Life in Three Centuries

Recently, I visited my Appalachian birthplace and without fail the experience had its disturbing effect. I have spent many more years here than there, and with each return visit I must slip back into an alter ego I left behind all those years ago. I need that person and the perspective of those early times to reintroduce me to my first world. Since then I have earned degrees, learned a few languages, read and written books, taught at universities, and most of all, made a living and raised a family. To go back to that first world involves a strange metamorphosis. I welcome it, but it does not readily welcome me. We are a bit stand-offish with each other. To put it paradoxically, my old world and I are familiar strangers.

The sensation always brings up a question: who would I be if I had remained in that environment? A celebrated philosopher once said, “I am I and my circumstance.” A dramatic way of putting it, but it means the world we live in forms the other half of our being. By re-entering it I glimpse the life I could have lived and the person I might have been.

I grew up surrounded by elderly relatives born far back in the 1800s. Their ideas, language and outlook became mine, and probably more than I know, remain so today. In lower Appalachia we had no electricity, telephones, automobiles, radios, computers, and much less television. We walked, rode horses, or drove wagons to visit, attend church and do business. But if today we define that bygone era by the things we lacked, we can also remember it by the things we lost. Calendars said it was the 20th century, but in effect and in form, we were people of the 1800s and heirs of earlier centuries. We rose with crowing roosters, worked and played by daylight, cooked and ate ancestral food, farmed as our forefathers had farmed, and after a brief interval of reading or conversing by lamplight or fireplace, retired to night’s velvety quiet dominion. By today’s standards, it was a supremely personal world dominated by human faces and spoken words.

Then the aggressive 20th century began its invasion. First came electricity. I shall never forget the euphoria I experienced at my first sight of an electric light bulb dangling from a cord. Like a crazed moth, I ran circles around it until I was exhausted from the splendor. Ancient cars began to appear on our muddy, rutted roads, and for a time wagon ruts and car tracks vied for predominance. Then after World War II, the 20th century triumphed; the wagons suddenly disappeared and the old world was gone. Eventually, the tortured 20th century ended and the terroristic 21st replaced it.

Exaggerating to make the point, I claim to have lived in three centuries. I treasure them all impartially, but nostalgia, that mellow distillation of time, pleads mightily for the first.

Harold Raley

The Art of Being Human

Historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) made the celebrated statement that history does not reveal its alternatives. His observation was compatible with several prevalent philosophies of that era—Positivism, Marxism, Naturalism—all of which shared the common feature of explaining human behavior in terms of scientific forces: natural phenomena, economic theory, evolutionary biology, etc.

The problem was, and remains, that no matter how trivial human life may appear to be, it is a unique category irreducible to secondary or abstract features. Economic, biological, sociological and similar influences are important, but the primacy of life cannot be explained by its secondary features. On the contrary, the overreaching feature of human life is our inherent personal freedom, which has frustrated so many theoreticians of the abstract and defeated a multitude of totalitarian despots. Someone has said that the first exception to the Marxist theory of economic determinism was Karl Marx himself. As existential philosopher J.P. Sartre put it, man is necessarily free, whether he wishes to be or not. This means that life is not given to us as a finished commodity designed by abstract principles, but comes into being only as we live, only as we choose, reject, justify, love, detest, confront—and even create—our alternatives. Nor can we overlook the rectification of life we call repentance, not possible in any other reality we know of. Generally we think of it in a religious context, but it applies as readily to the whole of life. We always have the freedom to change course. This is why in order to understand anything human we cannot cite a theory but must offer a narrative. The ancient Greeks wisely refrained from honoring or vilifying those still living, for they knew not how their lives might turn at last to good or evil. For this reason, human life, personal or historical, is inherently dramatic, a quality that pertains only slightly, if at all, to other realities. It is the difference between living and existing. We know from the start the existence of a stone but cannot foretell how a living person or a people will develop or regress. This why every life is a novel, and why also human history not only reveals its alternatives but in time may become them.

The modern habit of seeing people through economic, political, or other lenses seems to be associated with a general lowering of international esteem. Today hardly any nation admires any other. If in earlier times nations were extolled for their human merits, today we tend to scorn them for their economic deficiencies. Ancient Greece and biblical Israel were small, resource-poor nations to which modern people would not give a second look. As far as we know, Moses and the prophets worked without salary, and Socrates and the philosophers dealt in the intangible currency of ideas. But what they taught the world became the enduring legacy of Western civilization: the art of being human.

Harold Raley

Vacations from Rationality

One of the main ways humans use their mind is looking for the means to lose it. We classify humans above animals by defining ourselves as rational beings, but then we jump at the chance to take vacations from rationality. Philosophy, the general intellectual form of logical reasoning, has existed for only about two and half millennia, and the scientific method only a few hundred years. But the primitive mind, which has been around since the world began and, according to psychologists, is still hidden in the messy mental attics of modern people, whispers to us subversively—and often persuasively—that dreams, drugs, omens, rituals, signs, superstitions, taboos, and visions are gateways to realities more meaningful and pleasurable than our rational world. Police reports and the daily news seem to confirm the premise. As a society we wage an endless but apparently losing war on hallucinogenic drugs and intoxicating drinks. The notorious failure of Prohibition is a staple of history and Hollywood.

Paleontologists tell us that narcotics are among humanity’s oldest discoveries and that far back in prehistoric times our remote ancestors already knew and used most of the classic intoxicants and narcotics: alcohol, opium, datura, hashish, mushrooms, and other plants. Viniculture, or wine making, is among mankind’s oldest occupations. The ancestor of modern tobacco was so potent that Native Americans smoked it ritualistically to induce visionary trances. And the quest goes on for ways to escape our logical senses. In very recent times we have added synthetic drugs to this ancient stock of mind-altering hallucinogens. The old Latin saying, in vino veritas (in wine there is truth) is understood lightheartedly today to mean that drunks blurt out the truth. But in prehistoric times it had a very different connotation. In states of ritual intoxication the human mind was set aside, allowing exalted prophetic religious visions and truth to emerge. Modern scholars believe that intoxicating fumes from volcanic fissures were responsible for the prophetic oracles of Delphi and similar locations in ancient Greece.

Some scholars have advanced the hypothesis that the first shelters and caves of prehistoric mankind were not residences for daily life at all, as we assume today, but rather ritual sites where certain tribal men inhaled hallucinogenic vapors that induced visions and trances. The cave art at Lascaux, Altamira, and other locations around the world may not have been art at all as we understand it today, but a dimension of prehistoric religious ritual.

Despite our differences, our existential kinship with primitive mankind is not hard to find. Vast portions of life still consist of problems that mystify and frighten us, impelling us to find ways to deal with them. Prehistoric mankind sought answers in magical rituals and hallucinogens. Today we claim to seek solutions to our problems through the application of logical, clearheaded reason. But it does not take much for us to strip away our modern veneer, leave our mind behind, and take vacations from rationality.

Harold Raley

To Bathe or not to Bathe

Louis XIV, France’s greatest monarch (1643-1715), reigned for over 72 years and in all that time bathed only twice. They called him the “Sun King” (Le Roi Soleil), but sun and water hardly ever touched his rancid torso. His physicians advised against bathing for health reasons, and Louis himself said that bathing “disturbed” him. Not by coincidence, his personal squalor combined with his womanizing ways helped popularize deodorants, perfumes, and scented cloths to mask the odors in his court. Not that it helped very much. The Russian ambassador to France remarked that “His majesty stunk like a wild animal.” The Russians themselves bathed more often than Western Europeans, who denounced them as “perverts.”

Louis was not the only ruler comfortable with filthiness. Queen Elizabeth I of Spain said that she bathed only twice: the day she was born and the day she was married. Aristocratic Europeans bathed only a few times a year and most commoners not at all. Early Europeans had bathed regularly, but with the coming of Christianity, Church leaders denounced bathing because they believed it drew sinful attention to the body and encouraged promiscuity. There was a saying: “Saintliness smells bad.”

Southern Europeans had cleaner habits, particularly those with a lingering Roman influence or areas such as southern Spain and Portugal with a Moslem impact. Some Iberian cities regulated bathing: men on certain days, women on others, with fines for violators. This cleanliness paid off during the Plague that struck Europe in 1348 and killed perhaps a fourth of the northern European population. Southern Europe fared better, probably because of better hygiene. But centuries would pass before the link between cleanliness and health became known.

Americans were heirs to the dirty ways of their European ancestors. It has been estimated that fewer than one in ten Americans bathed even once a year in the early 1800s. Nor were Texans of that time—or later—wasteful with soap and water. Not that most used soap when they bathed; it was reserved for washing clothes. A brisk rubdown with a coarse towel loosened the caked-on body dirt. Ironically, many young boys were cleaner than girls and adults because they swam in creeks.

Although these attitudes lingered into the twentieth century, a new hygienic philosophy was expressed in the saying: “cleanliness is next to godliness.” My mother was a devout believer in the modern credo. I am sure that as children my siblings and I had the cleanest ears, bodies, faces, and fingernails in the area due to her vigorous scrubbings. Her mania for cleanliness caused me at times to envy members of the old school of nasties, two of whom it was whispered with awe and repugnance had never taken a bath. We stared at them from a distance, for like the Russian ambassador at King Louis XIV’s court, we learned that you did not want to stand too close to them.

Harold Raley

Dressed for the Occasion

Sometimes it’s okay to be a man. Just think, no fashion worries of any kind, no makeup or jewelry, no thought to warts or wrinkles, untrimmed beards or nail polish. And no hard decisions about shoes: we wear the same pair everywhere. Combinations and seasonal colors are no problem. Whatever comes up next in the clothes closet is fine. And if a brown sock is missing, a blue one will do nicely. Scuffy or stuffy, rude or crude, our choices are easy.

My old stomping ground, the academic world, is tailored for men. There, shabbiness is always stylish. Professors insinuate by example that an untidy appearance is a sign of an original mind. The students eat it up, which sometimes makes it hard to tell a university class from a huddle of homeless people. But the world being the unfair place that it is, women professors do not fare as well. Students think shabbiness is cool in male professors, but in women, well, not so cool, in fact just plain shabby.

In the real world, men never notice or care what other men wear, and if women are shocked by how a man dresses, they usually make comments only to other women. If the man is married, instead of criticizing him—innocent creature that he is—they blame the wife for letting her largest domestic pet roam around town dressed like a street person.

And things only get better as a man gets older. No matter how outlandishly an old man dresses, folks either assume his clothes are fashions from his prehistoric past or think that in his diminished mental state he is no longer responsible for his trespasses against good taste. In either case, people are okay with it. Old men get away with a lot.

But there are also thorns in this bed of roses. Life for men is one big imbalance. By the time most reach emotional and intellectual maturity—if ever—they are already in physical decline. So no sooner do they figure out what’s going on than they are too decrepit to do much about it.

In most families, concerned, intelligent women look after men and try to see that they are dressed for the occasion. Men listen but do not hear them. It is my professional opinion that men suffer from a deadly deafness to the female voice. Science needs to investigate.

This odd male deafness may cause cosmic ripples. At her beloved’s funeral the wife orders him laid out in a proper suit and tie—as usual, he’s not listening. He religiously avoided such attire all his life, like the front pew at church, but now may have to wear it forever. Poetic justice perhaps?

Harold Raley