So I spurred my mule, and I went riding on down the road
Minding my own business, ’n’ I wasn’t bothering a soul.
So finally I rode into town,
And I seed the man standing at the window,
pulling off his clothes.
Every time he’d pull off a piece,
he threw it out the window.
So I say, “Hey bub, I say, what goes?”
He said, “Look bub, if you knows what I paid for this room
And what’s in it, them clothes I’m throwing out the window’d be out of style when I come down.”
Big Bill Broonzy may have been intending only to satirize the cult of fashion, but his parable was a larger reflection of the times. Born in rural Arkansas and reared in a large family, Broonzy’s life—service in World War I, a move to fast-paced urban Chicago, the pursuit of fame (largely unsuccessful), alcoholism, despair—could be a fable for his generation. “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”
My wife and I decided, early in our married life, to go in the opposite direction. We landed in a shrimping village in South Carolina, where I was drafted into serving as headmaster of a small rural school. We paid the teachers next to nothing except for our appreciation, which was not always shared by the students and their parents. When our young and very able first-grade teacher, Miss Walker, went off to a more promising job, I had to interview potential replacements. Returning from a class, I was informed by my secretary that one of the candidates was already in my office. When I walked in, I saw that a 60-something conservatively dressed lady was rearranging the books and papers on my habitually cluttered desk and putting everything in neat stacks that would confuse me for weeks.
“I do think a principal’s desk should be kept orderly,” she opined. “It looks so much more professional.”
Taking my seat behind my unfamiliar desk, I explained that our first-grade teacher was leaving us. She interrupted, “That’s the trouble with these young women. They’re always going off to have babies.”
“But,” I expostulated, “Miss Walker is not married.”
“Well, times change, and we must change with them.”
“Miss Walker is neither married nor expecting, and she would not be teaching here if she were about to become an unwed mother.”
“Ah, yes, times change,” she concluded with the sententious tone I associate with YMCA counselors and Methodist pastors, “but not the eternal verities.”
I did not question what sort of eternal verities she had in mind if they did not discourage fornication and illegitimacy. When I finally succeeded in getting rid of this pest, I wondered what was to become of us if old-school elementary-school teachers really believed that we must change with the times, as if progress were an oncoming tide driven inexorably by the waxing moon.
The idea of progress as an unstoppable force of human improvement is one of the features of the modern world. The ancients had a number of differing views on historical change, but overall they were more inclined to see history as a series of repeating cycles rather than a straight-line development. If there were a Golden Age, it tended to be set in the distant past—e.g., the Garden of Eden, from which mankind has devolved in what Christian Kopff likes to call a “Hesiodic progression,” from the age of gold to one of silver and then of iron. By now, as I reckon, we have gone through aluminum, lead, monkey metal, and are regressing from the higher plastics to the Styrofoam used for junk-food carryout orders.
The myth of progress is often blamed on Christianity, whose faith in the return of Christ at the end of history is supposed to have made progressive thinking possible, but this is the sort of glib generalization indulged in by intellectual historians, grinding their perennially dull axes. In fact, it is during the anti-Christian Renaissance that we begin to hear not just of a restoration of all things Greek and Roman but also of a human progress toward a future Golden Age. Christianity quite naturally comprises a variety of millennialist aspirations and fantasies, but most of them, if only because they deflect attention away from Christianity’s central preoccupations, are heretical or, at least, outside the Christian mainstream. Today’s modernists are the heirs not of orthodox Christians but of heretical millennialists.
I am in this instance as guilty of overgeneralizing as the worst of intellectual historians, but it is enough to say that the notion of progress might be defined as a movement toward a first, and not a second, coming, since God never took on human flesh. A key term in the myth of progress is modern. The tendencies exhibited by Father Teilhard are less Christian than progressive. Like all slogans, modernity has become a bit shopworn, like the fly-specked advertisements heralding the all-electric home of the future you can still come across in junk stores.
Since everyone is modern now, including elderly judgmental first-grade teachers, modernity is not really a badge of distinction, much less a rallying cry. Now—or rather, for a generation—we have to be postmodern and, more recently, postpostmodern, but it amounts to the same thing: a relentless effort to be up to date. There are no more standards of right and wrong, beautiful and ugly—modernity trumps all other values. The results, within a short time, can seem dreadfully “retro,” and not in any fashionable sense. What could be more dated than free verse, atonal music, and abstract painting? Modern art is as stale as sliced bread.
The word modernus is not found in classical Latin, but by the High Middle Ages it is used (by Adelard of Bath, for example) to refer to contemporary theories in science and mathematics, particularly those inspired or revived by Arab scholars. “Ironically,” the word appears to have been coined by Cassiodorus, the sixth-century scholar and bureaucrat, who—among his many accomplishments—tried to reform the spelling of Latin, a language by then already falling into corruption. His object, he said, was to weave the strands of ancient learning together to make them useful for modern use. His assumption was that modern men—his contemporaries and their successors—needed to be corrected by an older Christian-classical tradition. It goes without saying that this meaning is hardly consistent with the modern use of the word.
By the time of the Renaissance, however, the term came to be used to distinguish the new humanism of Petrarch and his followers from the previous dark age that lay under the cloud of bigotry and superstition condemned, alternately, as feudalism and Christianity. Petrarch was still a Christian, with one foot firmly planted in the Christian Age, but later generations of humanists and intellectuals were ever more open in their contempt for Europe’s traditional religion. Initially, the “moderns” were passionately devoted to the classics, but by the later 17th century, a rift had opened between the classicist Ancients, led by Boileau, and the chauvinistic Moderns, whose first blast was fired by Charles Perrault, when he declared that the age of Louis XIV had beaten the Ancients at their own game. In retrospect, the Ancients were the victors. Not only was Boileau a greater writer than Perrault, but it seems downright silly to compare French drama, as beautiful as it is, with Attic tragedy.
We might get a better grip on modernism if we were to look more closely at the word modernus itself. It is formed (apparently on the analogy of hodiernus) from the Latin adverb modo, which, when used of time, means something like “just now,” a variant on its broader meaning of “only” or “just.” To be modern, then, is to be up to date, contemporary. Modo itself is derived from the noun modus, which literally means “measure” or a unit of measure, hence a boundary or limit. Modo thus expresses a temporal boundary, dividing the living present (le vierge, le vivace, et le bel aujourd’hui) from the dead and sterile past. Perhaps it is only by a happy accident that in French, they have applied the word mode almost exclusively to manner, style, and fashion, but what could be more modish than to be modern?
Modernity suggests, first, a revulsion from the Middle Ages, but then an attempt to recover and go beyond the classical tradition. We moderns can still admire the Greeks, if only for their alleged indifference to marital fidelity, religious faith, and sexual distinctions, but we must endeavor to surpass them in libertinism and social experimentation. If our fathers promoted no-fault divorce and winked at adultery, we must have orgies and same-sex marriage. If Washington, Jefferson, and Adams found it necessary to get rid of monarchy and titles of nobility, the next generation pretended to eliminate distinctions of class and status and even the states of the Union in order to clear the way for a liberal world order whose foundation was buying and selling, and when free-market liberalism seemed stale, it was on to socialism, feminism, and environmentalism.
Please do not imagine for one minute that either the leaders or the followers of these movements ever thought any of these things out for themselves: Susan B. Anthony, Herbert Crowley, Walter Lippmann, Franklin Roosevelt, and Al Gore were merely donkeys, tirelessly carrying the baggage loaded on their backs by long-dead second-rate intellectuals. Poor Cassiodorus, poor Petrarch, that all your labors to revive humane learning should collapse to the level of the current Harvard faculty.
To stay modern, we must be forever prepared to rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things—higher as defined by the makers of fashion. Everyone knows at least one desperately youthful woman who refuses to grow up gracefully. “I love being around younger people,” burbles Millicent, as she sips her cosmo while tweeting her boyfriend, an unemployed (and unwashed) carpenter who lives off her doctor husband’s money.
Sometimes it is hard. Instead of watching Sin City Rules or picking up stray guys like so much loose change left on the bar, she would like to listen to her parents’ Beatles records or reread some of the old classics like Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, or Lord of the Flies—you know, those sweet wholesome books previously modern kids had to read in school. Sometimes she thinks about the antique world of her grandparents on the farm, whose only reading was the Bible and Charles Dickens. It would be a nice world to drop in on for vacation. Millie sighs wistfully and goes back to tweeting.
The uprooting of men and women from traditional communities, the erosion of family functions, and the collapse of moral certainties sometimes goes by the name of modernization, or the crisis of modernity. Sociologists of earlier generations devoted hundreds of volumes to the subject, inevitably treated as a natural phenomenon like desert i fi cation. The causes include industrialization, urbanization, and mass education, which should lead a normal person to oppose any development whose name ends in -ation.
Too many of these –ations are really –ologies, not natural developments at all but revolutionary ideologies whose mission is to destroy all remnants of traditional order—first the Christian, then the economic and political, and finally the natural order. The concept, and the very word modern, is the worm in the apple our ancestors ate, not in the Garden but during the Renaissance. This worm is not the ordinary sort that burrows into apples, but more like the worm that infested the fish an Englishwoman ate while on holiday in the Dominican Republic. When Beryl Rushton bit into the worm, she contracted a bacterial infection that attacked her liver, pancreas, and brain. Modern man has lost his wits, but mental imbecility is only one of the prices we have paid for being modern.