Britain’s recent royal christening brings us two fascinating family photographs: one of Queen Victoria and another of her great-great-granddaughter, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, each accompanied by three future British kings. They may tell us something surprising about Time, Technology and Western Culture.
The elder photograph’s four subjects span 153 years, from 1819 to 1972. They knew their entire group over six or seven years, from months before the picture was taken in 1894 until Victoria’s death in 1901. The christened infant, the future Edward VIII, knew his great-grandmother until he approached age seven, his grandfather King Edward VII until he was 16, his father George V until he was 42, then he abdicated his throne (to George VI, not depicted here) and lived 36 years more. Giving the infant Victoria six years to become aware of the outside world, their combined mental time-span covers 147 years.
Similarly, the modern group begins with the 1926 birth of the current queen (daughter of George VI), and may survive as long as its youngest member, presumably the future King George VII, past the likely reigns of his grandfather Prince Charles and his father Prince William. If, quite plausibly, he flourishes to age 90, then the photo’s subjects will span 177 years, three years into the 22nd Century. Granting the former infant Elizabeth six years in which to pay attention, the group will have been 171 years aware.
The two family photos together may eventually cover 284 years. Winding back the clock from today, and not 90 years hence, an equal time-span reaches to 1729, when Baltimore, Maryland, was founded and Swift published his A Modest Proposal, two years after Handel’s popular anthem, Zadok the Priest, debuted at George II’s coronation (played at every British coronation since), and three years after England’s Mary Toft became a celebrity by allegedly giving birth to sixteen rabbits. In other words, quite some time ago. Eight overlapping generations, in two groups of four alive and photographed together, can cover a lot of history.
These spans are respectable, even impressive, but not freakishly long. In 1960s Britain, a man died whose brother was slain at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, around 150 years earlier! It worked like this: his father had been born around 1790, and at age 15 had a son who died a ten-year-old drummer-boy. After losing several wives to childbirth and disease, around 1860 at age 70, the father sired his final son who lived slightly more than a century. So the half-brothers never met, but one died in the Age of the Beatles while the other was shot by Napoleon’s troops. (Had they maintained such unlikely longevity over eight generations as depicted in the royal photographs, they would have reached from the mid-1960s back 700 years to the last medieval Crusades. A few generations can make Time stretch or shrink like an accordion).
Back to facts, in 1819, the last full year of King George III who failed to stop American independence, Victoria was born as British private enterprise built the first workable steam railway. She grew up chiefly in the reign of George IV who hobnobbed with Beau Brummell. Her great-grandson survived to socialize with Andy Warhol as Americans walked on the moon. Who knows what Queen Elizabeth’s newly-christened great-grandson will live to see? Neither to wax boring on the March of Technological Progress, nor the cultural lamentations of traditionalists who, like E.A. Robinson’s depressive Miniver Cheevy, miss “the medieval grace of iron clothing,” instead consider something far simpler: second-hand conversations.
Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor after his 1936 abdication), was a modern man ending firmly in the age of television and space travel, yet he had first-hand conversations with Queen Victoria and, just plausibly through her, second-hand discussions dating back even a century before her birth. Whether young Edward was curious enough early enough we do not know, but Victoria met nonagenarians and centenarians, who were presented in her early childhood as local celebrities, and she may have mentioned them much later. Such a conversation is still second-hand and only once-removed from immediacy. Like one’s child declaring, “Mom says buy a dozen eggs,” only three people are required: one speaking, one repeating, and one listening.
So, especially possible among royal relatives, if a king chatted to a scullery maid’s small child who survived past 100 and recounted the exchange to the young Princess Victoria, and Queen Victoria later repeated it to her great-grandson, conversation may have passed second-hand from George I (d.1727) to 1972 during Richard Nixon’s Presidency.
Born in 1954, I had a second-hand conversation with Teddy Roosevelt (d. 1919): as a youngster I met “Uncle Otto” Hornung, a centenarian, witness to the Indian Wars and co-founder of the American Boy Scout movement, who described his battlefield promotion by TR at San Juan Hill. In the 1980s I had supper with a delightful old lady whose father joined the 1849 California Gold Rush. In her childhood, my mother spoke with several old veterans of the Civil War and, still bright at 86, she recounts their own memories across 150 years.
Time shrinks with such conversations, often startlingly so. Realizing that someone could have repeated to you their second-hand conversation with George Washington or Edmund Burke might make even historians pause momentarily. This phenomenon waxes and wanes, both between and within cultures, based less on lifespan than on what we wish to hear.
Like Jews in the Bible, many illiterate Afghan peasants can recite their genealogies, especially their patrimonies, back over a thousand years or longer. Now less frequent but still occurring, the young are made to memorize their lineages because it is part of each Afghan’s qaum, an elusive word that defines his own place in his own universe; a virtual conversation between past and present, among family and its branches and traditions and recollections, marriages, alliances and feuds. It is much, much more important than his CV, if he has one, outranking his own achievements and aspirations. Qaum is untranslatable partly because we individualistic Westerners understand the group dynamic of team sports, but cannot fully comprehend so completely subsuming one’s identity into any group, much less an extended family lifelong. In a very real sense, some people think of themselves as part of a long multi-generational continuum, even more than as one individual. Hence a girl consents to a family-arranged marriage with a stranger, or a boy abandons his cherished education because his uncles need him on the farm. The extended family matters most, forever.
This makes Afghans, Himalayan Sherpas and many in other long-lived cultures, utterly relaxed amid their traditions and histories, comfortable living among their ghosts. I’ve been startled by more than one tribal Afghan friend idly recounting a story that sounded weeks old, until told that it happened to his relative some centuries ago. A short-fused Afghan former-Cabinet Minister whom I know, once snapped at an arrogantly undiplomatic American diplomat, “We have carpets that are older than your country.”
For them Chronos, the Ancient Greek god of Time, isn’t the adversary who robs you of your youth and keeps you from achieving your dreams. For good or ill he’s a part of the family, like an elderly great-uncle living in their home. Afghans know Father Time, know him intimately, and weather his tantrums as well as benefit from his long experience, simply because they made him one of them. He rewards their respect and affection with psychological security and cultural longevity.
Few Western family memories match the Afghans, although Russell Kirk met Italian grandees who claimed (and later established) their descent from ancient Roman Senators. Generally, while Western aristocrats and genealogy buffs may be uncommonly familiar with their ancestors and family histories, their anecdotes are few and the power of the past is weak. It may not be a cultural deterioration, or at least a recent one. The nostalgia of Charles Dickens’ early days in the 1830s, for the already bygone coaches and country inns of Merry Old England, looked back no further than the Restoration era of Samuel Pepys and Charles II (d. 1685), and often merely two generations before their own time–like us romanticizing the Second World War, the Roaring Twenties or, furthest, the Belle Époque.
So, curiously, our approachable past is shorter and more recent than the time available to us through second-hand conversation. To Afghans, and those in similar ancient cultures, this must seem as odd as forgetting someone who walked out of the room ten minutes ago. Instead of calling us honored karegi (visitors) or less flattering feringhee (from the Frankish Crusaders), the Afghans might call us Alzheimerzai (the tribe of Alzheimer’s). The simple explanation is we don’t care; neither enough to question our elders nor for them to tell us anyway. This embezzles from our history, but not completely.
So far, a weak sense of approachable Western history seems consistent, at least back to the early Industrial Revolution. Indeed, rapid change may be the father of nostalgia. Romanticized medievalist revivals, in literature, art and architecture, occurred simultaneously from Regency and early Victorian England to Qajar Iran. Similar fashions for pre-medieval and early medieval nostalgia (such as the Arthurian Cult, reinvigorated chivalry and reformed jousting/tilting) thrived alongside of the massive changes in Britain’s early Renaissance. Romance isn’t history, but it can lead us there.
India had no history at all until 240 years ago, when the British Raj imported curiosity and research skills. Before that, apart from the dynastic hagiographies of previous Muslim invaders, the Hindu Indian majority had only ancient but undated Sanskrit religious texts, and jumbled myths from a revered but ill-defined past spanning more than three millennia. Now the modern West adopts the old Indian model, of a fuzzy and vague mythic past mingling the real and the imagined, that in our case ends as recently as one was born. No need to ponder knights in armor; if you’re American and young enough, the 1990s can be equally romantic, remote, and misunderstood. I meet few even educated young Westerners, now in their Twenties, with more than mild curiosity about any art or culture that preceded them, and usually an historical reference earns blank looks or even distain. Why should it matter, dude?
The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (a name rich in unintended irony) reported that nearly nine among ten American high-school seniors scored lower than “Proficient” even on their own limited American history, much less that of the West or the world, while 55 percent failed the lowest “Basic” levels described here. In this tragic but hilarious short video, partying California teens try to explain Independence Day (“In 1843,” one of them rhymes, “Columbus sailed the sea.” Were there a National Institute for Mnemonics, they’d be jumping off bridges).
So, modern Westerners come to resemble the pre-Raj Indians who, using clay cookpots unchanged over millennia, wondered why they should care if the Guptas preceded or followed the Mauryan Empire, dude. Instead of bygone India’s long stagnation, modern Westerners live in times of technological and social change so rapid that two decades ago might as well have been a century. But the past becomes equally irrelevant, surviving only as fragments of myth that are often distorted intentionally or inadvertently.
Today’s Western youth are taught by impressionable misfortunates, who believe that the past must be made relevant to us or else ignored, not that we must be made relevant to our past, as our forefathers thought and as older cultures still think. Historical ignorance is the path of least resistance, like feeding young brats exclusively on the ice-cream and snacks they demand. It is practical for ill-educated schoolteachers spared from questions which they cannot answer without tedious research, questions that threaten their understandably tender egos. It is also useful politically: students remain impressionable, even gullible, if left unaware of how their forbearers were tricked before. Modern technology, while providing vivid history at a mouse-click, also offers contemporary ephemera that is more current, more abundant, more fun and, as everyone is taught, more relevant. So Chronos didn’t have his hourglass stolen by a pickpocket; he lent us his Rolex and we left it in some bar or nightclub.
Thus we begin to lose what little historical intimacy we had, as, like India centuries ago, America remembers only non-chronological snippets from an increasingly mythologized past, but dumbed-down and bent to serve today’s agendas that may change tomorrow. It’s a carnival mirror in which Robin Hood works in Franklin Roosevelt’s Kitchen Cabinet, while (the good) young George Washington chops down the cherry tree in which (bad) King John is hiding, signs the (good) Magna Charta-aka-Declaration of Independence during the Civil War and fights (bad) Hitler a week later. (Hint for American public school students: the good guys win). In many non-literate cultures this sort of mythologized hodgepodge is all the history they have: anthropology offers many examples of primitive histories so confused, conflated and bastardized.
But long family memories preserve an ancient culture’s traditional wisdom, while we transmit Western wisdom chiefly through our own increasingly enfeebled history. Moreover and apart from family wisdom, while many cultures have only myth instead of history, Western Civilization may be unique in voluntarily trading the latter for the former, the relatively accurate and precise for the fuzzy and vague. Ours is a self-made world in which utterly insignificant people increasingly stride across our history books like so many Isaac Newtons or Chengiz Khans. Some long-forgotten, female, American slave, who admirably taught herself to read, gets more ink than Solon, Aristotle and Plato combined; her historical value nil, her mythic potential limitless. Just as policy is hijacked by “spin,” history is reduced to modern myth.
When T.S. Eliot lamented the decline of Western Myth, he meant Classical Myth conveying Classical values, for while those now often lay forgotten, that eternal tart Mythos will “put out” for any customer. She’s a popular girl with whoever is in power. Progressive today, she slept with the Nazis after a lively weekend with the Ku Klux Klan, just as she shacked up with the Ancients, flirted with the medieval Churchmen and dated the Enlightenment, knowing that we crave myth regardless. Watch this trailer from the 1915 epic American film The Birth of a Nation, originally titled The Clansman, or this clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s (immortal and immoral) 1935 Nazi Triumph of the Will, and feel the emotional power of evil myth.
The round-heeled Mythos is redeemed only by her flawed reflection of the Pure and Divine, Eliot’s Permanent Things, often as imperfect as the painted ladies in a brothel trying to substitute for the more wholesome sex and true love in a good marriage. So myth always reflects some lasting higher moral value somehow (effective in their day but no longer, Old Dixie traditions in one clip and national recovery in the other). But any myth is rendered virtuous or evil, wise or foolish, in the details; and unlike modern myth which is often short-lived propaganda, old myth validated its content by surviving the test of time. Yet never before, in our long Western civilization, did the floozy Mythos so overwhelm and upstage that dignified and proper old lady, Dame History (Clio of the nine Classical Muses, daughters of Zeus).
While the West has fallen far from the family-led histories of modern Afghans or Old Testament Jews, our families remain a countervailing force to the degree that the multi-generational family survives. If, like or through the royal Windsors, we can see eight overlapping generations in two photographs spanning the 19th through the early 22nd Centuries, Dame History dangles an appealing but slender lifeline with which we can free ourselves from modern myth, pull ourselves back into our historical past, and even begin again to hold second-hand conversations with our dead. Technology lets us look into their eyes, and even hear scratchy recordings of their voices, but perhaps only family now retains the power to generate relevance, and the curiosity that makes us bother to search; first essential steps to potential wisdom and cultural renewal.
If Western families dissolve further, manipulative elites will glue mythic moral messages onto debased historical scraps; all that Tomorrow shall know of who we were and what we have become. Only by developing an intimacy with our past can we begin, as St. Paul says, “redeeming the time.”
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