Vermont Living Recalls the Time of Goblins and Gods
About a year ago, in Boston, I first saw Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film about a small expedition into the mysterious “Zone,” led by the title character, “the Stalker.” The remoteness and lush greenery (if a film has a primary color, Stalker‘s might be “forest green”) of the film’s “Zone” provided a sharp contrast to the snow-covered walkways of the towering city awaiting me outside the cinema.
For me, the contrast between the film’s location and my present urban surroundings showed doubly in light of the possibility of living and working in Vermont in the upcoming summer, among the fragrant flora and dipping landscapes – dotted with odd traces of bygone days – that I remembered vividly from growing up.
But in addition to the visual inspiration, Stalker offered a thematic corollary, hinted at especially by the opening lines of the character known as “the Writer:”
“My dear, the world is so unutterably boring. There’s no telepathy, no ghosts, no flying saucers – they can’t exist. The world is ruled by cast-iron laws. These laws are not broken. They just can’t be broken. Don’t hope for flying saucers.”
“The Writer” contrasts the excitement and imagination of the paranormal world against the material reality of a strictly governed existence. When his female companion responds, “But what about the Bermuda Triangle?” “The Writer” then posits those “cast-iron laws” against history:
“There is no Bermuda Triangle. There’s triangle ABC, which equals triangle A1B1C1. Oh, how dreadfully tedious. In the Middle Ages, life was interesting. Every house had a goblin, each church had a God. People were young. Now every fourth person is old. It’s boring, my angel.”
We could say that “the Writer” here veers toward nostalgia (coincidentally, the title (almost) of another of Tarkovsky’s films), but the longing for goblins and gods – against the tedium of modern life – illustrates a specific desire for something missing. That something may not precisely be goblins and gods for everyone, but then… what do we call it?
Various disciplines describe the demarcation between the Medieval period and Modern times in different ways. Sociologists and theologians might refer to the sacred-profane dichotomy, while politically, the Western world has generally progressed from monarchies to various political systems of representation. Likewise, Renaissance art looks a lot different from Modernism, and Economics, well… I’m not going to try to get into that here.
For me, when I try to put a finger on why “the Writer” sees life in the Middle Ages as more interesting, it comes down to availability of information, both for the better and for the worse. As we go back in time, our access to information progressively diminishes. In the Middle Ages, one’s resources were rather strictly limited to one’s community, and perhaps the books printed (depending additionally on one’s level of various language fluencies), and physical availability (no Kindles yet), since convenient purchase was perhaps only within one’s horse-traveling distance.
This access may seem like an astoundingly negative limitation, but it may have allowed for that very something that we miss today: excitement and direct interaction in open-mindedness (or ignorance, depending on how you look at it), and a healthy element of chance. There may be a goblin in the house (excitement), but there is also a church, where we can interact with each other and discuss (with open-mindedness/ignorance) our goblins.
Granted, my take on the Medieval period sounds strongly optimistic and over-romantic, but not without intent. While it minimizes the stresses associated with wage slavery and social media, it ignores the plight of the Middle Ages – hard work by necessity, food uncertainty (though this still exists in much of today’s world), less ability to deal with harsh weather conditions, etc.
“The Writer” mentions that “people were young” in the Middle Ages. The unspoken other half to this statement is that people were less likely to live to an old age. In the subsequent passage of time, these difficulties have, overall, vastly improved (for many, though by no means for all) as a result of information availability, and I have no qualms about using information for benefit.
I romanticize the time of goblins and gods merely because I think some of its conditions can prove healthy and helpful for our lives now, and I can’t find any reason why we shouldn’t take and make the best of both worlds.
In this way, the contrast that I began with — the greenery and natural variety of Vermont, against the concrete structures of Boston — proves false. In both the country and the city, we have the ability to channel the nearness, the sense of community of the Middle Ages. And we are lucky, in this way at least, that we have information available to better deal with the harsh conditions of the natural world. The question then becomes one of simply focusing our desires, and making the most out of everything we have.
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