October 28, 2010

Showa nostalgia

Musing about my 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 forty to fifty years in the past. Forty or fifty years ago, life was perfect! Which is nonsense, of course, but it makes me wonder if, in another twenty years, people will be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s and 1990s.

I think half a century is about 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 about 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 we've preserved from the past (the less appetizing elements having dimmed with time) with the messy present can't help but foster 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 United States, 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.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
10/29/2010 1:20 PM   
On a sort of a tangent, there is not only this idea that certain eras were better/wiser/smarter, there is this mirror idea (or bastardized) idea that the only reason certain things get distilled is because of politics (academic and/or literary). So, there were all these supposedly GREAT writers at the time of Shakespeare; Shakespeare only got chosen because some evil hoity-toities resurrected him in the 19th century.

I've always admired Shakespeare, but I went along with the resurrecting hoity-toity idea until recently when I started reading about literary hoaxes and people forging Shakespeare documents.

When you look at when these forgeries began, you realize that the Shakespeare resurrection idea doesn't work. Shakespeare as SHAKESPEARE wasn't some after-the-thought creation of academe.

Guess how long it took people to recognize that Shakespeare was a genius after he died?

All of two minutes.

That is, people knew at the time that he was great. The people who had worked with him deliberately published his plays under his name--which was unheard of (people were still getting used to the idea of publishing novels). Okay, Cromwell kind of bummed things out for awhile, but Shakespeare never really went out of fashion.

Of course, what with Hollywood proclaiming that it has a cultural phenomenon on its hands every two seconds, it is hard for a culture to winnow out its wheat from its chaff (especially since the hoity-toities are so often wrong). But still, the cream does legitimately rise for legitimate reasons. And things that disappear usually disappear for good reasons. (This doesn't stop one from loving them, of course. I can't imagine Scarecrow & Mrs. King lasting another 100 years, but I still adore it.)