November 24, 2006

People in the past were very very different...

Diogenes writes:

...Part of the syndrome of being a child of one's age is a lack of the historical imagination to recognize oneself in a different setting, endowed with a different array of sentimentalisms. In fact, such people are certain they'd be on the side of the angels in any situation. The personal advantages they have purchased by their social conformity are so enormous and comprehensive that they fail to see it as conformity at all. This was true in 1930s Germany, when the right wing was in the ascendant, and it's true in the West today, when the left wing is. Joseph Sobran once wrote:
[Liberals] want us to believe that their willingness to conform to today's fashions is proof that they would have had the courage to defy yesterday's fashions. Somehow I find it hard to believe that today's coward would have been yesterday's hero, if only he'd had the chance. More likely he would have been, like most people, a timid conformist in any circumstances...(Thanks to Michael L)

This subject is a particular peeve of mine (feel free to tune out). People in the past were very very different from us now. If you are interested in history, as I am, that's fact number one. To study the past you must enter imaginatively into a different world of thought. And most people won't do so, and usually don't even grasp the concept.

This bugs me in a whole bunch of ways. One of course is the lefty professor who condemns our country's founding fathers for not conforming to the rules we follow today. In matters like slavery, sexism and egalitarianism. (This is only done to America and her allies. Or to Christians. In all other cases we are supposed to respect cultural differences. Sudanese Arabs can enslave blacks right now without criticism.) But if that little dweeb had been born in, say, Charleston in 1770, he would have thought that slavery was perfectly OK, and that women ought to defer to his opinions. He would be a conformist then just like he is now. A conformist, and probably incapable of standing outside his preconceptions and examining them.

Another way this bugs me is that my favorite form of fiction should be the historical novel. But in fact I find 98% of them to be pure crap. They are about contemporary people dressed up in historical gear. Same with films, or those "historical detective novels" that proliferate so. Blehhh. Same, for that matter, with science fiction—a trip to the future should be as much of a cultural shock as a trip to the past, but rarely is.

In reading a real historical work, fact or fiction, you should frequently be brought up sharp by characters thinking or acting differently than you expect. Patrick O'Brian's books are pretty good that way. Steven Maturin, a physician, not only bleeds people who are sick, they feel better after he does so! Jack Aubrey never questions his right to be, by birth, a landed proprietor, an MP, a naval officer, and in general a person with the right to command, and to be obeyed. And so, as we read the stories, we are drawn into that world-view, and come to temporarily share it. Our mental horizons are expended. I just love that!

Posted by John Weidner at November 24, 2006 3:47 PM
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