Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On the Dangers of Nostalgia for the Distant Past

So, to go along with my previous post on why I would not want to time-travel back to antiquity, I was just reading in Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents a recurrent issue in European writings from the discoveries of the Americas and other places in the 1500s and 1600s through the present day really of the idea of the "noble savage" and the longing for the "state of nature."

He writes, "In consequence of insufficient observation and a mistaken view of their manners and customs, they appeared to Europeans to be leading a simple, happy life of few wants, a life such as was unattainable by their visitors with their superior civilization" (Standard Edition, pp. 38-39; trans. James Strachy).

Freud, much like his predecessors and contemporaries then makes a fairly standard (but methodologically problematic) maneuver of equating such non-European indigenous societies with either classical antiquity or an even earlier age:  "It seems certain that we do not feel comfortable in our present-day civilization, but it is very difficult to form an opinion whether and in what degree men of an earlier age felt happier and what part of their cultural conditions played in the matter" (41).  He of course goes on to talk about the psychological issues involved and the relationship between apparent objectivity and actual subjectivity in observation.  Anyway, the point is plain without the psychoanalytic apparatus.  We might just call it the "grass is greener" principle, or historical nostalgia (something critiqued, by the way, in one of Woody Allen's recent films, "Midnight in Paris").  It is true with time as well as space.

If anyone, by the way, ever took time to read some of the earliest posts on this blog, you might get a clue into its name:  antiquitopia, a "no place in ancient time."  It critiques the way in which so many people look to and reconstruct an idealized ancient past that, frankly, never existed.


Erlend said...

The ancients did it too, i.e. read Lovejoy and Boas' classic "Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity". Not just a modern phenomena...

Jared Calaway said...

Yes, even the earliest Greek literature we have -- Homer and Hesiod -- look back to an earlier "Golden" age of Saturn. Everyone feels like they are untimely born.