This whomper of a winter having rendered it nearly impossible to remain philosophical about shoveling snow, I went literal, running Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” through my earbuds while clearing the never-ending decks. The juxtaposition of hacking a path to the chicken coop in your sweaty earflappers while Henri Bergson declares, “for a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating one’s self endlessly” helps elevate your purpose.
The Bergson line elicited memories of an Edith Wharton quote from the 1930s in which, regarding “modern languages and good manners,” she said, “I have lived to see both those branches of culture dispensed with.” In response, a contemporary critic wrote, “Mrs. Wharton belongs to a tradition which is ending. She realizes this, and surveys without asperity the succeeding chaos.” Things change, says Edith. Relax.
Then there are those things that should change, but don’t. So it is we find Wharton — in 1913 — writing “a fierce indictment of the materialism that ruled America,” and citing elements of society that “did not hesitate to abolish its standards while most loudly proclaiming them.” This, as they say, rings a bell.
These tangents helped pass the shoveling time and braided nicely into a recurring thread of personal rumination concerning the state of the nation and my dedication to staving off brittle codgerism. Change is natural, necessary, and unavoidable; may I never block it out of uninformed fear or presumptive comfort. In 1920, another critic observed how in one of Wharton’s books, “the younger generation comes in like fresh air. Mrs. Wharton is all for the new and against the old…she would never…fear youth knocking at the door.” Lately I am in the same mood. I just hope these youngsters arrive in time.
Codgerism lurks, even in the youth. On the same day I was pondering 20th century European philosophy and 20th century American literature, I managed to squeeze in time for a little 21st century Twitter, whereupon I found a younger friend proclaiming, “today’s music is repeating itself.” “Welcome to middle age,” I replied. “It has been ever so, and we should talk sometime.” If we do, I will show him the aspersive things I wrote about country music in the 1990s. There I was, wrinkling my nose at Garth Brooks and “pop” country, hailing the New Traditionalists, and diving deep into “alt” country. Twenty years later the latest generation of purists sing the same refrain, as if Chet Atkins never put orchestra music on a Tammy Wynette record.
Let me come clean: I am better at throwing snow than throwing quotes. I recalled the Wharton words only because I had read them that very morning, and the only reason I can cite them now is I used a green highlighter. The associations I have drawn above are tentative and tenuous, but then this is a newspaper column, not a master’s thesis.
The snow falls, we shovel it, more snow falls, we shovel it. Wharton and Bergson remind us that even if we’re experiencing the same old thing we don’t have to be the same old thing. Meanwhile, down there in the coop, the chickens are pulling for you, if only to deliver their water and scratch.