Essays About


dow.jpgLooking at a long-term stock chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, I gain a sense of continuity across change. Decades of chaotic current events are condensed into an oscillating line. My finger follows the Great Crash of 1929, ascends with the post-war boom, zigzags through the recessions and oil crises of the 1970s, soars with the technology bubble then dives with the housing bust. Events that, in the moment, felt infinite because they took up all the space of the present, are in hindsight tick marks in the giant patterns of history. The traders who made the line rise and fall on the left of the chart have all lost their fortunes and entered the poorhouse of death. But greed and fear persist eternally, and now new traders move the line. Buying and selling for self, they plot a collaborative graph, as medieval masons added stones to cathedrals their ancestors started.

The narrative of history we write with our lives forgets us, recording only our aggregate effect on the world. Perishable individuals collectively shape world trends as drops of water, each bursting inaudibly on pavement, create the rhythmic sound of rain.

Reading history can feel like reading fiction in that the historian depicts a world that does not exist for us beyond the page. From the modern world of aircraft carriers, skyscrapers, oil refineries, and the United Nations, the ancient world of Roman Emperors, Visigoths, chariot races, and polytheism seems separated not merely by chronological distance but by an ontological rupture. The past feels like an alternate universe, connected to the present only by the accident of a common setting, as fiction is linked to life by taking place in factual locations, though no path leads from our world to the novelist's.

Looking at my high school yearbook gives the lie to this conception. There I am as I was, living in another and now lost world, yet the fifteen years' journey from there to here did not require crossing any chasms nor tunneling through wormholes, but only the steady arrival of tomorrows. With this realization, I gain a line of sight back to the time of togas. The distant past became the present via the smooth, paved path of days. Epochal change is the work of the small, familiar quantities of time our clocks tick off. Knowing how minutes pass, we know how millennia pass.

We want to get to the place where history happened. We feel nearer antiquity when we stand in the Roman Forum, though we have only moved nearer in space, not in time. We are moved by an empty field of grass because a Civil War battle was fought there once. We travel great distances to museums to see original paintings that we have seen as clearly and without the crowds in reproductions, because our eyes must rest on the canvas the master's hand touched.

But does the body of history lie in the shrines where we seek it? Space is as restless as time. After one hundred fifty summers of new growth, the grass in the Civil War field is not the grass the soldiers stood on. The museum's famous paintings glow with oil pigments from the restorer's, not the artist's, brush. In the Roman Forum, we walk upon the dust from prior visitors' shoes and breathe the air that they, not the ancients, exhaled. Caesar's dust has likely disappeared from Rome, but we may find it in our garden when we get home, if the winds of two millennia have blown it there.

There is a paradox in venerating traditions, namely that traditions were not, in their time, traditional. All religious founders were progressive innovators, yet their followers are often conservatives. Politicians look reverently back to the founding fathers, but the founding fathers looked experimentally forward, irreverent toward their own traditions. The historic houses that preservationists praise, disparaging modern construction, were brand new when they were built, their gingerbread trim and bay windows breakthroughs and their architects avant-garde. To worship the past is a misunderstanding, for the past has never existed, only a history of previous presents.

A book I am reading notes that the idea of being "modern" originated in the Middle Ages. It is odd to think of flagellating monks and Canterbury pilgrims regarding themselves as modern. Even odder to think how, like them, we moderns will one day seem medieval. In a few hundred years, today's books will appear silly with their solemn talk of the modern world. A book about recent trends in capitalism will sound as contemporary as a book about recent trends in feudalism. "The War on Terrorism" will have the ring of "the War of the Roses." Solar energy will be as cutting edge as firewood.

Perhaps the more terrifying thought about World War II Germany is not that one might have been a Jew in a death camp, but that one might have been an S.S. soldier, smearing one's soul with the blood of the innocent. The more terrifying thought, in other words, is not that the Jews were ordinary people like us, but that the Nazis were too.

Throughout history, solutions have led to more solutions. The invention of the wheel gave rise to the cart, the paddleboat, and hydropower. Mendelian genetics led to DNA forensics. But progress stalls as it nears its goal of the good life. The internal combustion engine produced the automobile, but the automobile produced global warming. Special Relativity made nuclear fission possible, which made Hiroshima possible. Because our grandfathers discovered how to amplify crop yields with pesticides, we must discover how to unpoison rivers and nurse dying species. Scientists seek cures for cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis, but if they succeed, our grandchildren will seek cures for overpopulation. In the beginning, humanity solves the problems nature made; in the end, the problems our own ingenuity made.

The poverty line has risen throughout history. The tenants of modern trailer parks live in more luxury than early Sumerian aristocrats, whose mansions were reed huts with dirt floors. The motor scooters of unemployed college students travel faster than the horses of medieval lords. Civil War generals communicated by courier, but now every private has a mobile phone. Progress impoverishes the past. Complaints lose power when you think of your ancestors. We decry the cost of health insurance, but a century ago, there existed neither health insurance nor cures for it to pay for. I grumble when my air conditioning breaks in summer, but in ancient Egypt even Pharaohs had to sweat.

The problem with visiting historic cities is that we can only go in the present. Drawn by a magnificent past, we arrive to the deflating realization that this place that was once a stage is now a backwater. What greatness has issued from Florence in the last four centuries? I do not so much want to visit Florence, but to visit the Renaissance; I do not want to see Michelangelo's paintings, but Michelangelo painting. I would like to pick a century as well as a country when I travel.

Having felt letdown visiting history's has-beens, I prefer places whose moment is now. One travels to Hong Kong or San Francisco not for what they were, but what they are. San Francisco was a sand dune when Brunelleschi was building his dome and the Medici ousted Machiavelli, but now history ships from Silicon Valley while storied Florence is reduced to reminiscence. The best place to look for life is in the present, and in imagination of the past. Thus I read books about Florence, and book flights to California.

Poets exhort us to savor life by forgetting the past and future and living wholly in the present. Yet I find that living in the present is precisely what hinders appreciation. During the week, I live solely in the present. I eat, work, eat, sleep, repeat. My world is circumscribed by my commute; my mind's range is limited by my body's. Do not animals live wholly in the present?

In the weekend's pause, I read a Balzac novel and emigrate to history for an afternoon. I think of the great populace of the dead, see my life in the context of Life, gain depth of emotion through breadth of imagination.

As travelers in foreign countries think fondly of home, we must be conscious of other times to love our home, the moment. Living fully in the present requires living partly in the past.

To the hazards all wars hold, World War II in the Pacific added the ocean's instability. A foot soldier in France, though fired at, felt the solace of solid ground. A bomber shot down over Belgium could parachute into a cornfield. War and water are two chaoses combined. On the sea's meadow, there is no trench to crouch in, no building to gather thoughts while shots pause. Battling midway between continents, the element is as frightening as the enemy. A fighter pilot sputtering through pierced and cracking air, wings burning, sees only blue below to match the blue above. His terra firma is a speck of ship deck floating on the deep. In modern naval war he glimpses the chaos before creation—air, water, and fire, but no earth.

During campaign seasons, I tire of the candidates' attack ads and mutual rummaging through one another's past sins. Such faultfinding, most of it false or exaggerated, seems not only mean-spirited but also petty and immature, like children too eager to tattle. One expects rudeness from taxi drivers or football fans, but not from men and women seeking the highest offices of government. Are these self-promoting finger-pointers to be the leaders of nations? But then I remember the old days, when would-be kings, backed by armies instead of campaign teams, rode out to bloody battles, took their rival's children captive, and cut off each other's head to gain the crown. From murder and kidnap, to mere lies and slander. Civilization is making progress.