Thursday, July 30, 2009

Putting the past on a pedestal

I'm glad for the vibrant discussion of yesterday's post about Hallie Lord and her article at Faith and Family. Though I did have to delete one abusive anonymous comment, for the most part people have been able to express their ideas charitably and with good sense.

I would, however, like to take this opportunity to clarify, not what I wrote, but why I wrote it. It seems that every time I take on one of these topics, whether it is to point out that women of the past in America wore hats, mostly, to church, not veils, or whether it is to remind those who sigh over their grandmother's organizational skills that grandmother's children spent six or seven hours a day in school away from home and were not underfoot when grandmother was attempting a deep cleaning, some people end up being offended.

I'm not sure why this is. I suppose this may be one of those times when tone doesn't translate to the written word, and when some may see my attempts in this direction as being the actions of a killjoy, an Ebenezer Scrooge who looks at the banquets, clothing, manners and deportment of the past and says, "Bah, humbug!" to it all.

Nothing could be further from my intention in writing as I do. I admire people who immerse themselves in history; I myself have a great fondness for antique stores and their treasures. The collector of vintage hats or patterns or teapots would find in me a sympathetic ear, and could pour out their passion for such things without any fear of ridicule.

But the things of the past, these collectible items, have the aura of truth about them. A much-patched and mended garment, a hat spoiled by an untimely rain whose spots are still visible on the dusty brim, a teapot whose lid bears a telltale crack down the center--all of these tell stories of real people, living real lives. These are not figments of our imagination; they were, and lived, and laughed, and loved, and died and faced judgment as we all will. And they still have existence; they still are.

We have a tendency to romanticize the past. This tendency is human, and understandable--but it's also rooted in fiction and can even be dangerous to us, to our spiritual lives and growth. I'm sure there are many ways to describe the various ways it can be dangerous to place the past on a pedestal--but two come to mind particularly.

The first is like what I alluded to above, when I spoke of the "hats vs. veils" controversy, or the belief that one's ancestors were just superior beings in their ability to raise children, do farm chores, spend two entire days washing, drying (on the clothesline) and ironing the family's laundry--and yet still manage to look as though they'd stepped out of a bandbox each evening when their husbands returned from town or from the back 40, as the case might be. At the root of this belief is the idea that our ancestors--grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.--possessed a key to living and an understanding of the world that we have lost, and that if we could only find that key again we could, magically or miraculously or both, recapture this blissful way of existence, this more natural, more authentic, more human way of being that has been taken from us by the evils of modernity.

Why is this dangerous? Because its fruit is bitterness. I have seen it happen, time and time again, that someone will become convinced of this idea, this notion that if we just return to "X" or start doing "Y" again, peace and tranquility will follow in the wake of these actions as surely as spring follows winter.

I want to be extremely clear, here: the danger lies not in doing the things our ancestors did, if we find these things interesting, enjoyable, profitable, helpful to holiness, etc. A woman who decides to raise chickens or attend the Latin Mass or hang her clothes to dry instead of using the clothes dryer because she wants to do these things for their own sake is in no danger at all. But the woman who thinks, "I will raise chickens, and suddenly the world will be a better place, and my children will understand what real chores are, and we will have the authentic goodness of our own eggs at our peaceful family breakfasts lit by the rising sun, and the gentle noise of the hens will delight my soul and..." is probably headed for some disappointment (followed by a sharp learning curve--or a race to sell the unfortunate fowl to her nearest farm neighbors). Similarly, the family who decides to attend the Latin Mass for its own goodness are going to benefit, I have no doubt. But the family who decides to attend the Latin Mass in order to escape the evils of the Novus Ordo Church and to show off their years of Latin scholarship and to "help" the priest determine the size of the buckles on his shoes and to feel superior to the poor schmucks stuck in "Marty Haugen land" may only be pausing at the Extraordinary Form Mass--on their way out of the Church altogether.

The bitterness comes from the realization that doing these things, on their own, is not going to turn the clock back to a simpler, gentler, more innocent or more moral time. It's not going to erase the last forty or fifty years or any of their effects; adopting the habits and customs of the past can only help us, inside, and only if we want that help when we adopt the habit or custom in the first place. If I move to a place where I can have chickens, and I think that having chickens may help me get out of bed in the morning so long as one of them is a rooster, well and good! But if I move to a place where I can have chickens in the hope that merely having and caring for the chickens is going to transform my local Wal-Mart into a store owned by a 1940s greengrocer who knows my name and calls me "Mrs. M" and is sure to remind me that the broccoli is really fresh today--I'm out of luck. And if I was hoping for that, then I'm quite likely going to be bitter. After all, here I am, making all of these changes and sacrifices--and the rest of the world, Those People Out There, keep on in their hedonistic and sinful and consumerist ways, spoiling everything for The Rest of Us. The nerve!

The second danger that comes from romanticizing the past is different, in that it doesn't seek to adopt--at least not entirely--any of the clothes or manners or customs of the past. This type can become immersed in a past world, though, idolizing the manners, dress, music, movies, writings and so forth of a particular age. Like I said before, if this is merely one's hobby, and is directed at some particular aspect or aspects of some particular era one admires, it is as harmless and fun as stamp collecting or birdwatching. But if it is an interest that is rooted in a belief that the world was practically perfect in 19-- (or 18--, or 17--, etc., though that is rarer to encounter) then this romantic view of a past world has its own danger.

Where the danger in the first temptation is that one will become bitter about the modern world, the danger of the second is that one will become apathetic to it. The person who believes that at some point the world was truly wonderful, and it has been all downhill since, is in some danger of slowly turning away from the world of the here-and-now, and refusing to accept that God has placed us in this world, here, and now, in order to best fulfill His plans for us and to, with His blessings and aid, secure our own eternal destinies.

Besides that danger, there is the further sad reality that to believe the world was truly wonderful at some past date is to ignore the effects of the Fall. Shakespeare's heroes--not only his villains--sometimes displayed immoral behavior; Chaucer before him wrote of lust and its accompanying sins as if they were fairly frequent occurrences--and the twelfth century was a long way from the corrupting influences of television and the Internet. Jane Austen's world is charming--but even in Miss Austen's tales we find adultery, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and the like. My own much-admired Alexander Pope, writing in a world that appreciated the elegance of rational rhyme, penned a poem which was one of the ones I considered in my senior thesis: it is his "Eloisa to Abelard," which tells of a nun still struggling with her conscience years after she was sent to the convent to separate her from her illicit lover, who has become a priest.

Does this mean that there is nothing to admire about the past? Of course not. We often hear about how much safer people were, how possible it was to let children roam outdoors unsupervised knowing that everyone in town would keep an eye on them, how delightful to have one's groceries delivered to one's front door, how some of the filth that is now visible to all was kept decently hidden from public view. Decently hidden--in burlesque shows and under counters and behind dark windows; we are kidding ourselves if we think our ancestors in the simpler times had no contact with the world of sin. But it is that forgetfulness that leads to the oversimplification and the apathy: the world was once innocent and kind, we are tempted to think, and now it is immoral and cruel; better to retreat to memory and imagination, and to overlook the spots and stains on the photographs or journals, to hide from ourselves the knowledge that there has never been an age of innocence since Adam and Eve's wicked act in the Garden.

The best remedy against either of these temptations is to see the past as clearly and truthfully as we can. This clarity and verity will help us to realize that keeping chickens is a difficult sort of thing to do, and not at all productive of any magic effects beyond a quantity of eggs (good!) and an even greater quantity of chicken waste (not so good--though perhaps useful in one's garden). It will help us to realize that even in an Extraordinary Form Mass it is possible to meet the ignoble, uncharitable, immoral, or unkind, and that hanging one's clothes out to dry may save a little electricity, but may also be impractical in allergy season.

It will help us to recall that the past was not always rosy, too; that evil and sin were features of every human age, and that even in 1950 people were already talking about artificial contraception (for instance) and wondering when the Catholic Church would drop its silly objection to it (no joke--I have a bound collection of Harper's Magazine from 1950 which discusses this topic). The evils of the present did not suddenly spring up one day in the late 1960s or early 1970s--they have very, very long roots, going back to that same tree in the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

We forget that at our peril. When the past is put on a pedestal, it's very easy for it to become a false idol.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments.

-Miniver Cheevy

JMB said...

Erin, you hit the ball out of the park on this one! Bravo!

For a humourous account of egg farming, have you read "The Egg and I" by Betty Mac Donald? That book puts to rest any romanticized notion of chicken farming in the rural northwest in the 1930s and 40s.

Also, another interesting tome about women, friends, education, sex, marriage and contraception is Mary McCarthy's book "The Group" which was published in 1933.

I too am tired of people telling me how bad everything is now and how great it was yesteryear. I get particularly offended when people tell me how much more difficult it is to get into a decent college these days, as if those of us who attended Ivy league schools back in the day were slumming it during high school.

Lindsay said...

I think you make some great points, Erin. I think that for me and my pride;), the disagreement comes from the presumed assumption that Lord's article or anyone who liked her is guilty of the sort of idealism you describe.

I don't really believe that your intention was to attack anyone personally, only to serve as a reminder. But since online essays can't address such topics in full, your natural prejudices appeared at first to assume Lord and others who agreed with her were among those with unbalanced ideals.

Oh, and I wear a hat to mass;) TLM on Sundays, NO during the week;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Red - I've been reading a lot of Laura Ingalls Wilder's early essays (before the Little House series) and she said much the same thing as you have in this post!

Dawn Munson

Red Cardigan said...

Appreciate all the comments!

Lindsay, yours makes me pause--just because I never think that way, and it always surprises me if I've unwittingly created a context where people get offended.

In other words, if I read an essay or blog post I like, and some other person/people writes something about why they *didn't* like it, I'll consider what they wrote. If I agree with it, I'll reevaluate my original approval of the piece, and if I don't agree with it I shrug and move on. Feelings just don't enter into it for me, unless someone is writing to attack me personally (and even then, if they write well and are clever, I'm more likely to laugh and give them kudos for "scoring" so well).

This is probably why I get in trouble when I criticize things like Facebook/Twitter, for example. I don't use either and find neither useful; I worry about the danger too much of that sort of thing might have on my kids (who already write pretend "blogs," and my oldest wants to have one of her own one day). But my dh uses them--so obviously by criticizing them I don't mean to slight every person who *does* find them useful or interesting. If anything, I want to encourage other moms who find themselves struggling to keep up with all the many ways to connect online that it's okay *not* to adopt the latest fad tech just because all the popular mommy bloggers are doing it! :)

And in writing about the dangers of idealizing the past, I'm writing to those women who read Hallie's piece and immediately did a guilt-ridden mental survey of their own closets, judging and condemning the garments within for not being flattering enough, good enough quality, or for the crime of being able to go in the dryer--even if their own economic circumstances don't allow them to consider replacing any of them. I hate to see people (mostly women) fall under the spell of an ideal they can't achieve, which then causes them suffering and pain because they think "everybody else" can manage to incorporate this new thing into their lives.

Last thing--Hatchick almost always wears a hat to Mass, too! It's where she gets the name. :)

Anonymous said...

I love this conversation and I often wondered how many of us made various levels of that same mistake? How many of us went too far, when we found something true and beautiful...and took it past the point of the promise of the thing itself and turned it into...something wrong? I'm not making myself clear at all, but I did it. And I hung around with people who still do it.

I know a particular crowd who wishes it were "the past", and it's a mish-mash of everything from "before the '60s" to the 13th century. Seriously.

A good example for me is how many people admitted they just might have been wrong on the whole Harry Potter thing. When I very-first read the warnings, I went right along with it. Because? They were orthodox Catholics! And I was a new revert! They must know things that, I, the noob, just can't see. So I let them lead me. And now, after we took the whole family to see the latest HP movie - and read the "4-stars-says-the-Vatican" article by Catholic News Service, well, let's just say I learned something from that entire experience.

Here's the most important thing I learned: I love beauty. I love truth. I love goodness. And the past definitely had some beautiful, good and true things that I should hold on to, or incorporate into my life, because of that. But...God had me be born now. Here. And so...that must be Good. He had a plan and it wasn't for me to be born in 1394 or 1687 or 1938. I live now, Deo Gratias, which is the only valid response.

Oh, and re: contraception in the past: Not only is there that "pharma"-something reference in the bible, which is supposed to be referring to contraception, but I clearly remember reading an interview with Mae West who talked about the "little silk pillow" they girls of her day (the '20s?) used for contraception. (Now that I think of it, wasn't there a reference to "French letters" in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"?) Sin was always there. From the Garden on down...


Lindsay said...

Erin, I think your approach to and style in writing is very effect. It certainly provokes one to think about things in a way that one otherwise wouldn't or is satisfying in that elusive thought or opinion concretely expressed. I wouldn't change.

Comment boxes are rather cramped for expressing full thoughts sometimes, but I was just trying to explain the response I felt and saw. My instinct was to *defend,* Lord's essay and my own similar opinions. But as you explained, there wasn't necessarily a need because you weren't necessarily attacking, just analyzing.

I have been reading Chesterton lately, and this passage struck me as insightful. Forgive me for the length, but even if you don't agree with his conclusion about women in the workforce, I think he effectively describes women and our prejudices:

"I would observe here in parenthesis that much of the recent official trouble about women has arisen from the fact that they transfer to things of doubt and reason that sacred stubbornness only proper to the primary things which a woman was set to guard. One's own children, one's own altar, ought to be a matter of principle—or if you like, a matter of prejudice. On the other hand, who wrote Junius's Letters ought not to be a principle or a prejudice, it ought to be a matter of free and almost indifferent inquiry. But take an energetic modern girl secretary to a league to show that George III wrote Junius, and in three months she will believe it, too, out of mere loyalty to her employers. Modern women defend their office with all the fierceness of domesticity. They fight for desk and typewriter as for hearth and home, and develop a sort of wolfish wifehood on behalf of the invisible head of the firm. That is why they do office work so well; and that is why they ought not to do it. "

In the spirit of what Kay spoke of, it does seem we can become "wolfish" regarding the good things we come across insisting that they are the *only* good things. Or perhaps it is also the proper guarding of the good things in regards to our family that makes us come across as intolerant of the different choices of others.

Lindsay said...

effectIVE :) Your writing is effective.

Michelle Marciniak said...

"the poor schmucks in Marty Haugen land". I am going to be laughing about that all day. That was a classic line. Very good blog! You gave me a lot to think about.

eulogos said...

I don't think Heloise was struggling very much with her conscience. She wrote to Abelard that she was in the convent in obedience to HIM and longed for even a letter from him. Apparently when he could no longer perform the sexual act, Heloise wasn't of all that much interest to him, but she still loved him. One could interpret this as that he had repented, but under the circumstances a firm purpose of amendment wasn't all that difficult for him...

And he wasn't a priest, by the way, when they were lovers. (I suppose he could have been in minor orders.) He was a teacher, a professor, and teachers were expected to be celibate then as long as they held their positions at the university. But they didn't have a vow of celibacy. To marry Heloise he would have had to give up his teaching job, and Heloise didn't want him to have to do that for her, as he was considered a great teacher.

Off topic, but you did refer to the story.
Susan Peterson

Red Cardigan said...

Susan, are you referring to the historical Heloise and Abelard? I'm willing to concede the point if that's the case--but if we're discussing Pope's poem, his fictional "Eloisa" is very definitely wrestling with her conscience. She begins by imagining him coming to her as a friend and companion, dives deeper into her imagination and wishes he'd come as a lover--true, a rather deficient one, but a lover nonetheless, as her words make clear--and finally at her worst point cries "Assist the fiends, and tear me from my God!"

At this point, she immediately realizes where her flirtation with temptation is taking her. "Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me," she writes (forgive me if punctuation or words are off at all, as I'm doing this quickly from memory, and don't have the poem handy). But in her final imaginings, as she can't quite put Abelard out of her mind, she envisions him coming to her as a priest, to give her the last rites when she is dying. This safe, chaste image of being able to see him once again in unexceptionable circumstances, and to part from him in a much less violent or terrible way than the did have to part before, gives her the ability to conquer her earlier temptations and their lures toward evil; she realizes the consequences of what she is being tempted to think, and chooses instead, as an act of the will, to think of Abelard in a way that is consistent with her new life and her reality as a middle-aged nun in a convent far from him.

Like you said, off topic, but I really love this poem.

Charlotte said...

Hey Erin,
Given your thoughts here, what do you think of this commentary, which also possibly romanticizes the past (as part of making its larger points)?


mrsdarwin said...

But the family who decides to attend the Latin Mass in order to escape the evils of the Novus Ordo Church and to show off their years of Latin scholarship and to "help" the priest determine the size of the buckles on his shoes and to feel superior to the poor schmucks stuck in "Marty Haugen land" may only be pausing at the Extraordinary Form Mass--on their way out of the Church altogether.

Awesome analysis.

Red Cardigan said...

Charlotte, I think that link romanticizes not only the past but also the Amish; clearly the author hasn't heard of the sex abuse scandals the Amish have had.

But beside that, I think that the author, Mr. Matt, was one of the authors of "We Resist You To the Face," a book which claimed that Pope John Paul II was trying to dilute the papacy and that Vatican II was "progressive" teaching which faithful Catholics should reject utterly. While I don't believe Mr. Matt is a sedevacantist, he's clearly not thinking with the Church which has not rejected Vatican II or its teachings.

Which is sort of my point: romanticizing the past has its dangers.

eulogos said...

Yes, I was thinking of the historical H and A. I haven't read the A Pope poem.