History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 June 2008

The Group and the Individual

The time line of war and peace, conquest and freedom is the merest skeleton whose numbers are brought to life with the stories of men and women who made it happen. Their world is filled with the physical, emotion and intellectual detail that we hoydens (love to) explore and share.

Along with the basic need for food and shelter, the deepest parts of those elements are resonant throughout human existence: the lust for life, the fear of death, the longing to be accepted and valued are the big three that come to mind without much thought.

One of the overarching elements that fascinates me is the importance of the group in contest with the importance of the individual. In my randomly educated opinion up until the late eighteenth century the survival, prosperity and growth of the group far outweighed the importance of the individual. People lived communally, in ways that we would not countenance now. They ate and shared life in groups, they survived and failed as a community. They married for the greater good of family and country. SELF-preservation took second place. Men fought and died to protect their lands. Women gave birth, as often as they could, to insure the survival of the line or to guarantee that there would be enough people to fight and farm.

Change was born with the Enlightenment. But my theory on the growth of the importance of the individual is more fundamental. That shift began when men and women became literate. With the invention of the printing press came the greater availability of reading material and reading became another challenge the individual felt a need to conquer. The process was long and slow, but as more and more could read, two things happened: one, the reader was no longer dependent on the community for information and two, the new reader needed a quieter spot to absorb the written word.

Another great sign of the importance of the individual was that couples began to act on the longing to marry for love rather than as family needs dictated. It is an element of the early nineteenth century life that makes the Regency such fertile ground for writers. The conflict that grew between the old-school parent and their children who had a different vision.

Looking at the big picture, I think, in our day, war remains the primary way we reassert the need for the greater good of the community. Men and women die for a cause and those of us at home support the troops whether we support the war or not. Natural disaster calls up the same reminder that community has a place in our world, but tsunamis and tornadoes lack the deliberate element of declared war. Could it be that the “Go Green” rallying cry is a call to community as well?

Can there be any doubt that this stems from the extreme importance of the individual that we see in this early part of the twenty-first century? What comes next? I delight in debate. Tell me what you think…


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating post, Mary, and apposite to romance in so many ways -- which often has to do with a reconciliation the group and the individual, as moral education and physical eroticism unite two individuals into one stronger ruling unit: Mr. and Mrs. Darcy as the pinnacle of a little triangle of ruling rightness -- or Emma Woodhouse finally schooled to take her place as Mrs. Knightley.

I, of course, am a skeptic and a bit of a Jacobin about such arrangements, which still seem to me hierarchical in the extreme, no matter the domestic tranquility and moral equality reigning over there in The Big House at the novel's finish. (Well, I'm a skeptic who wrote Almost a Gentleman, which follows the rules of hierarchy exactly -- but I've never quite been able to indulge that fantasy again, yummy as some part of my brain continues to find it.)

While as for war -- well, there I'm not sure...

12:11 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Just you and me, Pam.

Don't you think that no matter the year or prevailing thought, domestic tranquility is, at its best, fleeting, no matter how hierarchical the structure of the relationship. I think that might be another element that all humans have in common, beginning with the first couple to establish a monogamous relationship.

War as a way to establish community was thrown in as a random thought -- by which I mean it popped into my head and I thought it was worth considering. I will admit that the goal of both sides in a war is to destroy the community that already exists and that the call to arms has solidified.

War reflects community on many levels: among the troops bearing arms, the support staff that enables them, the family they leave behind and the people of the country that they are defending.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

What a thought provoking post, Mary. At times it seems that the moment one achieves domestic bliss, the world comes along to throw it all into turmoil. I think the ability to come together as a community for the good of the community is always there, beneath the surface. In times of crisis it comes to the fore. Unfortunately that is usually what it takes for that feeling to arise. Afterwards we all go back to our individual country homes or town houses and fight out all of life's little wars - financial survival, the battle of the sexes, sibling rivalry, parents vs children.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I think this is a fascinating topic, Mary, and I look forward to reading the debate.

I haven't got anything truly insightful to add on the merits of society v. the individual, but I will share this from my own life experiences, which include frequent travel and a few extended stays in France (not nearly as many as I'd like, though). It concerns the smoking ban, which has been passed in many US cities, counties, and even states, like my current state, Illinois. In France, although smoking is being banned on public transportation more and more, a public smoking ban (in all public buildings, including restaurants and bars, as we have in IL) would never happen. The individual right to smoke is valued higher than the societal right to not breathe someone else's smoke.

This is an example of differences I see between my native culture (Midwestern US) and my "adopted"/frequented culture, France. In the US we are more willing to make certain laws that restrict the right of the individual for the good of society/the majority/call it what you will. In France, they value the right of the individual above all, I think it's fair to say. French people visiting Illinois or other states/cities with smoking bans get pretty steamed, if they are smokers, at least those I know.

Which approach is correct? I don't know.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Louisa, don't you think even on the family level there is a struggle to weigh the rights/needs of the individual with the needs of the family?

That is the big change I see in the last 200 years -- the needs of the individual are now more important than the needs of the group -- on a large or small scale.

Jessica, I have never been to France and appreciate your insight. As society has gone from from one extreme to another -- group before all and now individual first, I think there is a move to find a balance.

Each culture is going to approach it in a different way, which your observation proves.

Re smoking and slightly OT -- one of my favorite essays on the subject is by Garrison Kieler in his book WE ARE STILL MARRIED -- the essay is entitled "End of the Trail" and the opening sentence is "The last cigarette smokers in America were located in a box canyon south of the Donner Pass in the High Sierra by two federal tobacco agents in a helicopter who spotted the little smoke puffs just before noon." That opening always makes me laugh.

8:44 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online