42 Kvetching about youth

Posted on January 7, 2012 by

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Few things unite the older generation more than their kvetching[1] about youth. It is not just a matter of manners, morals, or their nursing the iPhone as it was an adult pacifier. “They no longer think – just post inane and inept photos on Facebook. Copy and paste, that’s all they are able to.” And indeed, but for a small minority of exceedingly brilliant youth, one is tempted to concur that many of the younger generation are no longer able properly to articulate their thoughts in writing – let alone produce something original.

Mostly I shrug off such complaints. I just have to focus on how painful the dentist was, decades ago. Rather than imagining my past self as a minstrel strumming and singing to his Dulcinea, I muse about what it meant to be a chattel slave, or ponder the fact that most people then went hungry – chronically (in XIXth century France some peasants hibernated – in order to survive the winter[2]). As for the available food, my God, was it monotonous, and bad! The Irish, living exclusively on potatoes, were among the best-fed people in Europe…

I tend to scoff at the kvetiching of my contemporaries: if they don’t understand today’s life, it’s their own fault, I feel. Over the few years at university they expected to accumulate a small “intellectual capital” on which to live comfortably ever after. Alas, times are a-changing. That capital has long ago warped into genteel obsolescence. I have a hard time, while reading widely and wildly, to find anything I learned many years ago that still has currency today. Well, basic maths being the exception (the electronic calculator has replaced my mental skills, however, and I found myself wavering while doing multiplications with a pencil). But otherwise? Non-fiction books published before 1995 are suspect, and I’ve tossed out several I’d set aside then for later reading: out-of-date! Most of the “hard sciences” has mutated in ways unimaginable when I studied them diligently at university. History? Switzerland for one has lost its Founding Fathers – they simply never existed[3]. Even philosophy, this bastion of timelessness, is admitting “experimental philosophers” who shun the overstuffed chair for the lab and fMRI.

Without intense and ongoing argument with emerging knowledge one is hopelessly lost. Alas, I observe: after chance side-lines them, people tend to coast along on auto-pilot – and take on a sport, from sailing to golf (at best they become doting grand-parents – culture is transmitted by grand-parents, not by parents, who are otherwise engaged). Their intellectual curiosity withers on the vine like forgotten grapes in late autumn frost. No wonder they do not understand today’s world.

Just as I was wallowing once more in such comfortable self-righteousness I found this quote from Johan HUIZINGA, who magisterially wrote on the waning of the Middle Ages fifty years ago:

One of the fundamental traits of the mind of the declining Middle Ages is the predominance of the sense of sight, a predominance which is closely connected with the atrophy of thought. Thought takes the form of visual images. Really to impress the mind a concept has first to take visible shape.[4] (pg. 284) (my emphasis)

As Alfred W. CROSBY[5] tells it, beginning with about 1250 an epochal shift from qualitative to quantitative perception of reality took place in the West. Egalitarian clocks that could be heard all over town replaced the ungainly (and elitist) sundial – breaking up continuous time into tic-toc quanta driven by mechanical escapement. The abacus was reintroduced (it has been forgotten for 1’000 years), and Schoolmen organized and indexed the wealth of secular wisdom flowing in from the Middle East, so each argument could be retrieved and analyzed rather than mystically revered or obsequiously obeyed.

This shift was subliminal – growing slowly from scattered specks like fungal colonies in a Petri-dish until the whole surface of daily life was covered. This “measuring attitude” had no deliberate direction – it simply expanded like rhizome by analogy and imitation. The Renaissance emerged suddenly, as the critical mass was obtained.

“Atrophy of thought” went together with this shift in mentality. It takes less time to visualize a new skill than to verbalize from it. Also the skill nestled in the common man – the trader or the artisan – before it rose to reach reflective high culture.

Could it be, I wondered, that we are living through such an epochal shift? In the past words would travel – now it’s living images. We can see the Orient well before we are able to describe it in words, let alone understand it. Could it be that the new generation is so engrossed with this new capacity that it has temporarily stopped thinking in order to enjoy it and explore its possibilities?

Pace my kvetching contemporaries – might a New Renaissance just be around the corner? If so, it might just bear mongrel features from many civilizations and cultures as they mix and mingle…


[1]           v. complain, whine. From Yiddish. OER (1996)

[2]           Graham ROBB (2007): The discovery of France. A historical geography from the Revolution to the Fist World War. Norton, New York.

[3]           Rogier SABLONIER (2008): Gründungszeit ohne Eidgenossen. Politik und Gesellschaft in der Innerschweiz um 1300. Hier+Jetzt. Baden.

[4]           Johan HUIZINGA (1954): The Waning of the Middle Ages. New York, Doubleday

[5]              Alfred W. CROSBY (1997): The measure of reality. Quantification and Western society, 1250 – 1600. Cambridge University Press.

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