Thursday, September 30, 2010

When History Begins

So I was cruising around the local antique mall a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn't help but notice the "oldies" music that was playing: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," "Get a Job," and others of that sort. Engaged in conversation by one of the regular workers there, I noted how quickly I thought I'd find the music selection irritating, but then (perhaps putting my foot a bit in my mouth), I observed that the songs that were playing were oldies when I was growing up, while for many of my students, music of the 1980s now has the status of "oldies."

It got me thinking about just when I really remember first paying real attention to music, which I think must have been around 1978 or 1979: Blondie's "Heart of Glass"; Heart's "Crazy on You," and The Police's "Roxanne." I remember asking my older brother once, just what kind of music was it that they were calling "Heavy Metal," and he said "Nazareth," but whether he meant "Hair of the Dog," or "Love Hurts," or both, I was still a little unsure.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, teaching the Science Fiction and Fantasy class, I had a similar experience: one week I was teaching Joe Haldeman's classic The Forever War, and the next we were viewing Ridley Scott's Alien. For me, one of these was, essentially, an "oldie": Haldeman's novel, even though it was published in 1974, is one of those things that was already a classic when I started really paying attention, and even though I didn't actually watch Alien until the late 1980s, I remember when it came out in 1979 very clearly: In space, no one can hear you scream (though, as I pointed out to my students, apparently you can hear ships exploding).

But anyway, that's my argument in this post: for me, history begins in about 1979.

Oddly, it seems to be true whichever direction I think about it. From my perspective now, stuff between 1979 and 2010 is mine: I lived it and I know it, and the artifacts and texts from these years take their place in my own personal chronology in more or less straightforward ways. Stuff before about 1979, I can only place through a much more active effort of historical understanding and imagination. History, the real past (as opposed to the present), starts in 1979 and extends right on back.

At the same time, I feel like my internal sense of chronology for things from about 1979 to now gives me an intuitive feel for this era that I feel compelled to label as historical. In contrast, things from before 1979 exist in a kind of undifferentiated mass of oldies: I have no idea if "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" came before or after "Get a Job," and I'll never know unless I look it up. Only the stuff that fits in my chronology has a real history for me, in the sense of having a context that gives it meaning, and everything else has just always been there, lurking in the background of my history, a history of the imagination.

It's a strange way of looking at things, I suppose, for someone whose professional work often focuses on things more than a thousand years old. But that moment when I first started paying attention to things, that moment when I guess I stopped seeing the world as a kid, really seems to have been a kind of watershed moment, and 1979 is when history begins for me.


Pam said...

"Get a Job" definitely several years before "The Lion Sleeps tonight" That is part of the beginning of my history... But I was Veryyyyyy young then of course.

mcconeghy said...

I seem to be having much of that same problem lately as I struggle to think of the 1990s as history. A book published in 1989 that is important for my work continually seems less historical than it should be and I can't shake its recentness off easily when I think about the text.

(And I'm totally jealous that you get to teach a science fiction & fantasy course...)