Deep Thought: Laughing at Those Temporal Aliens
See those 'jokes'? They demonstrate something: at no period of time did we ever fail to make mock of people who lived somewhere else on the human timeline. Let's face it: humans are history snobs. And we never, ever get it right when it comes to appreciating that foreign country known as The Past.
This week on Twitter: people are sharing ridiculous stories.
- A 'Neo-Babylonian' cuneiform 'break-up letter'.
- More Vikings wearing cow horn hats.
- Misquotes by everyone from Cicero to Abe Lincoln.
Then there's the Daily Mail headline, 'Remarkable photographs show archaeologists uncovering Sutton Hoo ship in 1939 after they were handed to the National Trust in plastic bag by mystery donor.' We're not sure if the Sutton Hoo ship, the archaeologists, or the Mail reporters were in the plastic bag.
Don't even get me started on @Celtic_Films, whose project called 'Celtics' does not, alas, refer to the basketball team from Boston. This very-far-right-of-any-known-centre group's attempt at crowdsourcing on Twitter has led to their blocking pretty much every Irish and Scottish person on the social medium. Some users are quipping that being blocked by them could be used as proof of nationality in the event of a lost passport.
In other words, friends, the internet don't know nothin' 'bout history. Much as the film Witness didn't know much about the Amish. Still, we never let our ignorance get in the way of having an opinion, do we?
Me, I love to try to figure out what people in The Past were doing. And what they thought they were doing while they did it. Much as I'm interested in people in other countries. As my Great-Aunt Nan once said, 'I guess ever'body does something that somebody else thinks is peculiar.' We do, indeed, Aunt Nan: you and I sat on 150-year-old tented graves, eating our fried chicken at the annual homecoming. Nowadays, people post Instagrams of their lunches. They also post photos of their dogs wearing funny hats. You always 'knew' that taking a picture of a dog was bad luck for the dog...
Last night, we watched Life with Father. It's an ancient and very funny movie from 1947. I'd seen it, but Elektra hadn't, and she laughed her head off. It's about a family in New York City in 1883. Think Seinfeld, but with horses.
The people in Life with Father cannot escape their space/time. They worry about the oddest things. The young courting couple are afraid their budding relationship may be inappropriate because she's a Methodist and he's an Episcopalian. Since the young lady is a 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, it's even funnier. The boys' parents experience a marital crisis when Mrs Day finds out that Mr Day was never baptised. Her efforts to get him to submit to this procedure form a good deal of the plot.
Why is this funny? Well, Zazu Pitts, for one thing. But even if you don't know antediluvian comediennes, it's funny. Because we don't live in 1883. It was funny to people in 1947 because they didn't live in 1883. They got to make fun of it. And we get to make fun of them making fun of it, because we think to ourselves, 'What are you laughing about? Y'all did twenty things a day that were just as weird as hiring a new maid on the basis of whether she fit into the old maid's uniform.'
Need I point out that someday, somebody will be laughing at us in the same way?
The more you know about actual history, though, the funnier stories like Life with Father are. For example, the family live on Madison Avenue, which is full of horse-carts and such. Father is yelling at the newspaper (because he has no screen to yell at) about the reforms of Mayor Hugh Grant. Hugh Grant had a lot to deal with as mayor: electrification was a big issue at the time, and it caused beaucoups problems. Father is against electricity – but the second-oldest has put together a homemade battery and rigged up a burglar alarm...
The visiting ladies mention the evening they went to hear Robert Ingersoll. One wonders what the Episcopalian clerics in the movie would have said about Robert Ingersoll. One thing Life with Father does is remind us that every time and place has had its own way of looking at the world – and its own manufactured ideological controversies. Maybe films like that are good for us because they teach us to take ourselves less seriously.
'Surely ye are the people,' remarked Job wrily, 'and wisdom will die with you.' That ancient poem about the meaning of suffering and the nature of reality has a lot to teach us. Among other things, we might learn that, no matter what we think the world is like right now, and no matter what our problems are, people have been here before. They were just as clueless and self-involved as we are, too.
As Robbie says, #homohumilis. Wisdom won't die with us. But if we could help it along a little bit, that wouldn't be a bad thing. In the meantime, let's try to laugh at ourselves more and spread a little less misinformation, shall we?