Driving across New Hampshire one day last August, alone with my thoughts and the birch trees and the distant mountains, the world felt changeless; the year could as easily have been 1969 as 2009. I stopped in a few rather decrepit antique shops to look for old stuff, as is my wont. And although I’d never visited these particular places before, they were probably much as they had been a decade or even a generation ago, perhaps a little shabbier. It was in a barn packed with junk, on some shelves of moldy books, that I picked up for two dollars a battered copy of a novel about our obsession with change, about the need to make distinctive claims for each generation, each decade, even each year. The book is Rose Macaulay’s Told by an Idiot, a brilliant novel, comic and lyrical, which relates the story of three generations of the Garden family, from 1879 until years after World War I; it was published in 1923.
Anybody who writes about culture or politics grapples with the vexed relationship between particular ideas, movements, and achievements and the period with which they are associated. Are thinkers and creators shaped by their times? Or do they shape the times? And is there in fact such a thing as a particular style, ideology, or moral vantage point that characterizes a certain year or decade or generation or century? Rose Macaulay’s answer—if one can say that a work of the imagination actually answers a question—is that most of what we regard as changes in consciousness are illusory. She seems to believe that although individuals have their strong, personal characteristics, we are too often swayed by fairly superficial ideas about what it means to live in a particular time and place. At the center of Told By an Idiot is Papa, Mr. Garden, the clergyman who “had very often lost his faith during the fifty years of his life.” He is the religious equivalent of the journalist or critic who cannot follow through on any single belief, whose attitudes change as rapidly as fashions in food. Mr. Garden has been an Anglican clergyman, a Unitarian minister, a Roman Catholic layman, a strange kind of dissenter, a plain agnostic; and he always somehow finds an organization that is willing to support him and his family. “On his last return to Anglicanism,” Macaulay writes on her very first page, “he had accepted a country living.” But he is losing his faith again. Over the course of the novel his children follow suit, falling in and out of career and causes, carried along by the tide of London life. To Auden’s “Another time has other lives to live,” the Garden family might respond that other months and years have other lives to live. “Papa was now a Roman Catholic again,” we discover some sixty pages into the book. “After three or four years of Ethicism, the absence of a God had begun to tell on him.”
I know this merry-go-round mentality from my own corner of the cultural universe. I cannot even say how many times in the past decades I have heard about the death of painting or the return of painting, or the death of abstraction or the return of the figure. A friend who used to write for the Times recalled an editor who at their regular features meetings would ask: “What is the trend?” One week my friend responded: “There is no trend.” To which the editor shot back: “Is that a trend?” Macaulay’s book explores this mentality and how it shapes our lives. The comedy begins with the book’s division into four parts--“Victorian,” “Fin-de-Siècle,” “Edwardian,” and “Georgian”—which suggests that the periods rather than the people are what really matter. And if that were not enough, “Georgian” is further subdivided, into “Circus,” “Smash,” and “Débris.” In Told by an Idiot, people are victimized by perpetual change. “In popular estimation,” Macaulay writes, “girls must be changing all the time—new every morning; there must be a new fashion in girls, as in hats, every year. But those who have lived on this earth as much as sixty years know (though they never say, for they like, amiably, to keep in with the young by joining in popular cries, and are too elderly to go to the trouble of speaking the truth), that girls, like other persons, have always been much the same, and always will be. … Yet in the eighteen eighties and nineties our ancestors were talking blandly of the New Woman, just as to-day people babble of the Modern Girl.”
There is a pleasurable texture to Told by an Idiot, a feeling for the intermingling of individual consciousness and communal consciousness that puts me in mind of the Virginia Woolf of The Waves or Between the Acts; I do not think it’s impossible that Macaulay’s book influenced some of Woolf’s later work. In any event, Told by an Idiot offers no simple answers, perhaps no answers at all. Mr. Garden’s absurdly wobbly faith is not entirely absurd, for all his shifts are powered, however weakly, by some real concern with faith. To entirely ignore the particular flavor of a day or a week or a month or a year is to miss much of the pleasure of being alive. There are changes in a culture, and we have an obligation to chronicle them. But relevance can become an evasion. Sometimes the most important thing to remember is how little ever really changes. There are not all that many entirely new ideas, although there will always be individuals who give the old ones some potent, original inflection. When the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby was asked in the 1950s to write a memoir of artistic life in New York in the 1930s, he threaded together a number of recollections and impressions, making useful distinctions between the years before and after the war, but concluded by observing that “[p]rivate life goes on regardless.” Many things go on regardless.