Our Finest Hour
Exploring the myth of the Golden Age
By the time Paul McCartney treated the world’s billion-strong audience to a few Beatles classics, London’s Olympic opening ceremony had clocked-up at least three distinct references to his former band. Sure, there were many nods to contemporary pop culture too—Arctic Monkeys, Harry Potter, Mr Bean—but no-one could deny the overarching focus, like a sense of longing, for the projection of a previous era (yellow submarines and all).
So thorough was the show’s excavation of the past that many commentators were moved to address it under the guise of a history lesson, than any distinct portrait of modern Britain. Taken at face value, last week’s spectacle would seem to tread a selective framing of the island nation’s recent past.
The aim wasn’t strictly educational, but something of the opposite: a concerted exercise in nostalgia. By indulging in the known iconography of Britain’s past, director Danny Boyle sought to trigger a global nostalgia based on shared experience of the country’s tendencies and history.
Nostalgia is an effective barometer of public contentedness. For not only do the yearnings for certain periods shift, but they also shape our perceptions of the present. Given Britain’s waning economic and cultural position on the world stage, the allure of its iconography is perhaps the most pertinent card it can play. A nation looks forward by looking back.
As the rising chimneys and giant wheels theatrically spawned the wrought iron Olympic rings, nineteenth century German theorist Friedrich Engels would have cheered the demonisation of the industrial age. Having observed first-hand the poverty and stupefaction of England’s working classes in 1840s Manchester, Engels’ own nostalgia was for a time that predated fire and brimstone. Peppering much of his writing are references to rustic rural employment and the independence it allowed.
This is a thread that JRR Tolkien would pick up almost a century later, in the idyllic Shire of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If the quaint and cheery village community of Hobbiton was Tolkien’s homage to agricultural England; the menacing and imperious scourging of the landscape, inflicted by the wizard Saruman, is his damning allegory for the industrial revolution. Charming and whimsical as Tolkien’s stories appear, they also house a marked nostalgia for a more golden age.
Boyle’s critique of the industrial revolution was just as damning as Engels’ and Tolkien’s (“You are creating Hell” was his instruction to the performers), but the propensity in 2012 is to draw optimism from that period. “Hell” may be an accurate articulation of Victorian England when you consider it devoid of the entities it birthed: democratic movements such as the Suffragettes and the demand for universal healthcare.
The problem with nostalgia is that it only tells one side of the story. Though Engels may have obsessed about a pre-industrialised Europe, he was not ignorant to its realities. Indeed, the descriptions Engels gave of rural peoples was so pointed that at times he made them resemble the hobbits of Tolkien’s invent: illiterate, impressionable and simple.
Peter Jackson’s cinematic Middle Earth shares the lustre and character of Tolkien’s, but modern movie audiences are content locating the adventures of Gandalf and co as the fantasy escapism it is intended to be. The fact that, until very recently, producing such an epic film franchise was a near impossibility is reason enough to prevent many cinemagoers becoming misty-eyed over a time predating celluloid.
Nostalgia flattens history by appealing to our more aesthetic concerns. When we actively yearn for the quirks and qualities of a previous age—as many Americans seem to be currently doing for the 60s—we indulge in the surface conditions of a specific period. Most of the gritty details, the invisible strings which dictate much of our lifestyles, are lost to a collective myopia.
To pine for a previous age based on little more than chic or ideas of refinement is folly. The high-gloss treatment of Madison Avenue in AMC’s Mad Men might tempt viewers to desire a similar lifestyle, but to crave a return to the 1960s is to the ignore the realities of life both then and now.
If your interests are purely sartorial then the sixties would likely have filled you with wonderment. But if you were a woman who wanted equal opportunities to men, or a gay couple wishing to marry, 1960s America was not your time. In 2012 you can seemingly have your cake and eat it: if all you desire is to dress like Don Draper and drink hard liquor at all hours of the day, there is little to prevent you from doing so (in some countries at least).
Such knowledge clearly doesn’t stifle our lust for the past. Pragmatism has little to do in matters of the heart. Societal longing may reflect a deep-seated lethargy that begs for more exotic distraction. Nostalgia services this escapism and permits a more fundamental question: was life better in the past? Given that this is often pitched to periods of time before we were born, it is a question to whose answer solely pivots on the ability of imagination.
Different generations answer this in the framing of a “Golden Age”. The Athenians located theirs with the Periclean era; New Zealanders might opt for a time before Rogernomics. The concept permits happiness because it is a combination of the known and unknown. Siting ourselves within an idealised time allows us to consider the possibility that true happiness is obtainable, given the right conduits.
Golden Ages are test-sites, and being but the product of our brains and the media we consume, they can neither corroborate nor invalidate our assumptions. That we cannot know for certain the experience of another age does nothing to shatter the myth; in fact it reinforces it. The joy in speculation absolves our need for empirical data that might otherwise hamper the perspective (wars and laws, poverty and inequality), so that we can indulge ourselves in a wholly fictional retelling.
There were no truths presented in London’s Olympic opening ceremony; just a list of features that, in one way or another, cancelled each other out. The paraded contents were mere chapters in a story that neither permits a tangible line of progression on a graph nor a quantifiable level of human satisfaction.
2012 is no more the culmination of human endeavour than was 1066, 1840 or 1991. Provided that you have set the parameters wide enough, happiness and suffering exist in every era; regardless of what style of clothing is worn, what mechanisms deliver the news or what music occupies the top of the chart.
The blindness of nostalgia is an important thing to note. History repeatedly shows us that in every age, while some groups of people traversed the peaks of contentment, there were others whose experience of life was of a markedly different quality. If you are happy in this day and age, it’s likely that someone else—possibly closer than you might think—is not.▲