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The Life Anachronistic

Posted by Dirck on 16 September, 2015

This week I joined a bunch of people in reading this article by Sarah Chrisman, in which a woman apparently in command of her faculties describes her decision to adopt the lifestyle of a latter part of the Victorian era.  As a fellow who consciously adopts some of the ways of the middle of the 20th century, I appreciate the depth of her commitment to a way of living which does away with a lot of conveniences, and I think that the important lesson for us all to take from the article is this:

Much of modern technology has become a collection of magic black boxes: Push a button and light happens, push another button and heat happens, and so on. The systems that dominate people’s lives have become so opaque that few Americans have even the foggiest notion what makes most of the items they touch every day work — and trying to repair them would nullify the warranty.

I also, because I came to the article in question via Facebook, read an article responding to the first which… is pretty venomous, in all honesty.  It’s here, and I’ll warn sensitive readers that it’s rife with extremely modern sailor-talk, and it wasn’t the only place where this sort of reaction occurred– a snapshot of Twitter also provides some sense of the anger engendered by the original article.

I can understand some of the reaction.  We’ll dismiss at once a certain amount of mere jealousy at having the funds to pull off an all-Victorian life, a jealousy I’ll admit to sharing.  When reasons for the outpouring of anger appear, they usually take the form of an accusation of wearing either blinkers or rose-coloured glasses regarding the era.  It is true that the comfortable upwardly-mobile lifestyle Chrisman and her husband have taken up was built on an awful lot of backs, from the pitmen of the Ayrshire coal mines to the colonized people of what is now Zimbabwe.  I would certainly chastise them myself if they were calling for a return to the politics of the time they take their physical comforts from.  I did not, though, notice that as being the case.  There’s an awful lot of assumption going on in the minds of those hurling accusations.  Assumptions, as we all know, are problematic.

Let me personalize this for a moment (because this modern age is firmly founded upon “How does this effect me?”), by reminding my readers how I conduct myself.  I wear, for preference, three-piece suits.  If I could arrange to get my entire wardrobe from 1947, I’d be a very happy guy indeed.  I keep my hair cut short.   I write with fountain pens.  I enjoy sending and receiving actual, physical mail.  My wife does not work outside the house.

Assume on that for a moment.  I’m living some sort of deranged Mad Men first season fantasy, and forcing my wife into drudgery… right?  I must long for a day when everyone knew their place, when the civil rights movement had not had any effect in North America, and when a beefy white guy could settle into his armchair, pipe firmly clamped in his teeth, and reflect upon how great it was to be a beefy white guy without a trace of guilt or shame.

Hogwash.  As Chrisman’s article indicates, this is how that era is viewed from now.  Orwell and Huxley were writing their dystopian warnings in that setting (in fact, Huxley’s Brave New World was written in the ’30s– in the time I’m mostly emulating, he was adding a “holy crap, this is happening faster than I’d expected” foreword to the new edition), and there was a sufficient power of political differentiation in people’s heads to allow the election of low-key Socialist governments even in the face of a serious threat from Communism… or at least the Marxist-Leninist expression of Communism.  There were activists for women’s and minority’s rights at the same time as there was a House Un-American Activities Committee, and indeed even at the same time as the unamused Hanoverian rump of Victoria Regina was planted upon the throne of England.  One need only look at Fox News or (shudder) the New Observer to see that there’s some pretty retrograde ideas loose even in our own enlightened day, and one need only look down the back of one’s own shirt to see a tag suggestive that there’s still plenty of oppression of the third world.

More to the point, though, is the idea that saying “I dig this houndstooth” is not the same as saying “I hate {insert racial epithet here; I’m not providing one}”.  I can’t speak for Chrisman, but I am certainly aware of the less laudable aspects of the era I emulate.  I can quite happily say yes to a double-breasted suit with the very same breath as I say, with full awareness of the underlying nuances, Black Lives Matter.  I choose aspects of the past, and I firmly reject others.  My wife doesn’t work outside the house because she has the right to decide this for herself (that decision is somewhat health-driven, but it’s still hers), not because I think it’s some sort of Ozzie and Harriet ideal is either wise or attainable.  Now, I’m not as thoroughly immersed as Chrisman, and I won’t assume her inward state in the same way (if in a different direction) as the Twitter-haters, but I suspect that she can reconcile “I wear ankle-length skirts” with “I get to vote” just as easily as I can.

Something which this whole foofahrah brings to mind is the baffling degree to which people in our purportedly enlightened age feel threatened by those who live somewhat out of step.  As I say, I’m less immersed than Chrisman, and thus stand out less, but I don’t have to think too hard to bring to mind the last time some goober hung out the window of his chum’s vehicle and shouted some variation of “your hat looks dumb!”  Subjective opinion, of course, because I feel exactly the same about the beer- or car-advertising ball-cap the shouter invariably is wearing, but the difference is I’m not moved to scream at the wearer.  It is an honest source of befuddlement to me that in a world where there is finally a groundswell of support for LGBQT people, where there is at least the beginning of the dialogue needed to address the imbalance of rights bound up with notions of race, where so much headway has been made in rendering ridiculous the more repellent attitudes of the previous two centuries, that someone’s decision to dress olden-timey gets so far under some people’s skin.  Chrisman refers to this at the end of her article, anticipating the tirades the article would bring on.

Honestly now– how does it hurt you if someone wears a broad-brimmed fedora that matches his suit?  What injury do you suffer if someone uses an open-wick kerosene space heater in preference to a 97.3% efficient furnace (especially if, if you’re about to shout “global climate change,” the same someone never uses a car)?  The hat may look silly, the heater may be a fire hazard, but there’s no suggestion by the user that anyone else should or must take them on.  The reaction reminds me of a monkey flipping out when it’s shown a rubber snake, except snakes can be dangerous and monkeys don’t know about joke shops.

The only basis for it I can think of, and I suspect I’m trying to impose reason on something that is founded in irrationality, is connected to something else Chrisman mentions:

…[A]nyone can benefit from choices that increase their awareness of their surroundings and the way things they use every day affect them.

Can it be that the anger comes from the mere suggestion that people think about all the effort that lies behind whatever comfort their life contains?  Is there such dismay at being presented with a symbolic indication that the iPhone did not spring up out of the shop counter, such angst that the light in the bulb is an effect whose cause is not merely the flicking of a switch?  I almost hope that’s the case.  The provoking of thought is a provocation I’m happy to engage in.

Today’s pen (which, if you want to impute things, hit the market during the Summer of Love):  Parker 65
Today’s ink (probably not a commentary on the role of the Versailles Treaty in setting the stage for the disastrous selection of Germany’s Chancellor in 1933): Pelikan Brilliant Brown


One Response to “The Life Anachronistic”

  1. […] is the sort of thing I more usually do in my other, non-fiction, existence, and indeed did do not too long ago when I commented about how much we can infer about the inward state of people […]

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