I spent most of the first 18 years of my life living within 60 miles of New York City. After an interlude at college in rural upstate New York and another interlude in Boston, I moved to New York City on New Year’s Day 1986 and stayed for three and a half years. It was the height of the crack epidemic in the city and we lived in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, one of the epicenters of the epidemic. As the weeks went by the numbers of crack vials on the sidewalks increased sharply, until it was difficult to avoid crunching them underfoot.
But much of the rest of New York was much nicer than it had been in the 1970s, when I was a visiting child and teenager. Luc Sante has written a wonderful essay/love letter that elegizes New York in the ‘70s, “My Lost City” (New York Review of Books, Nov. 3, 2003) that recreates the shabby vibrance of that era. “It was a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli. This did not distress me—quite the contrary. I was enthralled by decay and eager for more ...”
This idea that civilization is winding down and there is nothing we can do about it so we might as well enjoy the ride is very old. Supposedly it dates from at least the Middle Ages in Europe, when in the wake of the fall of Rome all the infrastructure that the Romans had built all across the continent slowly began to fall apart and no one had the resources or the know-how to repair it or to build anything new that was comparable.
Christian theology also encourages a belief in an end to history and the Millennial strain of Christianity derived from the Book of Revelations predicts decline before an apocalypse. Poets like Gerald Manley Hopkins and W.B. Yeats used the image of a widening gyre to suggest that history was spiraling down or up and out of sight.
Many people were introduced to this idea of relentless decline by the imagery of a continual descent from Golden Age more or less coincident with the early Classical Period of the Mediterranean. Late 19th century Romantics repurposed this for northern Europe by imagining noble pasts populated by the heroes of the Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic heroes.
This was even popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The events of the books take place at the end of “The Third Age,” which had been an age of Men. It is described as a far less magical period than the First Age, when the Elves ruled the Middle Earth.
At the end of the trilogy, Aragorn takes the throne and weds Elrond’s daughter who thereby becomes mortal, further draining magic from the world. There is a sense that although Evil has been conquered, the world is still fallen.
Various forms of fantasy are currently ubiquitous: George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” — first the novels and then the television show — the 21 blockbuster movies in the “Marvel Extended Universe” and its less successful DC counterpart, the steampunk aesthetic, which surfaces in the mainstream in Sherlock Holmes films and the Watchmen, and the apparently unstoppable Star Wars stories. All of these stories include the theme of a decline from a purer past.
This form of escapism is a slippery slope that can lead rather quickly from harmless mannerism to bleak decadence. You don’t really want to fall into a way of thinking wherein your escapism includes an addiction to the idea of inescapable decline.
Luc Sante and his bohemian colleagues enjoyed the seediness of New York City in the 1970s. It was cheap, low-key, and unpretentious and it was also a wildly creative place where punk and new wave music were born, a style of filmmaking evolved that combined European artistry and American grit and realism. In fact, all the performing and visual arts were thriving.
New York City rose from its own ashes, dusted itself off and became a rich and rather splendid city again. I have actually spoken to Luc Sante about this and he is sad about the loss of the old city and he doesn’t even live there anymore.
When I look around the old mill towns in this part of New England, I see places that are in various stages of throwing off the bleak acceptance that a Golden Age has passed and it is not coming back, and people are imagining a new future. It will be different from the prosperous past, but it may very well be as prosperous.
Neither Claremont nor Springfield are likely to be manufacturing hubs on par with their importance a century ago. People around here think of that as a Golden Age, but in an era before environmental protection laws, the air and the water were filthy and in a time when public health was only just taking hold, epidemics were much more common. The world was not such a great place for minorities or for women interested in something other than motherhood either.
Because there really was no Golden Age, there was also no decline from it. In reality history is an endless rollercoaster. Communities (and countries) may go down, but they come back up again.
Bill Chaisson is the editor of the Eagle Times and read “The Lord of the Rings” for the first time at age 12.