Tuesday, 14 August 2018
Agriculture is another area of modern life where those of us who don’t actually farm enjoy wallowing in nostalgia.
Last week, we went to a farm show in a nearby village in Hessen. It was all rather delightful – beautifully groomed horses, lots of fairly innocuous drinking and tasty treats, some amazingly choreographed tractor manoeuvres and rides on some old carts and pony-traps. I was even invited to drive a 1967 tractor round the field – a new skill which I’m sure will come in useful.
But why are we so self-indulgent about the past where farming is concerned? I guess it’s partly just because it’s a convenient illusion to forget about the more unpleasant aspects of modern farming, upon which we all choose to rely – from the hard graft, to the more distasteful treatment of animals, and industrial scale of many operations. I think there may also be something much more politicised involved. I was initially inspired in my own research on C14th nostalgia by Raymond Williams’ work on the growth of a pastoral idyll in industrialised England (The Country and the City). His literary scholarship is, frankly, unparalleled for its skilful blend of close reading, contextual engagement, and strong political bent. It is a very complex book, but Williams’ sense that country life becomes idealised by successive generations, all of whom manage somehow to claim that it is only in their lifetimes that things have changed so dramatically, describes nicely the experience of going to a country show. And there is, of course, a more sinister edge to this. If cities tend to embody modernity and mishap, the nostalgic idealisation of the countryside masks social tensions and inequities which would otherwise be deemed unacceptable. The nostalgic rural idyll becomes a morally indefensible form of denial and delusion.
I’d like to defend nostalgia. There are contexts in which it can support a radical agenda, and there are certainly ways in which nostalgia can refocus us on crucial values. But that clearly depends on a kind of clear-sightedness which nostalgia often works precisely to obfuscate.