History Matters

By , 18 October, 2010, No Comment

I just posted this in a mammoth comment on Google Reader, but the comment is basically as long as the post its commenting on, so it really needs to be its own blog post. I was responding to Matthew Yglesias’ post on whether reading spoilers on books and movies and TV shows detract from the experience:

I think “spoilers” aren’t nearly as bad as people make them out to be. I knew Macbeth dies in the end before I read the play, I knew that Troy falls because they stupidly let a wooden horse full of Greek soldiers into the city walls, and I knew that things weren’t going to work out for Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky.

Foreknowledge doesn’t ruin these works or any other work of quality. If anything, it’s the reverse. If you look at a well-constructed story—be it Season 3 of the Wire or the Great Gatsby or whatever you like—I think you’ll find that knowledge of where things are headed enhances your ability to appreciate the mastery with which the story has been put together.

There is definitely something to the post, especially the bolded part, which is one of the reasons I so frequently re-read favorite works. But at the same time, I don’t like the way he’s lumped together this collection of great works from different eras. As I commented:

Hmm. Plays of Shakespeare’s era had prologues that tell you what happens anyway. The first lines of R&J, Richard’s opening speech in Richard III, the prologue to Henry V etc. That’s inherited from the classical tradition–Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid all open with ‘spoilers.’

Neither Anna Karenina nor Great Gatsby opens like that. Tolstoy’s works were serialized, and the whole premise of serialization precluded the idea of spoiling the plot; and that carried over into what people expected of fiction in the years after serialization died out, right down to Fitzgerald’s time. There were authors experimenting with fiction that was not primarily narrative, but it did not become a mainstream assumption of readers that you were consuming fiction for some non-narrative purpose until much later.

So I’m not sure that it’s quite accurate for Yglesias to equate telling someone what happens at the end of the Iliad to telling someone what happens at the end of Anna Karenina or the Great Gatsby.

There’s a bit of presentism in what Yglesias says. It’s perfectly logical now, in the post-post-modern era to assume that fiction is consumed for a host of reasons that have little to do with plot, and to see that pattern stretching backwards all the way to the ancients. But the reality is that there was a long patch in between where fiction was not consumed that way at all.

Presentism is a pet peeve of mine, perhaps a last vestige of my onetime ambition to be a professional historian. It came up yesterday in a conversation about this gorgeous video of San Francisco’s Market Street in 1906, just days before the earthquake. My first reaction was just a kind of maudlin joy, especially at the sight of the little boy running back and forth across the tracks trying to outpace the cable car. My second reaction was to note how wide roads would be–indeed the same roads in many old cities–if we didn’t fill up two lanes with parked cars.

The first reaction of some Twitterati: “It would be great if Google took the Market St video and make a Street View from it.” Sure, it might be cool, or it might not. But the beauty of a video from 104 years ago is that it takes you to a time with different technologies. The inability to appreciate something beautiful from the past on its own terms, or even to appreciate the beauty of the contrast between its terms and our terms, is irksome.

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