Struck this morning by the discrepancy between what was, what has survived, and what is widely known.
An obvious example is dinosaurs. We are most likely to find the remains of big, heavily boned creatures that lived somewhere where their bones could be preserved when they died. So swamp dwelling behemoths, and their predators and scavengers, whose bodies would be more likely to sink into anaerobic mud and be preserved rather than torn apart and scattered, are what we think of first when we think of the Age of the Dinosaurs. Which is why we call it that, after all.
Meanwhile, looking at the current state of things, there would have had to have been as many or more ocean fish or inland grazers, and many, many more smaller and fragile creatures. The remains of those creatures were less likely to escape the scavengers and weather and bacteria and so on. Those left comparatively fewer bones for us to find, or left tiny bones hard to see, and are thus little known or unknown.
It’s a miracle we find *any* 100 million year old remains, and a double miracle we find anything at all from plants and soft or tiny bodied creatures.
It’s as likely as not that there were many times as many of those sorts of life than giant dinosaurs. But we don’t call it the Age of the Giant Cephalopods or the Age of Tiny Worms or the Age of Plants. So what was is one thing, what has survived to be studied is another, and what we talk about when we consider it is yet a third thing.
In a similar way, I suspect we’re not getting anything like a representative view of old architecture. Most any building more than a century old has had a lot of maintenance and repair done to it. Every once in a while, say maybe 40 or 50 years, those responsible for most non-monumental buildings face a decision: repair it or tear it down and start over.
Given that people are often stupid, I imagine there have been innumerable times when very nice buildings that you or I would want saved got torn down and replaced with something not nearly as nice. Just look at the monstrosities built to replace the attractive old buildings in pretty much any American city. You want yet another grotesquely large glass box instead of something with a little character? Evidently, the answer is generally ‘yes’. (1)
But since people are not always stupid, and because ‘beautiful’ and ‘well-built’ tend to go together, I would expect that nicer old buildings are overrepresented in the sample that has survived to this day.
When ‘the past’ is represented by samples very possibly not representative, we need to be a little cautious of generalizing our ancestor’s sensibilities. I strongly suspect there were a lot more ugly or slapdash building in York that have not survived, compared with the Shambles pictured above that did survive. In other words, I suspect the human capacity for tastelessness and stupidity has not changed all that much over time. (2)
The counterargument for this might run: life was slower then, people were not always shooting for the next great thing, and so had more time to consider and less need to rush architectural decisions. These were people who built cathedrals that typically took more than a generation to complete. They have demonstrated that they could in fact take the log view. Based on the sample we do have, their everyday buildings incorporate the the local wisdom in a way no tract home ever will – built to be comfortable and enduring in the setting they occupy. So, on the contrary, ancient buildings that have survived are an accurate measure of the superior sensibilities of our ancestors.
I’d like to believe that, sounds about right – but I’m not sure. I’m grateful that some of the good stuff made it through. Bones get filtered first by natural processes and then by the very human gee whiz factor that makes us thinks a 30 ton creature with 8″ teeth is way cooler than giant ferns or tiny insects and fish. Buildings start with man, and then get subjected to a combination of human and natural cullings as weather and time and the tender sensibilities of urban engineers take their tolls. In the end, in most cases, some human being decides to tear down or repair.
Then we come to Books – to History. Even books considered broadly undergo a somewhat similar process as buildings and bones: a combination of natural and human forces conspire to do some very serious culling. All paper – and vellum and papyrus and mud and even stone – ‘books’ decay. The tear down or repair decision becomes a copy or not one. We do not have the Library of Alexandria (whatever that was in reality) or the Library of the Golden Age of Islam because Muslims in the first case and Mongols in the second burned them down. Cromwell burnt all sorts of fun stuff. French revolutionaries burnt the ancient library of Cluny, because Reason. Germans boobytrapped several French libraries and other buildings where books and record were stored as they retreated at the end of WWI.
And so on and so forth. Thus between nature’s decay, executive decisions to copy this and not that, and the wanton destruction of stuff we don’t like, we have only a couple of the many plays of Sophocles; we have Plato’s Dialogues but not his treatises and Aristotle’s treatises but not his dialogues. This does not include works we don’t even know we don’t have. Personally, I wonder if Archimedes made any shop notes – bet those would be interesting. Then there’s the Far East, with possibly much worse conditions, in general, for the survival of any cultural artifacts – conditions in the dry and comparatively barren Middle East and Mediterranean would be easier, I suppose, on just about any human made thing than the damp and luxuriant Orient. At the very least, if the East produced great works in wood and leather instead of the stone and clay of Egypt and Mesopotamia, those works would face a much tougher path to survival over millennia.
So, it’s a miracle, in some sense, that we have much of any written documents from thousands of years ago. Different forces are at play now. Today, my shelves have a fairly large number of books marked for culling by librarians. A library at a small college in the southeast decided after a few decades in which no one checked it out that it could do without a biography of Henry Barnard. For example. Thus I, at least until I die, have made the ‘preserve’ decision for a few books on education history that were probably headed to the shredder or dumpster otherwise. The librarians, who use physical storage in an age of digital, are caught in a no-win situation: tying up shelf space for a dead tree edition of a book nobody had ever read, just in case, versus trusting someone somewhere has dedicated a square millimeter or two to digitally storing it. I’ve got even more education books in digital format than I do dead tree editions from some library. One supposes I’ll be one of very few people to read them in either format.
Back to the point of all this blather: books, especially old books, are invaluable for giving us not just information, but in letting us into a different world of thought.
But all this represents what might be called post publication censorship, using this admittedly loaded term to mean merely what is or is not available. What about pre-publication censorship? What about stuff doesn’t ever get published or even written up? At regular intervals in my Feasts & Faith group at our local parish, we talk about groups of martyrs, the Oxford University Martyrs or the Vietnamese Martyrs, for example. I remind the group that often the named people are explicitly intended as representatives of a larger group of people whose names we don’t know. The people doing the martyring – the Reformation English or Vietnamese government in these examples – have no interest in preserving the memories of the people they killed. Further, they created an environment in which it is very dangerous for other people to remember them. Thus, we happen to know about the Oxford University martyrs because each was at least a fairly prominent man or had people outside of England who knew of them – Jesuits, for example. But if you were a country priest or monastic monk, let alone just some layman or laywoman, and got murdered for your faith, who is going to write it all down, and risk being the next martyr?
This is an extreme case. More difficult are things people don’t think are interesting at the time. The lives of kings and queens, their conquests and losses, their births and deaths – these seem important to their contemporaries. There are books, and legal and government documents, and letters and so forth. The lives of less noble people must largely be reconstructed from peripheral documentation, or even from digging in the ground to see what they left. Dinosaur bones, mostly.
In a sense, I’m running into this issue when I read up on education history. I’d like to know how classes where run, what the curriculum looked like, hours and days spent in class, discipline, enthusiasm or lack thereof on the part of parents, children, and teachers, when and how changes were made and how they went over with people. In the case of Catholic education in America, the few books written on the topic are all about kings and queens – the bishops, the pope, the makers and shakers. Burns and Walsh mention the dearth of source materials, which becomes both a source and sign of the challenge: modern writers can’t give much detail, even when inclined to do so, when the people at the time didn’t record it.
So one reads as many old books as one can, in order to fill in the blanks with a sentence here and a guess there. The goal is to get a general picture into a particular time and place in which individual pieces gleaned her and there might fit. Of course no old book – no new book, either – is truly representative of any sort of zeitgeist or culture-wide understanding of anything, insofar as any reality described by those concepts can be meaningfully said to exist. (3) But they do show us how the world at one point in time looked to a Jane Austin or an Orestes Brownson or a Fichte or a Mann, or just even how it looked to some obscure scholar or priest. The more widely we read such views, the better becomes our feel for how things were. We’ll never get it completely right, of course, but then again, we’ll never really know what it’s like to be our next door neighbor. We never really know what it’s like to be our own spouse or child or parent.
- The skyline of San Francisco has only improved once in the 30+ years I’ve lived in or near it – when the Loma Prieta earthquake caused the downtown elevated freeway to be largely demolished. Addition by subtraction. The *additions*, however, starting with the Jukebox Marriott and culminating – for now – in the hulking, cancerous bulk the SalesForce building, have only overwhelmed much better buildings while adding a brutal air of domination to the city. I always enjoy walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, because of all the beautiful buildings combined with an air of openness. Chicago is much more charming than NYC in this respect. San Francisco, given the dramatic beauty of its setting, needed only not to screw it up. You can guess how that’s working out.
- Read once that the iconic car of the 50s – the 57 Chevy Bel Aire Coup – got that way because of GM’s superior painting process. Seems Chevys (and Caddies, Olds and Buicks) rust out a lot more slowly than their competitors. Other makes and models were as or more popular at the time. Connoisseurs know this, but us commoners still think those huge chromed fins are the definitive statement of 1950s Detroit Iron.
- I expect hardly at all. Even the idea of Culture is more than a little silly, as if there’s something independent of a bunch of ultimately individual decisions and unconscious reflexes by which certain things are valued and passed on and other things disparaged or ignored. Do ‘we’ have a culture? In what sense? Is it just a popularity contest? Our culture is some combination of what gets enjoyed or tolerated by enough people? Did American culture produce Star Wars, or did George Lucas? Did Italian culture produce La Traviata, or did Verde? The words culture and society seem useful, but when they get reified to the point where they are imagined to *do* anything, they’re more trouble than they’re worth.