"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, January 28, 2011

January: Forward Vision, Backward Glance

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861
by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 - 1875)
French Landscape Painter
The Legendary Orpheus, greatest musician of Greek mythology, and his wife Eurydice, who died young but was granted leave by Hades, god of the Underworld, to return from the dead, upon the condition that Orpheus, who had descended to claim her, should walk in front of Eurydice without glancing behind until they were both safe in the Upper World.
Corot's 1860 Sketch
for Orphee Entrainant Eurydice


So the first month of 2011 is nearly gone! Not only is the old year past, but fast away the new year passes as well! However, we can't let January get away without paying our respects to Janus, the ancient Roman god of "gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, endings and time."

As I wrote last year around this time, it's good to remember that our opening month is named for this two - headed, two - faced deity who possessed knowledge of the future and wisdom of the past. Conveniently, Janus could see forward into the New Year and backward into the Old. It was customary to place his image, maybe a small statue or amulet, at the front entrance of every home where he could look outward at the passersby as well as inward toward the home dwellers.

Speaking of passing fast away, let me recommend a timely, stylish, and informative blog out of Philadelphia: Obsolescing: watching technologies as they wane. It is a nostalgic blog, but also forward thinking -- like Janus! Each post reads like an elegant reverse treasure hunt, presenting items such as typewriter erasers (not to mention typewriters!) and telephone books (not to mention telephones!) and tracing each technology back to its origin.

I like the way that my friend Ann de Forest and her co-blogger David Comberg describe what their blog is about: "We are not so much interested in wringing our hands over what we are losing as in considering the experience of loss that has always been a part of technological change." As they explain in their very first post (March 26, 2009): "Documenting objects and experiences that are rapidly disappearing from our daily lives, this blog elegizes the obsolescent and extinct, celebrates creative reinterpretations of technologies liberated from their original function, and analyzes the particular language used to talk about those technologies as they are vanishing."

No time for hand wringing! The technological landscape is changing much too quickly for such indulgence. Besides, if we take that approach, there are so many things to mourn, how could we ever find enough hours in the day? Better, surely, to spend that time looking forward. The backward glance must be swift, the forward vision steady, especially if we hope to master each miraculous new life - enhancing technology.

In several of her essays, Ann takes a closer look at these conflicting emotions:

1. "The Nature of Elegy" (July 7, 2009): "If change is loss, as pop psychologists love to say, then we all must be in a state of perpetual mourning. Depending on your age, you grieve for skate keys or glass milk bottles or the iceman’s cart; for 2-sided record albums, Checker cabs, solid black desk phones; Polaroid cameras, typewriters, cork in wine bottles, the Walkman – the list is endless. Even as we embrace convenient, new technologies, it seems to be human nature to lament whatever the next new thing replaces."

Further examples, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's insistence that electricity was inferior to the dear old gas lamp, illustrate the point that lamenting waning technology is hardly a new phenomenon. It was ever thus.

2. "An Emblem for Our Times" (July 7, 2009): "We all – no matter how old we are – can name a thousand things, the stuff of our childhoods, that now are virtually extinct. I’m sure I’m not alone in having felt an irrational pang for the passing of utilitarian objects that I never paid much attention to when they were commonplace" (e.g., the typewriter eraser mentioned above).

Yes, I have felt that pang! In fact, I feel it now, just reading these words. For things like the Joe Namath Popcorn Popper (try ebay). It's not the machine itself -- I mean, really, who wants to wash that thing? Anyone can see that microwave popcorn, in it's own sealed, disposable bag, is far superior -- cleaner, healthier, safer, easier -- you name it. But the memory isn't about any of those features; it's about Santa Claus bringing such a cool present for the whole family to play with, back in 1972!

On the coffee table:
Joe Namath Popcorn Popper & Princess Phone
As my sister Peg wrote, back when I
this same photograph a few months ago:
"Our pink princess phone! I loved that phone
and spent a lot of time talking on it late into the night.
Sometimes even when Mom & Dad didn't know I was on the phone!"
Because of another amazing feature -- an extra long cord! --
we could even pull the phone into the closet
(behind the door I'm leaning against) and shut the door.
How we loved that privacy, secrecy, and coziness!

But I digress! Back to Obsolescing . . .

3. One of my favorite recent posts is the autumnal "Ode for the Season" October 6, 2010 with it's allusion to the bereft Orpheus and Gerard Manley Hopkins' mournful little Margaret: "I think that the emotions that autumn elicits, the melancholy my own primitive soul starts feeling as the days shorten, are akin to the distress and sorrow we feel as the objects of our life, the utilitarian technologies that once surrounded and defined us, fade into memory. News of a past technology’s demise makes us suddenly, desperately long to hold, to touch, to smell, to hear the things of our past. Like Orpheus leading his beloved from the Underworld, we look back to reassure ourselves that the everyday things we have known and loved and remember still exist in their full corporeal presence (That’s why we revel in the sensory details — the typewriter’s clacking keys, the mimeograph ink’s distinctive scent.) Instead, we turn back to watch, in sadness and horror, as the objects of our lives, the tangible evidence of our own existence, slip from our outstretched arms" (~ Ann de Forest).

[detail from Corot's painting]

So as January comes to a close, should you crave a late night reminiscence of the old year or desire some early morning reading in contemplation of the new months ahead, turn on your astonishingly capable laptop computer and take a further look at Obsolescing: watching technologies as they wane. Enjoy the nostalgic, visionary musings of Ann de Forest and David Comberg.

Republican Janus Coin, c. 225 - 212 BCE

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, February 14, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

1 comment:

  1. Oh boy... I bought a Sony e reader on Sat. and am in love. Reading Anna Karenina - don't have to lug it around or have it hit me on the nose in bed as I try to turn a page. Can you imagine? Me, a technophobe loving my little reader. I feel like I'm on the Star Ship Enterprise. I will read their blog with great interest though because I long for all those things we 'once' had.