Thursday, January 28, 2010
I work at an institution that fetishizes old people. Hardly a month passes without some octogenarian showing up to share memories of the old days and set straight the youth of today. The youth in question are implored to treasure these apostles of "living history" and offer obeisance to their mastery of time. Meanwhile all I see is some guy who used to own a movie theater and once shared an elevator with Duke Ellington and JFK. When asked about the old days they issue a rambling series of pointless anecdotes. At which the youth--the handful in attendence--nod vigorously. But if we had some sharp Ph.D. come talk about the socio-cultural history of the 40s and 50s nobody would come at all. Memory always trumps history.
We seem to have a kind of grandfather complex. People without grandparents think they can erase loss by collecting wisdom from the elderly. This cuts against what we usually think of as the American idolization of the young and new. It also suggests that we have more in common with the Russians, who are among the great worshippers of the aged, than we think. How else to explain the Soviet gerontocracy, ably described in recent posts by Fur Coat by way of Volkogonov, of the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Or Khrushchev's initial contempt for the youthful Kennedy, which provoked the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or those tremendous beards that made even vigorous guys like Tolstoy look prematurely ancient? I suppose it is better to fetishize age than youth, but at some point you have to accept that your own perspective is more real than either what's past or coming.