Wednesday, December 07, 2016

`A Morbid Obsession with the Future'

“Except for a contemporary placard or two, the place conspired to set me dreaming of the good old days I had never known.”

The place is a tavern, almost certainly somewhere in the upper Midwest. It’s a comfortable, unpretentious joint with a masculine patina. Conversation mingles English and German. Men play cards and talk. Strangers are rare. No women are present. Nothing fancy, no ferns or flat-screen televisions. The drink is beer. On the menu is “bread, butter, and a dish of beets.” Present are six characters and the narrator. For the latter, the “good old days” are suggested by “the cloudy mirrors, the grandiose mahogany bar, the tables and chairs ornate with spools and scrollwork . . . and swillish brown paintings, inevitable subjects, fat tippling friars in cellars,” and so forth. It’s the sort of place where H.L. Mencken and our grandfathers might have felt at home.

The author is J.F. Powers. The sentence at the top opens “Renner” in his first collection, Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947). I’ve read Powers’ stories many times over the years. His prose and surgical sense of irony bring him as close as an American writer has ever gotten to Evelyn Waugh, while remaining his own man. What surprised me is how inviting I found the setting of “Renner,” even though I no longer drink and rarely step into a tavern. I felt as though I might have written those opening words, including the final twist. Of late, I find myself peculiarly susceptible to fits of nostalgia, even for times and places I have never known. Normally, succumbing to nostalgia for me is repellent. Age-related soft-headedness is probably responsible, as it is for other lapses. But much in the past is valuable and some of it we have lost, whether through forgetting or willful, arrogant demolition. This juggling of respect for the past and distrust of nostalgia is tartly described by Sir Roger Scruton in On Hunting (St. Augustine’s Press, 1998):

“Nostalgia is an unhealthy state of mind. But the study, love and emulation of the past are necessary to our self-understanding. All that has gone most wrong in our century has proceeded from a morbid obsession with the future—a belief in `new dawns’, `revolutionary transformations’, and resurrected nations on the march. The past, unlike the future, can be known, understood and adapted to our current uses. When we cast ourselves free from it, we are swept away by outside forces, adrift on the oceanic tide of happening. The future, which we cannot describe, begins to seem inevitable. This surrender to the unknown persists, despite all the crime and destruction that have been wrought in its name.”

[See also “The Lost Structures of Civility” by Hadley Arkes.] 

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