or peasants in there, are there?

The history of literature is, mainly, the history of the 1%. Now project yourself, as most likely a member of the other 99% back in time. Do you think that, if you were living in 5th century Britain in Arthur's Camelot, that your meals would consist of fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh baked bread, fresh venison, quail and boar, good wine and mead, like they feast on at The Round Table? Uh, no. Depending on the time of year, you may have had some fresh vegetables, the one's grown on your lord's land, of which you turned over 2/3 to him. But through the winter and into spring, you would have had to make do with an ever diminishing supply of the same few root vegetables, or at least what hadn't rotten to mush or been snagged by rats. Your bread was usually eaten black with mold and hard enough to break teeth. Meat was a rarity, and usually only enjoyed on feast days. And, in all likelihood, you had never travelled more than a mile or two from the place you were born and would die. At age 30. If you were lucky. And honestly, you could kinda hope for a violent death, as at least that would be faster than many of the wasting plagues and diseases that took most people's lives. Well, that and childbirth, of course.

So why do we have such a romantic idea of the Middle Ages, or any other time? I think the reason, or at least one of them, is that most people's perception of the past comes from literature. And, as I pointed out, the subject of the overwhelming majority of literature is the lives of the 1%. Think about the heroes and heroines of just the works that many of the more enduring works of Western Lit. Homer- kings and princes. Greek Drama- kings and princes. Virgil- a prince of Troy. Dante- himself, then kings, princes, poets, philosophers. Shakespeare- Lear: king, Hamlet: prince, Caesar: general, Romeo: rich brat, etc. Tolstoy- a count himself, writing about aristocrats. The Brontes- many aristocratic heroes. And on and on.

Of course, there are counter examples. Chaucer wrote of men and women from all walks of life, but in doing so, he was centuries ahead of his time. Shakespeare had lower-class characters (the middle class was just becoming established) but rarely were their concerns the subject matter of the play. Dostoyevsky was primarily concerned with common folk, but then still, the uncommon among them. It isn't until we get to Dickens, and the Brontes to some extent, that the lower and middle classes, all of us, folks, are the regular subject matter of great literature. And still, Dickens himself has a fair number of 1%ers in his work. And of course, there is lots of great literature aside from those listed, or not considered “canonical” (I just started there for simplicities sake- arguments about the cannon are not the point here), but they are all writing in the same tradition, and were influenced by, many of the works listed here.

Let's just talk statistics. What would it mean to be born into the 99% at various points in literary history? If you were born in the 20s, you would not be Gatsby, or Daisy, living it up at high society galas. You'd be George, the car mechanic, living in one room of a tenement building with little heat, a common bathroom shared with twenty other units, a raging toothache that you'd had for years, a son with polio, two children dead from small pox or the Spanish Flu, and wife who'd died giving birth to your 4th. That may be a tad extreme, but it is far more likely than the common fantasy.

If you were born into a Bronte novel, you would not sit around in luxurious dresses giggling with sisters and friends about which lord or count fancied you that week. You would be one of the servant girls, getting one half day off every two weeks, eating leftovers from your master's table and subject to any fixation of passion that may strike him.

Tolstoy? Not having a fun, sexy society affair like Anna Karenina. No, more likely Sonya, the virtuous young woman forced into prostitution by her poverty in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Shakespeare? Not Hamlet, but probably the grave digger.

Homer? Not Achilles, Ajax, Helen or Priam. No, rather, one of the thousands slaughtered by the sword or burnt by the fire of Greek princes settling a squabble over the rights to a single woman.

I'm not trying to argue that there was no happiness in past centuries. What I am trying to say is that when we take our view of the past from literature and art, which we largely do, we end up with a very, very distorted picture of what every day life was like for the common person. We tend to forget that those lavish feasts, balls and celebrations enjoyed by the 1% were built on the backs of the sweat, toil and death of the other 99.

If you are a middle class Westerner alive right now, you enjoy more luxury than any of the people mentioned above, princes or commoners. You eat better than King Lear, or Louis XIV, for that matter. You've likely seen more of the world, or could, than Caesar. You have access to more information, and are likely better read, since you can actually afford to buy dozens and dozens books of your own, than Chaucer, or any of his pilgrims. You sleep in a better bed than Anna Karenina, in a better heated room, and with lovers who probably have more teeth and less BO. And, unlike Penelope, rather than fending of aggressive, drunken suitors for two decades while you wait for news of your husband's fate, you can just Skype him while he's on a business trip, seeing and conversing in real time.

It's not that I think the past is all bad, not at all. I think there is a ton we can, and should, learn from the past. We are fools if we ignore the wisdom and experience of our ancestors. But at the same time, we should not ignore which past, whose past, we are nostalgic for. And we should not forget that we are certainly not the first generation, nor will we be the last, to pine for a “better time gone by.” And we would not be the first generation to wish for something that never existed, not for most, in the first place.


  1. I LOVE living in the modern times in America. I lived and saw the "past" living in a third world country. (Yeah. Third world. Not "developing"; because, it's not.) No thanks! People who have servants/slaves (often children), people who live without plumbing, heating/air conditioning or running water. I even appreciate HOT water now. Every single day, I really thank God for hot water...that I can drink safely...from the my house! Indoors! Instantly! What a concept. I love having a washing machine (never mind a dryer - that's just crazy talk). Many people without deodorant and probably have never seen a dentist or doctor. Dying in childbirth? check (saw it hiking). I can order any book I want and go wherever I want, whenever I want to go. Grocery stores? Hello, heaven! Any food any time of year. Any type/ethnicity of food I want at any time. And it's all safe to eat. Cheap clothing, in any size, (ok, made by slaves) and I can have in abundance. Not one or maybe two sets of clothes. Furniture? Yes, that's way better too. No "mattresses" made from who the hell knows what, that is as hard as the ground. IKEA? fantastic. I love the Swedes. Hands down, modernity rules.

  2. As you noted recently, it is interesting how often we find ourselves mucking around in the same streams of thought. I had a discussion with a friend on this subject just three days ago. He deemed nostalgia possibly the most destructive force on earth. A touch hyperbolic, perhaps, but you both have a point.

    I can't write off nostalgia entirely: I've always been and will always be deeply personally nostalgic, by which I mean I am nostalgic for my own experience, and the ways I experienced things in the past. I have a slight obsession with trying to dig up visceral responses to match up with generalized memories from my childhood. (We all have hobbies, right?)I recognize it as a potentially destructive sentimentalism, but as long as I'm mindful, I indulge it as an innocent enough vice.

    Big-picture historical nostalgia, on the other hand I have very little use for. Given how fractured and alternately amazing and terrifying the world we live in is, it's slightly amazing that people can so readily reduce the experience of living in other times to something as inevitably flat as the life of a single fictional character (or a handful at best).

    I'm going to venture that it's in large part thanks to the American Dream delusion. One of the reasons so many people will vote and act against their own interest as non-wealthy people is that they believe in the American Dream, that if they work hard and follow the rules, they're going to get their just rewards, 1% here they come.

    It's abundantly obvious that no matter how hard they work or how well they behave right now, they're probably not going to make many inroads in the current economy. But that's because of the poor people leaching off them and holding them back. In the good old days, honor and a strong work ethic *got* you places. If they were alive in that time, they totally would've been the 1%.

    Did you ever get your hands on the New Yorker article about Derek Parfit? In the discussion of his belief that time is an illusion they talk about how we're biased toward the future despite the fact that the future and the past are equally non-existent in the now. We hope for rewards and fear suffering in the future more than we are happy or upset about past joys and sorrows.

    Although he argues for a future bias, I'd suggest that it also explains the passion for nostalgia and the willingness to overlook the realities of life in the past: Even if you're looking forward to something positive in the future, there's still anxiety attached to its unknown variables. The past just doesn't elicit that level of emotional and autonomic response. The present is plagued by, well, reality and is forever crowding toward the future (Parfit describes it gloriously as "the quality of being Now is moving down the series of events like a spotlight moving along a line of chorus girls.") The past is safe and neutered.

    Hopefully some of that made sense. I'm a little scatterbrained lately. And if you haven't read that NYer article, DO IT.

  3. As Kim points out, even people that are not that well off in modern America are still living a far more comfortable life than the vast majority of the planet to the point that when a post like yours is written in the future the topic may well be about how the subjects of this epoch are always Americans or Europeans who had it much better than 99% of the worlds populations.

    As for classic literature, I think you're quite right. Even worse than literature is the pop culture fantasy stuff that half uses historical times. In the thought experiment that you suggested I thought of Xenophon's The Anabasis of Cyrus (which I highly recommend) which is the account of how a group of Greek mercenaries, hired by a Persian prince who wants to oust his brother, make their way home after their side loses a battle north of Babylon. One of the reason I like it is that it's gritty, and though Xenophon himself is was from a decent family he was not extremely well off and he certainly wasn't during his trek back through what is now Iraq and Turkey. Although my interests are more in historical works than in literature, other authors that I think give less rosy accounts of the past (along with very insightful writing) include Tacitus and Thucydides.

    As for people's longing for the past, it's not just jealousy but instead a seeming determination for them to always find a reason to be satisfied with what they do have. People ,it seems, make a full time job of finding any reason they can to be miserable, even if it means longing for a past they hardly understand.

  4. Good point's Meghan. There is a lot more I could have said about the subject, and it's not as air-tight as I like my thinking to be, but essentially, yes, it is about past/ future biases and how people love to ignore that the only thing they actually control, or live, is the present.

    Which is something I am sure Brian would agree with. I used "jealousy" for simplicities sake, but if I were to define it in this context, it would be precisely what you said Brian. Because what is jealousy other than a determination to not be satisfied with what you have?

  5. I always enjoy reading your opinions, regardless of how much I disagree with them.

    As a minor clarification, I'm wondering where you get the 2/3 taxation figure under feudalism? Most of the commentary I've read on the subject (granted, they're generally marxist sources, including marx himself) put the figure at 1/3. Either way, as payroll for most lower-revenue businesses is usually 33%, it would seem the state of the peasantry hasn't gotten better off (and if Marx's 1/3 figure is correct, than it's gotten worse), at least in so far as those who live only off of their labor.

  6. Where did I get that 2/3 figure? Straight out of my ass, I believe.

    As much as I try to only use numbers when I actually have a source, that one was fired off in a hurry, and I did not do the necessary homework.

    However, I have read, in several places, that most serf/ lord arrangements were such that the serf could keep the produce of between 1/3 and 1/2 of the land he worked for his "lord," which amounts to pretty much the same thing.

  7. It isn't crucial to your argument, of course.

    Another point I'd make is that we know even less about the poor of the past than we do the rich. Artistic renditions (whether literary, musical, or visual) of the poor in the medieval period hardly exist, and when they do, they were often created from either the perspective of the aristocracy or by the aristocrats themselves.

    Modern depictions of the poor of the past seem to swing wildly between the extremes of romanticization and vilification. On the one hand, you've fantasy series such as the BBC's Robin Hood and Merlin which always show very clean, orderly villages in medieval times, and on the other hand, you've films such as The Name of the Rose and Perfume: The story of a Murderer, whose depictions of the poor are quite grotesque and Hobbesian.

    It seems to depend, really, on how one feels about the poor in general, but few would really argue (except, say, the Cato institute) with the assertion that "it has always sucked to be poor."