E. B. White was concerned that the future would not live up to the past.
At the 1939’s World’s Fair, he observed many new fangled machines, many new ways of doing the old, and concluded the future would be plastic, glass, expensive, without feeling, joyless, odorless, and devoid of heritage.
In a return visit to Walden, Henry Thoreau’s place of tranquility, White found the same truth — the past was missing.
The future, which had become White’s present, was losing the past, he concluded in his written reports.
Through nostalgia, White expanded on this thought. He sensed a “loss of the real”, dependency on machines creating a new age, wherein it was uncertain who had the upper hand, man or machine. By transposing himself into the roles of his son and his father, alternately, White experienced the past relived. His pensive and vicarious mood was a transcendental one, which gave him that strange sensation of having been in a situation, or at a place, previously. He described it as “creepy”, but done by his own unconscious design, and who can explain the unconscious?
After this mental trip, White concluded that in the present, there was a loss of the spirit, there was no longer joy over simple things, as an anticipated summer trip to the lake. In the present, such activity is just done, with no emotional attachment.
He did give the present a saving grace observation, however, stating that children do experience some of the same delights as of old. Perhaps this remains true because children “learn” as they grow what to reject and what to accept. Some things children do naturally before the learning process takes hold.
White seemed almost driven to give an accounting of the past: does mankind learn from their mistakes, or does history repeat itself? Perhaps what bothered White the most was the human habit of plunging into the future, headlong, without benefit of first evaluating the past. Most of his writing dwelled on the past. In tragic settings, he invoked humor. Was he indicating that humor makes the painful memory easier to handle, that mankind takes the past, present, and the future too seriously? In addition, do people take on the suffering of others to punish themselves?
The fragility of man’s plans was often pointed out by White. Man adopts a “nothing-will-happen-to-me” abandon, and the result is sometimes tragic. On the other hand, the best laid plans can also go awry. White seemed to say frenetically all the world is, indeed, a stage, and predestined performers have no control over what will happen in their lives, regardless of what type of planners calculate the future.
Mankind carelessly jaunts from youth to old age, White insisted, with little, or no regard for the future, remaining passively unaware of the passage of time until suddenly waking up at the age of 65. Systematically, man goes from practice to performance, from natural to learned perfection, all the while rebuking reality.
The real moments, worthy of memory, White said, are those spent in preparation for the outcome. A perfectly executed ending is anticlimactic if one misses what happened during its preparation. Life is living through that preparation. Good preparation will result in an expected outcome, so that the outcome becomes secondary. The important question is, “What did one gain while preparing for the moment”?
And, so, what good is hurried art?
Sources: The writings of E. B. White