How the Golden Age Lost Its Memory


Andrew Heisel in the LA Review of Books:

THIS MAY BE a golden age of television, but it’s hard to feel particularly blessed about it. According to Brett Martin’s recent book Difficult Men, this TV golden age is actually America’s third. In fact, if you add up the spans of Martin’s different ages, we’ve spent more time since 1950 within a golden age of television than without. Our current one has been running since the late ’90s. This is odd, not because we’ve found ourselves so frequently in the company of great television, but because we’ve found ourselves in golden ages at all. For a long time, the idea of “the golden age” just didn’t work like that.

The Greek poet Hesiod gave the world its first glimpse of the golden age. In his Works and Days, from ca. 700 BC, he describes a decline of man, from golden to silver to bronze, to the iron present. In the golden age, humans were without flaw and the earth was cornucopial. Man did not have to work and knew no master. In the ongoing iron, we are “with toils and grief oppressed, / Nor day nor night can yield a pause of rest.” Over the years, Plato, Ovid, and Virgil all played with the idea, but the essential concept remained the same: the golden age already happened; things are worse now. The job of the golden age is to remind us how much better things could be.

And so the golden age remained, firmly Classical, mythic, and over. And not just among the poets. To see how it worked its way into present American usage, I’ve traced the concept’s deployment through databases covering British and American writing since the 16th century — thousands of old books and newspapers. They bear out my suspicion that the “golden age” simply isn’t what it used to be, and not just on television. What changed?

With few exceptions, in earlier eras nobody ever seriously declares, “This is the golden age.” Instead, they accuse opponents of saying it or put it in the mouth of a foolish narrator. It only exists in the present as a bill of goods. In Britain, it’s what those charlatans behind the Corn Laws, the Reform Laws, or the Poor Laws would have you believe they’re creating. It’s the false promise made by those trying to root out, as The London Morning Post put it in 1828, “the rusty old customs of their forefathers” and replace them with “the delightful pleasures of change and variety.” Dreamers no less dangerous than the French revolutionaries, Edmund Burke writes, sought “a golden age, full of peace, order, and liberty.”

More here.