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Genealogy and individuals

Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)
Torgny Segerstedt,1940. Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)

"The personal is independent of time currents. It can wither or grow freely as a tree arches its crown in free space, regardless of the century and the airstream in which it was born."

You old men, you don't know the time! Our youth may be your children, but remember what Confucius said, "Your child is not your child; it is a child of its time." The quotation is taken from a publication called "Swing", which is devoted to sports, specifically to that branch of it which deals with fist-fighting and wrestling. In a strongly written article it makes its contribution to the discussion on the relationship between the older and the younger generation. Its characterisation of the various family members is perhaps significant precisely because of its lack of nuance. The old are sentimental, the young have "something of Dorian Gray's heartless paradoxical philosophy of life". "Sentimentality is a vice these days." The older generation droned and dreamed; the younger is efficient. "If you knew the young generation that is coming, you backward people would not sit so crossly in your creaky louse of a chair, but you might then realize that all your whining is in vain, and that you would do well to go to the young and assist them."

The last lines are a bit surprising. The youth, judging by its cocky attitude, should withhold both accommodation and assistance. But we shall not notice words. We shall let Confucius' speech be taken as it is here above understood, and not exchange words about "rotten impractical baroque chairs" and "hygienic leather armchairs".

There is only one thing that one wants to remark on when listening to this kind of drumroll. It is that the distinction between the generations does not have the significance which those who look at the matter as the above quotations suggest attach to it. To begin with, it must be remembered that the transition between generations is gradual. There is not an empty gap of thirty years between the older and the younger generations. All the transitions and all the months and weeks and days are represented. The transition from older to younger is particularly smooth.

That the supply of life and the whole attitude to life then undergoes a relentless shift is an observation as old as the human race. Pleasures and ideals of life are not fixed quantities. Life itself, the life of the human soul, requires change. When men have sat for a time brooding over their problems - those of them who brood at all - they begin to discuss and exchange opinions at meetings and at the punch bowl. Then they tire of the punch, as they had previously tired of the toddy, and go to the whiskey and soda, until they leave even those. They leave the club chairs and devote themselves to sport. In due time it will become unfashionable and new pastimes will arise.

Does this mean that one generation takes precedence over the other? So far as the difference consists in what the advocates of the primacy of the one or the other generation seek to emphasize, it is quite indifferent. The one fashion has no greater intrinsic value than the other. One jargon is not better than another. And in so far as it is a question of something that puts its stamp on a whole generation, we are dealing with jargon, with linguistic, moral and intellectual jargon. We think the dress of a hundred years ago looks funny. In a hundred years, our clothes will look just as funny to the living.

This whole valuation of genera and currents is simply the result of a lack of education. It sometimes happens that one witnesses attacks on some great man of the spirit, which are intended to show that he was not "great". The person in question does not succeed in getting anything out of his work. It is an honest thing. Instead of saying: he leaves me cold, he abolishes his individual limitation to a universal measuring stick and rejects everything that cannot be measured with that stick. Goethe is revealed as an old wig stick, and Rembrandt as a mutilator. All artists, writers and thinkers are thus moved back and forth between pedestal and shame.

Something of the same tendency to make one's own limitation the norm of all things is apparent in the uncompromising rejection of all forms and phenomena of life which are not of the very type of fashion to which one has been subjected. It is just as silly when the old reproach the young for their moral decay and other defects, as when the young contemptuously judge of the backwardness of the elderly. The one is as much as the other to elevate a temporary and transient external or internal fashion to the status of a guiding principle for all times.

In itself, the very general narrowness to which this testifies is nothing to be offended at. People have, as a rule, one profession or another. It absorbs their power of thought, where it is not more abundantly allotted to them than usual. So in the other spheres of life they have to content themselves with mere phrases and sayings. They then often have no other way of keeping up their self-esteem than to declare, by virtue of their narrowness, that which is beyond their horizon is inferior. Stupidity is never so helpless that it cannot produce a stupid grin at what it does not understand. Where it increases men's self-respect, and blunts the unpleasant feeling of falling short of the tasks of life, it is a blessing. When people take pleasure in their own inability to grasp, comprehend, and appreciate, may it be heartily appreciated.

Besides, it should be obvious that what is important from a human point of view is not whether an individual happens to come into being when this or that fashion prevails, but how the individual in question cultivates his individuality. Cultural currents and environment supply only the raw material for the formation of personality. What does a man make of his dispositions, how does he assert his individuality under the relentless pressure of the environment imposed upon him, that is the question. The personal is independent of the currents of time. It can wither or grow freely, as a tree arches its crown in free space, regardless of the century and the sky in which it was born. As soon as one enters into the question of what is valuable in purely human terms, one moves to a plane where the different attitudes of the family line, where external and internal currents lose all meaning. The personality, as far as its development as such is concerned, is independent of the temporary currents which determine taste and pleasure, dress and jargon. He who has become aware of the nature of the personality does not then get caught up in anything so externally and deeply temporary as that which is common to the various members of the family. A time current is an interesting phenomenon from many points of view. The men who bear it and are borne by it are not, therefore, personally different from those who have been borne by and have borne other currents.

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