When asked about an event a long ago in her life, my grandma sometimes shakes her head. “I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning,” she’ll say (proverbially, of course, because it is a well-documented fact that the lady loves cinnamon toast). Many of her stories are lost to us now. For her, history is difficult to conceptualize. Along with most of my older relatives, she assures me that my own memory will only grow worse. And it’s true: my own sense of time actively decays, as evidenced by all of my lost pencils, my surprised delight at family photo albums, and my inability to exactly retrace the routes to my old haunts in the cities where I’ve lived.
And those are just my own experiences. Learned history is so much more difficult. I loved my 12-credit-hour, 2-semester-long Western Civilization course in my undergrad, which emphasized history and literature from the Romans to the present day. (Nerd alert.) Of course, it’s impossible to fit so grandiose a subject as “Western Civilization” into a single course, regardless of copious credit hours; it’s impossible to fit it into a single lifetime. Instead, we focused on overarching themes, influential philosophies, and traceable patterns based on events and literature considered important. The pattern that emerged to me, and many others, wasn’t exactly optimistic. The sometimes romantic, often nationalistic, and always mystical William Butler Yeats helps me in expressing some kind of philosophy of time in “The Second Coming” where he famously writes,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
. . . .
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
History, to post-war Yeats, is a recurring spiral. But that spiral widens like the falcon, furthering itself from order, from the center, from the thing it is. History (not to mention the cosmos), moves toward disintegration rather than order. It does repeat itself, but in ways more mysteriously horrifying than what has come before: a rough beast instead of a holy infant in Bethlehem.
This vast image out of Spiritus Mundi was handed down to me from a very certain time period after a very certain war. This, I learned, was the mood of the twentieth century, creating the Lost Generation (and spiraling into endless other lost generations), strange artistic movements, and a general loss of faith. And who was I to blame my predecessors for the ennui, the alcoholism, all of the broken coping after World War I? Wilfred Owen assures me that if I could see for myself gas in the trenches, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” Cause and effect. WWI and modernism. Inevitable. It all fits nicely in the 16-leaf blue book I wrote my exam in.
This simple, entropic vision–my helplessness in Yeats’ gyre–is what I believed as I walked out of my Western Civ final. It was hard not to, there in the wake of other rocking classes, in the midst of important people leaving my life, and with a long summer of serving coffee ahead of me. I read books, when I could, with new knowledge of my place in a world I had just discovered. I quietly observed where writers wrote as expected, staying true to their place in the gyre and perpetuating the falling apart of all things. History grew darker, and predictably so. I had no right to feel happy—especially not when insignificantly good things happened—because happiness had no place. It doesn’t fit in the gyre.
Of course, that isn’t everyone’s experience with the very same material: another reason why history is difficult to conceptualize. Just opening Facebook shows me how different people interpret the same stories, arriving at opposing conclusions. Political discourse, academic essays, and even just conversing with others reinforces the same. And I like to think that courses like Western Civilization don’t simply exist to crush overly-sensitive wanna-be intellectual types. There’s something to be said for the knowing of things, and not all of us walk away with quite the same feeling.
One day in the noisy heat of that summer, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy from where I’d left off after one distracted Christmas break. In the spiritual autobiography, Lewis traces the story of his conversion. For him–and probably for all of us, if we can see it–that narrative begins in childhood (probably before) and bleeds over into his adult life. So, begrudgingly, he dedicates a chapter to his own experiences in the Great War: the very same one that I had written about whirling like the lost falcon. And while Lewis’ is not the grittily realistic account I anticipated (it actually rings of repression), it stunned me. He, too, had holed up in trenches and lost a generation of peers. He had also seen the unimaginable. Participated in it, even.
But somehow there was goodness. Something good had come out of the Great War and out of the gyre. True, his works are hardly the zeitgeist. But even if it was just Jack Lewis with his myth of a Lion that had carried me through childhood, there was something. And so, I wondered: if one good thing could come out of an event so systemically and deeply horrific, could two good things, or even three good things, come out of the gyre too?
The summer before preschool began, my grandma babysat me in a hedge-enfolded blue cottage at the end of a cul-de-sac. Neither of us recall that time very well anymore, but I do remember sitting at a tiny table with a glass of chocolate milk. As Grandma cut the crust off my peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen, I was transported to the Land of Make Believe. Admittedly, the puppet Lady Elaine Fairchilde did scare me, but despite my fears, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was there in that cottage, too. Like it had been for my mom as she pretended that the quiet, cardiganed host with his kind attention was her father. Like, I imagine, many of us did.
Fred Rogers, emerging from the context that my Western Civ course told me was full of mistrust of authority, fear of the Other, wartime anxiety, mass media frenzies, and depleting morals, is another anomaly in the gyre. Instead of angry protests, he kindly requested funding from Congress for public television. Instead of inciting fear, he showed children how to learn from the stranger. Instead of telling us how not to feel, he taught us the power of self-control. Instead of buying into the commodification entertainment–the way television began to strip individuality–he saw an opportunity to humanize, to educate, to express.
How Mr. Rogers could exist in the widening trajectory of civilization is, I think, more than mystical.
Jack Lewis and Fred Rogers, like I said before, are hardly the norm. They are marginally known by the masses, celebrated passionately by tiny pockets of society, and not studied nearly as much as they should be. And why should they be, when they represent the opposite of our great historical narratives?
But it’s anomalies like these that convince me that my historical constructs aren’t necessarily real. Not that these figures have no faults (I’m well aware of Lewis’ misogyny–what some, incidentally, dismiss as a product of his times), but they are without some of the common faults of those we hold up as representations of an entire era. Or at least those vices are less evident. Or at least there was some act of grace along the way.
These ought to be remembered as we attempt to contextualize, to educate, to encapsulate. Because, I pray, if the gyre is true, there will at least always be anomalies that point toward the forgotten center. Because whatever my own construct of history, whatever way I make meaning out of the chaos, the Logos is truer and realer and creates more goodness than my tendencies toward oversimplification care to notice.
Said Fred Rogers himself,
A high school student wrote to ask, “What was the greatest event in American history?” I can’t say. However, I suspect that like so many “great” events, it was something very simple and very quiet with little or no fanfare (such as someone forgiving someone else for a deep hurt that eventually changed the course of history). The really important “great” things are never center stage of life’s dramas; they’re always “in the wings.” That’s why it’s so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial.
Humble. Deep. This is the way anomalies appear: a veteran who envisions a faun in the woods, a seminary student fascinated by television, a grandma who doesn’t remember her kindnesses, a child born in Bethlehem; I pray, too, a kid who read Narnia, watched Mister Rogers, and cried in her Western Civ class.