I often see these twitter/blog/social media whatever posts pop up on various feeds from kind of successful authors and other marketers who spend a lot of time writing shit online to keep relevant. The kind I’m thinking of are those “TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER DO ON SOCIAL MEDIA IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENTIRE WORLD TO WISH YOU’D NEVER BEEN BORN” sort of generic advice offerings.
I’m fairly certain I probably do all of them. I admit, I’m not that great about doing this kind of thing on demand, at least outside of professional life. If I don’t feel like talking, I won’t. And if I’m going to talk, it has to be something that actually interests me. The only things that interest me in this context are things other people haven’t done or talked about much.
Where dieselpunk is concerned, I can’t handle any conversations about home-made jetpack costumes. I just can’t. What I can talk about is the way this particular idiom fits into everyday cognitive life.
Today, that means writing a criticism of nostalgia.
The hell??? one might ask in this case. Well, being a dieselpunk author doesn’t give me a free pass for questionable thinking.
Midnight In Paris
A while ago my wife and I watched Midnight in Paris. Part of the reason was because it would be cool to see familiar places in a film, since we got married in Paris this May. In reality, this film was a fascinating study of what I think is a big factor in why people choose genres like steampunk or dieselpunk. This movie nailed in particular the way writers, intellectuals, and artists in general tend to look backward. The previous era has an intellectual and aesthetic halo-effect for thinkers. We get sucked into thinking the present is boring and crude. Maybe a psychotic version of this is responsible for end of the world prophecies. I mean what is an end of the world prophecy but “the present sucks, nothing of value exists beyond the golden age I’m stuck to” on bath salts?
By the way, normally Owen Wilson annoys me, but this movie made me respect him a whole lot more. And I totally got sucked into my modernist fetish when he went into Shakespeare’s bookstore and talked about Joyce . . . mostly because I did the exact same thing when I went into that place.
But fantasy authors don’t give a shit what Woody Allen thinks, right?
The Diesel Era (Not in Paris or New York though)
This line of thinking made me stop and look around my own environment. I saw no shortage of modernist wonders in Europe. Train stations and other banal things that had been built in my favourite era all had some kind of significance, and it reinforced the pedestal I had put this other era onto. However, in Western Canada, I noticed that the diesel era looked a lot different.
Western Canada functioned in three or four capacities at that time: mines, lumber, agriculture. Also training camps for soldiers during the wars. It was not a cultural centre. Engineering and technology might have piggybacked on the industrial things going on, but there was no Chrysler building or anything like it built anywhere East of Ontario. It was also pretty swell to build internment camps back then, and British Columbia had a few.
So my current town does have a palpable aftertaste of the era. I don’t know that it ever will shake that. It’s kind of cool, but the significance of this town lies in a wartime military camp (this is where my office is), and an internment camp.
The contribution of this training camp was huge. Not only did soldiers train here for both wars, but you can still see markings on the range to guide pilots practicing strafing runs. The lake and much of the undeveloped land is full of unexploded ordinance. There is a lot of history here.
It just looks nothing like what our ideal version of the era is. This goes for most historical buildings in the interior too. There’s very little steel, very little concrete, and nothing whatsoever that shows inspiring designs ripped from Howard Roark’s libidinal frustration. It’s all big wooden timbers–like seriously, you’ve never seen timbers this large. When you don’t know how to properly engineer a building, you just choose the biggest members you can find to be safe. Stuff was slapped together by cowboys, not heroically fashioned by an army of steel workers. You can go into a 600 year old palace in europe and it’s still just as fresh as it ever was. Here, you go into one of these structures and are instantly hit by a mouldy pong that refit after refit hasn’t been able to clear.
Now this doesn’t apply to all historical buildings or other issues. Victorian architecture is much stronger throughout, especially along the railway–see Banff Springs and several buildings in Winnipeg. Also there are quite a few impressive Victorian armouries across the country. It’s not like I’m accusing us of being behind or too poor, because that’s definitely not the case.
I just wonder: where were the architects, writers, surrealists, and petty-bourgeois adventurers? I have no idea, besides New York and Europe.
This leads me to ask myself: why spend so much mental energy in that era then? The look? Not really–as I frequently mention, I hate wearing costumes and don’t find myself wishing I could get away with wearing pants up to my goddamn nipples and putting axle grease in my hair. Maybe it’s the explosion of advances coupled with the traumatic shakeup of war–a kind of uncertainty that somehow warrants some optimism. But then again, you could say that about any time period. Everything is always moving towards nothing in particular. Unless, I guess, you’re one of those dudes who sell end of the world prophecies.
It would be interesting to ask people who are into *punk genres if they actually would like to live in the particular era they like to read about. You know, like Owen Wilson in that movie I was talking about.
Are these genres actual nostalgia in the pathological sense? Look, I realize that 99 percent of the people who read this and have read my book would just shrug and say “eh, they’re neat stories. I don’t think about it more than that.” Like I said though, I don’t like to do anything that isn’t interesting. If I wrote books just because they were neat and didn’t have some complicated structure of thoughts behind it, I’d have gotten bored with writing ten years ago.
Nostalgia is a trap, but being human is full of such traps so it’s probably not something to worry about unless you’re thinking about ditching your wife for the 1920s. I guess. Well, thanks Woody Allen!