Once the Zeitgeist felt a bit confused. Was it supposed to represent brave new beginnings or express the cumulative legacy of the past? There were plenty of opinions in the air and no lack of those who were confident they knew, but their vehemence only left the Zeitgeist with more questions. If beginnings were called for, which voice among the many claiming that distinction was it to trust? Often the one momentarily rising above the din seemed merely to be the loudest or the one prompting the latest media chatter. Or it might be the one with the largest number of followers seeking to share the Zeitgeist’s moment in the spotlight, as if that moment owed its significance to their supportive zeal. And were these advocates for “the new and the now” really offering such a departure from the past, the Zeitgeist wondered? Why did it feel as if, for all the bold stands taken, in the end the expectations weren’t that revolutionary? Little real challenge seemed raised to a catalogue of hoary assumptions about how to conduct one’s life and what gave life itself meaning, despite the change promised. As if imagination failed when put to the test and sought refuge in brave new talking points instead. But for the spirit of the age to be truly new, mustn’t it owe little to old thinking and old ways? Otherwise, telling one age from another would be impossible, or if not impossible, then an exercise more of shallow cleverness than perception. And if that was all it came down to, a perpetual game of historical and cultural spot the difference, the Zeitgeist didn’t see much point in the effort. The life of an era was short enough already; wasting any time on quibbles over what set it apart seemed foolish. If the difference wasn’t obvious, why bother? On the other hand, was the pull of the known in fact justified? The patina of former grandeur, unmistakable in appeal or layered with more subtle fascinations, beauties revealed only in the measure of a worth that claimed universal reach and truth that was eternal—were these marks of inherited greatness what the Zeitgeist should aspire to? Being the end of one tradition rather than the start of another, a kind of tail to some other time’s dog, didn’t hold much appeal, however. Expected to do no more than wag in happy union, regardless of how grand what you were attached to might be, you would always remain an appendage, nothing but an epilogue bringing up the rear. Such inner debates left the Zeitgeist feeling caught between self-congratulation and a nagging inferiority complex, never certain whether to toast its triumphs or bemoan their lack of clear import. Just what could it point to with absolute confidence as setting it apart in either substance or allure from run-of-the-mill periods that had come and gone without lasting trace? Though what if epoch-changing difference or the sustaining heritage of earlier glories wasn’t what this Zeitgeist should expect? Was it simply meant to be little more than a trough between two crests, a period so taken with itself that it had lost the sense of proportion necessary to tell whether it was in fact just an eddy in the downward wake of the past or part of a rise towards new heights to come? To be merely a time of transition rather than a dramatic break or the inevitable fulfillment of history’s promise—an uncertain stage that might ultimately be judged merely a time of lost opportunities or premature claims—was a sobering thought. Akin to discovering one was at most a blip in a small corner of a universe whose depths boasted Zeitgeists that burned with a dazzling scope. It would take all one’s strength and self-regard not to despair at such a possibility and to get on with living in the full uncertainty of the moment, drawing inspiration from it, in fact, and neither counting on nor fearing the judgment of other ages. Even that was probably too grand a way of putting the challenge, the Zeitgeist supposed. A more humble confidence might be what was called for. A more stoic determination to play one’s part, however it is written.
Copyright © 2009 by Geoffrey Grosshans