A great deal has happened in the one hundred and twenty-two years between the publication of Anthony Trollop’s short novel An Old Man’s Love and Amy Sohn’s novel My Old Man. Indeed, such a statement seems unnecessary since everyone knows that a great deal has happened and changed society. Changed it so profoundly that a character from either book would, recognize the society portrayed in the other book as Hell, if made to live in it.
A few disclaimers are in order. One, as both these books have the relationship between a man of fifty or more and a woman of roughly one half that age and, as I happened by pure serendipity to be listening during the day to the one on a disc in my car whilst reading the other in the evenings, a casual observer might think this particular form of relationship held some special appeal to me. Not so!
I feel that in fairness to myself, since it is possible one or more of my twenty something daughters may read this essay, it needs to be clear that when I picked up the copy of each book from the Richland County Public Library I was blissfully unaware of the subject matter. So, of prurient interests I am innocent. At least, I was innocent when I began. Anyone familiar with the writings of Amy Sohn will know that no one reads her and remains innocent for very long.
My second disclaimer is related to the first in that I did not plan a simultaneous reading in order to make some comparative comments about what each had to say about Western Civilization. As someone once said about the quality of greatness, I was not born to comparative analysis nor did I, through diligence and craft, achieve comparative analysis. No, I have had comparative analysis thrust upon me.
I my sixty-third year I have discovered what the average English major learns before the end of his or her freshman year in college. The study of literature can illuminate much about society if one is open to the visions reflected in that light. This late learning may seem hopeless plodding to you, but to me it is encouragement. At this rate, no more than twenty or thirty years after I am dead I may be able to read Proust and discover what all the fuss is about.
My third and final disclaimer is a recognition that Trollop was writing about a segment of English society in Victorian England that was not reflective of the larger society. Sohn, on the other hand, was writing about persons on the creative edge of modern Brooklyn society, a measurably friskier group. Both works are satirical (At least, being the father of a young woman who is, herself, a card carrying member of the creative edge in Brooklyn, I hope the work is satire.) and both are comedies of manners. So, even allowing for the books being built around the plot point of a December/May relationship, the fact that Trollop uses a group of characters among the most refined to be found in it its overall, greater society while Sohn’s characters are far, far from being that in their overall society, results in a less than equal side by side comparison.
Finally, Trollop has stood the test of some time. Certainly, it remains to be seen whether he will still be read, or otherwise ingested, in a thousand years from now like Dante or thousands of years like Ovid and Virgil and Horace, etc. Nevertheless, we will have to wait and see if My Old Man is still in print, or whatever passes for print in those far off, no doubt paradisiacal days, 122 years hence. I am not sure I would bet against her. Of all the extraordinarily horny and raunchy female writers of the past fifty or sixty years, Sohn is among the best I read, not that I am an expert. Still, if must be said, the jury is still out on Sohn. (In fairness to Sohn, it should be noted that, great as he was, the world will never know what Trollop would have done with the inclusion of a twenty minute rim job into one of his works. To insert such into a scene, without it seeming forced, takes a firm and deft touch and is an accomplishment harder than it may seem.)
I digress; the point of the comparative essay is to illuminate something of each author’s work and what the contrast between the two says about the world at large. In this case, these two works illustrate societies that have very little in common in terms of mores, manners and morality, the three “M’s.” In these matters, the two societies are so different it seems impossible for each to be cataloged as being in the same civilization as the other. Yet, they are less than a century and a quarter removed from on another. In what other civilization other that that which we call “Western Civilization” would such a wide divergence exsist within the space of only one hundred and twenty-five years?
Absent a natural disaster, such as the plague of European diseases that killed as many as ninety percent of native populations found in the Americas prior to the European Diaspora, onset of an ice age, etc. or the destruction of one civilization by violent intervention by another civilization, basic concepts of morality, mores, manners, values and so forth do not change so dramatically in the space of a mere 122 years.
Oh, you may say, even in Brooklyn the vast majority of people do not behave in the way folks in the Sohn book behave. Likewise, the vast majority of people in Victorian England did not behave in the way the characters in Trollop’s book behave. I suppose, give or take a bit here and there, you’d be right to so protest. Never the less, this observation does not change the fact that the characters were and are recognizable to every reader and the experiences and activities related are not outside the range of things the reader has, at least, heard about. To this extend, the plots and characters and activities offered by each author are valid and useful in illustrating the larger society in which they are set.
It is also true that had any of the characters in Sohn’s book carried on in the way they did in her book, if put into Trollop’s time and place, the best they could for would be being locked up, for the duration, in the family attic. In the case of Rachel Block, Sohn’s heroine, she would, no doubt, been sent off into the field to pleasure the troops. Further, as earlier observed, any of the characters transported from Trollop’s book into Sohn’s would have believed with absolute certainty he or she had been transported to Hell, and not to one of the outer rings.
This begs a question. If a civilization changes so much and so fast in terms of its fundamental values and understandings of what life and society is and should be, is it still a single civilization? After all, most civilizations, in fact all of them save ours, have as one main objective, a stable society in which things change slowly, if they must change at all.
The kind of change we in the Western world have endured over the past century and one half is known to drive men mad. It certainly drove us mad. During this period we gave birth to two world wars, carried out at least four mass exterminations of genocide or political destruction, at least six other, smaller mass exterminations numbering only in the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions and tens of millions and quite likely have now initiated a third world war. We have overturned established political order in almost every country in the west and most of the countries in the world. We have changed the established relationships between men and women and, through the force and momentum of our material success, are forcing those same changes on the rest of the world. Our technology has, and continues, to change the ways and means of production and delivery of anything and everything and in that process, and will overturn all the established social and economic power structures of local economies everywhere.
It is enough to give a Mullah a headache. Not only are all the economic rules and the political rules and everything else changing on him, he is catching unshirted hell at home from all his wives, concubines and daughters, perhaps even a sister or two and/or his mother. He looks across the water at the source of this new fangled stuff and sees us. As George Bush famously and erroneously explained, “They hate us for our freedom.”
You don’t have to go that far a field to find political pushback. Crackpots like Rick Santorum are making great waves in the Republican primaries (The Party of Grant and Taft and Harding and Eisenhower for Christ sake. Men who knew a little something about dalliances with a younger woman.) gassing on about various ways to put modern women back in behavioral corsets, trying to link up with the mores, morals and manners of Victoria.
Ours is a civilization unlike any other in one respect. While other civilizations have incentives and values based on stability, ours has incentives and values that celebrates and encourages change. Our civilization, for good or ill, drives people to change. This is the imperative that produces rapid technical advances and produces an ever expanding and morphing economy. It also, crates, through its celebration of individual human creativity and growth, massive forces challenging and, in many instances, working against families and other traditional institutions such as historic polities established religions and methods of production and markets. Our civilization, if what we have is a civilization, is a creative contagion, beneficial in so many ways and unsettling in so many others. We want all the new and wonderful gimcracks and heehaws that emerge from this contagion while simultaneously lamenting the loss of old forms of organization, civility and stability.
This creative contagion is so powerful it is now in the process of overwhelming Chinese and Indian society as well as pressuring Islamic societies. It is a powerful, uncontrollable beast that devours other civilizations as it goes.
They don’t hate us for our freedom. They hate us because they think we control this creative contagion and we deliberately unleashed it upon them. The truth is, we don’t control it and it is changing us every bit as rapidly and uncomfortably as it them.
Other than learning to evolve to satisfy the contagion’s needs, I do not see any solution to this. I do not believe the genie exists who can be put back into the bottle and take this contagion with her/him. Far too many people are owed wishes the contagion is pledged to grant. Many, if not most, of these wishes, when fulfilled, will be in opposition with the existing “equilibrium” as well as other wishes only now being made.
It is a hell of a mess and will be for the foreseeable future.