There are many, of course, who relish the slightly toxic chemical odor of a new car fresh from the dealer, or enjoy being the very first to spend the night in a just-built house. Perhaps the same individuals can savor the extra crispness and the persistent folds after unwrapping a shirt, or even the variety of synthetic packing materials around a electronic gadget fresh from the manufacturer. Certainly many people find new subdivisions attractive in spite of their lack of sidewalks and mature trees, not to mention anything like a neighborhood center of gravity. My father-in-law programatically favored novelty; thus, to him margarine was better than butter, dentures an improvement over natural teeth. For him technical progress touched every life with indoor plumbing, the automobile, aviation, and, most of all, radio. Today masses of consumers are convinced that happiness can come only with possession of the latest technology,
Must one be escapist or alienated to dissent? Surely it is not willfully contrary to prefer a home whose decorative details have a history and shoes that have acquired the shape of one’s feet, even a face that betrays evidence of considerable accumulated life. Every old town has a shape derived from use. Go back far enough and you’ll find yourself in the fascinating and wandering lanes of medieval Europe or a Maghrebi medina. Only the modern housing development floats freely, unattached to any rationale beyond profit. (Perhaps the most extreme examples are Las Vegas and Qatar.) Apart from the dear and inevitable machine beneath my fingers in my study, I associate technical progress with global warming, nuclear weapons, and people everywhere staring at pocket-size computer screens as though there was to be found, after sufficiently intense scrutiny, the secret of the good life.
To grow fonder of a pair of jeans as their patterns of fade assume the form of a ghostly imprint of one’s body is an innocuous form of pride, but such taste need not even be personal. Clothes from Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul half-conceal, half-reveal their past. How poignant the racks of tuxedo shirts in the Reno Salvation Army, white though they may have shone! Worn tools, their very steel softened and glowing through constant handling, are likely to be, like a well-tempered skillet, more efficacious as time flows, and the user becomes familiar with the subtleties of their heft. Even a favorite pen cooperates more as time goes on.
Our society tends to be blind to the beauties of age, though evolution is wiser, if G. C. Williams’ so-called “grandmother hypothesis” that argues a community’s survival advantage from its elder women is in fact accurate. The poignantly absurd conjunction of wrinkled skin and dyed hair suits well enough the artificial aesthetics of, say, Anais Nin in her later years, yet it seems in contemporary American culture to be the overwhelming preference also of diner waitresses and Methodist ministers.
Perhaps the aesthetic motive, privileging the old, is similar when I find a charm to a great many mediocre older movies, watching film noir or screwball comedies without demanding a great auteur (while remaining insensitive to Westerns.) Literary texts that have accumulated layer upon layer of meaning from the readers of generations are invariably enriched. The Bible is the best example; Greek tragedy another. Without its sagacious readers, what value would there be in the I Ching or the Yoruba Ifa? Reading earlier works, one enters into another’s imagination more fully than we do in most of our everyday interactions, and with the benefit of the double consciousness that come from chronological perspective.
The arrow of time described by Eddington is physically evident in those objects which bear the signs of their passage through the years. Its contemplation is a central mystery of our experience. For all the energy of his crowding images, Keats sounds too apologetic when he says of autumn, “thou hast thy music too.” He, of course, was ill, but Shelley sounds a bit tentative, too: “there is a harmony/In autumn, and a lustre in its sky.” Surely Lear was on the mark with an unconditional: “Ripeness is all.” The point is fulfillment, not poignance. Decline is implied and inevitable, as much a part of youth and growth and vigor as long is of short. Jerome favored a skull, we are told, but he might as well have contemplated a screwdriver, the paint mostly worn from a wooden handle, the end reflecting innumerable encounters of metal against metal.