Friday, February 05, 2021


For of course by thoughts that transcend the great man's age we really mean thoughts that agree with ours. (CS Lewis "The World's Last Night")
He also called this "chronological snobbery," the default belief that our age has got things right and other eras are wrong on the basis of nothing more than recency. It carries the unspoken and probably unnoticed assumption that societal ideas are not only steadily improving, but that they are doing so in an uninterrupted manner.  That is, none of this "Two steps forward, one step back" progress, but a blithe assurance that the newer ideas are always better.  If society seems to have stopped making progress on the approved ideas, it is because it is somehow regressing, moving backward to older ideas. Taylor Swift is for middle-schoolers, Madison. White people keep resisting looking at Critical Race Theory, but...

The connection to fads and fashions is clear, even when the proponents say they don't care about such things and even disdain them.  They only mean that they do not follow the weekly fashions of the masses because they have got a better, long-range plan of following the decadal fashions. Academics in the humanities and social sciences take that a step further, embracing the slowest-emerging fads that last multiple decades or more before being abandoned and disdained because "no one subscribes to that anymore."  It is just skirt lengths and Billboard 100 in slow motion. The changes in fashion are always described in terms which mimic rational evaluation. It is revealing that these schools of thought often use the language of newness and chronological progress.  Is New Criticism newer than Modernism? Movement after movement is post-something to show that it has gotten beyond Structuralism or Realism, or postcritique, postcolonial approaches.  My own "postliberalism" is a personal getting beyond, only loosely tied to the national trends. I hope.  Perhaps I need to shine the light back on my own journey a bit more.

The Babylon Bee will frequently mention ideas about gender as obviously bigoted that liberals embraced as recently as 2015. There is also a construction of referencing ideas that were acceptable "until last Tuesday," but Lewis, whose own earthly frame of reference stretches back centuries and who keeps forcing his own spiritual focus back on the eternal used the more extreme, gently admonishing phrase "I don't know what the time of day has got to do with it."

So much many of you have read in Lewis and others and the rest of you have caught indirectly in a hundred essays in your life.  I might be reminding you of a lesson that is in danger of being forgotten, but not teaching you something new. Here is the difficult part.  We do it too, or I do, at least. "That used to be the common wisdom about the Vietnam War, but more recent military historians..." or in my own field "We used to approach traumatic memories that way when I first started in the 1970's, but now ..." or  in a dozen subjects I have taken interest in over my lifetime: baseball statistics, historical linguistics, Jewish history, Anglo-Saxon migrations, even Tolkien and Lewis studies themselves (a nice bit of irony, really). We used to say...but now we think... 

It is tempting to claim that humans have always been this way, perceiving the newer as an improvement.  An argument frequently offered for this is that we are used to it because technological improvements more in one direction, so we naturally (but wrongly) apply this to cultural ideas as well. It is an attractive idea, but I don't think a well-supported one. Most cultures regard novelty as at best a mere irritant, and at worst a horror.  Novelty was a near-synonym for error and heresy among puritans.* Our histories focus on periods of change rather than continuity, and in our narcissism we regard the major cultural changes that did actually occur as improvements because they resulted in ME(!) and what I(!) think. Yet most of history seems to be trial-and-error and ideas that work better 51-49. Works great over time.  In the short run, lots of blood and oppression.

I think it more likely that Western Europeans, especially Brits, and even more especially its colonies are the exception in liking newness.  Not that we like it all that much either, only that we have a somewhat larger minority of citizens who do, and perhaps the only societies where a majority at least reluctantly tolerate it and are willing to endure the experiment. It may be that we have too many in our societies who are absolutely sure that that the old ideas are bad and the new ones good. I am certainly in the school of "I am willing to consider this, but don't think you should be discarding old ideas so precipitously."  I like to think of it as a quintessentially American balance, but I would think that, wouldn't I?

*Ironic, yes, because their ideas were a novelty to every other religious movement in NW Europe at the time.


james said...

Are you saying the era with me in it isn't the most important one?

SJBC said...

"It's the current year already!" seems to be the standard response to rational questions.