Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Time present and time past

The grandparents of my parents were children of the last great famine in Western Europe. In the late 1860's several concequent bad harvests led to widespread starvation and disease, and almost 10% of the population of Finland died. It can be said that I have been largely formed by people in whose immediate historical memory this disaster was. There is thus a tenuous living connection that undoubtedly will no more be carried over to the next generation. Our son was born ten months ago into a dynamic, postmodern and cosmopolitan high-tech society that is busily consuming and being amused by the global entertainment industry. He will have no real connection with that passed away rural civilization.

It is in fact almost inconceivable to think that this land of brightly lit shopping malls and cutting edge mobile techonology was starving to death by the roadsides only mere five generations ago. Certainly this is not much thought about now: we occupy ourselves almost entirely with the present and the near future. The speed is too high, too dangerous for any meaningful reflection. So much has changed so quickly. I myself - as can be seen so clearly in retrospect - witnessed the ending of the last remnants of the rural Ostrobothnia that was still the unquestioned mental and cultural background of my parents. This huge change happened with astonishing speed largely only after the Second World War with the social change skipping industrialization and shifting the emphasis directly from agriculture to services in one generation. I still believe that I have the feel, the texture of that rural civilization that now has vanished. It is a wild ride we are on, uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

Many believe that there is no use in remembering even this quite recent past, only the previous half hour in historical terms - certainly such remembrance can sometimes hinder finding new perspectives and new solutions to largely unprecedented social situations. Still, without this long view we would surely get a wrong understanding of our position (on the crest of a huge wave racing towards an unknown destination), we would see the current moment out of all proportion, one-dimensional and shallow. It is hard to believe, even if civilization will eventually persist, that we are now done with all collapses and calamities. There is too little behind us though to know anything for sure: this mad, chaotic progress is only a few centuries old - there is no way of predicting how this process will continue or whether it will continue at all.

In any case it is difficult not to feel half-nostalgic about those times and meanings that were once so real and immediate and which now seem unimaginably distant and strange. I suppose it is more the fact of passing than the content of what has passed: most things are much better now. But so much has so easily vanished from living memory, and this is what will happen to our moment too - hard to imagine though that anyone would feel any nostalgia about this society but that no doubt also depends on what's to come.


Jens-Olaf said...

Speed of life. I live in a country now that was starving not 40 years ago. Now everything seems to be about change. There are shortcomings but rethink it was only 40 years ago and my wife got artifical sugar within water as child by her mother. That was the reality in Korea. Don't blame the present too much.

stockholm slender said...

Well, I'm a progressive after all - I hope for progress, for change, but the current trends are not that satisfactory from the progressive point of view. We seem to be steadily losing our enlightenment values, and one is hard pressed to imagine how the civilization would be like without them. But not a nice sight, in any case, I believe...