Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mystical nostalgia and authenticity

Last week I gave the example of a man the Lemon Girl once knew. This man had been doing his genealogy but abandoned it when he found out he was adopted. He decided that the people who had raised him, their history and culture had nothing to do with him.

Today, I want to turn the telescope around and look at the problem from the other end.

Here's a thought experiment,
Suppose you are given a box of books that once belonged to your Aunt. One day, perhaps some considerable time later, you are leafing through one of these books and a letter falls out. It is a letter your mother wrote to her sister decades ago. In it, she confesses that she is pregnant by a man who is not your father. She names the man. You recognize him as a friend of your parents' from the early days of their marriage. You look at the date at the top of the letter and realize with a jolt that the child she conceived is you!

You know the name of the man who you now realize is your biological father. There are a few pictures of him in your family photo album and you remember a few stories in which he figures. Other than that, you don't know much about him other than that he died a few years ago.
Here is the question: Other than having passed on his DNA, what has this man to do with you? Is his life, are his dreams, his culture, his family heritage, important to you?

Some people will unhesitatingly answer, yes. Others will be more hesitant.

But it's more than an abstract question. I might immediately think this person relevant to my life but never get around to actually doing anything about it. That I do or that I don't might say something about how much I really feel that this person has something to do with me.

What do I think? Well, this is one of those rare occasions where I think Sartre is right. Your connection with this man will be important if you make something of it. If you don't, it isn't important. It's entirely up to you to choose. If you choose, then his culture becomes part of yours. If not, then not.

When I object to authenticity, it is the sense that you don't have a choice that I object to. I object to the notion that there is a certain kind of world or life experience that naturally goes with some states of life and that some sort of moral compulsion follows from this. "You're white and male, you couldn't possibly understand what we feel or experience unless we educate you," or, "As a woman you owe it to other women to be a feminist."

Downton Abbey

As an aside, there is a wild debate on an issue related to this going on between members of my extended family on Facebook right now. It was all inspired by an article from The Telegraph in which journalist Katy Rink (great name!) claims that the show is boring. If you read the article, however, you quick realize that the author's point is not so much that the show is boring but that she wants you to find it boring and stop watching it.

More importantly, she wants you to all stop identifying with it.
Let us not cling on, hopelessly to this ridiculous sentiment – this nostalgia for our great loves of the past – which sees us paddling around in the pitiful wash of the great steamer. 
And that is her real problem. She thinks that world was inauthentic and she wants everyone, especially women!, to start living what she considers authentic woman lives. A lot of women, however, keep thwarting her by choosing to identify with a past she wishes would just go away.

If it was just Downton Abbey, Katy Rink's impotent rage would seem over the top but it isn't of course. Millions of women love all sorts of period dramas from the novels of Jane Austen to Mad Men and they openly express their desire to return to these more formal times. And these women aren't stupid—they understand about the benefits of antibiotics, modern dentistry, women's rights and so forth—but they also see that something worth having back has been lost too. They want to reclaim it as theirs and, because they do, it is theirs.

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely true. I think the fear of people like Katy Rink is that people will want to go back to that time before PC, and that makes them very nervous. All of the technological advances nothwithstanding, a lot has been lost, and we're also beginning to see the unintended consquences of feminism, for example, especially on young boys and even grown men. These are things that nobody with '60s "wisdom" could have forseen, or if they did decided the trade-off was worth it, I'm not so sure it was. Nobody who likes Downton Abbey is going to stop watching it because of Katy Rink.