In 1973, Bruce Springsteen met a classmate from high school and they went for a drink. His friend ruefully reminisced about past times, and Springsteen used the event as the basis for his song “Glory Days,” that he then recorded in 1982.
Let us take a closer look at the meeting; the classmate on one side, the author on the other. Both sitting at the bar, in the present. The brain is built as an organ that has to take its clues from the past and build likely scenarios for the future, thus increasing our chances of survival.
Already in 374 BC, Socrates noted that: “In most of our abilities, we differ not at all from animals; we are in fact behind many in swiftness and strength and other resources. But because there is born in us the power to [...] show ourselves whatever we wish...”
So, to the brain, the present moment is of little use. Buddhists are well aware of this, having occupied themselves with the issue longest. Much practice and effort is needed for man to, at least momentarily, pause in the present in order to become aware of it, without the mind escaping to what was or what might be.
Imagination is an abstract space created by the brain and is thus intrinsically always somewhere else than the brain itself.
Springsteen and his classmate sit at the bar and clink their glasses. Their imaginary spaces can face either forward or backward. The classmates’ turns to the past, the songwriter’s to the future. As the former reminisces, the latter is putting together a song.
Perceiving creation as rearranging the pieces into a new whole, we are far more contemptuous toward reminiscing, as if to say, it is but a recollection of the event and that is all. This is not true; reminiscing is also building.
“Our memory of the past does not appear inside us like a film shot, it does not simply open like data on a disk, but we build it from the current moment. If we are currently in a bad mood, the elements that correspond to being in a bad mood are given priority in our remembrance. The reverse is also true. In one experiment, participants were asked to describe how satisfied they were with their life, and the project leader asked them to go and photocopy the questionnaire on the pretense that they had run out of them. In half the cases a coin was planted, so the subject would ‘find’ it. It was precisely these people who stated that they were more satisfied with their lives.”
Basically, Springsteen and his former classmate were both actively utilizing their imaginary space, albeit in different directions. One was building a past that in reality never was, and the other a future as it would probably never be (as the end product of creation always differs from the initial idea).
Utopia is thus a natural state to man, escape from the present. Every one of us is continuously choosing in which direction we should head, and here too the Gaussian distribution is valid; some people always look ahead, others only look back, but the majority look a little here and there, in both ways.
Our imagination plays over a number of scenarios in order to, very rarely, implement one of them. But with it mostly turned to the past, there is nothing it can implement, and the result is an essentially passive entity.
Active people build their utopia in the future, passive ones in the past. Neither group is satisfied with the current state; the former escapes into planning, the latter into idealizing the past, nostalgia.
Like people, societies too adopt norms that appear to be most suited to their survival, and this is why some are more active, whilst others are predominantly passive. Societies that become most nostalgic are those that believe their best days were in the past, and are beyond re-attainability. Similar is true for religions: when they reach a peak number of followers and need to start defending their positions, they suddenly start advocating peace and respect toward others – from active they become passive.
Broadening the Boundaries of Utopia
The meeting between Springsteen and his classmate would have also been possible one or two thousand years ago. Inns existed, so did alcohol, people sat around and chatted. The imaginary space, as provided by the brain, was of course also available; was it, however, as socially willing as it is today? How far forward and how far back would they dare to go then? The past depended on oral accounts and was quickly lost in myth, and the future probably seemed more like an extension of the future, at best dependent on the ruler (a good one is succeeded by a bad one, etc.)
In Christianity, God is the same and eternal, never changing, so how is anything else supposed to change? The inertia of an era is also discernable from economic data; between the years 1 and 1000 AD, the gross domestic earnings of what we now call the “Western World” fell by 0.01% annually, and between 1000 and 1820 it started growing by 0.34% - basically figures so marginal that, either way, nobody would have noticed the difference.
The Ancient Greeks had a cyclical view of history, immobility was the belief of the Middle Ages, the Scottish Enlightenment began believing in the possibility of changes that they called progress. Initially this was progress in science, then society, and later in all areas. The bourgeoisie established a new class that needed to be upwardly mobile, if it wanted to establish itself. Capitalism simply needs utopia, turned forward – in order to progress, professionally, personally, socially, you can become anything and everything you wish, this can include bionic limbs and the grotesque consequences of cosmetic surgery.
Today, every person has the right to their own utopia, though it is also true that these utopias are mass-produced and bought in bulk. The odds are against Mercier’s prediction that, by 2440 AD, humanity will have achieved utopia through using less instead of producing more.
Spiritual growth of self-improvement cannot be avoided, even in public service. As the former Slovenian Justice Minister, Senko Pličanić, noted, “It is especially important to build spiritual (personal) growth into the lifelong training of public sector workers. Through this, we enable employees to embark upon a path toward love (of themselves).”
Better or Worse
If a person is able to turn either forward or backward, is their decision not based on their opinion of whether the world is progressing or regressing? And their opinion, in return, engages in shaping the world itself.
I believe that, in this respect, people are essentially divided into optimists and pessimists.
Pessimists believe that the best has already passed and are, as such, heirs of the Bible. There was paradise to begin with, after it came a long downward path. In modern times, the idea was revived by the advocate of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with the ideal of the noble savage breathing only peace and liberty, while modern man is always moving, sweating and toiling in drudgery. Rousseau stressed emotions and became the exemplar of the navel-gazers of today, who are continuously preoccupied with themselves, as he outlines the “degeneracy of individualism.”
Here can also be included those who await the arrival of the Lord, and a new life in Paradise. We are dealing with a modernized version of the Greek cyclical view, where the Golden Age is followed by The Fall, then Jesus arrives, bringing the prospect for a new Golden Age.
The most ardent supporters of this trend are the most hidden; what Fromm would call contemporary necrophiles, technical enthusiasts with their utopias – believing the downfall will come when we destroy everything on Earth, and salvation will come by moving to some dead planet (Mars, for example).
Optimists claim that the best is yet to come and, in doing so, at least vaguely bear in mind Darwin and offshoots of Darwinism, albeit sometimes very distorted. For them, the life of prehistoric man was “nasty, brutish and short.”
Hegel transposed the possibility of improvement to the spirit of the nation, as the nation is an organism, and Nietzsche confined it to the individual. This view was much abused by eugenics, Nazism, Communism and other forms of New Man.
Roles and Situations
People subconsciously switch between roles that we take up depending on the circumstances. Thus is it quite possible that you believe the world is doomed, but that your life is taking a turn for the better, and vice versa. Similarly, you can switch, depending on what you are doing. A research scientist would probably find it hard to accept that all the greatest discoveries in their field have already been made, something a rock musician can declare with ease and have audiences nod wistfully.
A particular example of active believers in a better future are businesspeople who started from zero and created an empire. They were able to change their own fate, and now have hundreds of thousands of people depending on them, even entire countries, so they might yet change the entire world. Whilst Bill Gates might be involved in humanitarian work and wants to eradicate malaria, more evil premonitions are stirred by Sergey Brin and Larry Page (of Google), with their robots, or Jeff Bezos (of Amazon) with similar tendencies, including overturning workplace conventions.
Once they have grown to such extents, the desires of these people also become huge. Some leave behind entire cities, for example, Gary, Indiana (Stalin at the time returned the blow with Magnitogorsk), others failed states (Henry Ford’s Fordlândia), yet others, thinking of Kellogg’s health utopia, have at least given us breakfast cereal.
Old utopians, such as Thomas More and his Utopia (1515), were pervaded with optimism offered only by the absence of the possibility that it would be spoilt by practice. Whilst More and his followers played around only within their own imaginary space, and American businessmen at the end of the 19th century with towns and states, rulers of the first half of the 20th century carried out their experiments on vast territories. To modern businessmen, the playing field has become global.
Men and Women
In the second verse, Bruce Springsteen stops by for a drink at the home of a girl who was the class beauty, now living alone with her kids. Like his schoolmate, she too recollects memories of times gone by. Did Springsteen included this verse merely to address the gender balance, or did he want to point out that, in lamenting over the past, there is no difference between men and women? But why did he place his schoolmate in a public place and the girl in the home? Did he give in to stereotypes or did he want to specifically stress something?
“A Stanford University study of twelve-month-old girls and boys showed the difference in the desire and ability to observe. In this case, the child and mother were brought into a room, left alone together, and instructed not to touch a toy cow. The mother stood off to the side. Every move, glance, and utterance was recorded. Very few of the girls touched the forbidden object, even though their mothers never explicitly told them not to. The girls looked back at their mothers’ faces many more times than did the boys, checking for signs of approval or disapproval. The boys, by contrast, moved around the room and rarely glanced at their mothers’ faces. They frequently touched the forbidden toy cow, even though their mothers shouted, “No!”
The transfer of culture in the anthropological sense, so the programming of how things are carried out at the present moment is, with women (at least) in the years of personality formation, by far stronger than with men (and the psychological mother-daughter bond probably remains a bone of contention). Clearly the stereotype that women uphold tradition has a biological basis.
With women, there is thus a greater chance of replicating their mother’s life and with men a greater possibility of foolish ideas. Once more the Gaussian distribution is in place: a small number of girls in the abovementioned experiment did approach the forbidden object.
And the Final Refrain
In the final verse Springsteen, up to this point focused on creating, ascertains with resignation that when he grows old he, too, will miss the good times, the glory days. Through this, he offers us an important message: even if you are forward-looking and are building your utopia, you should conceal yourself and your utopia for as long as you can, because if the nostalgics figure out that you are at odds with them, and that you want to change what they do not want to be changed in anyway, they will set upon you with all they have.
Springsteen succeeded in achieving the impossible. While, at the age of twenty-four, his contemporaries long for the golden times, he merely nods, as if to say, I am just like you, but he shifts nostalgia to his seventies. If, in the meantime, he hid from them half a century of creativity and building of his own utopia, he duped them all.
Translated by Gregor Timothy Čeh
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