PAST TENSE

Passing through security at Paris Charles de Gaulle earlier this week – having to pull out my computer, my toiletries, divest myself of my boots, my belt, all metallic objects – I couldn’t help but remember air travel in the pre-hijacking 1970s, when everyone and anyone could walk to the departure gates, a lit cigarette in hand, a cocktail in the other, and air travel was a straightforward business, without all the Kafka-esque trappings of bureaucracy and high security that it is today.

Nostalgia for the past is, of course, a function of age. To get older is to frequently cite times past as better ones. There’s a whole school of conservative thought that is rooted in the past tense; the idea that, say, Victorian values were the right ones (as Madame Thatcher noted on several occasions) – overlooking the fact that Victorians hanged children for pick-pocketing and had a rather Hobbesian view of the human condition, especially when it came to the tragic squalor of its impoverished citizens. And the notion of the American small town as the repository of national virtue and family values (hello Norman Rockwell) has been attacked as a misnomer from every American writer from Sinclair Lewis onwards (by the way, I just re-read Lewis’s “Main Street” – which remains, for me, a key work in the twentieth century American canon. Along with ‘Babbitt’ and ”Elmer Gantry”).

Why this sugar-coated nostalgia for times past?
Yes, our modern way of life does have its attendant stresses and ongoing pressures. But consider also the virtues of the present day in the developed world:  the immediacy of communication and information, the relative ease of travel (and the fact that airfares are no longer prohibitive, as they certainly once were), the way that the role of women has so drastically improved (though full equality is still not there yet – especially when it comes to remuneration for work), the way that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters no longer have to live the once-clandestine existences that was once the norm, the overall ever-lengthening life expectancy, and…

I could go on for many more paragraphs. Just as I am certain so many of the points I just raised could be refuted by naysayers and those among you who perhaps have a less optimistic view of ‘les choses moderne’… I had a friend in London (of whom I eventually tired) who was always going on about how our times were the worst that mankind had ever experienced. When this ongoing aria of doom and gloom went on far too long one evening I tersely reminded him that our generation (the baby boomers) had never suffered a major economic depression, never experienced the horror and devastation of a world war, and had actually moved beyond confined sexual roles and buttoned-down emotion. What’s more we now jettisoned entrapping marriages (unlike our parents, for whom divorce was considered social death) and actually grappled with the complexity of our psyches. 

So why speak about the virtues of the past? Could it be that a central component of the human condition is to complain about the difficulties of the present and imagine the past as a pastel-enhanced fairy tale? Edna St Vincent Millay – that great early hipster – got it right when she noted that “Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.” And (to pull another quote out of my literary hat), L.P. Hartley noted in his exceptional novel, ‘The Go-Between:’

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

And the past is also just that: the past. And we, happily, still live in the present.