of Golden Ages

John Quiggen's blog is where this line of thought began today, but Quiggen's post is overwhelmingly economics-centered. I can't be having with that, as Granny Weatherwax is wont to say (and see The Orangutan Librarian for more context).

The notion of a now-vanished Golden Age follows us around, ducking in and out of all manner of experiences and holding up fun-house mirrors (see Wikipedia for much more on the history and range of the trope; and this extension for its broader range of application, viz. anime, and race queens, and science fiction...).

And all isn't skittles and beer even IN a Golden Age, as the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia Ego reminds us: "Even in Arcadia [an ideal pastoral idyll], I [Death] am still present." Or, as we might say, there's a fly in every ointment.

So what are our various personal Golden Ages, which might be defined as moments to which we can look back as ideas and ideals and idylls, which if only they could have gone on forever... These could be REALLY personal moments of perceived happiness and balance, or could be spans of time when it seemed that Ford was in his flivver and all was right with the world (the Brave New World characterization). As Joni Mitchell put it (re: Woodstock) "We gotta get back to the Garden" (see lyrics, and two specific takes on the song):


IS there any going back to the Garden?


As seems to be my habit, I'll start working on my response here, and update you when there's something added.

My own Arcadias didn't transpire at Acadia, though in some respects my life in Nova Scotia was a Garden of Delights: stunningly beautiful landscape, freedom to pursue anything I wanted, family... and we could have gone back upon retirement 16 years ago, to resume the best parts of life there, but the old same-river-twice suggested that it might not work out, and St. George has proved to be a wiser choice. Kate has the house, so we can still visit and enjoy the ambience without the responsibilities. And Fundy keeps rolling in 40+ foot tides, on schedule, and the dykes still protect the Grand Pre Marsh, originally dyked by the Acadians.

house and garden 1975


morning walk on the Horton Landing dykelands

semipalmated sandpipers

My own if-only-it-could-have-gone-on-forever moments are in graduate school years, when we and friends would stay up talking to all hours, herbally augmented. That's where my real education happened.

700 Hermosa Way

and a delirious week in Death Valley:
Shel and Jaca and Kentlee

Kentlee, Betsy and Jaca

Jaca at Zabriskie Point

In fact I can identify lots and lots of Golden Moments, many of them musical or photographic, in which "for a minute there it all made sense" and quite a few of those are revisitable by ear and eye, and engraved upon the mind, readily retrievable. So in that sense, yes, I can get back to the Garden.


2 April
and the very next day, what rolls in but this from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

adj. the wish that the modern world felt as epic as the one depicted in old stories and folktales—a place of tragedy and transcendence, of oaths and omens and fates, where everyday life felt like a quest for glory, a mythic bond with an ancient past, or a battle for survival against a clear enemy, rather than an open-ended parlor game where all the rules are made up and the points don't matter.

I've had the word 'halcyon' in mind for years, and consider doing a Blurb book with that in the title and photographs of happy times of yore. But what is this 'halcyon' anyway? The OED lists first the (Linnaean name of the) kingfisher; the second meaning is our bound-phrase friend, as in 'halcyon days':

Of a period of time: characterized by peace, happiness, prosperity, or success; (of a situation, condition, state, etc.) calm, tranquil; carefree. Now often with overtones of nostalgia.
...and that's surely our personal Golden Age, Joni's Garden.

3 April
I'm beginning to recognize that this is another of the Big Questions, dealing as it does in experiences of Time, a basic human construct/conception in which our lives are enmeshed, a Hyperobject if there ever was one. A lot to say, not sure how to architext it... and more bits rolling in by the minute.

Item: I awoke this morning with the phrase 'Havisham Effect' in mind, followed in short order by 'Gernsback Continuum'. I've learned to listen to such pre-caffeine proddings. The Havisham Effect is (I assure you, previously unbeknownst to my thinking the phrase) a thing, noted in the Wikipedia article on Miss Havisham:
The condition of the "Miss Havisham effect" has been coined by scientists to describe a person who suffers a painful longing for lost love, which can become a physically addictive pleasure by activation of reward and pleasure centres in the brain, which have been identified to regulate addictive behaviour—regions commonly known to be responsible for craving and drug, alcohol and gambling addiction.
And what has that to do with Golden Ages? It's sort of an inverse, obviously, in which the present is poisoned by what's held on to from the past. In Amelia Havisham's case, the rest of her life is defined by a single tragic event: being jilted via a letter that arrived at 9:20, just as she was putting on her wedding dress. Her clocks are stopped at 9:20 and she wears the dress and only the dress... Dickens (Great Expectations) at his creepiest.

And what of Gernsback? The phrase references (and is the title of) one of William Gibson's earliest published stories, and memorializes the early sci-fi editor [Amazing Stories]/writer/inventor Hugo Gernsback. Andrew Wood summarizes Gibson's story:

The 'continuum' refers to a conceptual space, an alternative universe that exists alongside our own - and occasionally intersects with our 'real' world. This space includes a range of probabilities from the most concrete and sensible to the most abstract and fantastic visions of public life. The Gernsback Continuum is a broad arc of intersecting futures with alternative implications for public life...
and describes the protagonist's
brush with semiotic ghosts. These phantoms are artifacts - buildings, postcards, song lyrics, comic books, speeches, pieces of wall paper - fragments of a collective imagination of public life that has been forgotten, but not fully eliminated.
The story relates the disconcerting effects upon a photographer hired to make pictures of art deco objects, which then take on a life of their own in his mind, a utopia:
In a dream state, he passes beyond his public life, into the world imagined by streamline modern architects, city planners, and pulp fiction novelists of the 1930s. There, he witnesses an alternative 1980s in which the bold visions of tomorrow - vast, gleaming, spotless cities - came true. In this continuum, the virtues and promise of technology were never perverted by war and disillusionment. The technocracy of plastic, lucite, and stainless steel never mutated into the stark totalitarianism of Hitler's Germany and the subtle tyranny of America's suburbs... Our narrator tries to will himself out of this continuum, but finds that his return from the desert to Los Angeles merely showers him with fragments of this half forgotten world. Some cities and places and artifacts, it seems, possess the power to intersect with alternative continuums of public life.

Somewhere in here is the nostalgic element of our Golden Age moments, which are essentially imagined or imperfectly remembered, and converted into bits of the Garden. The flip side of the Alienation that seems often to plague the world of the present.

4 April
By way of Easter Morning Summary: One of the conceptual spaces we [can/may/actually do] inhabit is that Arcadia wherewhen life is good, happy, satisfying. The most common model puts this version of life in the past (rarely in the future), and houses it in memories which are usually fragmentary and highly selective. Nostalgia is one descriptor of this territory, and I was surprised to discover that 'nostalgia' was coined by Johannes Hofer in 1688 as a translation of the German Heimweh, usually glossed as 'homesickness' but with the more modern sense of 'bittersweet longing' (Greek algos [grief, pain] + nostos [homecoming, safe return]), to describe the mental state of Swiss mercenary soldiers pining for home.

And what touches off this nostalgia? Famously for Proust, the taste of a madeleine:

on one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. The tea has called up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeat indefinitely with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; which I, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call upon the tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of its existence, but only the sense that it was a happy, that it was a real state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I find again the same state, illumined by no fresh light. I compel my mind to make one further effort, to follow and recapture once again the fleeting sensation. And that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention to the sounds which come from the next room. And then, feeling that my mind is growing fatigued without having any success to report, I compel it for a change to enjoy that distraction which I have just denied it, to think of other things, to rest and refresh itself before the supreme attempt. And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it. I place in position before my mind's eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed...

And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it...

So our Question might be taken as: have you any madeleines in your life, stimuli which evoke quite specific (and generally warm and positive) memories? Particular songs seem to have that property for many people, and I suspect for some in our age cohort there are Beatles songs which work in that way (but see Maxwell's Silver Hammer as counterexample...).