The Anachronist – Language as Time Machine – Part Un
Do you feel anachronistic sometimes? Bypassed, left in the dust, outside of our times, unable to keep up? A stranger to contemporary speed and noise and fashion, not up-to-date on the latest, preferring older notions that are more difficult to find, leaning like a fossil nostalgically toward the simpler, slower, quieter, more ascetic and more reflective places? Do you find yourself loving physical processes and admiring artwork or ideas that others have never heard of (because those things are olden) or thought to try out and may even find disturbingly obsolete and “backwards,” if not downright crazy to tout as significant? Does the contemporary world of incessant, quick-paced change and barreling novelty sometimes bury you in shame for wanting to slow down and evaluate the past for your identity’s sake? There are plenty of us who feel anachronistic and out of time-place, so here are some reflections on why that’s an okay feeling to have.
First, think about what really changes over time. Technology. Social systems. Personal situations. These changes alter our environment and human behavior. New patterns form. For example, millions today (including adults) are under the tantalizing sway of video games. This is a new behavior pattern not possible fifty years ago. A direct result of the application of electricity and programming. In terms of reading, many spend all their time now surfing the Internet, whereas in the past they may have had a book in their lap. Socially, new freedoms may emerge from social protest and activism that changes a socio-political system. This kind of change is wrought by social movements that gain steam. Often these are good, like the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and civil rights for everyone. Revolutions are real. Other things that change for people and societies over time are philosophical bents, prejudices and religious views. This is undeniable. People experience personal growth or conversion, or childish views simply fade away with experience and open exposure to other perspectives.
But here’s a tricky question that requires dialogue and reflection: are such technological, social and religious changes to our environment, to the anthroposphere and to our behavior truly essential to human being?
Situations have always changed for persons given new contexts that arise for them or given the accidental workings of a different day. Fate brings a new person surprisingly into your life, or takes someone away. You experience an unexpected trauma. Such blows of fate, good or bad, have altered human lives since the beginning of time. Think of the biblical story of Joseph being sold by his own brothers as a slave into Egypt. That’s how far back this stuff goes. Then a new product hits our market and people consume it. That’s another change: the introduction of new kinds of things that didn’t formerly exist. This is typically the result, for us, of capitalism.
All of these changes involve human ingenuity in action, transforming certain possibilities for the use of time, energy and rights. Are any of these changes essential? They may be unavoidable and desirable, or avoidable and undesirable. I would merely say this: all of these changes are somehow exterior to us as humans. Whether avoidable or not, they come from outside. While they may affect our interiors, they do not essentially change our interiors. In other words, despite what many pundits say about the glorious future of technological and social innovations that often promise progress, fulfillment and happiness (while just as often bringing disappointment), these changes leave the essence of humanity untouched. This is true even when they affect the material world for better or worse. Therein is the key to the anachronist’s resistance. To the anachronist who is firm and self-confident (which it’s hard to be today), all the infinite mutations that society has undergone in the past decades has not changed who he or she actually is.
Every one of us will have those stories about “back when I grew up, we didn’t have . . .” You’d fill in the ellipse with the newest technological gadgets or services, right? For me, the sentence would finish with cell phones, the Internet, Google searches, YouTube videos, blah blah blah. For you?
Is novelty really real, then, and essential? Is there so much innovation around us that the past has become marginalized, unrecognizable, and its good models totally undesirable? (I wish to open the question only, the question of whether the past can influence us for good, not to say that historical example is in any way universally good, which clearly it is not.) When we speak of the new, it is almost always with reference to technological “advances” that exist now but did not exist back then. Certainly, novelty is real. But are its innovations essential to living well? If technological change or market evolution are inessential to the human spirit and its psychology of desires and emotions, then novelty is only affecting the superficial aspects of life. Novelty occurs on the surface, on the outside. It is not phasing the deeper drives, instincts, desires, basic emotions and elements of who we are as humans (in our selves and not within some distorted social construction) and have always been. That’s what I mean by the “essential” here. The essential is not defined by how others view or treat us, but by how we feel, think and desire. If we are fortunate, we will also have the freedom to practice those essences in actuality on the streets, in our homes and at our workplaces.
So innovation seems to affect the outside of us, not the inside. Despite technological and political change, for example, my heart still wants the kind of love I’ve always wanted. I still feel sad at the same things I did as a child, although now that sadness keeps expanding in adulthood to new happenings and insights of growth. I still want to revel in joy and wish I had more of the ecstatic. I don’t want to suffer and struggle, but yet I can’t prevent that from occurring. I believe that history and story show these kinds of desires to be perennial to human being.
I would say novelty’s not all that different than a fad, while my heart and mind and gut, the seats of spirit and will and emotion, experience no fads. They may undergo transformation and growth over time. Usually this involves discovering a larger perspective, vitiating prejudice, opening up the repressed parts of the self to vulnerability and trust and creativity, and such like beautiful processes. Experience and social movement has something to do with this transformation, but not technological change or something more banal. Sometimes it might stem from a progressive political platform that captures your imagination and heart. Sometimes it’s a new art style, a new game or a new health movement. “New” being relative, of course. Yet if you think about it as a whole, the “new” rarely if ever refers to more essential aspects of human psychology. Let me ask this: Has a new emotion been created since biblical times or since the dawn of the industrial revolution? How about a new kind of basic desire? I doubt it. The same emotions and desires have been around thousands of years, unchanged even if defined differently in different cultures. Usually the new taps into one of these ancient essences, proposing a novel approach to the same old problem that declares itself fresh and better than all the former ways. Much of the time, of course, this claim is ludicrous. What makes someone a good judge of novelty is historical perspective, if not intuition. Could I judge how great Basquiat was if I didn’t know anything about Gauguin, Klimt, Hopper, Turner, or Rembrandt? I could speak, but how much weightier would my words be if my mouth showed knowledge of the history of painting? Isn’t it more interesting and beneficial to have conversations with historically informed persons over those who have rejected learning history and enjoying story?
Now, second, think about what might not change. I’ve already shown my hand on this. I would venture to say that what doesn’t change are human emotions and desires. The struggle for living authentic lives is part of this. If emotions evolve over time, would we be able to grasp and get behind the great love stories, say anything in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Porgy and Bess, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, or, more recently, “The Jeffersons”? If human feelings get altered so much, would we sympathize with the great Christmas stories about sad children from the 1960s? Or feel that tremendous rush while walking around the Kaaba stone as people felt over a 1,000 years ago? Would we identify today with the speeches of Dr. M. L. King, Jr. or Malcolm X? Would we be able to listen to older music with joy if those old songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Mistinguett, Edith Piaf, Billie Holliday, or Louis Armstrong didn’t still touch us? How about Beethoven’s symphonies? Or how am I able to comprehend and enjoy a Japanese film plot, an Iranian poem, and an Argentinean novel if there are such essential differences in humans over time and between cultures. (In no way do I deny cultural differences, I’m just pointing out that in essence, I believe, humans are humans, even in different cultural contexts. We are certainly equals.) Even if the language is not high caliber–if it doesn’t reach the robust power of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault–language still has the potential to transport readers and listeners in story and thought to something essential and enduring about human being.
There’s an abiding-through-time of human psychology despite changes, superficial or significant, that suggests that we stay essentially the same in our core. We want the same things across time, no matter culture or the hindrances of historical conditions. We want romantic love, acceptance, recognition for work, respect, family safety, freedom to control our own destiny, adventure perhaps. Some go farther and lust for power and wealth. The point is that these feelings and dreams endure everywhere at all times, so far as I can tell, albeit it in cultural variations. If we fail to get these essences met, we rebel or we choose fantasy and escape, the stuff of self-comfort.
Language, as time machine, is one of our media by which to connect with the history of human essence. It is by language, particularly in books, that we can transport ourselves all over time, looking for stories about what love and sadness (for example) have meant and looked like in others’ expressions. Without language, could we so easily trace our connections to humanity at large and across time? Could we form cross-cultural and cross-temporal bonds? Could we draw conclusions about ourselves as part of a larger, story-telling species that evolves externally but not so much internally? Foraging in the past for mirrors and echoes of our selves is possible because human essence seems to resist basic interior transformation over time. We are fortunate for this.