A Cultural Historian Decries Profit and Progress
Standing in a luxury hotel, cultural historian Luc Sante daydreams about the good old days of homeless alcoholics lighting trash fires in the streets of Manhattan’s Skid Row.
“Over there, next to the flophouse hotel,” Sante reminisced to the Guardian, “is where Nan Goldin lived and worked. Forty years ago there were still lots of vacant lofts here that had been burlesque and vaudeville theatres during the era when storefronts were saloons. There were bars solely inhabited by bums, their heads down on the counter. At night they’d be lined up outside the missions and Salvation Army hostels — veterans from World War Two, from the Korean War, from the Vietnam War. At night, trash fires would be lit in oil drums.”
The French have an elegant phrase for what Sante is doing. They call it nostalgie de la boue, “longing for the mud,” which means a romantic yearning for a primitive or degraded behavior or condition.
The phrase, which was coined by a French dramatist in 1855, has been around for a while and usefully describes the very real way in which the wealthier and healthier inhabitants of modernity look back at the past through a misty, romantic haze.
While it annoys historians when we put a soft-focus filter on history, it doesn’t generally do a lot of damage. We don’t need every medieval romance novel to remind us that the heroine’s breath didn’t smell like cool mint Listerine. It’s probably for the best that the historical re-enactors at Colonial Williamsburg don’t actually use authentic colonial medical remedies for their health problems, and visiting tourists are certainly grateful for modern plumbing and street sanitation. Even the BBC’s determinedly authentic 1900 House had a phone and modern fire protection in case of emergencies.
Any lover of history will occasionally find him or herself dreaming about attending a performance in the pit at Shakespeare’s Globe, or roughing it in the saloons and shacks of a gold rush town. Some of us may even have recently spent an entranced hour or two playing with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Design-a-Wig” website. But a good student of history will acknowledge that the Globe was undoubtedly loud, smelly, crowded, and occasionally even dangerous for playgoers. And the rugged romance of the gold rush town is offset by the knowledge that you were probably far more likely to die of gangrene or cholera than you were to strike it even moderately rich. And those glorious 18th-century wigs? Heavy, hot, smelly, and prone to harboring bugs.
But a real case of nostalgie de la boue goes further than the soft-focus filter that ignores the unpleasantness of the past. Rather than ignoring the historical “mud,” nostalgie de la boue actively longs for that kind of unpleasantness and insists that without it, life is less authentic, less meaningful, and altogether worse.
And that is where Luc Sante seems to be. While he is quite correct to note that the ribaldry of Paris has long been a desirable antidote to the humorless Puritanism of American cities, Sante goes entirely off the rails when he insists that his praise for the “materially poor but … imaginatively free and creatively rich” inhabitants of Paris is not a romantic vision.
According to Sante, people ask him, “How can you be promoting the life of the poor in the 19th century when so many of them didn’t eat every day?”
Sante concedes, “Well yeah, it’s bad, but is it really any worse than the situation today when everybody’s fed but you have an incredible percentage of New Yorkers who live in the shelter system – including people who have regular jobs?”
The horrors of the shelter system aside, there’s a great deal to be said for a world where more and more people are fed better every year, and my guess is that a great number of the imaginatively free Parisians that Sante dreams of would have enjoyed the occasional extra baguette. It is possible to value historical creativity and intellectual independence without also having to praise historical dietary deficits. (And it is worth noting, should Sante happen to read this, that the feeding of all those extra people is not due entirely, or even primarily, to “the shelter system.” It’s the market economy and all that goes with it that is making the world better fed every year.)
Sante continues his nostalgia for the mud when he argues, “In the Paris I write about, people ran businesses to make a living, not to make a profit. Cafes, bars: they’re no longer public institutions or part of a community. There’s no possibility for eccentric self-determination amongst the shopkeepers.”
The distinction Sante draws between “making a living” and “making a profit” is not particularly clear to me. It suggests, perhaps, an unstated assumption that there is such a thing as an agreed-upon “correct” amount of profit for a business or businessperson to make — beyond which all profit becomes filthy lucre. Possibly he is making an equally indefensible assumption that businesspeople in the past weren’t interested in being as successful as they could be and that it is only our postmodern cynicism that has unleashed the drive for profit.
Maybe Sante means to say that unlike today’s businesses, the businesses of years ago “made a living” by helping to create a community among their customers rather than just “making a profit” by selling stuff. I think that thousands of today’s small business owners and their Facebook pages, Etsy stores, and farmer’s market stands would beg to differ with his assessment of their importance to their communities.
There’s not necessarily always a problem with nostalgie de la boue. It’s how we got Peaky Blinders, the renewed interest in home canning, restaurants that serve bone marrow, and the great revival of folk music spurred by O Brother Where Art Thou?, after all.
Sante, though, has so much mud in his eyes that he is blind to the tangible and important progress that has been made in human wealth and welfare. His mucky nostalgia leads him to claim that our increasing wealth — which has given us more health, more discretionary income, more food, and more free time — is a danger more pernicious than terrorism. “Money, for me, may not immediately kill people in the way terrorism does, but it does certainly change the fabric of daily life in much deeper and more insidious ways.”
That is a statement of such offensive ignorance that it could only be made by a man standing high above the former Skid Row, looking down through glass, with room service and maid service only a phone call away. I wonder if the men and women in the photographs that Sante treasures would have said the same?
Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.