Saturday, October 11, 2008

History

I started reading the first novel I've read since I got my first Blackberry. I picked it up at the airport on the way to a transit conference in San Diego last week. The book title is Lost and it's by American author Gregory Maguire. It's about a female author who is the descendant of a man Charles Dickens may have used as the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge. She travels to England to stay at the house of her semi infamous relative and encounters what could be the ghost of Jack the Ripper.

The bizarre plot and the thought of a two and a half hour flight in coach convinced me to buy the book and turn off my Blackberry. It turned out to be well written, but a bit confusing at times. But once I got used to the author's quirky literary style, I was drawn in.

But this post isn't really a review of the book. It is about something one of the characters in the book, a history professor, said. He said that he tried not to teach history as about people like us who lived at a different time, but as a lesson that human psychology has changed with each passing decade.

This may seem like a minor thing, but for me it prompted an epiphany. I doubt the author intended it as the point of the novel, but it really made me think. Because it alters the way you view the past...or at least the distant past. It explains why books like Moby Dick, although classics, are basically incomprehensible to most of the poor schmucks who have to read them in literature classes. Because if you read books written a hundred or two hundred years ago with a contemporary mindset, you can't possible understand what the author was talking about it. Not only are you from different times, you are from different worlds.

I read Moby Dick on my own outside of any literature class and found it amazing.

Amazingly boring that is. I didn't have a clue what Melville was going on about despite the extensive footnotes in the edition I read. I know there was a white whale who ate a Captain Ahab's leg and he was really pissed off about it. Oh, and there was a Starbucks, but I don't think they served lattes. I have to confess I gleaned most of even these vague impressions about the book from a 1950s film based loosely on the novel.

You see, the language, the thinking processes, the morals of Melville's time make it read like a foreign language despite the fact it was English. I believe the white whale in the book is supposed to be a religious allegory of sorts. That is based on the footnotes. So I suppose in Melville's times, white whales were very religious. Or they worshipped whales. I suppose they blubbered a lot in church. Ha, ha.

See what I mean? Thinking changes along with generations.

God knows what people will think about a Steven King novel a hundred years from now.

Or my blog.

And here I thought I was timeless. Or was that clueless?

5 comments:

JP/deb said...

I think literary history shows both a social and psychological evolution ...

Times, they are a changing' ... but no matter what, Dizgraceland will always be relevant!

JP/deb

Tim ID said...

Why thank you Deb! I suppose rarely making sense does give me a place in eternity :)

Hayden said...

sigh.

I hope you're wrong, because Moby Dick is one of my favorite novels.

I wonder if screen-time has rewired our brains so completely? I grew up pretty much w/o tv, and still watch very little.

Moby Dick was meant to be read aloud, by flickering candle light. No rush, just a web of words to gently unmoore one from their own berth and set them adrift in another.

I think slow words that build a web set a very different mental snare than the jerky cut-frame madness most folks prefer today.

I'm caught in the past I guess. I'm sure that's no surprise to you.

Tim ID said...

Hayden,
As they say, there ain't no future in the past. But it does always look better.

I'm glad, though that you appreciated Moby Dick. It is considered great literature. Maybe it illustrates my point that there is a psychological difference in people as time passes. Melville's book was written in a time where it was "high tech" media. It paints the story with words. But they are words of a different time.

I grew up when television was a new medium. Boise had two channels. Most programming was old movies from the 40s. I watched television, but I haunted the library and read voraciously.

I still couldn't quite fathom Moby Dick.

Hayden said...

maybe it's the way the beginning firmly takes you by the scruff of the neck, sits you down and says "Story Time!"

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball."

True, w/o reading this I'd never have a clue what he meant by "my hypos" - but what a powerful way to say "I was murderously/suicidally depressed. Angry."

sigh. Maybe I've just more of the sea, defiance and escape in my soul than most. I know I've often had a 'damp, drizzly November in my soul.'

Melville does go on far too much about ships business for my taste, but those are easy passages to skim by.