Albert Camus once wrote that “Great ideas come into the world as quietly as doves.” This is also true on a personal level. For example, something apparently minor, like a change in a person’s hairstyle, a sudden loss of desire for a certain favorite food or an interest in a new food, a slight change in clothing preferences, and the disappearance of certain medical conditions, can signal a major change is a person’s way of seeing the world and way of living.
The same small type of changes can signal social and political changes of great magnitude, a major shift in the zeitgeist. An example, that comes to mind, happened to me last week. I went to lunch with a couple of friends of mine. We choose a trendy restaurant, near Syracuse New York, owned by a gregarious woman, a lesbian, who is fairly active in radical left-wing causes. I’ve eaten at this restaurant many times and am friendly with the owner. Since I disagree with her politics, I try to avoid the topic. In any case, she is usually a cheerful person, but the last few times that I stopped in, she seemed depressed.
We each ordered a lunch special. Now here is the curious thing. The three of us were served on square plates. I asked the waitress, “What’s the story with the plates?” She stated that they had just started serving customers with them that week. Was there something more going on behind this seemingly trivial change from round to square plates?
The meaning of “square” has gone through a number of transformations over the years. The word had a positive sense for most of the Twentieth Century. A square is equal on all sides. The sense of proportion suggested balance and uprightness, as well as the traditional values of honesty, fairness, and integrity. More generally, it suggested morality itself. That is why President Theodore Roosevelt used the famous political slogan “the Square Deal.” Also apropos, to my restaurant experience, is the notion of eating a “square meal,” a meal that is nutritious by virtue of being balanced, in terms of the various food groups.
In the late 1950, with the advent of the beatniks, followed in the 1960s, with the hippies, all that changed. A person who was square was considered un-hip to the real status of moral values. Moral values were no longer considered to be objective and true, but merely subjective and culturally relative. Out went the search for the right life, the true way of living, and in came the notion of “lifestyle,” encapsulated by the song “I Did It My Way.” The philosophical correlate of this is postmodernism, with its lack of belief in absolute truth.
Has there, perhaps, been a reaction to postmodernism? Could the advent of square plates suggest a return — or at least a longing to return — to an earlier relation to values, to being square and all that it implies in the positive sense of the word? Some of the various retrochic movements have been indicative of a longing to return to an earlier time, “steampunk” being the latest such trend. One can never go home again. Once the absoluteness of values has been questioned, it cannot be undone, but it may be possible to go beyond cultural relativity and postmodernism. What lies beyond is the mystical, an awakening from the whole dream known as the human condition. Awakening, on an individual level is immensely difficult. What hope, then, can there be for awakening on a cultural level?
Perhaps, the melancholy of the restaurant owner represents the melancholy of yet another lost generation. Perhaps the baby boomers — who jettisoned traditional values, and murdered the Father archetype, in their Oedipal way — have finally grown tired of their empty hipness. They need to go forward, but do not know the way. Some years back, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, sang a song called “Ripple,” with its earnest lyrics: “If I knew the way, I would take you there.” Apparently, my generation still doesn’t know the way. Instead of going where they need to go, what has emerged is a nostalgia to return home again, as embodied by the square plates. It is not an altogether bad thing, these square plates, (recently a square watermelon was created. See the above photo) for there is much to be said for traditional values. It is certainly a lot better than the present anomie, produced by no values at all.
That solves the mystery of the square plates, but it still leaves a greater mystery unanswered: how to leave our present cultural malaise and move forward into a new level of being, into the mystical.