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.