Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Golden Age

(image: Poet and critic Randall Jarrell, with cat)

A colleague and I gave a paper on George Orwell at a conference recently, and I just noticed how odd the term "give a paper" is. In this case, it means that we collaborated on a 15-page single-spaced essay, submitted it, summarized it at the conference, and then responded to reactions.

As the discussion expanded, professors (mostly of political science, in this case) began to complain about students, especially students' not wanting to learn but instead merely to accumulate credits toward graduation. Passing over the issue of whether all students are the same, my colleague spoke up and said, well, when I was an undergraduate, that was pretty much what I was interested in--graduating.

The interchange reminded me of a quotation from Randall Jarrell, specifically from an essay called "The Taste of the Age":

Randall Jarrell
The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.
The Taste of the Age

That is, we tend to glamorize our own days in college and believe that students now are radically different. I don't think they are radically different, except perhaps insofar as I think they have had to mature--or at least to absorb more information--than we were. Jarrell's quotation reminds us to be careful not to think too highly of the past and too lowly of the present.

As a poet, Jarrell was extraordinarily empathetic, seemingly able to inhabit the emotions and perspectives of others. (He is most famous for the six-line tour-de-force, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"). As a critic, he was fierce and acerbic. Karl Shapiro once said that after being reviewed by Jarrell, he felt as if he'd been run over but not killed.

Some things were probably better in "the good old days," whatever era to which we'd like to attach that phrase. But probably relatively few things. The problem is that we really can't compate year X to year Y--to get the full sense of how things really were back there in year X, for us, for everyone--including those who were weary of those yellow Golden Age days.

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