Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Golden Age

I recently saw Paris at Midnight, the Woody Allen movie, on DVD. It is not, I think, one of his best movies, even though it received a number of award nominations. What it does do, however, is highlight one particular human characteristic, namely: the belief in a Golden Age. For the central character of the movie, played by Owen Wilson, the Golden Age of Paris was during the nineteen-twenties, when so many writers and artists congregated there. For the young woman he meets there/then, the Golden Age was the Belle Époque of the eighteen-nineties. For those people, the Golden Age was the Renaissance. One could probably extend this further to argue that for the people of the Renaissance the Golden Age was to be found in Ancient Greece.

There is this unstoppable inclination for human beings to stride through life with their heads over their shoulders, casting wistful glances at the golden glow behind them, whether that be the glow of the Golden Age, or of the Good Ole Days. Spatially, the grass is always greener over there; temporally it was greener back then. We know that the people over there believe that our grass is greener, although why they would think that mystifies us. Similarly, we know that the people who lived during our particular version of the Golden Age did not regard it as such. Do we have a better view from where/when we stand?

It is true that distance can provide a certain perspective. We can miss what is right in front of our eyes. From our remote temporal perspective we are able to understand the importance of those days in Paris, of that coming together of great minds and creativity. We know what Picasso and Dali, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald would go on to produce. At the time, such things remained undetermined. We can see the finished building, whereas they could only see the foundations and some rather shaky timber framework. So, yes, we do have a broader, and perhaps a better, perspective.

Except that in some ways our perspective is much worse. We see only the tall trees in the forest. We see only the people who left their mark. We do not see Pablo Picasso’s poor cousin, Fred, who died in poverty without any recognition, and without selling a single painting. We forget about Harry Fitzgerald, who couldn’t even finish one novel. And we forget about the thousands, indeed, hundreds of thousands, who struggled to live from day to day.

The Golden Age, whatever that may be for us, was most probably like every age, indeed, like our age: The best of times… the worst of times.


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