The Anachronist – Language as Time Machine – Part 2
What, then, can we say is the point of taking the time-machine, Language, back into the past? Besides just showing that certain essential features of human interiority tend not to change.
The most important point, I feel, for going into the past through language is to feed the present with models of contemporary possibility. The past critiques the present, just as the present may critique the past. This dialectical vibration between present and past is hugely beneficial, I feel, to an understanding of today’s situation and to personal decision-making regarding lifestyle. When I expose myself to the past through a story, I’m like a spider who hides under a leaf waiting to feel the tension in her web that pulls on her attached thread when some unfortunate creature strikes its gossamer and struggles. Granted, much of the past is horrific and condemnable, never to be wished repeated. But isn’t it incumbent upon us to find those stories that strengthen us in values, that connect with us emotionally and essentially despite the distance, that depict the ubiquity of struggle and suffering, and that demonstrate possibilities for today? For instance, in some of the Christian and Muslim mystics I find an intense, spiritual aestheticism and asceticism that make me question the beauty of my own comfortable situation. In reading Thoreau, Fabre, or Rilke, I find my own complexity critiqued and fall, embarrassed by my possessions, into a deep yearning for simplicity, natural observation, connection with nature and quietude. Sometimes these historical examples are the only things that keep me sane and hopeful amidst the constant barrage of exterior changes, many over which no one of us has control, and my own personal failures.
Here’s a truth I believe: nothing is ever obsolete if you don’t want it to be. Older technologies are perfectly fine to use today if you can find the tools. I can identify with and use a scythe to harvest my wheat just as those that Trakl describes in his poetry. I can use a loom, if I’m lucky to have one, to make my own clothes out of rough wool or threads rather than to purchase mass-manufactured clothes from a store. I find that many are drawn to throwbacks, relics and vintage ideas. When I type on my 1950s Royal typewriter in public, for example, people are more than inquisitive and intrigued (a trait I find to be positive). Even emotional styles may not fall into desuetude and oblivion. Love attachment, for example, is of the essence of human being. Even if this attachment looks differently at different times throughout history, it is recognizable. We may be able to look at stories of the past in various cultures and choose which form of love attachment we prefer to play out today. It may well turn out that you choose forms of emotional attachment, along with corresponding behaviors, that resist those that are promoted and more popular today where you are. What’s wrong with that, if those attachments and behaviors don’t hurt or disrespect others who deserve respect?
Take hope, all you good-hearted recidivists! Society is not yet entirely the soma-soaked, diversion-addled Brave New World–at least not for the many anachronistic holdouts of us who resist “entertaining ourselves to death” as Postman would say in favor of trying to foster depth through language and self-learning. We humans still have and live out a story of yore, a story involving the world themes of humanity such as love, bravery, humor, trickery, social challenge, goodness, earth consciousness. The same story of struggling and figuring out the true meaning of our lives within a culture and an environment that warrants our nurture not our neglect. It may be culturally varied, but the essential elements are there everywhere in different forms and social patterns. Nothing new contextually or technologically has ever solved the problem of human mental suffering and emotional struggle, a universal problem (if that’s possible) solved most likely by some form of spirituality. (Please notice that I am not referring to physical, socio-economic suffering, which may have potential material solutions that may involve context-change, technology and social change.) Most of the time, the newer and more complex introductions make struggle and connection worse. (Can’t we say it may have been easier in the “old” days? Yes, but that’s a doubtful view. More likely it was far harder, but perhaps we are attracted to those days for their simplicity and slowness. Nor are some of us against the pain of things being more difficult. The harder you work for something, the more value on it is bestowed.)
Remember Ecclesiastes which has that famous adage: “there is nothing new under the sun.” Spoken by Solomon, reputedly the wisest person on earth, the consort of Sheba’s queen, an African woman who was herself infinitely wise. If it’s such a different world, how could we–or why do we–seem to understand and agree with this proverb? How can we take courage from ancient stories, old lessons, wisdom words, poetic letters . . .? Love is the most obvious for me. (I know, I speak a lot about love, if you hadn’t noticed. I’m like a parrot imitating a wind chime.) I’m still as moved by 1980s romantic comedies today as I was when I first saw them. How much has technology progressed since the 1980s by contrast with the immutability of my sense of and desire for love? And there are much greater examples in books for all of us who aren’t bibliophobes.
I’ve been labeled recidivistic, anachronistic, technologically-challenged and noncommittal–of choosing aspects of the past to uphold over contemporary novelties. I am guilty. I could feel awful about myself for this and strive to rid myself of the tendency. The truth, I feel, is that there’s no real difference between past, present and future so far as our souls and spirits go. Art and architecture created thousands of years ago still speaks live to me today. Language, which allows us to travel around time, shows us how similar the human soul is everywhere in all centuries. We continue to persist with similar feelings through time. A broad perspective allows us to see how much has actually stayed the same across time and culture. Of course, we are not savages, but in my view there never were any savages. That kind of labelling is a device for humiliation and subjugation of others. I reject it. There are always good contextual reasons for cultural practices, and usually good reasons for them to change over time. Again, these are views and practices, not essences like emotions and desires.
Someone 500 years ago and 500 years from now writes something that I’m feeling today within a context I can imagine because I’m human and that person is human. Where is the change in that? Is a change in context an ultimate change? Does the essence of humanity change? I’m saying perhaps not so much. Your town may disintegrate or your city may build up, things constructed and things destroyed, all of nature itself, tragically, and yet you are somehow the same at heart and soul (in essence, if not in belief or situation) as someone living 3,000 or 300 years ago. I am a believer in and advocate for a way of living, not for the past for the past’s sake as some idyllic or ideal time in which all was happy, which it never was, nor for the future, but a way of life–simplicity and creativity–involving true love and true depth of comprehension and mystery and effort-for-value. That’s the kind of story that will last always through every model and example of who humans have been, are and can be. There were great musicians and gardeners and painters and engineers and poets and astronomers and healers and lovers and warriors and saints and teachers 500 years and 80 years and 20 years ago, and such will there be 20, 80, 500 years from now, presuming tenuously that we don’t destroy the entire earth before then.
What is wrong with confining oneself to the present? What are the advantages and disadvantages of focusing on and caring for strictly the contemporary as, for example, Zen practice tries to do? This could be part 3. It’s a great question for all to consider. I’ll just say that such present-focused living seems to encounter the problem of ignoring or avoiding the past in favor of full immersion strictly in the contemporary. If it ignores or avoids the past, how can it know itself? What is it that it knows without perspective? Focusing strictly on the present seems limited. Being present and being fully in the present can be a wonderful experience. But in my view, there’s no way to judge present meaning without connection of that present to its past and to its future through language, the time machine. So it’s a telescoping of all three, a trinity of experience in a moment that creates and weaves the significance of it all together. Yet another holy mystery.
Time is connectivity. Difference often is relative, not essential. Novelty is usually a farce, except insofar as it applies to contexts, which do evolve externally and quite obviously and thus are subject somehow to inessentiality in a way that emotions and desires (the interior) are not. The choice we have is whether or not context defines us and our spirit, which is inevitably linked to older worlds and undiscerned worlds that we may yet shape by our authenticity and power.
I value Spenser, e.g., for exposing me to the tongue-in-cheek critique of the age of chivalry and its myths even while expressing the beauty of a fantastic world of knights, damsels, adventures and dragons we apparently can still believe in, as our films today continue to make obvious. There’s no reason to reject all of the past when some of it is our historical lifeblood and the heritage of our species (I apologize for sounding biological, which I’m not at all). Selective, of course.
Time gives us a purpose for intimacy, creativity, desire. Time gives us the opportunity for brawn, sensitivity, caring. Language gives us insight into time across time. Its expression need not be as elegantly striking as a gannet, but language as time machine connects us with real living from the past and the real possible of actual choice in our present world.
That’s my anachronistic stance. Anyone of similar kinship ought not to feel ashamed for wanting to slow the world tempo down to reflect more. Life is, and shall be, perennial in its essence if not in its mutations.
I welcome any dialogue on such matters. While my emotions and desires may not change much, my views are flexible. Hey Seth!
— J. C. S.