Friday, February 20, 2009

The past never happened

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a couple of years ago that the world he now lives in less nice, less patient, less sane than the world he grew up in. Typical for columnist faced with deadline without a lead line, the writing machinery shifts into automatic pilot. Brooks' machinery on this day is a time machine, where we find a wonderful country called The Past. Brooks seems to visit there quite often, perhaps with a wish to be represented in better days by having his profile caught on canvas by a visiting Norman Rockwell. The general drift is that maybe Americans were smarter than we are now, that there was a classier way of comporting yourself through both "good wars" and less dramatic circumstances by an adherence to a private code of integrity, that magazines and publishers and the like weren't afraid to offer up features on art, opera and serious literature as means to improve the soul of its readership.

Sigh...Brooks must have been having a John Cheever moment, full of diminished, muted light, chiming sounds and the smells of fall , only unlike Cheever, who realized that such security found in the lap of absurd privilege is fleeting and not a panacea for the stress that creases the soul, our columnist seems to believe the mythology of his own youth. Cheever, a noted alcoholic who conquered his affliction for the sauce late in his life brought from that experience the notion that nostalgia, untrammeled, untamed and wallowed like warm mud, is a slow and odious death of the spirit. Rather than rage, we get sighs and regrets, rather than laughter, we get weeping. Brooks reads as though he's on the border of crossing into the land of What If...
Interesting, of course, that he places his nostalgic wanderings in the page of old magazines, when there was much less media to tell us how the world worked and what it all meant. It was easy to flip through these pages from decades ago and be able to conceptualize the world as a place where only a limited number of significant things happened from week to week; this was reality presented to us as lateral narrative. The truth is not that the world used to be better and has become worse, more coarse, but rather it's gotten bigger, continuous, multi-headed, sleepless, with a limitless range of Internet, cable and satellite venues to tell us what in the world is going on, with limitless slants, angles, perspectives, interpretations and fanatical absolutism to color each and every report. Brooks mourns the death of the Grand Narrative, the unifying but frayed line that connects the progress of our race through time, and finds himself upset at the surfeit of smaller narratives that have their particular ideas of history, culture, religion, political expedience.

Brooks has a bad case of Post Modern Condition. A typical symptom is the writing of columns like this one that, while well phrased and richly detailed, actually has no message other than that things aren't what they used to be. The harder lesson after that is realizing that things never were they way they used to be.