“There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”- Robert Kennedy 1966
In 1966, a man running for Senate from a state he never lived in quoted a made-up Chinese curse. Robert Kennedy was rhetorically emphasizing his position that the citizens of his new State had a responsibility to participate in the times in which they lived. He strove to point out that the world they lived in contained more complexity in threat and more breadth in optimistic possibility than any point in history and confronting that world would take everyone’s involvement. It may have required more effort to convince his audience that greater civic participation was needed, but nothing more from Kennedy was necessary to assure the crowd how particular their time was. It is pure and natural to assume we live in a time that is distinct from all others in complexity and difficulty, danger and importance. Fifty years after the death of RFK quick glances at endless news streams, an ever-increasing pervasiveness of supposed life-fulfilling technologies, products, and ideas, as well as an uncontrollable sensation of chaos and unpredictability, all confirm this sensation without us even thinking about it. After all, when in history have we seen such massively controversial world leaders, with power enough to save or destroy the lives of millions of people in equal measure, confront the most enormous and most complex and unsolvable difficulties all within the grasp of 140 characters or less? What time in history has seen technology enough to satisfy almost any desire and want, and yet at the same time see perhaps the most anxious, depressed, and confused group of people the world has ever known? Surely no one could argue that our time is anything but the most fascinating, complex, and challenging to navigate in the history of the world.
But how accurate is that feeling? How pervasive has that been through history? If this feeling is so natural and unquestioned, perhaps it is less a reflection on our times, maybe it is more fundamental to our identity as a species. That is not to say that our times are mundane or natural, or identical to all others. From a particular perspective, the end of the second decade of the 21st century could very well be the biggest, best, worst, and most exciting ever. If one compares our time with the whole of human history, I think our circumstances are entirely different from that of any time in the past in terms of globalization and technology. Some threats, concepts, and difficulties inherent to the modern world never existed before our time. Such things may be enough for us to say we, the humans of our age, are unique; but I think not. At least I don’t believe that emotion, or that thought, is new. Every era has new elements, new events, new threats, and changing circumstances that no other time has had to face. I think we are different but I think every people from every time could say that and when everyone is different then our uniqueness becomes mundane and commonplace. It becomes the norm. To feel distinct, and separate from the whole of human history is the natural way to experience life. It is as if there is a hole in the human psyche that can only be filled by the sensation of situational and timely uniqueness.
The world often reinforces our feelings of exclusivity and importance. Countless companies thrust their products into the world by proclaiming cutting-edge qualities, and how nothing in history has been as fast or big or small or multitasking or any of a thousand traits we can all agree makes those products feel unique and special. Those who study history, or who sit in dark classrooms beat over the head with texts claiming to illuminate the way the world used to be, will recognize the familiar claims of the advancement of human civilization; that human history is a progressive one. Each age seems to adopt the title to the greatness of technology, of art, of culture, even of morality. We often view history as an endless march of progress and transcendence. The world we live in, so go the claims, is the improvement of those endeavors of the past. Art history, for example, tends to be told as a story of epochs and forward movement. A new art movement arises as a revolution against the old. As a new way of looking at and expressing the elements of the world. Old styles are stale and tired and lacking in value and truth. New techniques are an altogether different form, not just an improvement on the past. Thus the new Avant guard movements feel edgy and fresh as if nothing has ever been produced like it before. At the same time, the old, tired, worn out art becomes not only stale and unprogressive but easily categorized and simple. Nothing is so easy to digest as negative tales with bookends. Any story one can tell with a beginning and an end will always be more comfortable and understandable than one that does not yet have an ending, that is still on-going. The new is exciting, scary, and unpredictable. The past is calmer, simple, and known.
The twentieth century was momentous, action-packed, filled with un-worldly art and tragedy. Mass death and destruction grew-up and matured alongside life-saving and enhancing advancements in human health and science. It was the most globalized century the world had known. Only a few centuries earlier did human awareness develop a sense of the immensity and breadth of the globe and not until the last century were people able to navigate the entirety of the sphere with the relative speed and ease of flight. In no earlier century were humans able to communicate with each other instantaneously around the globe with devices like the telephone and the internet. And at no prior time in history were humans capable of ending all life on the planet with the emptying of a few missile silos. Humans became aware of each other and became aware of their growing fear of each other at the same time. Never were humans so capable of acting on those fears, hatreds and most evil instincts with such quickness and efficiency and devastating totality. Humans, at the same time, were able to produce some of the most personal and passionate and deeply felt art perhaps in its history. Painting grew ever more prevalent as a way to display emotion and became more for the common man than at any point before. Music was not only experienced by billions but became an essentially personal art form with the advent of recordings and a music production industry. Never before had someone been able to bring music into their home that someone had made at a point in the past. Much of expression once found in lyrical poetry grew into lyrical music. Unlike the historically influential music of the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, the nineteen hundreds would make its music known for the stories and emotions it told with its words as much as with its musical notes. The twentieth century brought changes with so much force that they became standard and routine. Technology made possible the development of entirely new art forms such as movies and TV shows. They grew, not only to dominate people’s lives but, to fundamentally alter the way humans view themselves and the world. Expectations of the way life could be, and the way life is for others was changed at seemingly a molecular level to such an extent the race may recover. Movies profoundly influenced humans with the notion that romantic love is one of the highest ideals and that such love must be pursued at all costs. What humans want and what they aspire to be was heavily influenced in a way no-one could have imagined. Surely it can be said that the twentieth century was distinct from the rest of the human experience, that it was complicated and hard to navigate.
“In my early years, I hid my tears and passed my days along.
Adrift on an ocean of loneliness, my dreams, like nets, were thrown,
to catch the love that I heard of in books, and films, and songs.
Now there is a world of illusion and fantasy in the place where the real world belongs.”- Jackson Brown ‘Further-On”
But we now live in the first two decades after that century, and from this side of things, it appears more quaint. Certainly one can respect the tremendous changes that took place during that time. Indeed, the new inventions, shifting political geography, and the spring-board offered to the events of decades to follow might explain why World War II is such a favorite history topic for many. That and the Nazis. But, when compared with the modern world the twentieth century seems so far away and easy and straightforward to understand that it really can have no comparison to today. The Axis powers may have been evil, but at least they occasionally displayed recognizable respect for the value of human life in a way that ISIS does not. Yes, the twentieth century saw the beginnings of the internet, but it displayed nothing of the life-dominating and ruining power of the modern web, what with its Facebook and Twitter and so forth. Things were so much easier to deal with when you had to wait 10 minutes to log on to American Online, and rotary phones were still in use and music had to be played on a tape or a cd or a record. It was easier when the world wrote on typewriters and had at most three television stations. And so on and so on.
Viewing the twentieth century, or any time, form this point of view may seem to support the idea that the world is growing more complex and challenging to navigate, but it also reveals an inherent trait of the human race. We are always bound to feel we live in a unique time. We still tie ourselves into thinking that the world is more complicated now than it used to be. Not merely because there are new experiences but because we do not know how it ends. History, by definition, has an endpoint. Even if it was only a moment ago when we view history we see the past. By placing things in that dimension, we instill bookends onto events, thoughts, people, and ideas. Once there is an ending to something we are better able to summarize the experience. We can explain things using a beginning and an end. We begin to construct narratives and explanations and critiques. We start to filter out information that does not fit into those things. It is our understanding of the past and our way of viewing it, as well as being removed from the threats and dangers of it, which creates the illusion that things used to be simpler and easier to understand.
Why does this matter? Why would I write you about this? For one, we can never fully understand the present without considerations of the past, and we have a bias to the importance of the time in which we live. This thought process and this bias cloud our understanding of current problems and threats. History may not repeat itself, but it echoes. We see the same human characteristics arising time and time again, but we confuse the uncertainty of the present for novelty. We think we are awash in new human experiences that cannot be understood through a historical lens because the people of the past never knew what it was like to live in such a complex and unique world. But they did. For them, the experiences of life were just as dangerous, exciting, confusing, and illuminating as it is for us, but now they offer us an advantage. Not in the form of a roadmap to the human experience but more as a wide angle lens. Human history, more than anything else, exposes us to the most profoundly rooted elements of human nature. It shows us that some humans will be tyrannical and some humans will subject themselves to tyranny. There is a battle between human desires and human discipline. They show a desire for peace often defeated by the allure of war. We can see our modern selves and modern society exposed by past experiences. By understanding human nature, we can place our complex world in the context of human experience, and then the picture of life becomes more focused. We see populist and narcissistic political leaders come and go. We see political movements rise with blazing furry only to fade away in the ash heap slowly. More importantly, we look at the reflections of human sadness in poetry centuries old. Joy and serenity and spiritual yearning reflected in the paintings of artists long dead. Our inexplicable and confusing lives are offered impossible vocabulary and clarity with music meant for a different time. Hemingway once said that his goal for writing was to make the emotions, the shared elements of human experience, he tried to write come across, not just for a year or ten years but “always” (death in the afternoon p.1). Real art, just as real human history is only meaningful when it can achieve this. We are a species of shared emotions and thoughts and feelings and experiences. We share in this, and such sharing is artificially limited when we separate ourselves from it with an illusion of exclusivity. Full understanding and embracing of human experience can only come when we view ourselves as shared members of that experience with commonalities throughout time. We better ourselves when we look for ourselves in the past and the past in ourselves.