Essay — From the September 2016 issue

Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now

On the politics of nostalgia

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Not long after setting out on his first adventures, Don Quixote is invited to share a frugal meal with a group of goatherds. A little meat stew, plenty of wine. When they finish, the goatherds spread out hard cheese and a quantity of acorns, which they start cracking open for dessert. Don Quixote just rolls a few in his hand, lost in a reverie. He clears his throat. Fortunate the age and fortunate the times called golden by the ancients, he tells the chewing peasants. It was an age when nature’s bounty lay ready to be gathered. There was no mine and thine, no farms, no making of farm tools, no makers of farm tools. Modest shepherdesses, simply attired, roamed the hills unmolested, stopping only to hear the spontaneous, unaffected poetry of their chaste lovers. No laws were enforced because none were needed.

That age ended. Why? The goatherds do not ask, and Quixote doesn’t burden them with his esoteric knowledge. He just reminds them of what they already know: now maidens and even orphans are not safe from predators. When the Golden Age ended, laws became necessary, but since there were no pure hearts left to enforce them, the strong and vicious were free to terrorize the weak and good. That was why the order of knights was created in the Middle Ages, and why Quixote has resolved to revive it. The goatherds listen in “stupefied and perplexed” silence to this old man in his papier-mâché helmet. Sancho Panza, already used to his master’s harangues, continues drinking.

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Illustrations by Jeremy Traum

Quixote has convinced himself that once upon a time the world really was as it was meant to be, that the ideal had been made flesh before it vanished. His suffering is Christian; he awaits the Second Coming. His quest is doomed from the start because he is rebelling against the nature of time, which is irreversible and unconquerable. What is past is past; this is the thought he cannot bear. Chivalric literature has robbed him of irony, the armor of the lucid. Irony may be defined as the ability to negotiate the gap between the real and the ideal without doing violence to either. Quixote is under the illusion that the gap he perceives was caused by a historical catastrophe, not that it is simply rooted in life.

This fantasy is sustained by an assumption about history: that the past comes already divided into discrete, coherent ages. An “age,” of course, is nothing more than a space between two markers that we place on the ticker tape of time to make history legible to ourselves. We do the same by carving “events” out of the chaos of experience, as Stendhal’s Fabrice del Dongo discovers in his futile search for the Battle of Waterloo. To put some order in our thinking, we must impose a rough-and-ready order on the past. We speak metaphorically of the “dawn of an age” or “the end of an era” without meaning that at some precise moment we crossed a border. When the past is remote, we are especially aware of our imprecision, and nothing seems particularly at stake if, say, we move the boundaries of the Pleistocene or the Stone Age forward or back a millennium. The distinctions are there to serve us, and when they don’t we revise them or ignore them. In principle, what taxonomy is to biology, chronology should be to history.

But the closer we get to the present, and the more our distinctions concern society, the more charged chronology becomes. This is also true of taxonomy. The concept of race has one resonance when applied to plants, another when applied to human beings. The danger in the latter is reification. That happens when we develop a concept to help make sense of reality (the Aryan linguistic group, for example), then subsequently declare it to be a fact inscribed in reality itself (a homogeneous Aryan people with a distinct culture and history). We are learning not to do that with race, but when it comes to understanding history we are still incorrigibly reifying creatures.

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is a professor of humanities at Columbia University. The Shipwrecked Mind, from which this essay is taken, is out this month from New York Review Books.

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