marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

except when they don't

"The past is a different country.  They do things differently there."  Except, of course, when they don't.

I was thinking about writing a post about that proverb.  Now I am going to write a post about the gentle art of distinguishing when it is and is not appropriate, because when that was in my mind, I happened on something else.

The immediate inspiration was reflections on how there were deserts in Bohemia in Shakespeare's eyes.  This probably reflects the root of the word, which did indeed come from the same original meaning as dessert.  When they were clearing away the trestle tables in the great hall --all but the high table, where the lord and the highest guests or others sat -- they took to serving a sweet treat while it was being done, and they named it for what was being done, emptying out the room, though not quite as empty as the deserts, so sparsely inhabited.  Or a wasteland.  Which again was land that was wasted, whether inhabitable or not, it held no people.

You get other glances at this.  Allotments of land in colonial Connecticut were taxed at a lower rate while "unimproved," but the high price of timber meant that many farmers found themselves facing the higher tax rate because they had cleared, and so improved it.  Or Burke, arguing against a plan to give no more grants in the American colonies, declares that the colonists would spread without grants. And why?
Such would, and in no long time must be, the effect of attempting to forbid as a crime and to suppress as an evil the command and blessing of providence, INCREASE AND MULTIPLY. Such would be the happy result of the endeavor to keep as a lair of wild beasts that earth which God, by an express charter, has given to the children of men.

I was going to ponder the difference in thinking, except that I happened again the "waste" argument for extra-terrestrial life -- and not just bacteria or even worms but ET. Which is the same view, exported to outer space. (One also notes that if every star had a solar system, and every planet, planetoid, and moon in it teemed with life, most of the universe would still be "waste" by this logic, because most of the universe is such a hard vacuum as to make locations where molecules bump into each other rounding error.)

With the other thought already in my mind, I realized, that's the same attitude.  Those who didn't apply to earth still blandly went on applying it to the heavens.

So -- it inspires reflections on how views may or may not perpetuate themselves through time. Imagination is no substitute for going out to read primary source and learning the wonderful and terrible possibilities of what people can think.

I remember a sad case where a writer was explaining that you wouldn't want to refer to a pre-Copernican king as "the Sun King," and I, reading, winced. In fact, many kings used plentiful solar imagery, which had all sorts of positive connotations. Pondering lead me to realize that she had, in fact, missed a different difference:  she assumed that "central" in a geocentric solar system meant what it did in a heliocentric one.  In fact, the earth was not merely the center of the universe; it was the bottom of it.  When Dante and Virgil are crawling down the Devil's body where he is frozen in the center of the earth, they can only crawl down half way.  From his waist to his feet, they have to crawl up, because they have passed the point to which all things fall.  Earth is made of the grossest and crudest, and so heaviest stuff that exists.  One author greeted Copernicus with delight:  Earth is not a mere lump, but a star with its own motion and light!

Broadening horizons helps before writing.

Tags: primary source, the past is a different country, world-building: food, world-building: geography

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