The Nature of Elegy

If change is loss, as pop psychologists love to say, then we all must be in a state of perpetual mourning. Depending on your age, you grieve for skate keys or glass milk bottles or the iceman’s cart; for 2-sided record albums, Checker cabs, solid black desk phones; Polaroid cameras, typewriters, cork in wine bottles, the Walkman – the list is endless. Even as we embrace convenient, new technologies, it seems to be human nature to lament whatever the next new thing replaces.

Lamenting things that pass away is hardly a new phenomenon. More than 100 years ago, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “A Plea for Gas Lamps,” which grieved the passing of the evening lamplighter and ranted against the horror of electric light:

“The word electricity now sounds the note of danger. … a new sort of urban star now shines out nightly, horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare! Such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror. To look at it only once is to fall in love with gas, which gives a warm domestic radiance… .”

These words strike me as the essence of how we look at the objects of our lives in their obsolescence. There is a lifecycle to the technologies that run our lives – from next new thing to ordinary and banal to on the verge of disappearing. It’s only in this last phase that we begin treasuring the old and familiar (and often, up to then, nearly invisible). You could call it Joni Mitchell Syndrome – we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone (or, in the anthem for the following generation: “Video Killed the Radio Star.”)

I think it’s more complicated than that. What strikes me is that these elegies for products and technologies on the wane – no matter what era or century they were composed – celebrate qualities that would not have been touted when that product or technology or medium was in its infancy, or even its prime. What those qualities are – how we regard the objects of our lives in the course of their lives – will be the topic of a future posting as well as of ongoing investigation and discussion in this space.

I leave you now with some musical theorizing:

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