The Portuguese are a very odd people (you can stop guffawing now, it’s unbecoming). I don’t know if there is such a thing as a word devoted solely to nostalgia in other languages, but there is one in Portuguese.
They told us in translation class that this word – Saudade – can’t be literally translated to any one word in any other language. Its definition would be something like “a near sick longing for days gone by/someone who is dead or far away/a condition you can’t be in again.”
The only time I can honestly say I’ve experienced it full force is in the middle of winter in Colorado. I’m a person who doesn’t function well (or often at all) in cold weather, and sometimes I just long for warmth and know I can’t get it, and get all upset.
If I could recapture one day in the past – just one perfect day – it would be labor day when Marshall was three, and we discovered the decaying amusement park where I set Noah’s Boy. The kids were young enough they never tired of the rides. We went there I think at five, and stayed till long after ten pm. Dan went on the rides with them, but I don’t do rides (I don’t pay money to be made uncomfortable.) So I just took three mysteries, and walked around, and waited for them, and listened to their excited stories about the rides. Then we went for a train ride around the park. And, because all other restaurants were closed and we’d already eaten at our favorite diner that day, we ended up having late dinner at a Chinese restaurant downtown with a view of the city and introduced Marshall to Peking Duck.
If I could relive one perfect day, it would be that. But it doesn’t rise to the level of saudade, because afterwards, I would want to be right back where I am. (Though if we’re going to talk about knowing what I know now, this was right after I’d sold Ill Met By Moonlight, but it hadn’t come out, and if I’d known then what I know now, I’d not have bothered pursuing a career again, except for trying to get in at Baen. Everything else would have gone in the drawer. It would have saved me years – years – of stress.OTOH who knows if I’d be the person I’m now, and have the abilities I have now. Yes, I know I might have better ones, but what if I didn’t.)
So, yesterday I was hanging out at Powerline, and saw their little thing on the pictures of the early twentieth century that Glenn put up.
John Hinderaker says this My reaction is, it isn’t just Detroit. The whole world looks better to me–less crowded, cleaner, more confident and hopeful. Better dressed, too.
So, I went and looked. I can do saudade like nobody’s business, I was trained early. But looking at those pictures, what came to mind was my childhood.
No, I didn’t grow up in that time. Believe it or not, I was born in the middle of the twentieth century, plus twelve years. However, looking at those pictures, they looked more familiar to me than I suspect they would for most of you.
I was told when I was little that Portugal was twenty years behind the rest of the western world. Maybe so. I’m sure the gap in medical science and other such things was no more than that. Were it more, born premature and fragile, I wouldn’t be here.
However, it is a bad thing to think of civilizations and of history as moving along the same lines everywhere and in every respect. It’s a human error, of course, and one that often shows up in science fiction books as “they have nineteenth century level technology.”
The thing is not scripted, and someone can be living at the nineteenth century level in transportation, say, and at the twenty first in medicine. Or, as I understand applies in parts of Africa, at the medieval or before level in technology, but with ipods or cars.
In the area I was in, the pockets were more complex than that. Yeah, we mostly had “nineteenth century level” transportation tech, except that there were cars and buses and particularly vans and trucks aplenty. The… a … domestic tech might have been pre-nineteenth century. Most kitchens didn’t have running water, so it had to be got out of the well and carried in. And our house had a – cold – shower, but most houses didn’t even have that. (And the only person who used that was my dad.)
Looking at those pictures, I could feel the scratchy fabric on the skin, the sense you have in summer of grime all over you when you don’t bathe but once a week and just washing in parts from a basin is not the same. I could smell those pictures too. Yes, they’re beautiful, but I could smell the horse manure on the city streets and the tang of the smoke of those trains in the air.
And I could smell those children: unwashed hair and sweat.
I remember thirty years ago, even, getting on a train in Portugal – when it had come long distance from the mountains – was a noseful. Not that people didn’t wash. They did, once a week or so. But we humans are stinky beasts. And in winter you needed to add the smell of coal fires, which many people used to dry clothes and most people – outside the urban centers – used for heating and cooking.
And I knew that the beautiful shops and restaurants would be sweltering in summer, freezing in winter, and frankly, that as beautiful as they look, you couldn’t get the variety you get now at your local seven eleven. Or frankly the quality.
As for “less crowded” – not really. There were probably more people you were forced into close contact with. There are statistics proving there was less footage per person in houses, and I attest to that in trains and buses and city streets.
As for ideas – brother, you think we’re badly off now – back then they really — really – believed big government could solve everything and take us to the stars and make everyone’s life paradise. And we won’t go into the thousand indignities that composed daily life, which were taken for granted. And no, I’m not talking of “women and minorities.” We have gotten more… civilized – for both good and ill – in the last hundred years. If you don’t believe me, read books from that time. (For Us The Living, but Rex Stout of the time, too.) Men seemed to be as violent as adults as they now are in Middle School: a constant game of “I can knock off your block” which must have been hell for Odd males.
So, what causes the “saudade” in rational people, with no invested interest in returning us to the past?
I think it’s two things: there is a sense of confidence in the photos. Yes, part of this is that it was a more masculine society and in contradiction to what I said above, maybe we need to go halfway there again. Maybe society shouldn’t be as namby pamby and “mommy will hold you so you don’t fall.”
But the more important one is the aesthetic. I’ve talked here before about how our aesthetics, our society and to an extent our morals were all shocked by World War One and what we have now is the equivalent of a child hiding in the closet and denying its childhood, because it all ended badly.
For the last almost a hundred years, we’ve been living with the stripped down function-over-form aesthetic, the aspiration to look proletarian, the undecorated, stripped down look that became fashionable post WWI as a reaction against the previous aesthetic.
The thing I want you to understand is this: There I no reason for it. The reasons you’ve been given in school are not reasons, but someone’s guesses at why it had gone this way, or even someone’s bankrupt justification of why it “should” be that way.
Things like “there were fewer resources and we had to stretch them over more people” are patently not true. The price of raw materials has gone down, not up. Things like “Stripped down following of form is always more beautiful” is someone’s aesthetic OPINION and you don’t have to believe it.
Look, I can even see where in those days those clothes they wore were horribly uncomfortable, and the decorations in bridges and stuff were hard to make and expensive. But now? With our materials?
We can make the future look like anything we want and make it comfortable too.
And that goes double for societal confidence. As long as we remember that things don’t need to be done by the state to be big or ambitious?
What I want to say to you is this: You like the look of the past? Take the look of the past. (I’d argue there’s a great hunger for this. Look at Steampunk.)
You want the societal confidence of that time? Have it. Yes, we’re going through bad times, but we have the resources and the abilities to make things better. Do we have the abilities to make things perfect for everyone? No war, no disease, no crime? Well, no. The infinitely perfectible humanity is a dream that has caused more death and devastation than any other dream of mankind. Let it go. Just concentrate on making things better, and, yes, prettier if you can. Societal confidence will come with it, with improving things step by step.
Let others dream of the past. You forget about saudade, okay? You take what you like/love/admire about the past and bring it to the future, with all the improvements the future offers.
Be not afraid. The future is wide open. It is yours to shape.