Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Thoughts on a Hundred Years Ago

Penned upon the 20th of May, 2006

The Victorian Era. 1837-1901, give or take half a decade at either end. Why immerse oneself in the study of history, ever placing it up alongside the present? Was life better then? Certainly not. Business was almost completely unregulated, the rich lived in excess and the poor in squalor, disease was widespread. Was it a terribly exciting time to be alive? Certainly. Business was almost completely unregulated, the rich lived in excess and the poor in squalor, disease was widespread.

It is self-evident that knowledge of the past can teach us something of the present. But while it is folly to assume that the understanding thus granted can ever be complete, it is even greater folly to assume the transition from then to now has been one of universal progress and improvement, thus rendering the past invalid, inapplicable, devoid of content. Society always thinks of itself as being practically perfect, and incorporating all elements and angles one could conceivably conceive of including. In fact even the very manner in which we think of “present” and “future” have changed.

Possibly never before have the lessons of this past era been more relevant. The complexities that occur when technology and modernity far outpace society’s ability to adapt, organise and control – in their time industrialisation and capitalisation, in ours deindustrialisation and globalisation – are at the centre of so many conflicts, movements and, alas, tragedies of the modern world.

At the same time, the dramatic differences between the mindsets of the two eras also create an appeal. In a blanket over our whole political thought lies the legacy of Marxism and the Soviet Union, with its ideological rejections of entire structures, philosophies and swathes of society. This vehement rejection of pragmatism can make Victorian politics, with the six simple demands of the People’s Charter and ‘Radicalism’ as an established parliamentary platform, seem enticingly utilitarian. Different notions of “the public” and “service” too are interesting. The change in the nature of postal services, or public transport, or government spending, help dispel the notion that the slim, efficient, even skeletal system that has been the norm for the past thirty years is the only way of doing things.

Similarly, the modern media, attempting to paint the world as it imagines its customers wish to see it, shows the nobility of publishers and artists of old in seeking truth, integrity, reputability – for all their pretensions. For all the macabre opportunism of the Victorian mourning industry, it at least allowed the confrontation of the reality of death – something the modern world is perfectly happy to use to popularise police dramas, but not to accept as a part of the human condition which will not let itself be hid behind the curtain.

Time has marched on and Progress with it, but be sure of one thing: the promises never fulfilled, the ideals forgotten, the humanity left at the side of the road; these are not gone forever. The modern world cannot sustain itself, ecologically or otherwise. It is too minimal, too fearful of committment, too unwilling to explore the deeper meaning of anything. For those who seek to rejuvinate and redeem humankind, those shamans who have and will come, there are few greater sources of inspiration and information in Western culture than the Victorian era, a time of transition and contradictions and of some of the greatest acts of human creativity and spirituality Europe has produced. Of course it was a period with many faults – and so is now, so by George, don’t take the same ancient faults without asking for an extra helping of the virtues as well, or we’ll never get anywhere!


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