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Teaching the Past with Woody Allen

As much as the past has to teach us, we can never live there. To assume that we ought to is to nurse an unfulfillable longing; teaching our students to do the same is to encourage fantasy.

Woody Allen’s 2011 movie Midnight in Paris has it all: a star-studded cast, fantastic music, beautiful settings and great camerawork. However, its greatest feature is the story itself. The protagonist is aspiring writer Gil Pender, who stumbles into a magic vortex that allows him to travel back to 1920s Paris, a place and time that he considers the high point of Western culture. He befriends all the great artists of the day, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, and others. As he gets to know his heroes, however, he senses a current of discontent among them. It turns out that, far from exulting in the cultural achievements of their own age, they despise it, and long to travel back in their own past to the Belle Epoch, the Paris of the 1880s.

Gil Pender is finally thwarted in his desire to relive the glories of days gone by, and Midnight in Paris leaves us with the uneasy realization that the past is a foreign country full of strangers. We almost always remember it incorrectly.

In his famous essay, The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis discusses this idea with his usual relatable elegance, meditating on the unsatisfied yearning of all men to find a home for their souls in this world. This is a fruitless project, Lewis explains, because we are not finally creatures of this world at all:

“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; … the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.”

Here I suppose Lewis could be describing any number of us parents and teachers. After all, we have a very good reason for gazing with longing to a remembered past: our children’s future! We believe that the beauty Lewis mentions – along with the truth and goodness contained in all the books and music that we work on every day – can become the foundation of a Godly culture for our children, if we can only re-claim and re-establish it.

It is easy for us, therefore, when confronted with present cultural “decay,” to wish for Gil Pender’s magic vortex, or at least to intone the old Ciceronian lament, “O tempora, O mores” (literally “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!”). Which of us has not heartily condemned the decadence of our own age in favor of the glories of days gone by?

We can be forgiven, surely. Our own age is a disaster, even compared to our very recent past. Promiscuity, superficiality, self-indulgence, sloth, and impiety seem to characterize every facet of our culture. Go back a single generation, though, and things improve dramatically. Even farther back, our great-grandparents lived halcyon lives of faithful, selfless industry and profound pious contemplation.

It is an irrefutable fact, we say: our culture moves inexorably towards perdition. Any step forward, we conclude, must involve a reversal. It ought to begin with a fond look back at our cultural roots and an honest effort to replant them.

Such dissatisfaction with our own age is a symptom, as Lewis suggests, of the fact that this world is not our home, and It is completely understandable in a group of people as committed to culture-making as we parents are.

But Lewis will not let us off the hook. “All this is a cheat,” he says.

If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found [beauty] itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them… These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.”

Lewis warns us not only against seeking a home in the world we live in, but also against seeking it in the world of our ancestors. It is a mistake to idolize the past, he says. If we went there, we would only find the longing again, sending us farther and farther back – maybe all the way back to 70 B.C., when Cicero himself condemned the decadence of his “modern” age with the original lament.

I think Woody Allen and C. S. Lewis were right, though it sounds crazy to mention them in the same sentence. As much as the past has to teach us, we can never live there. To assume that we ought to is to nurse an unfulfillable longing; teaching our students to do the same is to encourage fantasy.

But what about the obvious wisdom of the ages? What about the lessons and achievements of the past that still shape our civilization? What about representative government, for example, or classical music?

These things are undoubtedly important, and must not be trivialized. But to understand them rightly and to teach them rightly, we must distinguish between what is truly lasting and what is temporary. Lewis’s final comment suggests that all the works of man fall short of permanence:

For [the beauties of the past] are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Our first task as teachers is to remember correctly that we are strangers here. Neither the past nor the present is our home. Our true longing will only be satisfied in “our own far-off country,” of which earthly culture is never more than an echo.

When it comes to that, perhaps one echo is as good as another.

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