09 October, 2008

The Retrospective Age

9th October 2008

I began reading Nature by Emerson, and here is the first paragraph of the book:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Pretty cool uh? I haven’t read a whole lot of Emerson, but every time I read something of his, he kicks massive amounts of ass. The sun shines today also! This passage could still be said today, because we still are a retrospective age, more so than ever before. I don’t think any generation was more aware of the past than we are. Back in the 19th century, they didn’t have all the technology we have today to be exposed to the past. Now we have movies, documentaries, videos on YouTube, countless books, countless websites, etc. And if you look around you, you will notice how the past is regarded with almost sanctified respect.

For instance, I can easily picture the 50’s, and the 60’s, the 70’s, and especially the 80’s. The 90’s, I still sort of can, but way less easily. The 00’s, I wouldn’t know. I mean it’s definitely not as obvious as the 80’s, for example. That said, I think I already wrote about this in some other chapter.

The idea that we live through traditions rather than an “original relation to the universe” is very true. Today we have more knowledge about the universe than we ever had before, how many us look at the stars at night regularly? We think we know so much, and we forget to simply look. Our big knowledge only helped us think we had it figured out, and that some scientists could explain it all if we just asked them to, but the truth is that there isn’t a point where you “know” for real, because every new discovery brings new questions, and I don’t feel like reality has an end. And knowing parts of something infinite is the equivalent of knowing nothing at all, so we know nothing at all. We just live with the illusion that we know. Can anyone explain gravity?

Someone famous said we were dwarves on the shoulders of giants. I wrote before that this was not true, and that we were dwarves on the shoulders of other dwarves, who also were sitting on the shoulders of other dwarves, and so on and so forth. Now we’re sitting so high, we don’t even remember what the ground looks like. Why should you look at the night sky in wonder when some army of unknown astronomers already have mapped it all out?

Another example is this: if someone has a vision of Jesus or Mary, or God, and tells their priest or pastor, or else, they won’t be given any credit. A lot of Christians believe that time’s up for miracles, that it only happened in biblical times, and now it’s over. We seem to have more faith in a past we never lived in than in our own time.

And it’s true! When the war in Iraq began, in 2003, all I could see in my fellow students, who were going on strike and marching inside the hallways of our university (likely the stupidest place to protest, since 99% of the students were already against the war), was an intense desire to be the rebellious youth of the 60’s protesting against the Vietnam War. A lot of people in my generation seem to live in the 60’s in their heads, and this was a occasion not to miss: a war to revolt again. That’s why I didn’t protest at all, because for one I didn’t think it’d have any effect (I don’t live in America, and my country isn’t mighty, so even if we managed to convince our government, which is highly unlikely, they would have a hard time convincing the USA) and to see the pleasure my fellows had in re-enacting the 60’s just made me want to puke. Everything they did was mostly about telling each other jokes about Bush and then smoking pot, with Jimi Hendrix in the background. I’d have gone for Hendrix, though, but my fellows probably didn’t know Hendrix was for the war in Vietnam. And maybe you didn’t know that either, but now you do.

Another symptom of our age being retrospective is that we count on others for a lot. For instance, most of us, if not all of us, can’t build their own home and produce their own food. Not so long ago, people knew how to do all that. They built their own homes and produced their own food. If you dropped the average Western family in some place with nobody else, they’d have a very hard time, and would probably be dead in a week. You know how to use a hammer, but can you produce a hammer? You can use a computer, can you build one? You eat meat, have you ever killed an animal and would you know how to prepare it?

We use so many things we know almost nothing about, it should scare the crap out of us. None of us is independent anymore, and that could be a good thing. On the other hand, it’s not. Reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I learned that a single man could produce his own food, and build his own house, all on his own, and have enough to live on. On top of that, he had far more holidays than we have. This means that if you’re a homeless person, you can start growing your own food and build your own house and you’ll be doing fine. Thoreau did it, so it can be done. I’m very impressed at Thoreau for all that. If you dropped me in Walden with nothing at all, I don’t guarantee I’d be able to build a house and grow my own food. But that should be taught to us, don’t you think? Why doesn’t school teach us useful basics? They teach us crap we’ll never use, but they don’t teach us about the laws and the many, many ways in which we can get screwed during our lifetime. Maybe they don’t want us to know how things work, nor do they want us to be independent and not need them. Thoreau was thrown into jail because he refused to pay his taxes, because he didn’t see why he should have to pay taxes since he took nothing from the country.

Let’s take an example from my delightsome country, Switzerland. When you withdraw money from your bank, they charge you a very small fee if your withdrawal is under 100 dollars of worth. Someone figured this out, and every time they wanted to withdraw money, they did the following: they withdrew 200, took what they needed, and put everything back in the bank, to the surprise of the banker. If you want 10 dollars, you’d better take 120, and give back 110, that way you don’t get charged. Now, isn’t that a vicious trick to take money from people? It is. In my world, doing that should be criminal. It’s nothing more than a vulgar trick.

Naturally, I never learned that banks did that sort of thing in school. They do nothing to arm you against society. And this is one reason why most governments would rather take the people’s guns away from them. I’m no member of the NRA, but I see the point of letting people keep their weapons. If one day you have to storm the White House, you won’t want to go there with a shovel or a kitchen knife. And I seriously think some governments deserve to have their asses kicked. The thing is, we have level of living that doesn’t make us go crazy enough for us to storm our governments. It’s both good and bad. It’s tolerable, I guess. They do us in the butt, but they use vaseline, so we let them.

Instead of revolting, we look back and worship past revolutions, and past revolutionaries, even when they were absolute assholes. We need to get some faith in our own age, people.

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