Not long ago I was browsing through microfilm of old newspapers, which is part of my job. I was looking at the New York Times for the last days of August 1939, right before World War II began in Europe with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. It was very interesting to see what movies were in the theaters at that time, what Manhattan restaurants were advertising, and what was on the radio listings–normal, everyday stuff. It made me think of the people reading this paper on those long-ago summer mornings, going about their daily business, about to be thrust into a world catastrophe that would change the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. Some of those people are still alive today. The ones that are, I wonder if they think about what 1939 was like, and what sticks out in their memories. I’d give anything to experience it for myself, to live just a single minute of an ordinary day in 1939, for real, as if it was the present. It would be a mind-blowing experience.
All of us, every human being on Earth, live our lives in a temporal prison. We’re capable of perceiving the world with our senses only in one exact instant: the present. I began writing this article 10 minutes ago, and I certainly remember it, but the moment I first started typing is now gone. What I feel beneath my fingers is the keyboard as it exists now, not 10 minutes ago. Not much has changed in 10 minutes, but a little has. Recently I was thinking about some things that happened to me in college, back in 1991 as the first Persian Gulf War was about to begin. A lot more has changed in 23 years than in 10 minutes, but both points in time–10 minutes ago (now more like 12), and 23 years ago–are equally inaccessible to me, at least directly. We have access to our own personal pasts through patterns stored in our brains. That’s the definition of memory. We have access to parts of the past lived by others through documentary evidence. That’s the definition of history. Both are non-sensory, meaning, we can perceive them only through use of our minds and our intelligence.
If you think about it, this opens a lot of implications, some of them troubling. On the memory side of the ledger, human memories are flawed and imperfect. If the only record of a past event is a human memory–especially one person’s memory–the accuracy of that record is open to question. Let’s take a historical example. On April 12, 1945, at Warm Springs, Georgia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sitting for a portrait being painted by artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff. FDR, who had been very ill for months, reportedly said to her, “I have a terrific headache,” or “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head,” before collapsing. He’d had a stroke and died the next day without regaining consciousness. So far as I know, Shoumatoff was the only person present to hear FDR’s last words. Most likely she reported the incident correctly, but what if she made a honest mistake? Her memory of what Roosevelt said to her that afternoon is the only thing we have to go on about FDR’s last words. Memories can be faulty. This sort of thing comes up again and again in history.
The famous novel 1984, made into a film the same year, depicts the dangers of a society whose understanding of the past is unreliable.
And what about history? George Orwell’s book 1984 showed us exactly how fragile history is. In the book, the totalitarian state run by the Party controls all the archives, books, newspapers and every record of the past, which it routinely changes in order to make it look like everything the Party predicts comes true, or to eliminate things in the past that the Party find inconvenient. In fact, the main character of 1984, Winston Smith, is employed as a bureaucrat who rewrites newspaper archives. The Party maintains absolute control because it has managed to gain control of how the past is interpreted. The implication is that the Party will use this trick to remain in power forever–enforcing an eternal present that never changes. Orwell’s chilling vision still scares us today. We’re more sensitive about the past than we may seem at first.
The truth is, our entire civilization is dependent upon our recollection and interpretation of the past. From something as simple as learning not to touch a hot stove, or as complex as deciding where or how to intervene militarily against ISIS or how to prevent an Ebola epidemic, the choices we make are completely arbitrary without an understanding of what happened in the past in a given situation. This is why, although I am annoyed by naive students who claim they don’t need to know history because “Why should I care about what happened before I was born?”, I know that experience out there in the real world will quickly chasten this attitude. Somebody, somewhere will have to teach history, in every society, in every country in the world, or civilization will collapse. However terrible the academic job market is, the world will always need history teachers.
Our perception of time is rooted firmly–unchangeably–in the present. I am locked in the present. We all are. I can’t experience 1939 for myself. I can perceive through various pieces of evidence what it must have been like, but I’ll never be able to experience it. I did experience 1991, but now that it’s over, that time has more in common with 1939 than it does with the present all around me in this moment. I suppose there could be a way of experiencing time in which you don’t see it through a constantly changing present, but perhaps the past, present and future all at once. As a human being, stuck in a temporal prison, I have no clue what that might be like. Maybe it’s like seeing through the eyes of God. No one will ever know, but it’s interesting to think about.
As I hit Publish, this blog is now part of the past. Enjoy it.