Bad Reputations

“You’ve got a bad reputation; that’s the word out on the town; it brings a certain fascination; but it can only bring you down” (Phil Lynott)

Will the present have a good or bad reputation in the future? Do times have reputations? Perhaps they do, in time.

There are British historians who treat the 1980s as a decade when the growth of a new decadence in the “national character” created problems that have yet to be redressed; French writers who had similar attitudes regarding the 1880s, or even the entire era of the Third Republic; writers on “gilded age” America who deem it a problematic age, when inequality and an almost aristocratic sense of entitlement amongst the wealthy became a new American norm (that reputedly survives to this day); and there were Irish writers who infamously fantasised that the country went to the dogs after the death of Parnell. But why do such attitudes emerge?

Fantasies about golden ages may exist. It was the source of a good joke in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”. Indeed, there are often nostalgic tones in popular culture commentaries. But the opposite also exists.

I’ve heard even some academic people declaring a holy war on “smiley-happy” Doris Day types for creating gender stereotypes in 1950s advertising, but can an advertisement really carry such weight? To some, they evidently do. Or, at least, it is something that can prompt governments to fund theses. When I enthused out loud about aspects of 19th century history in the past, some scholars of more contemporary events deemed it weird because, to them, the 19th century was a paternalistic age, when nobody could describe a piece of scenery, or the general state of the weather, in less than 5,000 words and nobody was supposedly ever known to laugh. I remember in an Eric Rohmer film (“a winter’s tale”) a woman speculated that women had more respect and authority in society during the 19th than the 20th century but that was probably another cultural stereotype, born from the “society women only” that featured in many a surviving 19th century fiction. It all boils down to a question of reputations, doesn’t it?

Reputations feature prominently in this article I recently discovered, which covers some similar territory to the first chapter of my latest book. Within the last month, I also read an article that painter Sean Keating wrote in 1922, which features in a new edited reprint of a rare text. I knew he was grumpy but, even so, this surprised me: he claims that Irish society can neither nurture nor appreciate talent because there was no belief in the merits of “vision”. He suggested that men of vision were purposively ostracised for fear of anything greater than mediocrity. Vision is certainly a peculiar thing. It needs to be particular in nature if it is to be expressed, yet any sense that such a sense of perspective is absent elsewhere surely obscures the fact that others may well, and indeed probably do, simply have a different vision. But can it be that a society simply “closes its doors” to those for whom it feels no affinity? Can reputational damage eliminate sympathetic reasoning?

I think sympathetic historical writing treats each generation with empathy. Indeed, if historical writing does not I’m not sure what sense of history remains, although I think I may be in a minority in that attitude. Witness writers from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries and it is common to read believers in progress who decried religion for one central reason: the “alpha & omega” mentality of “…as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be” was considered profoundly debilitating. Progress was either linear or it was reversed. Tis no wonder the same era witnessed the slow birth of a cult of youth. YouTube recently prompted me to watch a video of Aldous Huxley speaking about Hindu symbology, representing the idea that life is a cycle of creation and destruction. A cyclical view of life is also a generational one, locating us all within a spectrum from the instinctive joy of children to the often-sad decline of old age, yet it is surely not a linear view in the progressive sense. I seem to have returned to the theme of an earlier blog: “is history an old man’s game?”. Proof enough, perhaps, that my mind is rather cyclical.

A recurring thought for me is that the value in history is to develop an emphatic capacity for every generation in every culture because if one does not how can one realistically even begin to understand and write about them? Does any age, therefore, deserve a bad reputation? Perhaps not, but perhaps we are all inclined to favour such judgements in one way or another. For instance, within me there is a sense that the nineteenth century – the age of the birth of popular literacy & resulting expression – is endlessly fascinating, not abhorrent, and that ancient Greece & Rome was a grotesque age of tyrants and fratricidal warfare, yet the roots of such prejudices may stem from nothing more than formative cultural impressions from my childhood. Another may have a precisely opposite viewpoint.

Maybe the surest sign of the onset of middle age (whether in its earlier or later manifestations) is that any time I hear children speak I am inclined to ponder how their evolving imagination will or will not lead to re-conceptions of history if they should ever turn their minds to that task. The idea of hearts & minds shaping historical narratives, rather than the impact of political systems upon educational systems, sometimes seems naïve to me. Other times, it seems to be the very nature of history. Maybe the first notion is rooted in human empathy and the second, the political, is rooted in the game of invented reputations. The second is transitory; the first is humanity itself. The second creates copy. The first is often silent. But within the first may be a sounder or more perpetual understanding: reputations really mean very little at all. On that note, I’ll conclude that Phil Lynott’s quote at the beginning of this blog was “wrong” and I’ll flatter myself, for all of half-a-second, that this makes me cooler than Thin Lizzy.