The Anachronist – Language as Time Machine – Part Un

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.

— J.C.S.

The Anachronist – Language as Time Machine – Part Deux

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.