"He felt that he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality."
-- G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, Chapter XV
Thursday, October 28, 2010
You Wouldn't Want To Live in Any Era But This One
Do you dream of Empire-waisted gowns and tall, imperious men named Darcy? Is the fancy dinner party you yearn for one of grapes and wine and oysters eaten while reclining leisurely on your lectus triclinaris? Do your penchants for blue eyeshadow and unbridled power make you envy Cleopatra? Would you give your eyeteeth for a chance to act on the stage of Shakespeare's Globe?
If you, like me, feel often out of step with this current age and moon about sighingly for an era not your own, then I have the perfect antidote for you: The You Wouldn't Want To series from Scholastic. Read them and remember how darn lucky we are to have been born to a world with indoor plumbing and an advanced sewer system.
Dearest Tom Hobbes felt blessed for civilization's achievements of good governance in the 17th century when he reflected that life in a state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Of course, now we have lives that are "publicly broadcast, indolent, amoral, apathetic and long." But, see there, I am already losing the gratitude I ought to hold for what Western civilization has become. As much as I hate, hate, hate many aspects of it, I need only repeat the mantra "indoor plumbing, indoor plumbing, indoor plumbing" to get my head back around the right way.
Because, without indoor plumbing and advanced sewerage, ew. Truly, ew. I was reading Passionate Minds by David Bodanis last night, and he was writing about a young Voltaire who, with much aplomb and misguided arrogance, falsely claimed to have written some seditious verses about the French regent, Phillipe d'Orléans. When the officials who arrested him could not find the verses, Voltaire claimed that he threw them down the toilet. They had to get the vidanguese — the local official responsible for emptying the city drains — to open the drain and peer inside. She claimed that she could see no incriminating papers floating near the top. So — barf-o-rama! — they made her open the drains and go inside to inspect further. As she pushed her way in, the pressure was too much for the brick and mortar enclosure. A pipe burst. Everything came shooting out. Everything. But, no subversive writings were found, because Voltaire had been lying the entire time. Forget the sedition — for that useless and disgusting excursion alone, they ought to have hanged him.
(When Voltaire was exiled to England a few years later, by the way, he was astounded at its modernity. He was awed by its robust capitalism, its easy relationship between different religions, its freedom of expression. And, just this past year, "Mohammed" was the most popular boys name registered in England. "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction" ~RR. I'm going to miss that grand old lion.)
Electricity, modern medicine, vacuum cleaners, portable music, inexpensive books, bicycles, automobiles, airplanes, trains, capitalism and free markets, clean water, aspirin, clean air, clean and inexpensive food, a system of laws and courts, private property, the right of redress, representative government, the chance of education, the ability to meet your pre-destined best friend even though she lives a few thousand miles away, central heating and air conditioning, ready-made clothes, deodorant, leisure time, opportunities, freedom of religion, sunscreen, Scrubbing Bubbles, water parks, computer games, the Internet, and the near-miraculous blessing of a highly advanced plumbing and sewer system (!!!) are all things to fill even the most secular of souls with gratitude.
I'm going to try to be better about not knocking this modern world. After all, the implied point of the Scholastic series is right: all things considered, I really wouldn't want to live in any country or era than this one. Historic times and ancient cultures are lovely to read about, perfect objects for flights of fancy, fascinating to look back upon . . . but, most often, in the living of them, they were terribly, terribly stinky.