The Past Is A Foreign Country
By bellejarblog on December 12, 2012
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, etc.
And then God created the Garden of Eden, and made a dude out of mud to be in charge of it. Then one day when this dude, Adam, was sleeping God took one of his ribs (ew) and from that rib magically made Adam a lady-friend, Eve. Then Adam and Eve lived in paradise for, like, three days, until Eve, the original third wave feminist (she embraces diversity, change and choice!), took some bad advice from a
phallic symbol serpent and ruined everything.
And we’ve been nostalgic ever since.
Sometimes I think that nostalgia is the human condition. I mean, we’ve got a minimum of three major religions based on this yearning to get back to a past that none of us remember or even understand; the most we know about it is that Adam thought it was awesome. Then again, Adam also thought that wearing fig leaves was awesome, and was married to someone who was basically his clone (I mean, is that how it works? what with the rib and all? what’s the science here? anyone?). Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that I’m not sure how reliable of a source he is.
I mean, here’s the thing: I am the queen of nostalgia. Ask anyone – I basically get nostalgic at the drop of a hat.
(Hey, remember that time you dropped a hat? How great that was? How much fun we had? Why don’t we ever have good times like that anymore?)
I don’t just moon over actual things that I’ve experienced either; I spent a good chunk of my childhood feeling nostalgic for just about any time in history, from the ancient world all the way up to The Great Depression (I blame a combination of having an aunt who is an egyptologist, reading excessive amounts of historical fiction, and watching Annie on VHS until the tape wore out). I used to drive my mother bananas by whining at her that I should have been born in the Victorian era (in response to which she would usually remind me of my fondness for indoor plumbing), and nearly every elementary school class photo shows me decked out in some kind of puffed-sleeve Anne of Green Gables floral-printed nightmare, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
If there was a book at the public library with a picture of a girl in a laced-up bodice and peasant skirt, I’d read it. If there was a weirdo food mentioned in something I’d read (blanc mange, I am looking at you), I’d tried to find a recipe for it. After learning that people seriously believed in fairies until not that long ago, I began to (non-ironically) leave food in our backyard in case the fair folk were hungry for chocolate-covered graham crackers and milk. And you know what? To be honest, my adult self is not that different, although nowadays I would probably eat the cookies, fairies be damned.
What I’m trying to get at here is that I’m totally guilty of romanticizing the past. Totally! That being said, I don’t use that as an excuse to hate the present. I mean, I like flush toilets and computers and being able to vote and science-based medicine and all that good stuff. I am pretty down with modern life (although I am sad that I don’t get to wear bustles or hoop skirts). I guess what I am trying to say is that I am confused by people who think that living a middle-class existence in the western world is basically the worst, ever. I’ve heard women bemoaning the fact that feminism has ruined womanhood (is that even a word? my spellcheck thinks it’s a word), and the fact that women can now vote, own property and work after marriage is somehow preventing them from being stay-at-home mothers or housewives or whatever. I’ve heard people complaining about the “chemicals” in antibiotics, and saying that they only do homeopathic or herbal treatments – nothing “unnatural” or doctor-prescribed. I hear people talking wistfully about the days when science didn’t exist and everything was just natural and wholesome and wonderful.
People talk a lot about “authenticity” when it comes to objects and experiences. They don’t want Walmart to exist; they want everyone to buy things from farmer’s markets and local mom-and-pop pharmacies and department stores. They want to drive to Mennonite country to buy hand-made furniture and hand-dipped candles. They want to practice yoga at sunrise on a mountaintop with someone who has studied in India and can read their chakras. When they travel to South America, they don’t want to go on a guided tour; they want to see the unspoiled part of the rain forest, want to see the “real” locals who are unspoiled by contact with the west. We’re obsessed with our idea of what’s “real”; these days, people worship at the temple of the real.
Sometimes I think that our desire for authenticity has a lot to do with our love of nostalgia. We think that the people who came before us lived lives that were somehow more “real” than our own.
But you know what guys? The past is a foreign country, and so on, and so forth. We don’t know what it was like back then; all we can go by is what we’re told, or by deciphering what’s been left behind. We will never be able to understand how people felt or lived back then; their circumstances, though not totally alien to ours, are different enough that we will never fully be able to grasp their emotions, or beliefs, or the ins-and-outs of their daily lives. We just have to trust that yes, being a woman before feminism was a raw deal, and yes, modern medicine saves lives, and yes, science and modernity serve some kind of purpose. I’m not saying, let’s not be critical of society; what I’m saying is let’s keep pushing forward and trying to make things better instead of daydreaming about a past that we can never get back.
I’m not saying that Walmart is amazing, or that any of the things I mentioned up there are bad in and of themselves, just that it’s hard to have some kind of moral superiority about where you shop when there are kids who would probably starve if there weren’t discount stores where their parents could get a cheap meal. I’m also not saying that our society isn’t obsessed with consumerism, because we are; we’re consumerist as hell. But you know what? People in the past didn’t own less things because they were better than us; it was because they couldn’t afford them. If you want to live a life of simplicity where all you can afford is a mattress on the floor and one change of clothes, then by all means, please go ahead. However, don’t kid yourself that you’re being more “real” than the next person.
Sometimes I think that the appeal of history is that we know how all the stories end. We know who wins the Battle of Hastings, and whether or not Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, and whether or not the Titanic will ever reach New York (spoiler: it won’t). And yeah, a lot of history was scary and bloody and downright awful, but at least we know what happens. I mean, better the devil you know, right? Our modern lives terrify us because we don’t know how anything will end; sometimes it seems like we’re careening towards our own destruction, running full-tilt at things like global warming and nuclear war and widespread poverty and famine. I’ve got news for you, though: if these things terrify you, all the hand-dipped candles in the world aren’t going to save you. If you’re scared (and you probably should be), then get up and go do something, for God’s sake. Sitting at home wishing that you lived in Elizabethan England is going to accomplish exactly nothing.
I mean, except reminding you how awesome those giant ruffs were. Can we bring those back, please?
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