The Pros and Cons of Romanticising the Past
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Do you want to time travel?
If you are not going back in time to fix something about the present, Terminator-style, then odds are you want to go back in time as tourist. You want to see the pyramids being built, hang out with the literary and artistic greats at the Café du Dôme, or become a knight or lady in the Age of Chivalry.
One of the best movies that you will see about the reality of time travel is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. I don’t mean the problem of the Grandfather Paradox, there is already enough discussion about that. I mean the reality of time travel on a personal level – is it really what you want? Do you really want to learn about the past, or are you just romanticising history?
So just what are the pros and cons of nostalgia and reminiscing about the past? Let’s decide if you really want to take that leap back and embroil yourself in the actual, factual past.
PRO: IT MAY GIVE US AVENUES FOR FUN AND RELAXATION
I hope to be a published author of historical fiction one day, and romanticising the past plays a big part in the success of history-based entertainment.
Gladiator was the second highest grossing film of the year 2000, a year which also saw Shanghai Noon, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Patriot and The Dish, all with a historical setting. The Age of Empires real-time strategy game franchise is still going strong since 1997, with Age of Empires II being re-released numerous times to remain playable on ever-changing technology because the sales demand for it is still there, even after 21 years. Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings may never have existed without rich historical folklore to draw upon for inspiration.
And, if people didn’t have some sort of idealised interest in history, none of the above would have worked.
Romanticizing history, whether it be a noble general defeating evil foes, finding fascinating stories in mythologies that are largely no longer believed as fact, or relishing life in a ‘simpler’ time when we weren’t at the beck and call of smart phones and Zoom meetings, helps people to escape their worries for a short time.
There is no problem in historical escapism to relax, as long as you recognise that the point of it is to entertain you, not teach you historical fact. It is written to draw you into the story with a distinct beginning, middle and end, rather than to depict the reality of life.
CON: IT MAY ALLOW PEOPLE TO JUSTIFY OR IGNORE UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTHS
The romanticized image of colonisation is the big issue being challenged at the moment and I won’t elaborate here because there are people who are much more appropriate to listen to about this than I am. I will, however, suggest that researching intergenerational trauma is a good place to start if you want to understand why colonisation is an ongoing issue today.
On a much smaller scale is the idealised image of bushrangers, highwaymen and pirates in the Age of Sail. Ned Kelly is a national hero, Thunderbolt’s Rock (although heavily graffitied) and gravesite at Uralla, NSW are popular tourist attractions for those remembering the ‘gentleman bushranger’, and Mad Dog Morgan is the subject of a 1976 film depicting him as rebelling against an abusive society that drove him into bushranging.
Whatever the actual motives of bushrangers, be they altruistic or selfish, or the situations that drove them to such extremes, their methods included robbery, hijacking, assault, kidnapping and murder. These methods are almost forgiven by a vast number of the public today.
I can’t think of a single living or recent person, or small gang of people, who is widely celebrated for resorting to these methods, regardless of motive. The closest Australian I can come up with is Mark ‘Chopper’ Reid, but his legendary status stems from a morbid fascination with what he did, but not because anyone is suggesting that his crimes were the “right” thing to do. He is infamous, but not revered.
PRO: IT MAY GIVE PEOPLE HOPE FOR THE FUTURE AND THE ABILITY TO COPE WITH THE PRESENT
Looking back at the happier times of both your past and that of others can help you to find strength to deal with the challenges of life today. Studies done by Professor Kristine Batcho of Le Moyne College, found that nostalgically reminiscing your past can give you mental stability, reassurance and the courage to confront challenges and fears.
Anecdotally, this may be true for romanticising other people’s past. Just how many people turned to baking during the early months of coronavirus lockdown? Google searches for “Depression Cake” took off during March to May in 2020 when global lockdown and isolation was at its peak.
Throughout all the Depression-era cooking, people seemed to be finding both comfort and strength in nostalgia for the past, through a form of ‘well, if they could survive that by doing this, then so can I’ reasoning.
CON: IT MAY GIVE PEOPLE A FEAR OF THE PRESENT AND FUTURE
When that article and song came out, Bill Clinton was president of the USA and the events surrounding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky were just starting to gain momentum.
It was scandalous that a President would act that way, but it was far from isolated. In fact, it’s been so prolific a behaviour that GQ even published “Doing It For The People: The 25 Greatest Philanderers in American Political History” in 2010. The list includes such American idols as Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton (not a president, but one of the most famous names of the 2020 musical scene regardless!), Ben Franklin and the Kennedy brothers.
So revered are those names that their indiscretions tend to be forgotten or forgiven, so when a President comes along with a far-from-ideal attitude towards women, well… we all know the result of that one but to many it comes as a horrific surprise. Anxiety increases because the present reality doesn’t hold up against the glorious past.
Romanticising lifestyle changes throughout time plays another big role in giving people a fear of the present and what is to come in the future. Vast numbers of people have access to unprecedented levels of information and misinformation thanks to the availability of the Internet. No-one truly knows where we are going as a global society and what new dangers we all face, and that is terrifying. It seems that people in the past must have been happier because they didn’t have the same worries that we deal with today.
But the fact is, no-one has ever known where society is going, at any stage of human history, so in reality we are not unique in having new challenges to face in the future. If you romanticise the past too much, you can over-simplify it to something almost purely fictional and then equate the present to something almost apocalyptical.
A smidge over half of all Americans surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015 said that American culture and its way of life have mostly changed for the worse since 1950. Sadly, the study does not elaborate much on why they think so other than a brief discussion on the differences of opinions between racial groups. At a guess, much of it would hinge on a yearning for a “simpler time” and the perceived happiness this would bring.
Historical nostalgia and the yearning for simpler times can be taken too far and become detrimental to our mental health:
PRO: IT MAY ENTICE PEOPLE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE PAST AND OTHER CULTURES
I’d like to suggest this as a pro of romanticising the past even though I’m struggling to find written sources. Ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, the Wild West – all drive people to re-enactments, museums and historical tourist attractions in droves, and with a bit of luck they will learn something on the way.
Sovereign Hill in Victoria may not have achieved the same popularity as a goldrush-themed tourist destination if it didn’t have lamplight tours, photos of happy kids in costume on its website, and descriptions such as “travel under night skies to explore space, delve into the dreamtime and re-live the drama of Australia’s most important rebellion.” Marketing is not well-served by images of child labour and mine-site injuries, or the no-doubt horrendously racist quotations from people living at the time.
But, once you have drawn people in, then you can begin to educate them. Heritage tourism, if effectively managed, also has many knock-on benefits, aside from personal education. These can include a local economic boost, an increase in community pride, and strengthening the argument for the preservation of heritage areas.
CON: IT MAY LEAD TO STEREOTYPES THAT HINDER EMPLOYMENT OR HELP-SEEKING BEHAVIOUR TODAY
Van Gogh is the go-to romanticised artist – although struggling with poverty and depression in the fields and cafes of Provence, he dedicated his time to perfect his craft and produced some of today’s most loved artworks. It’s lead to two artist stereotypes today that are generally seen as unhelpful at the least. The ‘starving artist‘ stereotype can discourage people from following their creative inclinations, devalue their efforts and potential paycheque, and place a level of suspicion or on those artists who try to work commercially. Similarly, the continual emphasis between artists and mental illness runs the risk of the credit for great art to be given to someone’s mental health, rather than the person’s own effort and abilities.
SO, WHAT NOW?
Would you still like to time travel, and learn of what life in the past was truly like, or would you prefer to stay home and dream? Both are good options, so let me know in the comments which you would prefer!
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