If the Choice Be Mine…I Choose to March!

(More or less continues thematically from here.)

We live in an odd time, one in which the past is both readily accessible and consciously avoided. On the one hand, every issue of Life magazine, almost every book and periodical from before early in the last century, and a healthy proportion of legal and illegal copies of more recent texts, songs, and videos are available for free online, with trivial effort. On the other hand, insofar as our culture has a unified message, that message is (in the words of one Maxim editor) “Forget the page you just looked at—turn to the next one!”

I assume its unxxlovenecessary to “prove” this claim, so I’ll just dredge up the time Judy Blume novels in rerelease retconned out record players and feminine hygiene belts in favor of more contemporary products. I’m not here to complain about this state of affairs, just to point it out. Jules Verne predicted in 1863 a world in which everyone was literate but no one bothered to read; well, we have a world where the past is right around us and we refuse to look at it, gorgon-style—we only know it exists because we can see it in a mirror, as remakes.

The point is that the customs of the past can be strange and confusing to us, the ignorant. People my grandparents’ age thought that naked children were cute.  If I ever said that I thought naked children were cute I’d be sent to jail.

The past becomes stereotyped, because whenever there is ignorance we fill it in with stereotypes and cliches. When I saw the book Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma at a convention I thought, as everyone around me clearly did, that it was a funny xxexplaining cthulhutitle; but actually, of course, “Call of Cthulhu” was published in 1928, and our grandparents, who were probably too young to buy that issue of Weird Tales off the newsstands, are in all likelihood much closer to Lovecraft’s milieu than we are, and should be explaining Cthulhu to us. The title was only funny because I was able to overwrite sense with an the atavistic notion that old people had grown up in Victorian convents.*

I bring this up because a week or so ago I found myself at a parade, and as I stood in a crowd watching a bunch of people strolling past holding a banner informing me that this was the Chamber of Commerce, or the Rotary Club, or whatever, I could not help but wonder: why am I, and they, here? But I knew the answer, and the answer is one of those xxcaponestrange but simple quirks about the past that is largely forgotten today. We sometimes say (because parades seem obsolescent) that people used to be more obsessed with parades, but actually people used to be more  obsessed with parading.

This fact is most easily recognized in early-twentieth-century etiquette books, which stress the importance of the procession into dinner. This is how it works: For your fancier dinners, after everyone gathers in the drawing room, dinner is announced and the gentlemen all escort an assigned lady into the dining room. The order is which the guests enter the dining room is established by that least democratic of conventions—assigning people ranks depending on how important they are, which is the true obsession and probably raison d’etre of old etiquette books.

xx8.jpg(You can see the procession in action in, for example, the final scene of Dinner at Eight.)

Surely the procession is a very pretty sight, but whom is it for? Everyone present is in it! The only possible audience is the help. But, regardless, we must line up and parade into the dining room. The only other option is anarchy.

Orwell once remarked that fascism couldn’t catch on in England because if the English people had seen a man goosestepping, they would have laughed at him. This is a debatable point, but useful in that it drives home that not too long ago a method of parading can be seen as vital to, and inextricable from, a politico-economic system.

Here’s an 1895 book of “recitations” that suggests that a “comical broom drill,” performed by the ladies, will be “one of the sensations of this season.” This is not the only marching activity that the book suggests, for the ostensible amusement of viewers.

Obviously these days are behind us and parades are now in some sense “for” kids—perhaps overtly in the “ragamuffin xxragamuffinparade” tradition, or perhaps just because no one but a child could honestly say, “I love a parade” without an eye roll. Even the marching bands from parades are almost all high school bands. I understand that there are adult-themed parades with dildo floats, etc., but certainly these are in the minority.

The ragamuffin parade is one of the purest examples of culture trickling down to child proxies; remember that parades were once a literal show of armed force. But ragamuffin parades are annual at best, and if you want to see the dinner-at-8 custom preserved, by force, among children, you will have to xxgirlslook elsewhere.

Indeed, simply look to the elementary school. If you lined up after recess to enter the school proper in two orderly rows, you were enacting a fossilized processional custom.

Early in the last century, boys and girls lined up in separate lines, to enter through separate doors (labeled boys and girls, helpfully). xxboysCertainly it was a charming sight, and it has largely died out, but the lining up has remained.

I assume you thought that the goal of the lines was just to exercise control, because 80% of school is about exercising control. But it is also the dying remnant of a time when everyone, even adults, paraded about.


*I haven’t read the story, so maybe it’s actually all about Lovecraftian grandma; I only know (by literal telepathy) what the people chuckling by the con table assumed.

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