Geezer talk about Golden Ages that never were
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, February 19, 2002)

Just about everyone believes in the idea of the Golden Age, but no one has ever announced that we are right now living through one. The air around us is filled, as always, with loving accounts of various Golden Ages, but all in the past. People used to read more, think better, live more honest lives. They spoke better, developed better political ideas and gave better parties. People were smarter before TV -- but early TV was smarter than recent TV. In the old days there were public intellectuals, brilliant thinkers who kept us alert and informed; alas, as several American commentators have lately shown, they all died out.

This is nonsense, of course, though probably harmless. It pleases those who write it or speak it and those who read and listen. It substitutes for thinking. It is geezer talk, the dreamy fantasies of the old and nearly old who want desperately to convince themselves that they once did everything better than young folks do it now.

Just the other day, Allan Fotheringham wrote about a time when women in Ottawa were exciting, as apparently they aren't at the moment. Fotheringham was in those days a couple of decades younger, a fact that only he will consider coincidental.

Spider Robinson, the science fiction writer, believes, as he wrote recently, that there was a Golden Age of science fiction when he was young. It inspired him, but now he feels betrayed because the tastes and interests of the public have changed.

Young people especially are not doing their duty, which is to replicate the reading habits of the young Spider Robinson. Unlike him, they enjoy the neo-medieval fantasies of Tolkien & Co. They don't embrace the future in space, as young people should.

"I am disturbed," Robinson wrote, "by the growing realization that today's bright teenagers -- always science fiction's bread and butter -- no longer want to know what the future is going to be like, that they are willing to imagine no more, no better, no further, than their great-grandparents did."

That's pure geezer talk. Like most such balderdash, it involves a confusion of realms, in this case conflating taste and ethics. Robinson converts differences of imaginative pleasure into differences of morality. The failure of the young to hail his kind of future makes them unworthy. He seems not to know that his own words mark him as the ultimate conservative, a man who yearns to see his youth replayed by the next generation.

The first Golden Age was so long ago that we can't begin to date it, and even the first example of geezer literature can't be precisely located in time. Sometime around 700 BC, in Greece, Hesiod wrote Works and Days. It describes the Golden Age, well before his time, when everything was perfect. It was always spring, the world was at peace, and fruit grew without anyone bothering to cultivate it.

Those details faded, but the idea of a Golden Age took root in the Western imagination. It became a way of complaining about the present.

Years ago a newspaper editor I was working for suggested I write an article on the decline of oratory. "Politicians today," he said,"don't give good speeches anymore, like they used to, 20 years ago, in the days of John Diefenbaker." My own view was that Diefenbaker's speeches consisted of daydreams (he called them a "vision") combined with bile. He could actually tell a joke, but always killed it with a smirk. Still, I promised the editor to think about it.

It happened that the next day, in pursuit of self-improvement, I was turning the pages of a work by Seneca, who lived some eight centuries after Hesiod and showed his influence. My eye fell on a passage in which Seneca (roughly 1,900 years ago) mourned the sharp decline in the quality of oratory. It had flourished in his youth, he claimed, but was now a dead art. I decided that maybe this wasn't the freshest story of the year, and ducked the assignment.

Giorgio Armani has lately revealed himself as an oddity, a geezer who operates in the world of fashion. After a lifetime of making expensive clothes for rich people, he recently issued a humourless attack on, of all things, consumerism. By some bizarre twist of the mind he has decided that young people cause moral failure in his business. Consumerism dominates their lives, as it presumably did not dominate his. "Today's youth, which has suffered neither deprivation nor war, does not value sacrifice. Today, having the newest watch is what people care about." It is typical of the geezer that he does not notice when he turns into a clown.

Last month, reading an obituary of Frank Shuster, I was struck by words attributed to Harry Rasky, the documentary director. Rasky, who is 73, said the comedy team of Wayne and Shuster came from an older tradition. "It was a different time," Rasky said, "when we all aspired to be something greater than ourselves." What does that imply about their successors? I've not heard people expressing a desire to be less than they are. But it is a rule of journalism that no geezer is required to explain or think through what he says.

Jacques Barzun's enjoyable and successful book of cultural history, From Dawn to Decadence, can be seen as top-of-the-line geezerism. He believes civilization has been decaying since the Renaissance. If he meant only painting, one could sympathize. But he means everything: philosophy, literature, music, political ideas, etc.

It occurred to me as I read Barzun that he runs the common risk of misjudging his own time just because it is his own time. It's dangerous to assess a period while living it, and perhaps particularly dangerous for those of a certain age (Barzun is in his nineties). His affection for the past can easily screen out the reality of the present.

We forget that all we have of the past is the good stuff; our ancestors threw away the rest. In the present, as always, bad art and bad ideas inevitably outnumber the good. It was ever thus. Only a confirmed geezer fails to grasp that crucial point.

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