Posted by Ginny on July 12th, 2012 (All posts by Ginny)
Well the apocalypse may be near. But our generation has been lucky. Maybe we’ve taken from the next – but time and space aren’t zero sum either – we can explore both, fill both.
I haven’t digested Robert William Fogel’s Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100 (his tables alone are beyond me – besides much else). Still, reading him, I pause in delight and gratitude. The very concepts of “premature death,” “wasting,” and “stunting” open windows – time becomes different much as Amerians in the mid-nineeenth century saw their horizons recede & enlarge. It stretched their limbs & imaginations: leaving from St. Louis, they knew some of that land would be theirs – earned by sweat as it never could be in the still feudal worlds some came from. Space liberated them. Fogel describes an enlargement of time – time for us, time with and for our children. He also describes productivity, consciousness – the energy to live fully in that time we’re given (the image of French peasants hibernating in the winters to save food doesn’t leave my mind).
Time is a recurrent literary theme, its fleeting nature the tension of carpe diem. Man’s time countered by redeemed time permeates Eliot’s Quartet, is a mystery in Wallace Stevens and an ache in Frost. Foolishly, we think we can endlessly revise, all is revocable – this permeates Prufrock’s rather inadequate approach. Franklin tells us time is the stuff life is made of – use it. Well, yes, but did he mean what we do? Is it that disconnect that leads us to fragmented training? Dalrymple notes a shallow approach to time (and history) creates a different art.
Talking to someone from, say, 1650, would meaning fall between our words – concepts unrecognizable? The clock often rules and always informs us. With electricity, we pull all-nighters to get projects out; we work night shifts; we read and party late into the night. In a remarkably short time, our sense of that “stuff” has changed, become artificial. We are ruled by time in a different way – in its increments. Still, I’m a night person, love not being chained to a dawn to dusk rhythm. And night roaming alienates me from nature & estrangements generally have hidden costs. Without energy, without lights would we return to nature’s rhythms? But would that be all that good? Certainly without that would be harder and shorter.
Our sorrows are for miscarriages and neo-natal deaths, seldom exacted because a child had measles or whooping cough or mumps. The doubling of life expectancy from 1700-2100 is miraculous. After the first years, New England Americans lived longer, stood taller, acted more productively than their cousins across the Atlantic. Fogel’s charts are less dramatic for Americans because we started healthier. (In the American South, the chances weren’t so good in that first century. Edmund Morgan describes that “seasoning” year – before immigrants could be productive and as death savagely winnowed newcomers. Planters preferred indentured servants, only moving to slavery in the next century when odds favored that larger investment.) But even allowing for that, colonial children died at a rate we see as tragic; childbirth was rightly feared.
Is child raising the same, when we confidently plan for their maturity? It has obviously affected the birth rate and that affects so much more. Fogel’s population chart, with historical moments marked, is breath taking. Certainly, some of our responses would seem foreign – as do theirs. Their faith dominates. Surely, they would find our tort system as mysterious as we would their daily rhythms. Edward Taylor’s first wife died & his poem pours out grief; they had shared – resisted and accepted – the pain of five of their children’s deaths in infancy. Winthrop had four wives – for the first one he renounced the ministry because he preferred marriage and the quicker route to self-sufficiency of the law; his third came to America on a later passage than his (they set a time to look at the skies, meditating on the other a continent away, firmly mated at heart if not in body). We see great love in Bradstreet & Taylor, foregrounded by family tragedy we would consider extraordinary; then, theirs was the general experience. A couple of posts will put up some poems that remind us of how little our sorrows change but how much our circumstances do. And, if our lives have lengthened, so, too, has our perception of the “realness” of a time frame we can less and less wrap our minds around. Our lives seemed short; they aren’t likely to seem long now – nor our species’, nor our earth’s.