Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Timeless Time and Placeless Place

As I lay in bed last night, my mind turned back to the concept, or rather the emotion, of sehnsucht that I have discussed before.

I think it was a confluence of a variety of things going on in my life lately that have made this pop up recently in several different contexts. For example, I recently went to see The Tree of Life with my father, and I was talking with him afterward about how the movie had to be set in a 1950's suburbia, because this is what has been seared, for whatever reason, in the American imagination as the sort of "default" "timeless" manifestation of Americana. It wouldn't have worked in the 1980's, and I frankly doubt that anywhere near so many movies will be made "retro" back to the 80's as they have been to the 50's ever since that decade occurred.

This got me thinking about an essay I wrote in my undergrad days for a class on the Grimm's Fairy Tales, tangentially part of my medieval studies program. I wrote:

A modern author of historical fiction usually takes the time to do research to ensure that, though the specific events are fictional, the general atmosphere of the world at the time is accurate. Technology, dress, attitudes, and many details of practical life are matched to how they would have been in a given era. Fairy tales on the other hand attempt no such painstakingly meticulous verification. The Grimms’ fairy tales mostly seem to take place in a pseudo-medieval world where kings and queens still reign in castles, where there are vast mysterious forests filled with magic creatures, evil witches and benevolent magicians, and peasants in cottages.

The very romantic feeling of fairy tales is the sense of timelessness they are perceived to have. They are set in a world where there is generally neither history nor geography. Which kingdoms are involved is not specified, and no one attempts to fit all the tales into some interrelated chronology. Each fairy tale stands alone, self-sufficient, in a dreamy medievalesque world that has been removed from the concrete facts of history. This virtual world, however, is not the only one imaginable. Why should the medieval be taken as the default or neutral human (or even just European) state? There is nothing intrinsically special about the medieval social structure or level of technology that should lead to it being made the stage of the timeless events of fairy tales.

An explanation may be found in the fact that the Grimms were Romantics with significant suspicion of the modern ways and were attempting to recapture a golden age of the Germanic past, which they placed in the Middle Ages. Freud says, “it is extremely probable that myths, for instance, are the vestiges of the wishful phantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful humanity.” The Fairy Tales the Grimms collected seem to fulfill this role regarding the medieval origins of modern nations.

However, in doing this, several tricky operations are preformed. First, the Middle Ages are essentialized and abstracted from any actual historical context, portrayed as the timeless time. Then they are thus conflated with the golden innocence of Europe’s childhood, especially of the German nation. In the process, a German Black Forest sort of landscape is made into the place-less place where fantasy happens, and this has persisted in the fantasy genre to this day. The vagueness created helps the fairy tale world to become a virtual dream world outside the details of history. However, one must be careful to realize that the choice of the Middle Ages and Central Europe for this allegedly “generic” setting is culturally conditioned, and that the symbols and tropes associated with it are not some sort of intrinsic human archetype.
There a few periods in history which, for various peoples to which I belong, have developed this role as a sort of "timeless time," being seen as a golden glory period of a civilization, and which are revisited in literature much more often than other settings. Times and places which, though specific, come to be seen as "generic" at least inasmuch as they are taken to capture the "essence" of some culture or civilization and Age.

And civilization is, indeed, the process I believe this phenomenon is related to: though the "placeless places" usually given as the setting in such romanticizations are often on the semi-periphery rather than the core, there is usually also a major city associated with the civilization in question, a city which becomes a "world city," a place that everyone who has any sort of education in the literature of the civilization feels familiar with from then on, even if we've never been there ourselves, according to a notion something like the translatio imperii et studii.

So it is that as an American, I have this nostalgia for 1950's suburbia and a connection to New York. As an Anglophone, I have this nostalgia for Victorian country manors and colonies and a connection to the London of that era. As a Western (or, perhaps, just as a Christian, or a Caucasian, or something like that) I also romanticize the medieval fantasy-scape and have an archetype in my head of medieval Paris.

And then, I thought, perhaps just as a human being (though that may also be a Western, Christian bias)...I also have an eternal Form of the golden age of the Roman Empire under Augustus and Tiberius, seated at Rome, "when the whole world was at peace."

I think it is also only during these immortalized times, in their archetypal representations, that we can imagine magic really happening. Like I said, I see little romance in the 1980's, and any book that set great spiritual awakening or supernatural happenings in the 80's would likely seem, to me, a one-off gimmick, not truly able to be timeless, in the end doomed to be "dated."

Perhaps it is the "golden" status these "special," universalized times and places have been given that allows me to put (or find) my own sehnsucht in them. There were these various "Pax" moments; the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica, the Pax Americana (and the medievals, of course, had their Pax Dei), and maybe that's a social construction, a historical contingency with no reality to it.

And yet, I can't help but thinking, going back to the first of those, that "in the 5199th year of the creation of the world, from the time when in the beginning God created heaven and earth; from the flood, the 2957th year; from the birth of Abraham, the 2015th year; from Moses and the going-out of the people of Israel from Egypt, the 1510th year; from the anointing of David as king, the 1032nd year; in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; from the founding of the city of Rome, the 752nd year; in the 42nd year of the rule of Octavian Augustus, when the whole world was at peace, in the sixth age of the world: Jesus Christ, the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, having been conceived by the Holy Ghost, and nine months having passed since His conception was born in Bethlehem of Juda of the Virgin Mary, having become man."

So, as much as I may be a medievalist, a 50's-nostalgia buff, and a Victorian fanboy, in the end I realized that the sehnsucht of mankind as a whole...can only possibly take us "back to Galilee."

1 comment:

A Sinner said...

PS: I know Bethlehem itself isn't in Galilee, but I mean the life of Christ as a whole; the reference from the Martyrology for Christmas was just a nice example of how God broke into a very specific time and place and yet, in doing so, in some sense universalized it in the manner being discussed in this post.