Friday, December 31, 2010

Great Work of Time

Who hasn't run into old Shelley's "Ozymandias" in an English Lit class, the ruined claim of eternity disintegrating back into sand. We think we are free of the pride of our permanence—the mortality of ourselves and our endeavors gets drilled into us over and over: hubris and vanity and the problem of seeking immortality (cf. Voldemort).

I just finished rereading John Crowley's Great Work of Time, a compact, melancholy and thorough dismantling of the idea of an eternal empire. It's a time travel story in baldest terms—one where the attempt to make the British Empire truly eternal, the protector of world peace and preventer of the horrors of the twentieth century, turns out to make the world go horribly wrong: the future fills with monsters and angels, a strange and unnatural stasis that in the end is imagined as a silent forest underwater, forever still and unchanging. The angels and the wise magi that the messing with time produces, do not want to have been created. They long for death.

We mapmakers make some claim of permanence—more modest than eternity, but what I take away from Crowley's book is the false seductiveness of the idea that what lasts beyond our lives lasts forever. We don't know what happens after "The End," and so we imagine a universe that never ends, an empire on which the sun never sets. An immortal soul. Streets that are somehow permanent. But someday the streets in my neighborhood will become meaningless. It might be a very very long time (in doing research this week I realized I will likely live to see the basic streeet pattern of Harvard Square celebrate its 500th anniversary), but there is no such thing as "forever", only "over the horizon." I don't think there is anything, anyway.

Maps only act as a way of contrasting relatively transient with relatively permanent phenomena: the states shapes remain the same as votes move from bloe to red and back again. Streets remain the same as taxi routes wiggle back and forth across them. Continents retain their rough outlines as glaciers push forward and retreat.

We need ground to stand on—a stage as I've said before, here—in order to make our performances and arguments. People who have attempted to eliminate that stage in the name of acknowledgining our impermanence have unleashed a peculiar kind of madness we see in some kinds of modern art and philosophy. Eliminate permanence, and there's no "there" there, as Ms Stein said. Perhaps the answer is to sadly acknowledge that our stage, our permanence, is itself impermanent, and find a platform that fits our lives, and the terms of permanence we can find— the land that stays more-or-less the same between glaciations, the nation that for a while retains the same basic shape, the family and friendship we have for the span we are lucky enough to have it.

Happy New Year, all. Here's to what permanence we can muster in the coming year, and what good we can perform upon that permanence.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Nat. It made me think of a poem I heard recently. Apparently, the King of England ended a broadcast with this just before World War II.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'

And he replied,
'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!'

So I went forth and finding the Hand of God
Trod gladly into the night.
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.
Minnie Louise Harkins