Taylor: The good old days

Snow was falling. I was wet and unhappy as I left the bookstore and began the trek back to my dorm.

They had refused to take back the textbook. “You need a receipt,” they said. Perfect. I put on my gloves and frowned at the icy path before me. There were no birds chirping in the trees; there were no squirrels frolicking in the grass. The world was bleak as I passed the Stiles gate. Then a little boy ran past and wholly devastated the pessimistic frame of mind I had been building up all morning.

He was laughing and veering off the walkway, where his mother and two little sisters were walking. He ran with knees up high to avoid tripping, and in his glove he held a ball of snow. No matter if this winter had seen half a dozen bouts of snowfall already; the novelty, in his mind, had not worn off. Snowfall meant playtime. I smiled.

It is a pleasure all too rare in college to see children at play, to see their freedom from anxiety and their lighthearted embrace of all that is beautiful and charming.

In their eyes one can almost steal a glimpse into the very youth of civilization — the age of pagan antiquity, when the Earth was magical and the sky enchanted, when nymphs bathed in friendly seas and fairies danced in green pastures.

It was an age of myths and fairy tales, Homer and Aesop, and mankind was a delighted child. Without the luxury of the printing press, man was forced to cultivate a keen and expansive memory — the kind we see in children still today. In memory dwelled poetry, and poetry was the lifeblood of the ancient world’s mythopoeic approach to reality. The Earth was a mother; the snow was a miracle.

If antiquity was the childhood of civilization, then modernity is adulthood.

Modern man outgrew old myths and elevated science to a position of supremacy; he ditched his lyre and donned the lab coat. The modern world is a world of facts. It is a bourgeois world, a busy and business-oriented world, a place where poetry and art sit quietly at the margins of day-to-day life.

Whereas the child assumed the posture of nature’s student and admirer, the adult fancies himself teacher and master over nature. He concerns himself with grown-up things: money, security, the latest news, the latest studies. The earth is not a mother but a reserve of manipulable resources. Snow is a cluster of crystallized molecules; it is also a nuisance.

The modern world did show signs of longing for its days of youth (see: Romanticism). But the inexorable passage of time could not be thwarted, and gray hairs began to grow. Old age brought senility: incoherence, confusion, forgetting the function of toilets. It’s called postmodernism.

The irony is that postmodernists think they are riding the cusp of all that is fresh and new. Really they are suffering — some of them, anyway — from the gerontic afflictions of cataracts, memory loss and dementia. They’re stuck in solipsistic language games. Who can say what “the Earth” is? How could we pretend to know anything “true” about snow?

The extent to which we have progressed beyond modernity into postmodernity, beyond adulthood into old age, remains debatable. In any case, death is lurking. Birth rates are absurdly low; Western economies are surviving on an influx of immigrants. Europe’s identity has been almost entirely effaced. America is following suit.

But maybe it is just here that the analogy breaks down. Maybe an aged civilization, unlike an aged human being, can find fresh springs of rejuvenation and continue far into the future. Are there such springs?

It seems clear from our past that neither myth nor fact, by itself, can satisfy us for long. The realist in man, the scientist, will always rebel from a world of pure myth. And the dreamer, the poet, will always rebel from a world of pure fact. We will be satisfied only when we can embrace myth and fact together, when we can marvel at beauty and revel in truth, when we can enjoy the wonder of childhood and the knowledge of adulthood at one and the same time.

Such a harmony, of course, may be unattainable in this life. Nonetheless, it is a harmony worth striving for. At present, we have much to learn from our juniors.

Bryce Taylor is a sophomore in Silliman College.

Comments

  • Reader

    This is my new favorite all too brief summary of change from classical civilization to modern to post-modern. I think I liked it because what you represented as the ethos of both ages matched my ideas of them so perfectly. I also like your observation that post-modernists often forget what toilets are for (their works … just kidding … mostly). You know Dostoevsky thought being around children was good for you too.

  • Another Reader

    While I appreciate the perspective offered (it is a significant improvement over the influx of nonsensical proclamation of the great holy word "PROGRESS" or, better yet, "CHANGE"), it seems somewhat reactionary in that it appears to emphasize the virtue of the past and scorn the vice of the present even as the acolytes of the almighty PROGRESS scorn the "backwards" past and glorify the "enlightened" future, in which we are beyond reliance on what they might consider concepts such as love, justice, and God. I suppose my critique is concerned with balance, and perhaps somewhat with the more nebulous and unpleasant notion that this article exhibits some of the traits postmodernists perceive in their criticism of metanarratives as reductive and ultimately untrue; there is something necessarily mythological in a view of history as a progression from innocent childhood to bitter, cynical old age, some imprecision. There is an inadequacy in metaphor, and the gap between language and reality does tend to be wider than we can comfortably admit.

    But that is, again, nebulous and unpleasant. My more sure-footed critique is on the score of balance; surely we can find an Aristotelian Mean between despairing of the present and castigating the past. The is glory and knowledge in both: Chaucer in the 14th Century, Shakespeare in the 16th, Stevens in the 20th, and who knows in the 21st; Aquinas in the 13th, and David Bentley Hart (among others) currently. Nature has not lost her mystery nor her wonder though the age of myths has gone. Science finds and celebrates new mysteries, and can be just as mythological in its descriptions: the arbitrary "positive and negative" or the "color charge" or a quark differs primarily in degree, and not in kind, from the arbitrary "Zeus" of lightning, or the arbitrary "Venus" of love. Of course, I am as biased to a rosy view of things as that author may be to a more critical outlook. From a more factual perspective, what evidence is there that Socrates dominated the dialogue in Athens? Or that Shakespeare dominated Elizabethan London? No, from mere appearances, it would seem that Athens was much more hostile to its Socrates than America to its theologians. What I mean by this is that those who are truly sensitive and alive to the wonder of the world have been rare in every age, and overwhelmed at every turn by the sheer numbers of the indifferent--to quote Thyucidides (via Professor Bloom) "They have the numbers; we, the heights." And this perhaps explains why the past seems glorious: time takes a kind of sickle to history, and only that which contains at least some wheat bound with the chaff survives, while the merely extant is replaced by league after league of the merely extant. We see ourselves amidst the morass of enuui, of the merely extant; we see history purified, in a sense, consisting only of the heights, while the numbers have been swept endlessly and namelessly forward. In the past, the dead become more dead and the live more resplendently living for their outfoxing of time.

    Of course, the article does provide some insight into the modern or postmodern world. There is considerable skepticism, but sophists have existed from Gorgias to Nietzche and beyond, and the fact that our current academic and intellectual atmosphere is tolerant of sophistry I, for one, see more as the swing of a pendulum than an irreversible (or at least non-reversing) decline into death. One is reminded of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: "There lives the deepest freshness deep down things." Now, though I am as eager as Mr. Taylor for a return to the necessary realization that this freshness necessarily depends on the brooding of "the Holy Ghost over the bent/world," I am unwilling to accept the idea that this freshness has run out of society in the main--movies express it, poets express it, even the deplored business men and scientists express it. The fact that the barbaric or destructive urge has infiltrated academia is more evidence of the glorification of intellect in modern society than an increase or decrease of the urge in human hearts, minds, and souls.

    Of course, the most valuable story of this article is not the points of contest (just how much worse off is modern society?) but its own testament to Hopkins' "freshness". So long as individual minds can be catapulted from a child playing in the snow to the sum and total of passing history, there is still a testament to something wonderful in the earth. It is my belief not that such individuals, those sensitive perceivers are proportionally any less than they have been throughout history, but rather that they have always been rare, and, more importantly, that they have always lasted.