Hello Sam. Yes, you, historian of the future!
So, lots of assumptions I’m about to make: that this will even be found, amongst all the stuff that’s currently put on-line, let alone be worth bothering with. And I know that you’re probably not called Sam, but I’m trying not to assume your gender. These days (I’m writing at the end of October, 2020) it’s becoming fashionable to use the feminine gender when in doubt, perhaps to make up for the old presumption of masculinity.
I presume as well that the digital format currently popular will stay, at least for a while; that anything we say might remain ‘forever’ in the on-line digital domain. So, rather than address the present, as long as I put this on the website, as I will, and attempt to find a reader, I’ve decided to address the future. As a young man I came across Plato. I was no scholar, but was surprised at how modern he sounded. With his dialogues he seemed to be talking directly to me, as Socrates made his way through to the forum, or the games, and chatted with his young friends on the way. Two and a half thousand years ago, and still sounded as though he was at my shoulder! As an aspiring sculptor I’d decided to use stone as a material impervious to time. But what do we know of Phidias, the greatest sculptor of his day and a contemporary of Plato’s? Nothing survives, just his reputation, recorded on papyrus or wax. So if this isn’t recorded, too bad, for what is ‘now’ in the scheme of things?
One of my presumptions about the future is that you will know much more than I do. As we progress into the future one thing we can be sure of, the cone of light, and therefore the knowable past, will increase. My presumption lies in that history, and the sum of all we know, will thereby increase as well. Just as Plato might have had great insights, he knew nothing about the unconscious mind or its workings, because Freud and the psychologists who came after him had yet to discover it. Our knowledge of the past increases, with the record of tree rings, aerial photography and study of fossils. That the continents themselves drift with tectonic movement was only accepted in the 1950’s. So, Sam, you might know more, but you won’t necessarily know better. Like Tolstoy the fox, who knew about a lot of things, as opposed to Dostoyevski, who knew only one thing, but like a hedgehog, really knew that one thing well. (Was it Orwell who made that comparison? … whoever said it, we know what is meant!). But Plato, for all his instinctive intelligence was hampered by the narrowness of understanding of the time. Just as myself, as a child of my age cannot hope to know as much as you.
Our detection of the past increases, like a sweeping searchlight, as does our forensic inspection. VAR, CCTV, the moment is caught in action replay. How else might your view of the past improve? One argument for ghosts, at least in the audible spectrum, is that an acoustic record might be inscribed on the stones, if we have the sensitivity to read it. Perhaps you have something like that?
A more extended version of the past, as demanded by history, might look at the whole of a person’s life rather than a fleeting moment. A photograph, however detailed can only give a record of the moment. A historian will want to see a bit more: how that person might have reacted to the circumstance that surrounded him or her … some context; and his or her whole life rather than just a snapshot. Even within my own lifetime, I feel some advantage (however small and diminishing) over those too young to remember the 50’s, or have grown up in the 60’s … and a certain reverence for those who lived through the War.
So what can I tell you of this time? Well, the world feels damaged by the coronavirus, Corvid 19; the news doesn’t seem to have room for much else. Even the American election, which is due to happen in 10 days time, is relegated to second place. It looks as though Trump might finally get his come-uppance, but for all those who watch as he single handedly drags the US from its perch atop the world, there is a certain shiver …. surely he can’t survive into another term? And what does it say of the American electorate, that they can vote for such as he as President in the first place?. … come on chaps … leader of the Free World? Perhaps even that notion has always been an illusion.
And what if anything do we learn of ourselves from this pandemic? It’s certainly infectious, but not as deadly as first feared. Average age of death is apparently 82; the old and the sick are especially vulnerable. If we’d known all this at the start would we have been so obedient?. We (in Europe at any rate) look at Sweden with some admiration for that country’s acceptance of herd immunity, which almost became a dirty word back in March. We proudly clapped the NHS. At least it has shown us who we really value … generally those in the worst paid jobs, who care for and feed us. But in almost equal disdain to the bankers and money men who did so well out of the last economic crash, do we hold those who deny the mask! How dare they, when folk are dying?
Is this way of describing ourselves itself peculiar to this age? … as polarised … between the mask wearers and those who refuse? Rich and poor, black and white, left and right, climate change deniers or believers?
It seems to me, as fairly typical of the majority, all rather wearisome. Perhaps this is just age talking… or aged, white and comfortable. Us baby boomers would march against anything in the 60’s; now it’s just the young and the dispossessed. So that’s another one, the young and the old!
So what’s it like to actually be alive right now? As a stove maker, not bad at the moment, though autumn is always good for us; as a maturing male in the west, not bad also. Lockdown kept me out of the pub, and my health is a bit better for that. But for every one of us who has benefited, even indirectly from the disease, there is another climbing the walls in frustration, loneliness, or poverty.. But I suspect that, like the so-called polarised, this diagnosis is not really accurate … things are not as bad as we make out. Yes, I don’t get out much these days, certainly as far as meeting other folk goes, and we’re in a pretty quiet corner of Scotland, but I doubt there’s too much gnashing of teeth. Any misery that the disease may cause is balanced by the prospect of frolicking rabbits in the clear air, ‘re-setting’ our economy, to be more responsive, for example to how we might organise ourselves, and urgent issues such as the environment. … don’t smile at my innocent hopes!
I realise that our advantage over you, of actually living through the period you might be studying is very small compared with the brilliance of the searchlight you might bear looking back at us. Aaargh …. don’t dazzle us!