The Allure of Abbeys

Tintern Abbey, Samuel Colman

This time, I don’t mean Downton.

I mean the abbeys of The Name of the Rose and Byzantium and The Forest and Sailing To Sarantium. Maybe even of Redwall, ridiculous as that may sound, since I’m sure I took it in on some level when I heard stories at bedtime as an eight-year-old. They’ve always attracted me, ever since my parents received a gift of jam that had a picture of a monk on it, and my inquiry brought tales of habit-clad folk in farflung places, carefully turning out jams and beers and, in the past, manuscripts, for the betterment of all.

At least, that’s how I imagined it.

I was completely won over by the idea of them, or more truthfully the social and geographic contexts that bound them. I wanted the thick stone walls, held in place not only with keystones but with history. Buildings that had clung to rocky outcroppings for centuries. Dusty archives. Paving stones worn smooth by more generations than could properly be remembered. (Hence, of course, the archives.) I loved, too, the idea of abbeys being places of knowledge—often the only places for miles and miles. The people who knew how to read, were there. Those who know how to write were there. The only people, often, to know boatloads of other languages—oftentimes archaic ones, useful only for writing—were there. I had an on-again off-again obsession with the Book of Kells. I was completely smitten with illuminated manuscripts, and got all starry-eyed when in school teachers would emphasize time and time again how long each monk spent on a mere square inch of those manuscripts. The diligence and effort spanning years and years and years, with what I perceived to be the self-sure knowledge that that was what you were supposed to be doing, that it was good and useful work—I dearly longed for that.

I realize now too that the combination of esoteric and earthy work—the books and the jam and beer-making—attracted me in the structure of its production at least as much as the actual products did. The people there, one hoped, believed in what they were doing and were able to see enough of an impact from their work for their belief not to be a sham. Rare texts were preserved and propagated by their efforts. Languages held onto. People fed. Economies propped up and sometimes even invented, given the armies of laymen required to keep a full-blown abbey up and running, and the towns they then brought into existence. 

I am skirting the somewhat salient topic of religion for good reason, since a number of people I know—I’m looking at you, Vince—go red-eyed with rage when someone even mentions religion, thus making any further conversation about a related topic, like abbeys, moot. So restrain yourselves. I am not saying bravo to self-flagellation and Dolcino and Athanatius. I’ve mentioned this before in passing but only in a practical way, i.e., don’t hate on the monks because they are often the only reason we know jack about Time X or Place Y. Of course we should value them and their abbeys as bastions of stability in an area of the world that by and large went to shit for a long time. But I am probably more likely to upset my usually trigger-happy atheist acquaintances by claiming that they are also to be valued…envied, I guess…for giving so many people who weren’t off fighting wars or growing food a format for continued meaningful existence. Don’t scoff. In a world where famine is as likely to wipe out your whole family as plague or feudal bickering, who has time to feed and clothed and provide the economic superstructure to support a bunch of soft-living guys writing new books and translating old ones? Nobody will do that without a good goddamn reason, and then—unlike now—“we can teach your kids to read?” didn’t quite cut it, since what could would reading do when what you needed was plowing? Without religion crowning those monks up there on that cliff or that island as noble or earnest or justified in some other way in their undertakings, who would make it possible for them to persist in their efforts? Without religion, scholarship for the sake of scholarship would not exist. It would have been snuffed out like all the other impractical crap people refused to put up with over the ages.

I imagine you see where I am going with this, and where I get the envy angle. Perception of the masses aside, monks were able to go about their work with the belief that what they were doing was good. And useful. And necessary. And unless you’re curing cancer or doing calculations to sure passing asteroids won’t obliterate us, that is a very hard position to take in the secular academy. The position that what you’re doing matters a rat’s ass, I mean. I hereby do promise not to make this another academia soapbox post, but let me quietly point out that I was told for years, by academics themselves, not to go down that path. From the embittered chain-smoking writing prof I shadowed for Dream Job Day as an eighth-grader (who taught me less about teaching or writing than she did about ex-husbands and the various ways they and “the system” can be Out To Get You) to just about every professor I became close to in my ill-fated pursuit of area studies, the message was clear: Abandon Ship. Decades in, nobody likes their work or, worse, themselves. Most were unhealthy. Many divorced. All smarting at the lack of respect outsiders had for them, but to a one they knew exactly why they felt the way they did: because their job was to talk amongst themselves. For years. And to pretend it mattered. That is why every class from pottery to Vietnam 101 to Nietzsche closes, or closed when I was a student in the mid 2000s, with a lecture on the Iraq War. It’s not that your pots or your 17th century French parlor novels or your phreneology debunking classes have anything to do with the war. It’s that, as humanities professors, you need to claim a relation to the Iraq War to claim relevance. And while the political focus of the moment changes over the years, the desperate self-aware grasping at world-stage straws by the academy does not. It’s always there, eating at you.

I went and did it anyway because I was wooed by abbeys; by the White Tower in the Wheel of Time series; by compliments. I am good at pleasing people older than me, and I will always seek their respect before that of my peers. Probably because I realized early on that I’d never be cool. But the structure of organized scholarship in fantasy novels is much the same as it is in abbeys of the past: people did what they did with the (by and large, well-placed) conviction that it was good work. I miss that, even though I never really had a chance at it, the times being what they are and the world what it is.

I mean only to ruminate on it, though, not to mourn it, for any number of reasons—not the least of which being that I probably wouldn’t have been able to cut it in any of my longed-for abbeys any more than I could have in modern-day academia, given Brother Adam’s frank “The Truth About Monks” speech:

“One is secure here, of course. We are clothed and fed. We have few care. So tell me—” he suddenly rounded on the novice—“now that you have had the chance to observe us for several months, what do you think is the most important quality for a monk to possess?”

“A desire to serve God. I think,” the boy said. “A great religious passion.”

“Really? Oh, dear. I don’t agree at all.”

“You don’t?” The boy looked confused.

“Let me tell you something,” Brother Adam cheerfully explained. “The first day you pass from your novitiate and become a monk, you will take your place as the most junior among us, next to the monk who was the last to arrive before you. After a time there will be a new monk, who will be placed below you. For every meal and every service you will always sit in the same position between those two monks—every day, every night, year in, year out; and unless one of you leaves for another monastery, or becomes abbot or prior, you will stay together, like that, for the rest of your lives. 

“Think about it. One of your companions has an irritating habit of scratching himself or sings out of tune, always; the other dribbles when he eats; he also has bad breath.  And there they are, one on each side of you. Forever.” He paused and beamed at the novice. “That’s monastic life,” he said amiably.

Um. No thank you. Persistent testicular forays, crowds be damned, are as maddening to me as academics who spontaneously decide that I need a detailed description of their most recent bodily malaises, and how their respective exes are likely the causes of all of them. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to see it. Be it the abbey or the ivory tower, I probably wasn’t cut out for either.

But it sure would be nice to read books all day and have people tell you you’re awesome for it.

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Stories and Fathers

I think the reason I enjoy listening to these long drawn-out podcasts where comedians et al talk amongst themselves is that my go-to resource for communicating with people is anecdotes. It’s not witty rejoinders because I won’t think of something until hours later, and it’s not one-two punches of straight-up information because I need to clothe those in qualifiers than emphasize that I’m not an authority on whatever it is I’m talking about. (I don’t like claiming that power, and I distrust others who do. You never know as much as you think, and you only think you know half as much as you should.) And oftentimes when I’m talking to people who only want to go “boom-boom, now I’ve got you haha! what have you got to say to that?” or if they’re really easily distracted and keep jumping around in focus, I just give up and let them talk at and over me. But in these podcasts, long drawn-out anecdotes are the point. And the people speaking are given space to finish them in full, and then reflect upon them.

Consider, for example, Marc Maron’s interview of Louis CK. Or, I guess, Marc Maron’s interview of any number of people, since I’ve only just started listening to the podcast and am still backtracking through old episodes of people who interest me. When CK gets off-track, Maron lets him go on in that direction for awhile, then when the new direction has worn itself out, he reminds CK of where he was going, and usually the initial impact of the conversation is enhanced by the relationship the tangent had to it. Like when CK starts talking about his daughter. (I suppose I should put a spoiler alert here, since though there is no plot it’s really worth you time to listen to it without knowing anything about it first.) At first they are talking about the transmogrification of CK’s comedy from the absurdist stuff he did for close on two decades to the stuff that rocketed him to where he is now, and there is a lot of technical discussion about audiences and the climate of comedy in the nineties and the construction of jokes. But CK says his life got turned around, for a number of reasons. He cites a near-fatal motorcycle accident and the precipitous decline of comedy that immediately followed, and a number of awkward TV gigs he got in on at the last minute. And then he gets to the tale of his daughter being born, and he chokes up. His throat just shuts down.

[Let me add here, because I have been trying to come up with a number of places to say it and I think here is best, that between Anthony Bourdain and Louis CK I think there really needs to be a warning label or hashtag on podcasts or audiobooks if fathers are going to suddenly fall apart about how awesome their tiny daughters were/are. I listen to these at work, where I can’t afford to be tearing up. I should emphasize that I listen to these guys precisely because they are old, and crass, and grizzled, and have so many stories about their lives and the world that have nothing to do with being tender or endearing. I don’t make a habit of seeking out doughy-faced paeans to fatherhood. At all. The graph my level of interest is a flatline. So to hear these people, who for various reasons should’ve drank or drugged themselves out of existence as the young assholes they used to be, and are only alive now thanks to tremendous doses of luck, actually come undone over these creatures for whom they profess more awe than they’ve managed to scrape up in the entirety of their pre-existing bodies of work, totally steamrolls me.]

When he recovers, he relates what vies with Anthony Bourdain’s chapter on his daughter (in Medium Raw) to be the most moving testament to fatherhood I have ever heard. He doesn’t just sit there talking about how oh, woo, suddenly things change. He doesn’t. He talks about all this bullshit parenting that goes on around him and often, culturally, is celebrated. Dads are supposed to be dull-eyed disinterested losers who occasionally pause in the shoveling of potato chips into their mouths to nudge their kids out of the way of the TV. Celebrity dads are supposed to be so consumed with being celebrities that their babies disappear off their radars once their bizarre food-based names are chosen and slathered across the pages of People magazine. This is normal, CK says, and he hates it. He didn’t want to be that (and as Maron points out, no small amount of these fierce I’m-not-going-to-be-that-jackass feelings may stem from CK’s own father who skipped off for most of CK’s life) failure of a father-figure, and he was really and truly afraid that he would. Because he was used to living differently. To doing dumb shit like the stuff he has talked about for the entire interview thus far.

When CK loses it—and when I lose it, listening to him—is when he’s describing the utter mess and tumult of post-childbirth, with screaming and running every which way, and there is his kid, wailing and being stuck full of needles all over her body, having rough materials clawed over her body which is completely unused to the atmosphere and texture of this new world. And he’s acutely aware of how raucous and miserable this world can be, and sees this kid screaming and thinks she has every right to, it being so miserable for her, and he gets down on his knees next to the table she’s on and says to her, really quietly, that it’s okay because he’s there and he’ll help her as best he can, and he means it more than he ever imagined he could. 

…and I fall apart.

But that whole anecdote was a tangent that wouldn’t be allowed in normal conversation. Not with the people I know. There’s too much interruption, too much of a desire for tit-for-tat, for dominance and the continued fight for it. When what I want isn’t a satirical repartee. I want to hear stories. Whole stories, not chopped up by other people’s additions. Podcasts and particularly interview podcasts embrace that story-friendly format, and I’m grateful for them. 

Even if I still wish people would warn us before relating tearful father-daughter memories.

Tunnel Vision

Nine years ago around this time of year a woman came up behind me in a Starbucks and started petting my hair and saying how pretty it was. I could not see her, but I saw the faces of my mother and her friend across from me, who seemed bemused but tolerant. The woman behind me kept petting, then said the last time she’d seen hair like that was in one of Saddam Hussein’s harems. She said he would have liked me, and her hands came to rest on either side of my neck, her long nails perching on my collarbone. She asked if I liked being whipped by belts, because that was what he did to her, because she didn’t have hair like mine. She started digging her nails into my skin and squeezing my neck and saying I’d better like it from behind, over the long haul. At this point my mother’s friend bolted out of her chair and got in this woman’s face and told her she’d get whipped again if she didn’t get the hell out of there. The woman did eventually retreat, without buying anything even, clutching a RedBull from 7Eleven and stumbling into a line of parked cars on the way across the lot, out into the dawn.

I only know it was nine years ago because it was just after New Years and a couple months before the invasion of Iraq—it’s not like I have some dark day marked on my calendar or something. I rather doubt this woman was ever in Iraq, given her flat American accent and the stumbling that suggested the whole event was a figment of whatever chemicals were slamming through her body. What I find more striking than her fixation of choice—Hussein dominated the news at the time, after all—was my complete failure to do anything. I could have leaned forward, or twisted out of her grasp, or mouthed the word “help” to the women facing me across the table—but I did jack shit. I sat there and waited for someone to rescue me. That is a problem. One that repeats itself. At my bachelorette party, when some drunk septuagenarian smartass waddled over to question my attire and, upon discovering details as to the celebration, my relevant experience, I left it to my sassy companions to send him packing. When an alcoholic downtown went from being thrown out of a bar to loudly accusing my husband and I of stealing her dogs, I just stood mutely and let him respond for me. This is incredibly embarrassing. I am a combative person with pronounced opinions and my failure to ever act on them—like, for example, the opinion that you are a lousy drunk fuck who is assaulting me and you need to step the hell off or I will cut you—is extremely frustrating. Shameful.

And you can’t always travel with an entourage, of course. Strangers can’t be counted on to help you, as I learned to my fury in a train packed with people whose eyes I fucking met, beseeching their help re: an unwell and aggressive male, which audience I will never forgive for doing nothing except scoot farther away from the scene. But who am I to judge them? Given my lackluster record of standing up for anything, were they in my position would I have helped? If I sat there in my safe cozy den of targetlessness and met the eyes of someone who really needed assistance, would I do anything? Or would I just sit there, playing dead in effect, watching it all roll out on some fuzzy-cornered slide projector of shittiness? The tunnel vision of the terminally effete?

Yesterday, while passing the house of yet another citizen of this town who delights in owning dogs trained to be aggressive and intimidating, the dog in question decided that jumping at his owner’s thickly-gloved hands was boring, and that eating my cairn terrier sounded far more appealing. It was snowing, and the owner of the dog was screaming invective at the foamy-mouthed beast catapulting toward us—or rather, toward the wide-open gate to the dog’s yard, before which we were passing when he saw us. Duncan, my terrier, is brave but not stupid, and had taken a few shaky steps back from the gate as the dog—Eli, apparently, to judge by the owner’s roars—approached. I stood there and watched. This dog weighs as much as I do, I thought. He’s going to eat Duncan. He’s going to decapitate him right here in front of me and my dog will be gone and I’m going to hate myself for the rest of my life for not doing anything. It felt exactly the same as my memories of times I waited for people to step in and save my sorry ass. Clear danger approaching, nothing doing on my end. 

The dog, a big red rhodesian ridgeback mix, it looked like, was four feet away, foam sailing from his mouth like streamers, when I bent down and snatched Duncan up like a sack of potatoes, shoved him in my coat with his snow-caked nose smooshed up against my neck, and started walking. Duncan shook like a leaf but didn’t struggle. Eli yowled his fury behind us, then his pain as its owner eventually caught up with it. Maybe he beat the dog, I don’t know. I don’t wish it on him. It’s the owner’s fault that Eli is the way he is, probably. But I wasn’t exactly full of charitable thoughts as I stalked away with my dog in my coat. I thought, Go on. Try to get at him. You’ll have to go through some part of my body to do it, and whatever you destroy will incur the wrath of some court, somewhere, if I survive, goddammit. 

This is, of course, a fairly mundane event. I didn’t save a child or, arguably, even Duncan, since Eli didn’t indicate that he was willing to trespass out of his yard and onto my person to get at him. I didn’t tell some abusive junkie to fuck off. I didn’t kick a molester’s testicles up into his throat. 

I did, however, manage to snap out of the tunnel vision that always descends when I sense something bad is about to happen. I acted, instead of waiting for someone to step in and act for me. Or for my dog, anyway. This is meaningful to me.

Perhaps one day I can add homo sapiens to my list of defendable species.

Reading The Marriage Plot While Watching Downton Abbey

**Note: As of this writing I have only watched up to the first episode of Season 2 of DA, as aired on PBS last night. I know I could download the whole thing and watch it that way but I haven’t been part of a fandom for over ten years, and I prefer to take it as it comes, this way. A lack of spoilers, therefore, would be appreciated, if you have gone ahead and seen the rest. I warn you though, that you may encounter spoilers for Downton Abbey, The Marriage Plot, and Louis CK’s $5 show.**

I have always been fascinated by WWI, even as a little girl. It was the war no one talked about, because fewer people were left to remember it and also, I suppose, because in so many other ways the second iteration of global conflict eclipsed, for everyone from the entertainment industry to those trafficking in the pulling of more solemn pursestrings, the first. But the changes wrought by that conflict held me rapt. A budding fan of Austen, Trollope and the Brontës, I couldn’t imagine the transition from the plodding pace of affection born out on the windswept heaths (or even the desperate kneejerk mysticism grasped at like straws in Possession) to the trenches, riddled with gas and disease and—and this is the ultimate trump card for me, emotionally, in WW1 vs. WW2—the shrapnel-shattered remnants of the idea that honor and glory and nationalism would make your suffering worthwhile. Would keep you from suffering.

I started gravitating toward books of the late 1800s and early 1900s, weighing them always in the light of the oncoming war. “You people have no idea,” I’d think. “You have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen to you.” And it’s true. Even as they signed agreements and amassed weapons out their ears, the cultural and emotional landscape had undergone nothing of the kind it was about to. In this light, the earnestness with which backcountry dentists approached their craft in the magazines I digitized for work came off as agonizingly naive. The front page of every weekly issue rang with the conviction that science could be harnessed to such great good, fixing all the ills centuries of squalid living and ignorance had forced upon society. Man would be good, no, man would be great! With these gloves and this microscope and the vast tome of ever-advancing global science to draw from, we would fix things. We would finally fix things and people would be the better for it.

About that.

I flitted from one period fascination to the next, cataloging the effect of the war on my obsession of the moment. Franz Marc of the Blue Rider movement, blown to bits at Verdun. Virginia Woolf, wrenched ultimately in the direction of the river and the rocks in her pocket by the endless barrage of carnage delivered into her drawing room in the papers and over the wires. The Romanovs—farewell to Anna Karenina and Faberge eggs and the nonpolitical use of the color red. The Lusitania. Lord Kitchener. Limbourg Castle. The earnest belief that we can and would overcome. That we wouldn’t damn ourselves to hells we ourselves brought into existence.

I realize the overwhelming materialism that characterizes most of that list. I mourned the loss of pretty things most people couldn’t afford, or hierarchies that damned more people than they privileged. My particular college made that clear in no uncertain terms, and it eventually became embarrassing to admit to my childhood obsession with Faberge eggs or the great ships, or my numerous attempts to make my own inferior versions of them. I could here easily segue into the rabid vitriol given off by haters of Downton Abbey and period dramas in general, but I won’t. Equality now is as ephemeral as it was then, even if the ratios have improved, and I won’t be made to writhe in guilt for fascination for a past where I probably would have been worse off, by far.

Enter The Marriage Plot. Of course I sympathize with Madeline’s poorly-timed passion for 19th century novels, even as I recognize almost verbatim the sneering semiotics handed down to her by professors and classmates alike. I recognize them not as a one-time target of their disdain but as someone who learned to craft them myself as part of an otherwise fairly useless master’s degree. (That the professor most skilled at handing out these barbs was, herself, a devoted fan of Anthony Trollope, with an entire wall of first editions, suggested that there might still be room for my old passions, were I to pursue academia, as long as I grew a tongue sharp enough to defend them.) I sympathize, too, albeit to a somewhat less companionable extent, with Mitchell’s mind-vs.-body struggles, and his pained acknowledgment of the quaintness of his own romantic convictions. All through college I watched men of his mindset struggle to both be decent, likable individuals and to be late-teens-early-twenties males in post-everything America: which is to say, to be the high-balling douchebags so memorialized by people like Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. 

But my sympathy for Mitchell and Madeline only goes so far. Because they, like me, are not residents of the windswept moors, eagerly devouring the latest issue of World of Science and wondering whether their beloved’s marriage to that harridan really will go through, or whether he will appear in a swirl of dead leaves, backlit by the stormy north country sky and the scintillating light of his own earnest professions of love. We know better. We have seen the carnage, the black scars on the earth (still) and in the mind; we know our fair share of Leonards and our own helplessness in the face of their illnesses. We know—or should know—that the time where the sheer force of one human will over another could overcome loss, or pain, or sickness, is over. We know this precisely because we know the depths of depravity to which the human will can and has gone. At about the point where, having caught herself resenting Leonard and his depression and its effect on their relationship, Madeline has tried to reassure herself with the long list of symptoms the doctor promises will get better, we read this:

She hoped all this was true. Being with Leonard made Madeline feel exceptional. It was as if, before she’d met him, her blood had circulated grayly around her body, and now it was all oxygenated and red.

She was petrified of becoming the half-alive person she’d been before.

I was done. Because she should know better. Because we should all know better. Because the age of dependency-without-a-second-thought is done. Remember the alliances? Remember the domino effect following the murder of Ferdinand? Remember everyone from David Foster Wallace to Oprah telling you that only the depressed, the alcoholics, the addicts can help themselves? They and only they can dig themselves out of that hole. And you, with your romanticized notions of nursing, your soft-lens visions of loving people into wellness, out of danger, as a way to make you feel better about yourself—you’re a fool. Pure and simple. Tie yourself to the rudder of the Lusitania, why don’t you, and spare us—and your loved one—your self-serving martyrdom.

Last month Louis CK did a comedy show whose best bit told the tale of his sitting on a plane, thinking of giving up his first-class seat to someone who deserved it, and being so taken with the grandiosity of his thought that he never actually did it. He just sat there thinking about it, or would remember the impulse days later and be struck by his own magnanimity. It is meant to be funny and it is, but the brilliance of that joke is—as CK likely knows—it hits just a little too close to home. Most of us know what it is to be swept up in the idea of ourselves as the kind of generous, nurturing people we’ll never actually be. To become so besotted with the idea that the moment for the kind or generous action has long since passed by the time we realize what we are doing. Louis CK, in telling this joke, exposes himself and us in this conceit, and Madeline has the chance for the same kind of revelation when she catches herself consciously fearing the degradation of her personhood, were she to lose the very ill man she fancies herself nurse, guardian, mother, hell—anything but lover—of. But she lets the moment pass her by. She has acknowledged to us the readers, elsewhere, that it is Leonard’s illness that has brought them back together, his helplessness and neediness, and it is this shift in power, this sudden semi-deification of all things sane and stolid and Madeline, that enables their relationship to continue. She knows this. And yet she continues to indulge in her role as a frayed and fracturing nurse. She has faced, point-blank, the modern knowledge of herself as a doer of damage both to Leonard (for he sees the misery he puts her through, and feels worse about himself as a result) and to herself, and she does not use it. And things continue to go downhill.

The residents of Downton Abbey, whether rich or poor, in the kitchens or on the front, do not yet know this. They do not know how dark it can get, or how they themselves will bring about the darkness, no matter how unwittingly. But they are learning. As soon as Lord Grantham read his garden party telegram at the end of season one, I waited for the character with PTSD to appear in season two. He did. I waited for the rushed marriages, the I-don’t-want-to-be-dying-in-a-ditch-and-thinking-no-one-but-my-mother-will-mourn-me relationships to sprout like mushrooms. They did. The guilt over leaving, the guilt over not leaving, the guilt seeded by the self-righteous to spur the cannon fodder to their doom—all of this is coming to fruition, like some monstrous sticky pudding out of British culinary legend. Abandon hope, all ye who sup here.

Except, not. I would take no pleasure in watching the slow repetition of history, the inexorable grinding to dust of soldiers and the snuffing out of dreams, if I did not know that these characters have a hidden force on their side. Us. They are not banished to the unforgiving tomes of history, or chained permanently to narratives handed down by brash and imperious victors. Though mired in forces we claim to better understand with hindsight, they yet live and have the chance to benefit, through the knowledge we bring to their creation and consumption as cultural products, from the lessons we learned too late. Lessons we continue to fail to implement in our own lives, perhaps, but which we can muster up the self-awareness to impart to our characters, if the fans love them enough and the ratings come in high enough. Unlike Madeline’s morose fixation on Leonard, our adoration has the chance to actually prompt change. If we keep watching, maybe Bates’ vile wife will fall victim to influenza and he can start that little inn with Anna. If we keep watching, maybe Daisy will grow a conscience and stop playing with the affections of insecure well-meaning boys like William. And maybe Matthew, minus an eye or a leg, perhaps, will finally ferret out of Mary the secret that weighs on her daily (or did), and they will—fulfilling the marriage plot in due course—wed and manage to save, however briefly, the monument to a fast-fading age that is Downton Abbey. 

If we keep watching.

What follows the broader historical events of the show, we know too well. It is drilled into us as elementary school students. Clemenceau was all too correct in claiming “This is not peace, this is armistice for twenty years!” And then the kablonk-kerthunk down the staircase of miseries. WW2. The Holocaust. McCarthyism. The Bay of Pigs. Vietnam. AIDS. The ever-present knowledge that we could fuck up royally again, be it with weapons of mass destruction or with the chemicals we dump into our children’s bodies. We could fuck it up big time, like we did before.

Or we could not. We could scrape on by the skin of our teeth, managing not only to survive but to find something beautiful in it, hopefully. This is our task as denizens of the modern world, a task the characters of Downton Abbey are only beginning to undertake. Their steps are uncertain and muddled; they wonder if they will ever be able to retreat to green lawns unsullied by sorrow or scandal or gross inequality. They won’t. But they can’t yet see the future, either, and that is to their benefit, for it could be brighter than they can imagine. To them I say, welcome. Welcome to modernity.