October 28, 2010
musings about how the more things change, the more some things stay the same, Kate asks what makes a "classic" era classic.
Nostalgia is always about 40-50 years in the past: 40-50 years ago, life was perfect! Which is nonsense, of course, but it has made me wonder if, in another 20 years, people will be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s and 1990s.
I think half a century is how long it takes to take the long view and distill from an era what's worth preserving. Or to put it another way, fifty years is how long it takes to sort out those cultural artifacts that carbon date the time (like fashion and pop music) from those that transcend it.
Everything else then ends up in a landfill or disappears down the memory hole. As Steve Sailer points out:
The truth is that there is always an absolutely colossal amount of popular culture, the vast majority of which is almost quickly forgotten, except for a tiny fraction that stays in a few influential people's minds and comes to form our heritage of high culture.
So it's not surprising that the things we end up conserving tend to be, well, conservative. Comparing what was preserved from the past (its less appetizing qualities having dimmed with time) with what the messy present offers fosters a sentimentality for the presumably smarter, better, more stable era that produced it.
In Japan, this is epitomized by Edo Period romanticism, conveniently forgetting that the Tokugawa regime ran a heavily-policed feudal state, though one that managed to skirt out-and-out incompetence (until the mid-19th century) and that was quite stable for most of the 17th and 18th centuries.
And more recently: "Showa nostalgia."
The Showa Era (the reign of Emperor Hirohito) lasted from 1926 to 1989. Everybody politely ignores the first two decades. Showa nostalgia instead refers to the twenty years of economic recovery following the war, when everybody pitched in and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
This was the time when courageous government officials did courageous government official stuff and weren't all on the take or off starting land wars in Asia. As with the much-heralded era of "lifetime employment," it barely lasted a single generation, and yet continues on and on in the collective memory.
As exemplified in an entertaining example of Showa nostalgia like Always: Sunset on Third Street, the 1950s in Japan was not so different from the 1950s in the U.S., except poorer. But starting from such a low point, those years of free, peaceful, year-on-year growth were like a breath of fresh air.
Perhaps even deserving of such rich, sepia-steeped sentimentality.