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The future of the past

Jernej Furman
Jernej Furman

At the beginning of every year we must make a decision whether to look forward or back. Which will it be: nostalgia or paranoia? The media cater to all tastes. They offer a variety of retrospectives on the year just gone — the year in sports, the year in literature, the year in overdoses — and previews of the future as imagined by their (apparently clairvoyant) editorial writers.

The past holds no surprises but the future is a perpetual mystery. Whatever we read or think about it is almost certain to be wrong. Who could have anticipated, in January 2022, a Washington version of Bastille Day, or a medieval war with futuristic weapons in civilized Europe?

But it is just as easy to be optimistic as pessimistic, especially if you are older. Senior citizens can feel more positive about the new year, partly because we have less future to worry about and more past to think about. The most liberating thing about the future for my generation is the fact that we have been left behind by progress. Progress was a good idea once but, as Ogden Nash remarked, it has gone on far too long.

We don’t even want to think about the frenzied worlds of Tik Tok or Twitter or the sinister world of Meta, or watch our savings evaporate into non-existent crypto currencies. What a relief! After a lifetime of learning, trying to keep up, and becoming (as we hoped) more knowledgeable every year, we can happily retreat into the dark recesses of Plato’s cave where we no longer understand anything, or want to. There’s an old saying that ignorance is bliss and, in this case, it’s certainly true.

We are surrounded by things we know how to switch on and off but that are otherwise as mysterious as magic boxes out of a Harry Potter book. From being fountains of knowledge and wisdom we have become ignorant peasants, and helpless consumers of other people’s mysteries. The electronic revolution is barely 50 years old, and who knows what will come next? The only remedy is to embrace our ignorance, in the reassuring knowledge that today’s young people will be victims of progress in their turn.

Many great writers have seized upon this theme of age as a kind of education in reverse: Virgil, Montaigne, Shakespeare and more recently, that fine social historian Robert Blythe. It’s a universal experience. My grandmother, born in 1884, had the right idea when she wouldn’t have anything to do with radio, or the telephone. For a long time, she refused to have electric lighting in her house. She lived to be 99, and was always cheerful in spite of these terrible deprivations.

I’m glad we have those conveniences now, especially the radio of course. But my own life was perfectly happy and productive before I had any of the electronic gadgets that now clutter up my office. Perhaps I’m missing something, even the true path to happiness in the 21st century (batteries not included). On the other hand, we may all be the victims of the greatest commercial con in human history.

If you are old enough to have used a manual typewriter, or watched black and white television, or wound your car windows up and down by hand, nostalgia may exactly what you need as we launch into 2023. Never mind the unknowable future, let’s celebrate the knowable past, gone but not forgotten. The farther back in time we go, the more we will understand.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.