The World You Never Made

People come into life as if into the midst of a movie, trying to catch up with what has gone before as the story continues to follow its course, except that people in their real lives, or so I claim, are so taken up with the decade or two when they entered the scene, and maybe even a little bit with the times before that, that those are the times that continue to transfix and inspire them, that being when they got their bearings and those being what their bearings continue to be, while in movies we forget that we learned the beginning only through inference and cared about when we came in not at all but just want to get on with the story now that one knows what is going on. Let’s go over present, past and future of the moment you came into your own story in more detail.

It strikes me that in life where you come in remains remarkably important to you while where you come into a movie is not at all memorable because you are looking to pick up the pieces, get the references right, rather than fixate on that moment. In life, it seems to me, you fixate on the decade or two after your birth as providing the important insights that you will carry forward into the rest of your life, even though there may be some traumatic events, such as serving in a war, or enduring The Great Depression, that will flood out the memories of an earlier time and so become the focus of the rest of  life, the orienting insights. For me, that orienting period was the Forties and Fifties, even if my memories of the War go back only to night lights during air raid drills, ration cards, and seeing my parents cry when they heard that FDR had died. I know the popular music of the Fifties, what with all its male and female vocalists, as that was interrupted by the arrival of Rock and Roll. I know the movies of the Forties and Fifties, both cinema noir and MGM musicals, far better than I know the sitcoms and TV dramas of the last decade or two. I know the politics of McCarthyism and the attempt by Senator Lehman of New York to introduce a civil liberties plank into the Democratic platform in 1956 better than I remember the ins and outs of more recent Democratic conventions. These were my first exposure to these processes, and they lasted, providing me with my orientation towards both politics and culture. I liked the plots of musicals because men and women sparred with one another as equals until true love won out, and I am sorry that such a perception of how men and women orient themselves to one another no longer seems to be the major trope. I don’t understand why the basic idea of civil rights and civil liberties seems so contentious when its underpinnings seemed to me to be so obvious that I found it surprising when I came to college and found that it took philosophers like John Stuart Mill and John Dewey to spell out what was not so obvious to other people or other viewpoints. And so each generation finds its way, buffeted about by whatever are the currents in the air when one enters the picture. I should not be surprised that a younger generation does not know that Joe Biden was on the Progressive end of issues. They came in at a different place and so have to orient themselves within the world they came into.

In fact, people reach back further than that, farther into the past than when they came into the movie of their own lives, to find out what happened just before they came on the scene because that would explain what the scene was when they did enter it. A friend of mine once said to me that he became a historian because he wanted to know how all of us had arrived at the point where we were; he wanted to trace the causal links back to the French and the American Revolutions or even before that. (As a historian, he believed in causation while I, as a sociologist, believe there is only context, but that is another story.) As for me, it means that I am taken with the Thirties even though I have no experience of it, learning it from books and movies and other forms of culture until it catches up with what I do remember, which is young matrons dressing up in Carmen Miranda costumes or taking me to see an early re-release of “Gone With the Wind”. So I have in recent years taken a liking to the Big Band Era, more than I ever did to the Modern Jazz Quartet of the Fifties, and opine on the basis of very little understanding of music that Artie Shaw was better than Benny Goodman. And I have tried to learn the New Deal legislation that was passed before FDR, Doctor Fight the Depression, became FDR, Doctor Win the War. I suppose that is what we mean by nostalgia: the cultivation of a time just before you came in or just after you came in because you can feel its reverberations in events in your own life that were not sufficiently appreciated at the time or are justly appreciated for what they were. One of the miracles of consciousness allows us to live in many times at the same time, and so we watch all those old movies over and over again. I like to see Rosalind Russell in all those ugly Thirties dresses and I like to see Claudette Colbert deal with the sexual customs of her time in “It Happened One Night”.

When you have gotten far enough into the movie after entering somewhere in the middle so you have figured out what is essentially the back story of where you came in, you can start thinking about what will happen in the rest of the movie as it goes forward. How will it end? You already know if it is a comedy or a tragedy that it will end either happily or sadly, but what if it is a melodrama, which could end either way? At the end of Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman flies off with Paul Henreid, which is tragic because it means her love of Humphrey Bogart is forever thwarted by the necessities of the Second World War. But Bogart and Claude Rains walk off together, Rains saying “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, which means that a new chapter in the Second World War is about to begin, something the audience knows because the Casablanca of the film, where Vichy, Americans and Germans jostle with one another and refugees are seeking exit visas, will end when the Americans invade North Africa and put Casablanca under their control.

The same thing happens in real life. After we have somehow gotten the hang of being an adult and settled into whatever life it is that we have, responding to the external moments that impact on us, those including wars and presidential elections and recessions, we start to wonder how to shape the story of our own lives so that we can understand how our own personal movie ends, what kind of story it has been and continues to be. A friend of mine who recently died said not long before his death that he had led a satisfying life, even if he had not accomplished as much as he wanted to, and that the most important part of his life was his devoted marriage to the woman who had died about a year before. That was the substance and significance of his life, so he did not particularly care to extend his own life. His story, the story of his marriage, was over. I know other people who feel the same way. They have done their life’s work, whatever it is, and so want it to end neatly, even if they see no reason for it not to go on so long as they enjoy the breeze and conversing with friends and attending the theatre. It is also possible to think that the story goes on so long as one is doing productive work, each life an epic in that it has innumerable incidents to fill the space between when it begins and ends, none of them decisive in defining a life but taken together making up the life. I think Samuel Johnson’s life was like that, and so was Jane Austen, who had a new novel in the works when she was felled by a terrible illness. So movies end, and we each end, but there is always a new movie for the living to go to see, whenever they decide to go into it.

There is another one of these existential coordinates in addition to time that places people where they are in life. That other one is space. We are, each one of us, dropped into a space every much as Superman was deposited by a rocket into a field in Smallville which is where the Kents found him. The thing about the space coordinates of our lives is that they can be mapped, in that any number of our demographic characteristics, such as social class and ethnicity, are distributed more or less densely in a geographical area. There are more blacks in northern cities than there are in northern suburbs or rural regions. The thing about this spatial placement of people is that it can expand over the course of people’s lives from the womb, where the foetus hears a mother’s heartbeat and shifts position so as, I presume, to get more comfortable, to the neighborhood in which you are raised, to the place where you got your education, and perhaps to the city where you moved after that. Moreover, the cosmopolitan view of life, my view, is that people become more complex and interesting when they are exposed to other than geographic influences at an early age, which means that they have transmitted to them movies and radio programs and books that may depict a time or place but are not themselves limited to a time or place, because a modern day person can read what Plato wrote twenty five hundred years ago, and “Casablanca” can be accessed anywhere in the world, to be made of what you will. Liberation means that geography is not destiny, a person not limited to the customs or beliefs of those who surrounded the person when he or she was young.