It’s true, of course. We cannot really imagine ourselves living in just about time in the past. I remember when the “Second Woodstock,” or whatever they called it, was being planned, students of mine said they thought they would go, just to “see what it was like the first time.” They acknowledged that the weather might not be the same. I said the whole experience couldn’t be the same, because the people who were at Woodstock (I refuse to call it “the first Woodstock”) were living in the world of 1969; shaped by the events that preceded that year, they hadn’t yet had their lives and their perspectives affected by the events that followed. The people who might go to this one were shaped by those and ensuing events, and thus could never experience the innocent hopefulness and despair of 1969.
I am on a listserv for people interested in clothing history and costuming; a number of the members are reenactors, and they would be the first to say that although period-perfect clothing, a period-appropriate setting, and a well-researched knowledge of the history, culture, and social mores of the time can open a window into the lives people led then, the reenactors can never fully imagine living in that time: they know what came afterwards, and that means they can only visit—just as Barbara Ehrenreich’s courageous year of living on minimum-wage jobs could give her an understanding of that kind of life, but since she was planning afterward to return to the “normal” of the life she actually lived, she wasn’t really experiencing blue-collar poverty as her life.
Still, I knew what my student meant. Even English majors admit they cannot really imagine living in the times of the literature they study, beyond the moments of living in the text through the eyes of the writer.
But my student wanted to go farther, be more specific, just to show how completely different from his own experience life in the 1800s clearly was. And so he went on:
“The 1800s was a time that I could not even imagine living in, a time when things were more personal, when instead of sending an email or a text you had to go see someone face to face.”
I hope that he was only commenting on the speed of communication. But he seems to be implying that seeing someone “face to face” is in and of itself a chore, an unimaginable burden, something to be avoided at all costs (“had to go”). And beyond that is a vision of his present that saddens me enormously.
We’ve all seen people sitting together in a restaurant but talking (or texting) separately to different companions via cellphone. Arriving in class I used to be greeted by a buzz of conversation, students comparing homework or plans or complaints or gossip; now I arrive to silent classrooms, all heads bent, fingers madly texting to other people—roommates, friends from high school, parents. And students used to leave a classroom talking with one another, sometimes even about something that had been discussed in class, or to linger to talk with the professor. Now I conclude my closing cadence and all rise, whipping phones up to ears to resume their conversations with other people. I have actually overheard such vital pieces of information as “Yeah, class is over. I’m leaving the room now.”
Out in what used to be the public sphere people walk, heads bent so they can text, or stride along talking full-voice to thin air (I occasionally think I’m being approached by an emotionally disturbed person, until I spot the head-mounted receiver). I go to the movies and sit with the few other people who venture out of their own homes to see films on large screens instead of on their televisions, computers, or cellphones. The aisles at Trader Joe’s still seem crowded, but it’s true that I also see PeaPod trucks in my neighborhood. With the price of gas one might expect fewer cars on the road as people turned more enthusiastically to public transportation or car-pooling, but I see just as many one-person-one-car voyagers in the traffic jams. No wonder the public discourse—especially the “comments” world of the Internets—is revealing such agoraphobia, or perhaps more accurately otherphobia: we are increasingly distrustful of our fellows, increasingly uncomfortable with “strangers”—increasingly willing to think the worst of them, to hate them. We seem, like my student, to find it hard to imagine seeing someone face to face—a way of life that he clearly characterizes as “more personal.” That’s some realization: that the more “individual” we become, and the more “connected,” the less personal life is!
I’ve been more and more horrified by the policies and practices of the political party whose intention seems to be to take the country back to the Gilded Age, the good old days of 1880 and thereabouts. But the 1800s did get a few things right. One of them seems to be being “personal.” Most of the 1900s had that too, despite the spread of that late-1800s invention, the telephone.
I am resolved today to “go see someone face to face.” Perhaps I’ll do it every day. If you do it too, people might think it’s a new form of the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement. And maybe it is.