During my stint as a homeschooler, I lived and breathed ancient history, literature, and material. I remember studying the Ancient Greek, Roman, and British empires over and over. I read the Illiad and Herodotus in Grade 9, the Aeneid and Seneca in Grade 10, and wrote my own poetic epic somewhere in between. I remember reading Victorian novels as part of my curriculum, learning Latin, and memorizing dates of the Crusades.
And then there was modernity.
I never understood the jump between the “old” and the “modern” worlds until this year in university. I couldn’t understand how we went from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia to Artemis Fowl in the span of a few decades. Up until Tolkien, everything felt familiar; a literary realm of sensibility and comfort. Past that, I was a fish out of water. How did we get to post-music and post-internet again??? (I do love vapourwave though)
One of the most enjoyable experiences of my university education has been connecting the dots between “then” and “now”. Every time I read a theorist or a philosopher and connect it to a modern theory, that has an actual belief basis today, I get a bigger dopamine rush than when I eat chocolate.
For example, I remembering learning about the Magna Carta in elementary school. The codification system does have implications for modern society (and that blew my mind), but you don’t often see heated debates about the implications of a unified set of societal laws. With a few exceptions, I’m sure, people tend to generally accept it as a good thing.
Fast forward 800 years, and suddenly, these revolutionary ideas are still sending shockwaves through culture today. When the “confusion” and lack of “absolute truth” are mourned at the dinner table by your grandparents, philosophers Nietzsche and Derrida have a direct relationship to those sentiments. Derrida’s deconstruction of hierarchical terms, and theory of deferral of meaning definitely has influenced more relative thinkers, while Neitzsche is almost as famous as he is misunderstood, if not as passionate.
Or to take another example, feminism is a hot and fiercely divisive topic. Exploration into mainstream feminism leads the reader into topics like intersectionality, white feminism, or the essentialism debate. These are just shy of “common knowledge”, or well-explored and widely spread theories. They’re present in the push to accept marginalized bodies in body positivity movements that has been taken up by major brands like aerie, the “free the nipple” campaigns, the “me too” movement, mental health advocacy, trans rights advocacy, and so many more cultural and social debates.
All of these mainstream movements have their roots in theoretical backgrounds. Reading each cornerstone work, and seeing the chain of debates, writings, and responses to it has been an incredible process. Reading “The Second Sex”, and seeing the quote “One is not born, but becomes a woman”, and realizing that de Beauvoir is one of the very first writers to articulate the social influences on the feminine identity was mind blowing. Or Gilbert and Gubar and reading about the anxieties of authorship. Or watching the essentialist debate hash out exactly what it means to be a woman, and realize that this exact debate is in the comment section of every Facebook article about trans people. If each party went back far enough into the theoretical framework of their arguments, someone would end up here. In modern theory.
It blows my mind to be reading material so relevant to today’s anxieties.
This is not, obviously an attack on studying the times gone by. I am coming from a place of having not extensively studied the modern world, which makes my wonder with it all the more acute. I have lived and breathed the ancients and everything up to the modern world for so long that I doubted if there could be anything else to astound me. Of course we need to turn back into the past to learn about the present and future. Of course. Like Eliot, I find so much richness in the “Mind of Europe” (problematic and Eurocentric as it is), that there is no way I can prioritize one over the other.
I just had no idea how exciting it is to read a theorist, literary critic, or philosopher, and connect their work with such immediacy to the present day.
It gives me hope because the gaps in theory become immediately present, and the intersection of these theories with others give rise to a deliciously beautiful field of possibilities for expansion.