Thursday, October 20, 2016

"Dark" Times ... (?)

This morning, a thought wandered around in my head a bit, and I'm curious what some of you might think.

As a researcher and writer of a period in history at which the so-called Dark Ages were born, one of the issues I have with my work is the dearth of primary sources. It's difficult in the extreme to research some of the key aspects of my plot: could, or even *would*, a community's midwife become a nurse to a single household? At what age did children begin to to to Christian services? At what age would a king's child have begun to go, and was that earlier? What did the Arian service look like?

I can structure a day around liturgical hours known beyond Catholicism during sixth century Christianity. I can provide the shape of a night's segmented sleep. I can hear the echo of the hushed voices in the palace at Ravenna.

But I'll always be up against the damned Dark Ages. The lack of voices to tell me what they thought, had to say, even did, in most contexts of their lives.

The lack of primary sources.

There are not a few folks who fear we are tipping into a dark age right now. Brexit, perhaps, is worrisome. Name-the-outcome of the U. S. election looks to folks of all persuasions like the invasion of the Barbarians.

But my readers know, I don't believe in Barbarians. I don't accept that the whole world went dark and stupid for a thousand years. I don't believe there are, as a bloc, genuine heroes and villains at the national/imperial/tribal level, one entire nation of people good, another evil.

And the thing is: even the most partisan believer in these things will agree. The entire reason we call them "The Dark Ages" is because we don't know as much about the period.

That we know humanity was actually dumber for one thousand years ... I don't think any honest lover or student of history can say that with integrity.

So here is the thought that came picking about my brains today.

Whatever comes on November 8, whatever we despair of the loss of privacy and the uprising of technology that takes away our autonomy, even (perhaps) our individuality ...

Nobody will be ignorant of what we thought about these times, any century any time soon.

Nobody will look back at the early twenty-first century (or whatever era they name us to be in future - The Antrhopocene has some traction, but it's a self-given nickname, and those don't always catch on) and WONDER WHO WE WERE.

We are going to be a hard lot to lose in time, is what I am saying. We are not opaque.

Indeed, one of the possible tragedies of this age is its vomitous ubiquity. There is a wide swath of our culture right now dedicated just to photographing food before we actually eat it, reporting on it, commentating it.

Which either fascinates somebody I've never met, or reflects something deep and internal about the current generations of living humanity in a way that tells us about a lot more than that tasty churro shot.

Heading for destruction?

I don't know.

But I do know this: Rome never burned in a way catastrophic enough her legacy was obliterated. And my society, my culture - whatever it is, with all its good and its bad and its laughability and its heartbreak - is not a relief cut into the Earth that is going to erode easily.

What is beautiful about humanity right now is not going to disappear.

What is ugly, we've ensured will endure, too.

Do you think there can ever be a Dark Age again? Do you even believe there ever truly has been a descent of mankind, ever a period in history marked by the absence of redemptive qualities?


Jeff said...

Ah, you're singin' my song.

Ingenious or asinine, human nature is constant, and I generally don't believe that humanity gets dumber or smarter over time—but I do believe that societies do, as their institutions cease to function or get co-opted by factions and interests. I always think of this as the "Charlemagne problem": the Romans were able to keep things going for centuries based to a large extent on the strength of their institutions, regardless of which dope was in charge, but Charlemagne managed to get things done only temporarily, based mostly on the force of his personality and his personal networks of influence, and what he thought he had built couldn't stand on its own. As anyone who's been involved in, say, development attempts in Africa can attest, putting institutions in place that survive and thrive regardless of whose wife's cousin's brother-in-law is the regional governor is amazingly difficult. Even we Westerners, who've inherited some great and ingenious institutions, don't know how the hell to establish them. We're lucky enough when we fumblingly manage to maintain their original functions.

I suspect we may already be in one of these so-called Dark Ages, despite our overall affluence. Fifty years ago, my mom could get a two-year secretarial degree from a small, regional business school and emerge with a stronger command of English grammar than a great many English teachers with Master's degrees in 2016. Populists on the left (Bernie Sanders supporters, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter) and the right (Trump supporters, Tea Partiers) have more in common than they realize, especially their understanding, not always lucidly or effectively articulated, that certain people and institutions get a pass where the rule of law is concerned and that many vital institutions—courts, police departments, schools, universities, banks, corporations, government programs—don't perform their basic functions well, if at all. I don't think Americans would be so hungry for messianic politicians if they saw most of our institutions functioning as advertised; sadly, most politicians don't have a vested interest in making sure these institutions can function without them. The joke's on them, though: most of those same institutions have freewheeling lives and impulses of their own, uncontrollable by any president.

Whether it's "preppers" frantically freeze-drying lasagna or teenagers reading the latest dystopian novel, Americans have a taste right now for apocalypse, for doomsday scenarios, for imagining we're at the end of all things. But I think you're right: things don't just explode and stop. They wither, deflate, sprawl, or shrink as they transform, often recognizably, into something else. Unfortunately, that's all I know—but I'm grateful for the chance to rant here in your comments section!

DLM said...

You know I thought of you while writing that! "Come to the dark ages, I'll make you comment!"

My hope is that, five hundred or a thousand years from now, when they see the madness that is our life and times, those who look will *also* see the dissenting voices and the magnificence we can't quite bury.

Rome managed to bury the Barbarians, and to gain a rep that still has people fawning over the Empire - or the Republic, preferences do vary (gee, humanity is complex even in my own reductive statements!) - two millennia on. It's propaganda, but here we have a lesson in fairly effective marketing. People still use the term Barbarian (a) as if it were a reasonable construct, and (b) as an insult. I mean, dang. That STUCK.

But with the very proliferation of information, opinion, constant content - and not even all of it electronic and ready to go *poof* at the first power outage - primary sources are so massively thick on the ground today, it'll be hard to lose our age the way we have so many cultures and time periods before.

I still don't accept that societies actually dumb down, I just believe that certain voices gain preeminence beyond what they should have. The current prominence of anti-science propaganda frightens me. THIS, to me, is the darkness I fear. Bigfoot shows on cable, invented morality, preachers decrying evolution from the pulpit even as they encourage the congregation to get flu shots at a clinic after services because this year's strain has mutated ...

Love that you mentioned Charlemagne; of course, Clovis has his points in common there. But the issue you bring up echoes some of the early strains in my WIP, which begins with the daughter of Theodoric the Great. Theodoric was trying to build a dynasty in the same way you're discussing, and then gosh darn he had no sons, and THEN gosh darn it some more, his nobility created the legend, of him, that he was an illiterate (wait for it) BARBARIAN. Sigh. Which, he certainly was in love with his Amal heritage, but the whole Barbarian rap is about as accurate to Theodoric as the whole dirt-eating, cousin-marrying moonshiner is to me as a Southerner with mountain forbears.

Populists having more in common than they realize ... lordy, can I buy you a nice supper? I know drinking's not your deal, but I love what you say there. And, at a time when so MANY of us long for accord and look back at Reagan's bipartisan deals with Tip O'Neill and Bush Sr.'s letter to Clinton when he came into office - that grace and the PEACEFUL TRANSFER OF POWER and the honest ability to compromise, even in a world where all compromises are puzzles of complex ethical composition - here we are, on all sides, with knees jerking so hard we're giving ourselves uppercuts. I do it myself, for all I try to be all modulated and reasonable I'm ANGRY - and even afraid, though of course it's my policy at least online to pretend I am minimizing that ...

There is always the hope that the turmoil of 2016 could become the blessing of the future. Something will fall out that turns out to be unexpected, and good, even if overall the world doesn't become some shiny, happy place uniformly populated by satisfied - or even just quelled - folk.

I am so grateful you come here and comment. You add a lot to anything I have to say, and you make me think. Take whatever responsibility for that you like!

Jeff said...

Well, you give me much to ponder in your reply to my reply! The blogs I visit keep me sane as I filter out as much of the news as I can. I recently told someone that Facebook and Twitter are the chain-store shopping malls of social media, but blogs are the indy record stores in the seedy areas of town where all of the *really* interesting people hang out.

I agree with you about "barbarians," but maybe for slightly different reasons. Theodoric, Clovis, Charlemagne, they were working with so much less raw material than the Romans. Like us in 2016, the Romans inherited institutions and systems that, thanks to trial and error and trial by fire, pretty much worked, or could be tweaked and reformed when they didn't. Your Southern-moonshiner comparison is an interesting one, and apt: people in rural areas even today find it hard to build functional institutions that make their towns or states better places to live, because in many cases they're starting from scratch. It's one thing to be the emperor in Rome, flick your finger, and suddenly your slave-based economy has built a new aqueduct...but it's more impressive, I think, to be one of these Germanic warlords and manage to shore up trade networks, earn money, build forts and churches, and establish something resembling the rule of law through a bunch of underlings who are more inclined to fight than ponder real justice. Our Ostrogothic and Frankish friends definitely win if we're measuring how much they did with what they had to work with.

Now that I live in the rural and often neglected end of an otherwise affluent county, I marvel at the institutions that have sprung up to help people in need. One of the churches provides free lunches to anyone, every day, especially high-school kids. A tiny but powerful charity provides transportation for the elderly and maintains a food pantry that feeds a couple hundred families; some local hunters just donated 200 pounds of venison. And all of the small, local churches have banded together to provide skilled craftsmen to help elderly people who need to repair their homes. Yet there are stores, civic groups, and even entire small communities out here that have withered into oblivion. When the important personalities behind them retire or die, why do some things last and others croak? I'm certain I'd comprehend something really important if the sheer complexity of the question didn't blow my mind every time I tried to make some sense of it.

DLM said...

Your comments are always so crunchy and delicious. Talk about much to ponder!

The observations you make about working with what you have - that is the entire essence of humanity, in my own little philosophy. Sometimes we DIY some old thing (or institution) into something new; whether because we want it to survive or because its bones just make good scrap to create this new thing, I think, varies. My interest in vintage costume is exactly-this in microcosm: there are preservationists and DIY'ers. Both keep some old form intact, but in very different ways. We do the same to homes; I bought a 50-year-old house, and love it precisely for what it is ... and yet, I did knock a doorway into it in one place I felt it was so important. I didn't maintain its form like a sanctuary.

"It's perfect! But this one thing could be better" is symptomatic both of our failures and our striving.

That's about all the answer I have as to why some things last and some do not. Sometimes, it's things that are important that do not last. And the trivial may survive beyond the point we even understand what they once were, perhaps as quaint decor, perhaps used in a different way ...

I've been fascinated by the premium value now placed on, and the shortages of, old barn wood. As old wood gains popularity in industrial design schemes, we're losing more and more old barns. These were once part of the landscape; and may indeed have once been, essentially, trash - nobody would ever use THAT again - and they were falling apart and forgotten. Yet now, with their wood being poached for neato kitchen islands or restaurants with vaguely steampunk themes, people are sad that our barns are disappearing. Is there a moral answer to whether this is good or bad?

Jeff said...

The old-barn-wood question is a great one! It's surprisingly similar to something I saw in gentrifying D.C.: "I moved into this cool neighborhood—but now it's all chain stores and people like me," as if their moving there didn't accelerate the process. We're having a similar problem in our nearest large town here out in the boonies: people whose move here bumped the population from 5,000 to 5,500 are now fighting the next phase of development, which will move the population closer to 6,000, on the grounds that it will ruin the town, as if they themselves didn't play a role in the process that got them to this point. In an economy as complex as ours, aren't we all implicit, to some extent, in everything? If so, what follows from that conclusion is troubling.

I'm reluctant to say that everyone should fret over the moral and ethical dimensions of every economic decision they make, because it's easy to go overboard, in a "Portlandia" sort of way, but I guess in the barn-wood case, the answer is for people who wanted that wood to take ownership of the consequences. I think it's nice, in a way, that the aesthetics of the landscape are simply being exchanged for aesthetics of the home. There isn't a net loss of beauty; it's just in a different place. That's my devil's-advocate defense of the practice, anyway!

(There's a barn up the road from me I keep meaning to photograph, but I can't find a place to park my car. You've reminded me to try again while the fall colors are all doing their thing...)

DLM said...

It should be noted, my asking the question does not indicate any conclusions on my own part.

In another example - I seem to have become one of those people who collect vintage (mid-century modern) costume jewelry. Early on, I converted a few pair of old earrings from clip to pierced; in later years, I cringed: I have committed CHANGE upon beautiful artifacts! Nowadays, I forgive myself, because the net effect of such minute desecrations (a term, obviously, I would leave up for debate) has not enough cultural impact to make regret worth the effort.

As you say: no net loss. And perhaps even preservation, though not by hidebound rules.

An aside to this, or perhaps not, I use eBay a great deal. Most of my wardrobe - and, indeed, the jewelry - I buy by looking at the results of searches for which I can customize prices, locations, new/used, size or color, this and that. Results come in, and I can choose to buy the item from 75 miles away over the item in California; I can choose used over new when looking at electronics, and thereby get last year's much-cheaper model of one thing or another without adding to landfills; I can specify clothing right down to not choosing synthetic fibers if I want.

One of the things about the million versions of modern proliferation we have discussed is the increased flexibility not only to get exactly what we're looking for, but to get it HOW we prefer to.

The good with the bad. It grows ever more complex. But at least all choice hasn't just become 'the bad' all alone.

Well. Perhaps excepting Presidential elections?

(Again, no moral conclusions implied.) :)

Jeff said...

Just time for a quick reply tonight: My parents were part-time antiques dealers for a couple years before they moved out of New Jersey, and one thing I learned from helping them was just how many old things aren't rare or particularly valuable. If you can give those things new life, go for it! I didn't get to see it, but the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore just closed an exhibition on what they called "the art of medieval recycling," how medieval people re-used everything from glass to manuscripts. See? Your wardrobe has the mandate of history!

DLM said...


If ever we think recycling to a different use is wrong, all we need remember is (one of my favorite words in the world) the palimpsest.

Jeff said...

Regarding Ebay: You know, I have to admit, part of me misses scarcity. I used to scour old barns in New England for books that weren't inherently rare but were rare to me. A friend of mine used to want this one rare robot from his childhood, so I kept an eye out at these huge antique and junk bazaars in Pennsylvania; tonight there are four of them on Ebay. Getting even a secondhand recording of that rare remix on the B-side of a Thompson Twins 12-inch (don't judge me) used to require attaching oneself to a real-life social network and asking for favors; now all that stuff is on iTunes. The world changed so quickly that few people have had time to assess whether we lost anything in the process.

I don't want the Internet to go away. I don't want to go back to 1986. But I miss the thrill of the hunt, and frankly, I think the thrill of the hunt, the constant incompletion, was healthier for many obsessive souls than their current ability to fulfill all of those obsessions instantly.

DLM said...

A part of that is the intellectual hunt. This is why I love research so much; along the way to a novel, I get to learn all sorts of arcane things.

In about 2002 or 2003, I had a song running in my head; it was an old song, and either my Google-fu was not strong, or I just did no care (this was before I would even have thought of instant internet gratification on the old "what was that song again?" question), and I commented on a forum I belonged to, wondering whether anyone else remembered it. Of course, one of my friends there was geek enough to be able to cite it, but this was still before the days he linked me to a YouTube of it. That was sort of a perfect moment in time: the moment when the human element of the equation was still key, and where the quest was not completed with a digital download and I never lost that song again.

It's the connectivity to the knowers-of-nerdliness that matters. Yeahp, my nieces may never know the sensation of forgetting a thing for twenty years and then encountering it in their minds for some random reason, and the delicious wondering that comes with 'what was that story' or 'what was that song' ... but there'll always be people filled with wonderful arcana, and that it is easier to find those than ever is the nice thing.

Otherwise, you and I would have met once at a writers' conference years ago, and we would not be having this conversation right now, right?