The Apocalypse – the fear we always have – and Fogel – the cheer we might consider

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.

3 thoughts on “The Apocalypse – the fear we always have – and Fogel – the cheer we might consider”

  1. A long time ago, at some point I can’t remember, the meaning of the phrase “The game wasn’t worth the candle” suddenly hit me. I realized that for pre-industrial people, the use of light after sunset for a specific purpose (a card game required a candle, it couldn’t be played merely by firelight) was a conscious expenditure. To waste it was a matter of regret. Seems obvious when you state it, but for people who grew up with light at night taken for granted, the phrase was just an odd turn of speech.

  2. I have 4 children, and have bored them many times with an ongoing narrative about the major changes that have occurred over the past few centuries, and have accelerated over the last hundred years or so, to make our world qualitatively different from any earlier age.

    The foundation of all our progress is the emergence of empirical scientific reasoning, and the collapse of the authoritarian intellectual/social/cultural which in past eras controlled everything the population was allowed to do or believe in, from the personal to the public.

    I just finished reading “Galileo’s Daughter”, an excellent book about his life and struggles with the controlling powers, church and state, which sought to uphold the prevailing orthodoxy at any cast.

    We are engaged in just such a struggle now, although few see the depths of the engagement, or the danger that the possibility of a victory for the conventional wisdom and its defenders poses for the independent thinker.

    I just saw on Instapundit a reference to an academic who is being investigated by his university because he dared to publish a study critical of same sex parents. I don’t know whether the study is valid or not, but I notice the reaction to that heresy in contrast to the reaction of academia to the shoddy standards revealed in many major climate research papers by the climategate memos.

    The fundamental argument for a minimal and limited state is the relentless effort of those committed to ideology x, y, or z to capture its powers and use them to enforce the orthodoxy of the captors.

    Mead has been discussing the unravelling of the blue state model recently in some insightful essays. Its adherents will not give it up without a fight, and a vicious, dirty bout it will be.

  3. “It is unnatural to bury your child” is a sentiment expressed oft of late, but it is not true. Death in childhood was not uncommon, not that long ago.
    Visit any cemetery with 19th century or prior headstones. Visit family plots on the farms in the midwest for physical proof of infant mortality.
    People of this day and age have come to expect as normal what would have been considered miracles in the recent past. We ignore cuts and scrapes, and even the most casual of hygiene in caring for wounds and infections. We have this expectation that anti-biotics will take care of these problems even as the bugs have eaten up the design margin and more and more medicines fail to cure.
    Seems to me a lot of us are in for a rude awakening.
    My father died when I was half his age. I now have lived that other half, and realize how he was so cheated by medical incompetents poking around in arteries without immediate recourse if they broke something loose. I have learned the shortness of life, even as I live today. Not that I ‘deserve’ to live longer, but the shortness, and brutality of so many things in the past 200 years bring home how precious life is. I ask my wife … can you imagine it, if I were my father I would be dead now… and it strikes home. I observe the, to my mind, fools in the arts who believe them self immortal, and infuse them self with drugs to feel good for an instant, only to die an instant later. I have seen more death than I want, and have not been exposed personally to the product of war.
    To accept death as inevitable is fact. To rush its occurrence is incomprehensible.

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