I used to think that history was a linear course from worse to better, crude to refined, a steady improvement on all fronts. Once we were monkeys who threw our poop, now we were advanced, reflective creatures capable of love and science. Look at medicine, I would declaim; no longer do we employ leeches and bleed people for their betterment, now we are curing diseases and extending life spans. Look at science in general, at technology, the advance of human rights!
That was then; now I tend to think that, while on some fronts that’s still true, mostly humans are cyclical creatures. Epochs of sexual freedom are followed by times of sexual constraint, which give rise to rebellion and sexual freedom once more. Religion, once seemingly on the downswing (don’t shoot me for this generalization), now seems to be globally resurgent once more, from fundamentalism to general attendance during this current recession.
Similarly, I used to think that my writing was getting better all the time (cue Beatles song). With practice I would continue to improve my skills, develop my own voice, grow adept at using tricky words, become familiar with different forms, etc. This is generally born out when I go back to older pieces I’ve written, but then I wonder. Mathematicians generally either make it or don’t in their early twenties. That’s when the mind is most creative, elastic, burgeoning with new ideas. I look at the sheer creativity of some of the things I wrote in my early twenties, and wonder–do we simply trade a gradual increase in our proficiency at the craft of writing for our gradual loss of true originality and creativity?