Friday, May 30, 2014

Nostalgic Literature

My books are currently locked in a storage facility somewhere in Houston, 250 miles south of me, leaving me a dearth of reading material. By a stroke of luck I came across a sale of 19th century books in hardcover at the local library, eight or so works for $15. I imagine the library is trying to clear out room to expand their Blu Ray holdings.

The books I acquired are hardly the high brow literature of James Fenimore Cooper or Victor Hugo, but I think these works do at some level reflect the popular sentiment of the age. The novels Waverly by Walter Scott, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, and the D'Artagnan works of Dumas all yell "nostalgia" at the top of their parchment lined lungs.

Waverly describes the romantic folly of a young man named Edward Waverly, educated in many subjects and knowledgeable in none of them. He falls for the Jacobite cause and Bonnie Prince Charlie (whose father's perplexing tomb I saw at St. Peter's Basilica, Iacob III, Rex Anglorum). His venture with the band of Scottish usurpers was doomed from the start, but the charm of the undertaking clouded Edward's judgment. The Scarlet Pimpernel rescues French nobles from the guillotine during the Revolution and rescues the 19th century nobility from their declining relevance during the Baroness's time. And the D'Artagnan romances glorify a France and a chivalric spirit which Edmund Burke declared dead half a century earlier.

These novels are nostalgic lamentations for an era within living memory, but certainly gone and never returning. Gone were the days of treks and aimless adventures through the highlands. Gone were the days of noble patricians guiding society out of obligation and not self-interest. Gone were the days of impulsively gallant knights willing to sacrifice all for king and wenches.

Conversely, other writers attempted to compensate for the loss of old Europe by moving adventures to new settings amenable to the scientism of the age. My current book, Jules Vernes' remarkably dull Journey to the Center of the Earth, brims with optimism about the potential for science to pave the path of the coming age. The protagonist and his uncle engage of what we are supposed to believe is sophisticated debate over minutiae concerning minerology and geology. The impolite dullards are the norm people, such as the village priest and his housekeeper. H.G. Wells took scientism to an unhealthy level. Both authors wanted to move the conventional adventure story to a new setting and found moderate success.

Technology has not brought new platforms to traditional behavior, nor has it induced healthy new behavior. Submarines did not continue the swashbuckler. Some technology, if anything, has limited human behavior. Social networking, to my mind, is an unmitigated disaster. Almost everyone one knows via Facebook one knows in real life. Rather than meet in person for dinner once a week people swap mind numbing messages about mostly nothing. They exchange so much menial information so frequently that when two people do have the rare encounter they sit in silence with nothing to discuss. Email is far more tolerable to me, given that it does the same thing as a letter and in shorter time; I hardly think email, unlike the blue thing Facebook, substitutes for real human contact.

So many cheerleaders for science, particularly in biology, seem positively giddy about the potential to change human nature. Would we still be human at that point? Industry, modern democracy, and technology, although useful, have not so much changed human nature as much as they have curtailed it. I find myself sympathizing with those who yearn for "simpler" times not because I am a Luddite, but because those times were more humanly vibrant. Maybe I need to get out less....

1 comment:

  1. "Iacob III, Rex Anglorum". Quite right to be perplexed. He was James V I I I, certainly 'Scotorum', and arguably 'Anglorum' too, in direct line from both Duncan the Gracious and Alfred the Great.
    If one's going to be a Legitimist, one might as well do it properly and count the union of the dynasties from Malcolm III and S. Margaret. (She was English, sister of the last elected Anglo-Saxon king Edgar the Atheling). The Scots certainly did when they told Edward I that the House of Wessex reigned in Scotland.

    No indeed. Human nature does not change. The attitudes of some influential persons unfortunately perniciously insist on believing that it will. Hence the continuing need for the sacraments of the Church.