Stanford literary scholar traces cultural history of our obsession with youth
With philosophy, history and literature as his guides, Stanford Professor Robert Harrison investigates how Western ideas of youthfulness have evolved from classical antiquity to the present.
In Western culture, Harrison noted, classical antiquity plays a fundamental role in cultural rejuvenation.
"We have many different antiquities in the course of our history. The Middle Ages had its antiquity, which is different than the antiquity of the Renaissance. There is an Enlightenment antiquity, different than the antiquity retrieved by the Romantics, or the Modernists, and so forth, yet in each case the new grew out of the old."
Keeping up appearances
"We live in an age of juvenescence," said Harrison, who hosts the radio talk show Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature)
"Juvenescence" draws on the biological concept of neoteny, a term that refers to the retention of juvenile characteristics through adulthood.
According to Harrison, the term juvenescence has two meanings, either in positive terms of cultural rejuvenation or, on the other hand, of juvenilization.
"Rejuvenation is about recognizing heritage and legacy, and incorporating and re-appropriating historical perspective in the present – like the Founding Fathers did when they created a new nation by drawing on ancient models of republicanism and creatively retrieving many legacies of the past,"Harrison said, citing an example from his book.
"Unlike rejuvenation, juvenilization is characterized by the loss of cultural memory and a shallowing of our historical age."
Harrison proposed another example from his forthcoming work, drawing on 20th-century literature that highlights these two contrasting aspects of age.
"I use two figures to answer the question of how old we are in our age of juvenescence. One is Lolita, from Vladimir Nabokov's novel, and the other is Molloy, from Samuel Beckett's eponymous work. Culturally, we are at once as young as Lolita and as old as Molloy. That makes us a very strange age indeed,"he said.
A bedridden but educated vagrant, Molloy is the heir of multi-millennial tradition but now decrepit and seemingly endlessly old. Lolita, on the other hand, belongs to a new age, as an adolescent with no historical memory who will live and die an adolescent no matter how old she gets.
"Culturally speaking, be that in terms of dress codes, mentality, lifestyles and marketing, the world that we live in is astonishingly youthful and in many respects infantile," Harrison said.
As Harrison sees it, the average citizen of the developed world today enjoys the luxury of remaining childishly innocent with respect to the instruments that he or she operates, consumes and otherwise depends on daily. "I feel ambivalent about where we are culturally in this age of ours. It is hard to say whether we are on the cusp of a wholesale rejuvenation of human culture or whether we are tumbling into a dangerous and irresponsible juvenility."
Being OBSESSED > being CHILDISH / IMMATURE? - want to be a youth, etc.
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