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Finding an Anchor in the Sweet Past

Not every advance is a step forward.

October 13, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

A fleet of tall ships sailed into port. Acres of weather-stained canvas luffing against an early autumn breeze; vines of three-strand rope climbing heavenward; smartly turned details to catch the eye: baggy wrinkles and monkey's fists and ships' bells, polished wood, tar, pendants, heaving lines, hawsers, sunburned faces, the bouncy sound of a concertina.... It was enough to make a fellow feel as if the world was still firmly affixed to its hinges.

Nostalgia is nothing new, of course. But I see it's the fashion just now. As the New York Times put it, "The Old Days Never Looked So Good."

Well, fine. In my own case, this proves that if you stick with your ways long enough, you're bound to find yourself caught up in a craze sooner or later. I've long believed that we should reconsider whether Ned Ludd really was as loony as his critics claimed.

Ludd, you might recall, was the apprentice stocking maker who smashed a newly invented knitting frame in Britain. That was 183 years ago, and he was protesting the dawn of industrialization. The royal army tamped down that uprising quickly. But legions of us Luddites now carry on more quietly, questioning whether everything that goes by the name of progress actually is.

T.S. Eliot summed it up this way: "Where is the life we have lost in living? / Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

So old is good again. And not just on the waterfront but in movies, in music, in theater, furniture, in martinis, in fountain pens, in aloha shirts, in surf wear, in manners and probably a lot of other things that I'm not "with it" enough to recognize yet. My wife is no longer lonely being a knitter.

If nothing else, looking over our shoulders establishes a benchmark by which we can calibrate what we are gaining, if anything, from the accelerating onslaught of newness.

Wait, I know. There is much we can be thankful for in this modern age. Anesthesia, for instance, and ice cubes, paved roads and the 30-year gain in American lifespan over the last century.

But not every advance gets us somewhere. For instance, timekeeping. We have wristwatches today that adjust themselves by radio signals from an atomic clock, and they maintain accuracy to a billionth of a second a year. So how come everyone still shows up late?

Conversely, an occasional draft of nostalgia is a good reminder of what we're losing in our pell-mell race to tomorrow. Namely our regard for beauty.

A topmast schooner is an intrinsically fetching thing to behold, today the same as two centuries ago. No one put it as plainly as Keats: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

By contrast, a whole army of industrial designers has barely instilled a slightest trace of eye appeal or warmth to a computer.

My own explanation for the nation's fling with nostalgia can be reduced to two words: pubescence and marketing.

We are told again and again that youth rules in our consumerist culture. In truth, teenagers and young adults have less money than their elders. But that doesn't seem to matter much. Their throne is granted by their willingness to spend according to what's hot, or "in," or said to be the next big thing. That is, they respond to marketing more willingly. So naturally they receive the king's share of attention from marketers.

Unfortunately, the ceaseless bombardment does not spare the rest of us. It is essential, we are told hundreds of times a day, to get with it and keep ahead. Over time, this skewers perceptions of our society, and sometimes the reality too.

Thus we have the modern creation of light beer, which is beer with the addition of water and a corresponding reduction of taste, resulting in a beverage that neither satisfies nor slims but sells like mad.

Those of us who understand that an old-fashioned leather-bound address book is far lovelier, every bit as functional and far more durable than a soon-to-be-obsolete electronic personal assistant feel the vertigo of being left out when change is constantly mistaken for progress. Where do we reach for a handhold? Backward, naturally. "The past," observed Daniel Webster, "is at least secure."

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