The Language of the Past

It gets really funny when academics discover that some unquestionably great authors of the past eras didn’t speak the language of the politically correct US academia in 2018. The confusion and the dismay lead them to create really bizarre arguments to explain away the uncomfortable truths.

The most recent example I’ve seen is an academic who just can’t accept that a Spanish writer of 70 years ago could have sincerely expressed pride in Spain’s imperial past. That would mean the writer was a big old meanie! It can’t be! The possibility that people honestly admired Cortés and Pizarro up until 5 seconds ago and everywhere except for a tiny minority of classrooms simply does not occur.

This is the same phenomenon I have observed in the earlier post today. People need everybody, even the generations that have been dead for a long time, to cheer their ideological preferences of the last 15 minutes. When this doesn’t happen, they seem completely lost and very wounded.

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21 thoughts on “The Language of the Past”

  1. I’m pretty sure we could confuse the hell out of a lot of people steeped in fashionable ideologies by saying that the Conquistadors were Hispanic, and hence minorities, and hence not white. They wouldn’t be able to figure out which parts of that absurd argument are actually absurd, let alone non-absurd rationales for their reaction. So they’d just kind of go around stuttering “Um, well, um, I guess…”

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  2. Isn’t this one of the reasons for the popularity of fantasy? Politics is ultimately an irreconcilable enemy of art and almost everything in the modern cultural climate is ultra-politicized which means that art that doesn’t meet the precise political requirements of the moment is a tool of antagonistic ideology which must be destroyed.

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        1. I haven’t read much fantasy, but absolutely all of what I have read was precisely about rewriting vaguely medieval myths in accordance with the current PC ideology.

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          1. I haven’t read much fantasy, but absolutely all of what I have read was precisely about rewriting vaguely medieval myths in accordance with the current PC ideology.

            I think retelling of old myths in ways meaningful and acceptable to present-day attitudes and views has always been an ongoing process, throughout history. It is why people want to find the earliest possible manuscripts so that they can be regarded as “uncorrupted.” But what scholars may regard as corruption of the original is merely an updating of texts to be understandable to the present day culture. It is similar in its own way to translating the myth into today’s languages, since many people cannot read Sumerian, Classical Greek, Latin, etc.

            I always thought the myths undergirding fantasy fiction were from antiquity, not the Mediæval times. In either case, I am glad that more and more successful fantasy authors are using myth from non-European cultures as the basis of their storytelling. Nnedi Okorafor is an outstanding example, it seems to me.

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  3. Honest question, to you as a scholar of humanities – precisely how new a development is this? Isn’t earnestly, unreflectively reframing the past as if had always been in accord with an ideology a typical rather than a surprising move?

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    1. I’m in Hispanic studies. We are behind the leading trends in everything. Most people still do valuable, good scholarship. This is quite new for our field.

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  4. This is similar to the arguments people use when they want to ban classic books like To Kill a Mockingbird in high schools. It’s used in a lot of schools to spur discussions of racism in the past and present. But because it contains references to racism, it must be the worst book in the entire world and we can’t possibly have those poor innocent high schoolers exposed to that.

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    1. I thought the problem with To Kill a Mockingbird is (spoiler alert)
      s
      p
      o
      i
      l
      e
      t
      *
      a
      l
      e
      r
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      that the plot depends on a rape accusation being proved to be false, which is counter to current orthodoxy which claims that women are pure moral beings who don’t lie about sexual assault (despite all the evidence to the contrary).
      There’s also something about the perfect daddy god lawyer being a white savior or something.
      Oh and it was written by a white woman (a particular object of disdain for modern progressives).

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      1. cliff, I think it’s part of the problem, yes.

        Also, “A Passage to India” has a somewhat similar situation, but, unlike ” To Kill a Mockingbird”, Forster’s novel is one of the best realistic novels I have ever read. Pity it’s not studied as widely.

        I suppose, Forster’s novel isn’t studied in UK high schools either since it’s longer, harder to read and more complex work than “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

        // There’s also something about the perfect daddy god lawyer being a white savior or something.

        Don’t think it’s a problem since the daddy is exposed as a vicious racist in “Go Set a Watchman.”

        One could do a somewhat interesting analysis looking for foreshadowing / signs of this in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

        I say “somewhat interesting” since I was mainly indifferent to TKM and then found GSW almost unreadable.

        // Oh and it was written by a white woman (a particular object of disdain for modern progressives).

        Another interesting opportunity to discuss how pov of a writer influenced the novel.

        Clarissa said the biographical approach to literary criticism was left behind long ago, but I think f.e. that Forster’s presentation of women in “The Longest Journey” (loved this novel) was influenced both by his time period and by being homosexual. The latter fact helped me understand why the main character’s Jewish (*) friend is as asexual as possible without saying the word aloud.

        I understand the problem in my previous sentence’s use of ‘why’ and do not think searching for the tiniest details of authors’ lives is a great approach for a literary critic, but think that for some authors and works not taking into account some details is limiting too. Especially if rejecting the biographical approach means ignoring the wider cultural context in which the work was written.

        (*) A positive representation of a not-victimised (!) Jew (!!) by a not-Jewish author is such a rarity that I simply don’t remember seeing such characters in any other works in any language. For this alone, I am ready to ignore misogyny in “The Longest Journey”, which surprisingly for me was pretty much non-existant in “A Passage to India” which I read later. Yes, “A Passage to India” has a false rape accusation, but women in it are presented as human beings as good or bad as men, not as castrating, soul-destroying harpies in need of a strong male hand to prevent them from destroying men they claim to love.

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        1. I suggest Gloria by Perez Galdós if you are looking for unexpected treatments of Jewish characters. And then I can tell you how the novel was interpreted critically, which is often quite stunning.

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      2. Cliff – The most common reasons for challenges/bans of that particular book over the years are language (particularly the N-word), immorality (the acknowledgement that sex exists), and violence (the rape accusation and some events surrounding that). Immorality was a more common reason in the 1960’s – 80’s. Nowadays, it’s mostly the language. Because god forbid we have a productive discussion with kids about racism and racial slurs.

        On top of that, it appears that Atticus is also a member of the KKK (there’s a sentence that implies this — I’ve never noticed it, though, and kids who don’t know the specific history of that area likely wouldn’t, either). It is something that comes up in the sequel, which was only published in 2015. But I don’t know a lot of people who have read the sequel, or even realize it exists. In my experience, most of the people who end up challenging books haven’t read them, and for kids it’s just a passing sentence.

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        1. Even if he is a member of the KKK, this would be a great place to start a very necessary discussion of the organization with students. The novel was obligatory reading in English programs even in Ukraine because it has great potential for teaching. I don’t get why it deserves do much moral panic.

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          1. Exactly! And most people never even notice it — it’s literally just a passing sentence. My English teacher had us look at the eerie similarities of the trial to one that happened fairly recently. I cannot for the life of me remember which one, but it involved a black teenager arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. He was racially profiled (from the most vague description), interrogated for hours without representation, beaten, and the guy who was accusing him insisted it was him even though it was very, very clear he couldn’t recall much of the actual assailant. It was a farce, but it ended very differently.


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    2. // But because it contains references to racism, it must be the worst book in the entire world and we can’t possibly have those poor innocent high schoolers exposed to that.

      Especially funny in the age of Trump, isn’t it?

      Actually, lets leave Trump in peace, it was funny before him too considering the kind of language deemed acceptable in some media, for instance.

      Even I heard the name Rush Limbaugh who “popularized the term “feminazi”” [wiki] and I am sure there are hundreds like him in the public eye alone.

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  5. // The novel was obligatory reading in English programs even in Ukraine because it has great potential for teaching.

    I haven’t studied it myself anywhere, but have seen it taught at Hebrew literature lessons at high school in Israel.

    // I suggest Gloria by Perez Galdós if you are looking for unexpected treatments of Jewish characters.

    The problem with Spanish authors is that it’s practically impossible to find anything by them in either English or Russian.

    I will try to find. Thanks for the recommendation!

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