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.