“The past is a foreign country—they do things differently there.”
I’ll say it is. But it’s worse than that, even. After all, I can imagine the people of foreign countries. I can even visit them, should I feel the need. They seem quite real to me. People of 50, 100, 500 years ago, not so much. They’re not just “different.” They’re so alien that it can be hard to believe they ever existed at all, at least not as three-dimensional beings with thoughts and livers and souls, the kind of creature I am. I know that, in the fundamentals, the experience of being human in 1918 was not especially different to the experience of being human in 2018: wake up each morning, stumble through the day, eat, scratch yourself, defecate, appease the cat, write some enduring work of political philosophy, fiddle with a household item to try to make it work properly, try to clear up a misunderstanding with a loved one or acquaintance, go back to sleep, possibly get up in the middle of the night needing to pee and accidentally walk into the door frame instead of through the door.
Basic human experience is so universal that it seems like it should be easy to empathize with everybody. We all find ourselves on the same weird little planet, going through the same life cycle, using roughly the same kinds of biological equipment. Of course, it can be difficult to fully appreciate that other people are just as conscious as you are, since we only ever see them from the outside and ourselves from the inside, but once we’ve managed to get past the inevitable childhood indulgence in “What if I am the only real person?” reflections, treating all the people as people ought to be fairly straightforward. It isn’t, of course, thanks to the endless series of toxic prejudices that get in the way of valuing everyone equally. But I’m hopeful that someday it will be possible for there to be a rough shared recognition of everybody’s common humanity.
That is, of course, except people from the past. People from the past will never seem quite human to me. Whether it’s Pericles or Marie Antoinette or Sacajawea or Richard Nixon, attaching these names to real bodies, with torsos and anuses and night sweats and sneezes, requires an imaginative capacity far beyond my own. I am sure there are Lincoln scholars—and even people who aren’t Lincoln scholars but just really like Lincoln—who have gotten themselves to the point where they think they can “feel what Lincoln felt” as he mulled a certain decision or drafted a certain rambling missive. I am not such an individual. Lincoln is unfathomable to me. He is a word, a beard, and a hat. He is not a person. Until Silicon Valley manages to reanimate him and bring him to my doorstep, my brain will forever place him in its Abstract-People file rather than its People-People file.
One problem is that while the similarities between Lincoln and myself are numerous (for example: He possessed a respiratory system, and so do I), the differences between our times are so significant that he becomes literally unimaginable to me. To actually understand what a world with slavery was like, to be cognizant of that system on a human level, to think that it was not just “slaves being whipped” but “people undergoing the conscious experience of being whipped,” and that this was happening day after day, year after year: This is easy to say but not very easy to truly feel. Life has changed so much, so quickly, that comparatively recent times seem positively ancient. Objectively speaking, slavery itself was very, very recent: It still stuns me to remember that there are people alive today who have met people who were once slaves. An older black woman of 2017, born in 1930, remembers sitting on the knee of her great-grandmother, born in 1850, whose girlhood was spent in slavery. It’s not as if slavery’s recency is obscure—any honest observer can see just how close it is from the social and economic legacy it has left. Here in New Orleans, the antebellum mansions are still full of white people, and the neighborhoods below sea level are still black. The past is stamped on the present in ways that are only possible to overlook if you have a vested interest in forgetting.
It’s also true, though, that part of our disconnection from the past occurs simply because so much has changed so fast as to give even the serenest mind a violent boggling. The five oldest living people (all either Japanese or Italian, oddly enough) were all born before the Wright Brothers got aloft at Kitty Hawk. The entire history of aviation, from the biplane to the drone strike, occurred within the lifetime of still-living people. There are individuals wandering around the Earth today who saw Hitler’s face. Until just a couple of years ago, there were some who had lived under Queen Victoria. They hadn’t lived under her for long, mind you, and only as very young children. But still: Queen Victoria!
In an instant, it all transformed completely. I don’t, of course, need to monologue about How The Internet Changed Everything, not because it’s false but because I think we’re past the point where we’re capable of marveling at it, even if we try to step briefly out of our context and look at things from without. Perhaps the most impressive quality of our many impressive things is how quickly they all become so unimpressive. I can’t feel real wonder even at that which I know to be wondrous, not even at devices and processes that seem to be almost indistinguishable from magic. A Roomba is like something out of the Jetsons but it seems comically stupid and inept. Of course, we’re all still grumbling that we haven’t gotten our flying cars yet, but I’m sure they’ll come. And when they do they’ll pollute the skies and kill millions, and we’ll instantly shift from being amazed to being frustrated by their inadequacy and their role in reproducing social atomization and conspicuous consumption.
I don’t mean to imply, as some do, that human beings are Insufficiently Grateful For Innovation. (See the recent written output of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who now spends much of his time chiding the world for failing to appreciate how much it has benefitted from the fruits of the Enlightenment.) I try to avoid both frameworks that suggest everything is getting worse (complaints about “late capitalism” or a “neoliberal age”) and ones that imply everything is getting better (words like “innovation,” “progress,” and “development,” which allow one to smuggle in the assumption that certain kinds of changes are automatically for the best without ever having to actually make the case for why that is).
When you start to look at most technological change as producing “difference” more than “improvement,” gratitude seems like the wrong response. Is the automatic check-out an improvement? It’s a difference. It’s an improvement if you want to eliminate jobs, or if you don’t like interacting with cashiers. It’s not an improvement if you actually liked having a job, or if you miss interacting with the cashier. Computers get faster. Are they better? They’re faster. If you like faster, they’re better. If you couldn’t give a damn, then they’re just different. Twitter exists. Is it good? I don’t know that that’s a meaningful question. It does some good (people meet each other, good jokes are told). It does some evil (people taunt each other until they want to kill themselves, Donald Trump uses it). Words like “innovation,” which stack the deck in favor of the good brought by a change, prevent us from seriously examining costs and benefits. Taken mindlessly to their extreme, they also produce an “innovation for the sake of innovation” mindset, which invents the Juicero, or slaps a QR code on everything regardless of whether it actually benefits from the addition of a QR code. You don’t have to be a Luddite to believe that the desirability of changes should be assessed case by case.
I hope the people of 100 years from now don’t have as much trouble relating to me as I have relating to those 100 years behind me. Maybe the 20th century was just unique, in dividing an old world from a new one, and things will slow down now. The difference between 1998 and 2018 seems nowhere near as vast as the difference between 1958 and 1978. Perhaps the sixties were a one-time growth spurt, and nothing that unusual is ever going to happen again. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine music ever changing as much as it did in the years between Perry Como and the Sex Pistols. But then again, it’s hard to imagine the future generally; there have been few recent attempts to conjure non-dystopian visions of civilizations 100 or 1000 years from now. All conceivable destinations are either apocalyptic or unfathomable.
Time is so peculiar. It’s best not to think about it too much. That’s why I try to avoid going back to places I haven’t seen in years. Inevitably, my nostalgia glands will convince me that sites of appealing memories have since gotten a lot worse. (And they probably have.) But when one visits spots of significant events, there’s also the queer feeling of being the helpless prisoner of your single moment. If I go to an empty auditorium, and remember when it was full, it somehow feels strange to me that I can’t put the people back, that nothing I can do will restore things to the way they were.
I understand so well why human beings fantasize about time travel. Without it, you’re so completely powerless. Nothing you do can ever be undone. If a single mistake, a moment’s indiscretion, causes calamitous consequences—even death!—well, tough shit. It’s not just that we all wish we could go back and kill Baby Hitler or Toddler Stalin. It’s that it would be very nice to be able to make mistakes without the resulting harms being irreparable. As it is, time is cruel: I wonder about the people who have made a split-second decision that has resulted in the loss of somebody else’s life, like the Conair pilot who accidentally turned down the wrong runway and killed everyone in the plane except himself. How many times in the years after must he have repeated the phrase “If I could just go back…”? But the dead stay dead forever.
That’s always struck me as so fundamentally unfair, though I realize it’s senseless to rage at cosmic injustices. “Surely it’s not actually forever.” I often think of my dead friends, and say to myself in frustration “Goddamn it, there’s got to be some way to bring them back, no?” It just seems wrong that a charming girl who once kissed me could disappear into eternity because she made a bad judgment at a red light. What kind of sordid, petty universe would impose the death penalty over a stoplight? This is the stubborn refusenik in me speaking, the part of my character that simply will not come to terms with anything that Should Not Be The Case. In order to make it through life without losing our minds, we all have to recite some personal version of the Serenity Prayer (“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”) But however much I know I need to sigh and bear it, know that she’s not ever going to be here again no matter how well I may prove to the Judge that she didn’t deserve what happened, my every instinct has always been to scream: “Fuck the Serenity Prayer! I demand the impossible!” That feeling of defiance can be healthy, but it’s also insane.
I associate this Irrational Hatred of Time, rightly or wrongly, with America. Here they like to call it the “can-do” spirit, but it’s really a sort of bullheaded war with reality. Sometimes that leads to unexpected success, a risk that pays off, or a triumph that comes from ignoring what everybody said about your chances. We did, after all, put a man on the moon and invent the H-bomb. (Well done, U.S.) It is also, however, what makes many Americans assholes. (Aside: I have found written in my notes the question: “Is their obstinate refusal to accept things as they are part of why Americans are so religious?” Then afterwards I’ve written “Probably not, but it seems like a nice thing they could tell themselves if they wanted to.”)
I do like something about the totally oblivious American insistence that You Can Do Absolutely Anything And Nothing Stands In Your Way. It stands in refreshing contrast to the English national motto “Best not hope for much, today will probably be dreary again.” I like that here we’re supposed to simply behave as if we don’t live in a world of physical limitations. And I intend to pass on the madness: If I ask my daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, and she says “I’d like to go back and prevent the Second World War from happening,” I intend to respond “By God, good luck to you, little girl.” It seems immoral not to.
You can try to escape time. You can do it through anti-aging creams and forehead lifts and such. You can do it through suicide, which is cheating somewhat. You can, of course, do it by building a time machine, though the parts are hard to find. Or you can do it by buying a bunch of brand new minimalist furniture, in pure, simple geometric shapes with no ornamental touches to remind you that you are still a part of history and will die like the rest of them did. Modernize yourself: Resist any inclination toward nostalgia, memory, or tradition, and hope you are blissfully absorbed into the Singularity sooner rather than later.
I get that urge from time to time, especially when I am in antique stores. To be honest, I don’t like them very much, for the same reason I don’t like used bookshops, or graveyards. Being surrounded by dead people’s things, whether it’s their fishing rods, libraries, or buried skeletons, unnerves me. The possessions of the dead emanate death. Not too strongly: I can still appreciate an antique music box without dwelling too much on the lives of those who may once have heard it tinkle. But the Bad Thought does wander into my mind: “Oh, just burn it all. What a mess. Get rid of this dross. Start over. All things must pass, best make it sooner rather than later.”
I think on some level, when I have this lunatic notion, I am frightened, or at least nervous. I am trying to avoid thinking the Scary Thought: about every single life that passed so that these objects could get sit and get cobwebby in this dinky antique mall. “They’re dead people!” my head screams, as I try not to let this exclamation come out of my mouth while standing in the shop. “Every object is a dead person! Whatever you do, it all ends here in the lampshades and figurines!” Sometimes I begin to hyperventilate and have to cling to a wall, or run out. (Yes, this has happened. Once in a bookshop, where I suddenly looked at a shelf and said “History, oh god, the slaves!” and fled down the stairs and into the street.)
This is what we might call “an overreaction,” one that probably comes from having made the unwise decision to take a philosophy course in college, without remembering that in order to live well, it’s essential to forget everything said in college philosophy courses immediately after having taken them. But let’s be honest: Every object in the antique store—the lighters, the doilies, the necklaces, the stopped clocks—each is the shadow of a human life actually lived. All the nicks and scratches, the chunks gouged out of the side, are the results of relatable but unknowable incidents: I often wonder who will ultimately end up with the book of mine that has the ketchup stain on its pages. (It was not my ketchup, though it was my fault.) Where will you be in 2250, ketchup-stained book? Hopefully with someone who treats you better than I did.
Sometimes the darkness contained in the objects is more visible. I was once prowling through a large antique mall in Boston, in a section mostly stuffed with half-assembled train sets and Coca Cola signs, when on a tucked-away shelf I recognized what was unmistakably a small ebony bust of Adolf Hitler. I did feel a touch of shock, though I shouldn’t have. It just seemed unbelievable that this thing should be here: It dated from a time when its subject was slaughtering people by the million. All of that, and now the only terrain the Third Reich controls is this shelf, which it shares with some kewpie dolls and a lamp.
It’s an inevitable experience, actually, browsing leisurely through some nondescript bric-a-brac and then suddenly encountering The Racist Thing. I’m still always caught off guard by it: “Ah look at these charming figurines, is that a—oh god.” Usually it’s some grotesque smiling “pickaninny” sculpture, which the shop owners always insist on displaying casually as if it’s totally natural and not at all horrible or sad. I suppose they’re right not to cull the past: If a random selection of 1930s toys is going to include The Racist Thing, it would be a comforting lie to remove it. Ditching the Sambo dolls may better facilitate warm nostalgia, but if you’re going to appreciate old things, you need to do so in full knowledge of their context.
“Just get rid of it all. History is too bloody, too weird, too distant, to be dealt with. We can’t change it, so we might as well not attempt the impossible task of getting inside the heads of all those peculiar alien beings who lived in the years before ours.” I know, though, that I am being cowardly when I turn away from it. If you want to really understand what is going on, you’ll never do it until you fully accept the implications of a simple fact: They were all just as human as you, and you’re just as historical a creature yourself.
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