The Simple Life.
There is a competition between those who believe that everything must be made new and those who believe we can remain in - or return to – the old order. Few people are purists in these. Nearly everyone would see some virtue on both sides and put themselves in the middle. Yet the competition is very strong, and plays out quite visibly in national culture. Obama is an extreme example of the “everything must be made new” attitude. Tea Partiers are the current dramatic example of America having to “get back to” something. In their case it is smaller government, but other movements in our history have focused on getting back to better moral or social times.
It may be a cast of mind, or even a genetic tendency whether to be a Returner or a Remaker. Various groups of Christians try to return to the 1st C church, which is not only impossible, but not recommended even if we could. OTOH, it is currently fashionable to emphasise how Jesus “overturned the political/social/religious/indiemusic order of his day.” I am undecided which of these is more false, more vacuous, and more irritating. Both of them have some truth behind them, of course. It’s actually difficult to find popular ideas that have absolutely nothing in them. But it’s well less than half in both instances.
This is not a new competition. One can find it just about anywhere one touches down in American history. Marxism and the various utopias wanted to remake the social and economic order – but then, so did the American Revolution. It was in the air then to remake everything. But those Remakers were also Returners – to imagined smaller and more egalitarian societies, to natural rights that had been obscured by growing governments and economic pressures – to Noble Savages or edenic gardens.
In the 1970’s people were worried that society was going to collapse, for many of the same reasons that people fear it will collapse now. I won’t list those. Choose your own favorites. I thought it largely had collapsed already – the old order was broken, society was going to have to change radically, which might or might not be a horrifying process.* I saw a post-christian, post-western world. There would never be any going back to the 50’s or any imagined Golden Age. All that remained was to identify the pieces worth saving from the ruins and reassemble them somehow, so that those who lived after might not have to suffer so badly.
Some – the Remakers - believed that almost nothing was worth saving from the past, and all had to be rethought and made anew. Others – the Returners – dug in their heels as if trying to prevent a horse from dragging them on. I was neither. But the theme of preserving through destruction was a strong literary theme of speculative literature of the 20th C, showing up in both Sci-Fi and fantasy literature. One would think that you could find it over a few thousand years of literature, but I don’t. I may be blinding myself to it, but I think that each work of literature has gone in either a Remaker or Returner direction (or many unrelated places) until the 20th C. Then we start to get A Canticle For Liebowitz, the modern versions of the Arthurian Legend that stress that bridge between Roman civilization, through the Dark Ages, into Early Medieval times, Lewis’s Prince Caspian (and much of his nonfiction). Many of Asimov’s stories carry the idea of ancient knowledge preserved, brought forth for a new use. Something like it floats through Tolkien, and Star Wars.
I wrote an interminable novel three decades ago The Book Of Years: By Daniel, whose dominant theme was the preservation of older knowledge through an apocalypse. It is clearly a popular and romantic idea in our age. It may be what most of us prefer as a vision for the future, but somehow, the culture war asks us to choose one of the other two false visions. Greens and Libertarians, the two main subgroups in our political divide, both have an uneasy relationship with the major parties because of this clash of visions. The Greens are Returners in technology, Remakers in social and economic thought. Libertarians, something opposite.
The artsy, folksinger/poet/actor types thought one of the signs of this impending collapse was the soullessness and materialism of modern society, especially Americans, especially businessmen. We thought these were in continual competition with higher values for space in our hearts. By higher values, some of us meant God, or at least Gospel of Niceness; feeling Things deeply; arts of many sorts…
It’s actually too irritating for me to go much further with that. We knew they were higher values, and other people’s were lower values, so our contempt wasn’t really an evil thing, because we really wanted them to become elevated. Lots of sermons began to be preached about this as well. Boatloads of seminarians bought this idea that this turning of the world was like a lot of things that Jesus taught, and nestled comfortably into those values, quite convinced they were largely Christian. And we’ve been hearing it ever since.
It’s not completely untrue, of course. Jesus did indeed say that owning things was dangerous, because we could become attached to them, and embracing poverty has been a re-emerging theme throughout church history. The other monastic vows, chastity and obedience, didn’t sit so well in the 70’s. Or now, either. And artistic expression, sensitivity, niceness, being against the war – Jesus didn’t actually mention those things a lot.
I digress. I wander. Sorry. I will tighten up for the next part.
The Simple Life. A lot of people, Christian and secular, thought that was going to be the key, then. Funny things started to happen when these Simple Life people, who had started from different visions, moved in next to each other in a hundred places around the country. Yet in the end, most of them moved either left or right, not to any independent hybrid. Odd. I think I can trace some of it by describing The Mother Earth News, which Tracy and I read cover to cover, in those years
*It was interesting - rather shocking actually - to find this idea in different form in CS Lewis's De Description Temporum.