Why Do We Fall In Love With The Past?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 28, 2016

We explore the past through infinite paths. The past no longer exists, yet we recreate “what was” with artifacts that continue to exist in the now. We use our neurons as virtual reality machines to remember. Most of us have a rough map of our own life, and hazier maps of our own culture. Beyond those maps lie the unknown territory of the collective past, which we are all deeply rooted. We have all shook hands with someone who shook hands with a 19th century person, who had shaken hands with someone from the 18th century. I am old enough to have shaken hands with many people born in the 19th century. Every history book we read weaves thousands of threads that link us to a past.

Have you ever contemplated how we build the past in our minds? As individuals we use memories. We talk to other people and use their memories. Novels, movies, songs, television shows, paintings – are fundamental ways of recalling the past. Art is recorded memories. Think of cave paintings, probably among our oldest memories. Slowly, education and scholarship evolved to organize the details of the past. Whether you’re studying math or The New Testament, you’re recreating the past. The discipline of history isn’t that old in the big scheme of things. In recent times we have journalism and the internet to extend our sense of the past.

Whenever we play an old piece of music or see a work if art in a museum, it connects us to people, places and things who lived and died long ago. For example, I’m currently reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère (19281982, San Francisco, Berkeley, Point Reyes, Santa Ana) a biography of Philip K. Dick. Or I recently saw The Revenant (1823, Montana, South Dakota) about Hugh Glass. I could link to dozen more movies and books I’ve recently seen that connect me to the past. Just follow those few links to understand how we network with the past, and how far and quickly that web of memory will carry you away. Trying to grasp the fullness of past is like falling into a black hole.

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

Here’s a photo of my father’s father, his brothers and their parents (my great grand parents). I know next to nothing about these people, and can only remember a couple of anecdotes. What would it take to learn about them?

The answer comes in a book I just finished, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, who took a couple years out of his life to learn about his ancestors on his father’s side. This wondrous book will delight lovers of history, art and culture. There’s enough material here for six fascinating historical movies, and seeds for many more. The challenge here is for me to describe it in a way that will make you want to read it. It’s not a book for everyone, but it is a book for everyone that loves the past.

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

When I was young, I’d often hear or read that America had no old culture, not like the Europeans. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what they meant. Except for a few mementos, like your granny’s quilt, or collecting antiques, we seldom dwell on our own heritage. We’re always thinking about the next new gadget to buy (as we throw away the old ones), or the next new show to binge-watch. Some Americans are into genealogy, but not that many. We generally embrace the pop culture of our teenage years, which we cherish our whole life, but few people branch from from there.

Edmund de Waal has written a book that succeeds in capturing a panoramic snapshot of his cultural heritage that spans three centuries. The Hare with the Amber Eyes starts off as a quiet unassuming memoir that slowly builds into an atomic explosion of multicultural history of art collecting. The story is anchored by a collection of 264 Japanese netsukes that came into his family in 19th century, and de Waal inherited in 21st. The book is set in Paris, Vienna, Odessa, Tokyo and London.

I have read this book for three book clubs now. It’s a challenge to explain its appeal. If you love art history, especially French Impressionism, or how Japanese art came to 19th century Europe and 20th century America, this book will appeal to you. If you like to read about Jewish history, especially about Jews living in Odessa, Vienna and Paris in the 19th and 20th century before WWII, this book will grab your attention. If you are fascinated by the American occupation of Japan after the war, the book has insights for you too. If you’re fascinated by Nazi art theft like The Monuments Men (the book, not the movie) and The Woman in Gold (the movie), then this book has stories for you. If you’ve ever tried to write your own families history and wondered what kind of effort it takes, then this book is for you. If you love the PBS shows Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots, then this book is for you.

Most of all, if you’ve ever seen old photographs of your great grandparents and your great great grandparents and wonder what their daily lives were like, this book is for you.

I would be hard press to make a list of all the subjects de Waal touches upon in his small book. The frame of his story is to take his 21st readers back to the 19th century Paris to explain how his family first acquired the netsuke. His story begins in France as Impressionism is coming into vogue, which is concurrent with Europeans becoming obsessed with Japanese culture and art. The story then travels to turn of the century Vienna, past WWI, through the years between the wars, WWII in Europe, to the Japanese occupation by Americans, and then into the home stretch of this century. Along the way, The Hare With Amber Eyes encounters many famous people and events in 20th century history. If de Waal played six-degrees of separation, he’s only a few degrees from some very historical folk. Yet, de Waal current life is very unassuming. He’s an artist, a maker of porcelain. When heading into the past, you never know what you’ll find. Besides, we have four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents. It gets pretty easy to make some marvelous connections.

My goal is to try and explain why I liked the particular details in The Hare With Amber Eyes, and that’s rather difficult. I’m not that into Japanese netsuke, although they are impressive little sculptures. There’s no reason for me to identify with de Waal’s genealogy, my family was nothing like his. What enchanted my reading is their love of art and culture. The book’s connections to 19th century Paris and early 20th century Vienna provides vivid details of what it’s like to be great patrons of art. The book gives me another side of the history of Impressionism – the buyers side. Charles Ephrussi, who originally bought the netsuke, was even painted into Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Charles is the guy in the top hat. What a way to be remembered!

But why should I care about Charles? Reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes makes me wonder why I care about anyone in the past. But I do. We all do. Most of us are obsessed with the past. I keep looking at that painting above and wonder what it was like to have been at that party. In the book, the netsuke are touchstones to the past. De Waal owns them now, and the netsuke put him one degree from Charles and many of his relatives between the 1870s and now. They tie a family history together. De Waal focuses on three of his ancestors, and the cities that shaped their souls, Paris, Vienna and Tokyo.

I can’t think of anything I own that ties me to the past like that, other than photographs. I wonder how many hands have held that photograph of my great grand parents? My mother’s mother, Lou Dare Little, was born in 1881. She held my mother’s side of the family together for decades. She bore five daughters, which held the family together for several more decades. But now that only my Aunt Louise is still alive, the family seems to be coming undone. What de Waal shows with The Hare with Amber Eyes, is how history and art can sew a family back together. However, it took two years out of his regular life to accomplish that effort. My cousin Jane wrote a book many years ago that tied the descendants of Lou Dare Little together – at least for a while. How many of my cousins and their descendants will keep reading Jane’s book in the future? Will anyone from newer generations write another book? We don’t have anything like the netsuke to travel into the future, to get later generations to remember us. Or do we?

I’m not sure I’m accomplishing my goal here. All I can really say is read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and let it convey what I want to say. It is a cornucopia of memory triggers. But also, every time you turn on your TV, or go to a movie, think about what you’re seeing is saying about the past. Whenever you read a book, have a family reunion, or go to an antiques dealer, think about how the past won’t let us go, or we won’t let it go.

JWH

Are Historical Movies An Insult to History?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 14, 2015

Last night I watched Belle Starr, an old 1941 western with Gene Tierney and Randolph Scott. I didn’t know anything about Belle Starr before the movie, other than her famous name. So after the show I looked her up on Wikipedia. The movie was complete bullshit. Now this is a particularly bad example to ask this question: Should we avoid movies that claim to be based on history?

THE IMITATION GAME

In the past year I’ve seen films about Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and J. M. W. Turner. All three films won awards and received much critical praise. In each case I felt like I was looking at detailed recreations of the past. Yet, when I read “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” by Christian Caryl, I was troubled that I might have gotten a very wrong impression about Alan Turing. I now wonder about my history lessons on Hawking and Turner. Watching those films let me feel I was getting to know those men. Now the more I read, the more I doubt, the more I feel confused, and even misled.

Movies make a far greater impact on our brains than reading black and white words on paper. Even documentaries can give the wrong impression, so we must be extra cautious with historical fiction. Should we assume any fictional account of history is only fiction? That’s really hard for me to do. I can’t turn off my sense that I’m learning history when I’m watching a film, or reading a historical novel. If I know some of its real, then all of it feels real, especially if the storytelling is good. Fiction can be very convincing.

We have all kinds of ways of learning about history. History books, journals and courses are the most respected sources, but there is also museums, paintings, photographs, archival film, newsreels, sound recordings, transcribed interviews, letters, diaries and even archeological artifacts. If you’ve ever seen a Ken Burns documentary, you know how powerful such evidence can be. Yet, when we watch a movie, it feels like we’re reliving history. It’s very hard not to let Hollywood teach us about the past.

stephenandjane

I must wonder, did The Imitation Game treat Alan Turing fairly? Would Alan Turing have been flattered to see himself on the big screen as a cinematic hero? In a way, it was vindication for being mistreated in life. In another way, it was an insult, because they still got him wrong. I’m pretty sure the real Belle Starr would have laughed her ass off at seeing Gene Tierney’s version of herself. Stephen Hawking has been very kind in his praise for The Theory of Everything, saying it was broadly true, and at times it felt like he was seeing himself on the screen. However, Slate magazine compares film and history in “How Accurate Is The Theory of Everything?” and again, I’m disappointed by how I’ve been tricked. How disconcerting must it be for a real person to compare what they see on the big screen to real memories?

Our approach to history has always been fast and loose. Often shows on The History Channel are an abomination. Remember, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the quote, “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.” Of course, that’s the movie’s side of things. Quite often when I see clips from Fox News, I get the feeling their sense of reality was learned from Ronald Reagan’s screenplay tinted view of history. We often remember the facts the way we need them remembered.

I’m starting to wonder if I should avoid any film or television show that claims to be based on truth, because movies are so powerful, that once I see them, that’s how I see history.

JWH

The Way We Were and The Way We Are

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 9, 2015

One of the few positive aspects of getting older is living long enough to see great changes in society. Although, a savvy young person should be able to observe the same changes by watching old movies. It’s not the same thing as living through those changes, but it’s good enough for intellectual chitchat. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies from the 1950s, especially ones from 1951, the year I was born, and struggling to understand why I like them so much now that I’m 63. It’s amazing how much different America is today than it was then. What’s far more important, is seeing how we’ve stayed the same. That takes a discerning heart, and it’s easy to overlook how we haven’t changed because all the new stuff overwhelms our senses.

To get the easy stuff out of the way quickly, in the 1950s there were no smartphones, internet, personal computers or social apps. White males dominated society, people of color were barely visible on screen. Women usually wore dresses, stayed at home defining themselves as wives and mothers. There was a double standard for sexuality back then, and women were considered tainted if they had sex outside of marriage. There wasn’t much of a youth culture. Watching these old films its easy enough to spot obvious differences between then and now, like how men wore hats and suits all the time, and cars looked like those we see in Cuba today.

There are less obvious differences that are more subtle to spot. Movies in the 1950s feel like they are made for adults, while many movies today seem to be made for adolescents or the adolescent in us. There were some science fiction and fantasy films back then, but they weren’t the norm. And even then, their science fiction and fantasy had a foundation of realism that modern genre films lacks. Partly that’s due back then because fewer movies were completely escapist, and they didn’t have CGI to make the unreal real—which tends to make the real unreal.

Like I said, it takes more work to study how we’re the same. The reason why we can still enjoy the plays of Shakespeare is not because we enjoy people talking funny and wearing weird clothes, but because how we see ourselves in those people who talk funny and wear weird clothes.

detective-story-1951

Last night I watched Detective Story (1951) about a morally rigid cop Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) learning his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) had an abortion before they met. Detective McLeod was raised by a criminal father that McLeod despised. McLeod upbringing contra-conditioned him to demand that everyone fit an exacting black and white categorization. McLeod judged everyone that came into the precinct as righteous or evil, with no room for compassion, or understanding. I see that kind of rigid morality all the time on the nightly news, and sadly in some people I know. McLeod’s thinking was no different from members of ISIS, people living in Old Testament times or Donald Trump’s political persona.

Ace in the Hole - 1951

A more complicated example of sameness is Ace in the Hole (1951) which also starred Kirk Douglas, as Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter capable of great compassion or cruelty depending on his personal needs. Chuck Tatum used his psychological skills to manipulate people and orchestrate sensational news stories. Tatum reminded me of Steve Jobs, because he believed it was good to push people into doing more.

The Big Heat

Many young people think terrorism is something new since 9/11. It’s always existed in human society. The Big Heat (1953) has Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) fighting terrorists who control the police force and corrupts the government. Small minded men with big guns kill Bannion’s wife with a car bomb. They kill witnesses and anyone who tries to help Bannion. Makes me think of the news from Mexico, but corruption using violence to rule is common throughout the world.

And it’s not just seeing that the bad people then are just like the bad people today. The good people then are like the good people today. Det. Lou Brody (William Bendix) in Detective Story  tries very hard to get Jim McLeod to bend and see shades of gray in the folks they arrest. In fact, if you look at every character in this film, to see what motivates them, you can find parallel characters in today’s movies and real life.

This reminds me of something I learned from anthropology. Neanderthals were a species that lived unchanging lives for hundreds of thousands of years, making the same tools in the same old way all their long species’ lifetime. Our species, Homo sapiens, have changed a lot over the millennia, yet, there are other traits that don’t change, and like the Neanderthals and their stone tools, we keep constructing similar personality traits over and over again, with the same routineness that our cousins flaked out stone scrapers.

For most of my life, the 1950s was my least favorite movie decade, but in recent months, it’s become my favorite. That will change. It always does. I stay up late watching shows that I once thought dreary and depressing, and now I find fascinating and inspiring. I remember the 1950s, just barely, since I was born in 1951, and these movies little resemble the memories I do have of those times. The closest they overlap are of a trip to New York City in 1959.

Living in Kidland in the 1950s was much different from Hollywoodland. I didn’t know any cops, mobsters, B-girls, reporters, or small-time hustlers. My world looked like those old home movies that The Center For Home Movies work to preserve. And I’d bet lots of family home movies taken today have strange similarities with home movies taken back in the 1940s and 1950s. I live in a house and neighborhood that was built in the 1950s, and sometimes on my morning walks I pretend I’m seeing the neighborhood like it was long ago. Since most people park their cars behind their homes it helps with the illusion. I see women coming out in their robes to pick up the paper, and they look like the women I saw when I delivered papers in the 1960s. I’ve read a lot of books written in the 19th century, and on the surface people appear very different, but if you look closer they don’t. Just read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. It’s much harder, but I can even find overlap with tales as old as The Bible, Homer, Plato, or Lucretius.

Even with smartphones, Ecclesiastes was right.

JWH

The Future of Books

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Here’s my conundrum, do I keep The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel by Johnny Rogan, or give it away. This 1988 book revised in 2008 has 735 pages about the The Byrds, my favorite music group from the 1960s. Rogan has since updated this book in 2011 to a 1216 page monster, that’s just the first volume of a trilogy. I read the 2008 edition with much delight, spending several evenings in an orgy of nostalgia, playing my old Byrds albums as I read about how each was created. I kept the book thinking I’d reread it. Was that a mistake? Is the knowledge in books changing so fast that there’s little reason to save them?

The-Byrds---Johnny-Rogan

The edition I have is quite exhaustive in its scope. But if I wanted to read about The Byrds again, shouldn’t I read the latest definitive work? Why have I saved this book for seven years? It’s still a great read, and maybe it’s all I need to know about The Byrds.

Books have become a physical burden. I had a friend who claimed to own every book he ever read. Can you imagine the Sisyphean task of dragging a library behind you everywhere you went? That would be a snap if they were ebooks. Or if I lived in one house my whole life. Or if knowledge wasn’t changing so fast.

This book represents another kind of burden, a psychological burden. We experience life one moment at a time, yet most of us cling to all those past moments. Not only do I want to save my memories of The Bryds, but retain a book that collects all the group member memories. That’s kind of weird when you think about it.

We exist in a transitional time. We’re very close to having all our external memories online. What if The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel  was a website that grew as Rogan wrote and researched? The multimedia aspects of the web could greatly expand its potential. Personal and public libraries wouldn’t be burdened with lending and storing the book. And it would be available to all instantly.

I can also see the content this book incorporated into Wikipedia. What if all knowledge was hyperlinked into one book? What if the history of The Byrds was written by anyone who cared about their history? What if all memoirs, interviews, photos, bootlegs, videos, etc. were at one location, and hyperlinked by a carefully crafted narrative of dedicated editors?

We now serialize history with the latest definitive book. What if history lived on the web as an ongoing collective project? Is moving towards such a hive mind existence scary? How much time do you spend reading the web versus reading books? How often do we get facts from iPhones?

Can you imagine books in the future? Are they changing so fast that it’s not worth collecting them?

I’ve always been a lover of books. I hoard and collect them. But I’m starting to wonder if I only need to own one book, the one I’m reading.

JWH

The State of Freedom 100 Years Ago

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 14, 2015

If you think terrorism and war is bad now, just study how things were one hundred years ago. We think of America as the land of the free, but during the 1910s people were being jailed for printing words and jokes about things we commonly see in sitcoms. Language we’d consider G-rated would get you jailed back then if you used it in a literary work that was sent through the U.S. mails.  Writing about contraception, condoms or abortion could also get you thrown in the slammer. Using phrases like “snot-green” or “old fart” would get you labeled as a horrible lower-class person. And it sickened and horrified cultured people when James Joyce wrote about Leopold Bloom eating organ meats, even though everyone ate organ meats. One hundred years ago people just didn’t like facing up to the gritty details of life, details we embrace today.

Because of laws regulating decency, sedition, sexual practices and other moral issues, most of 21st century writers, movie makers, publishers would be jailed if their work appeared a hundred years ago. This doesn’t mean the common people didn’t say anything they wanted, but state and federal governments tried very hard to control what people printed and shipped through the mails. If liberals think conservatives are controlling now, just read about the history of censorship in America. We’ve come a long way baby.

The Most Dangerous Book - Kevin Birmingham

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham thoroughly entertained me with his history of censorship and legal battles to publish what is now considered the best novel in English literature. Even if you have no interest in James Joyce, this book is fascinating history. It does deal with Joyce’s immense struggle to be an artist, and to push the limits of literary expression, but it’s also about why and how our society wanted to rein in artists. It’s about the editors and publishers that risked jail to publish writers like Joyce. In 1920, the year my father was born, Jon Stewart would probably have been sentenced to ten years in jail for each episode of his show, if they could have seen The Daily Show back then.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Book to prepare me to listened to Ulysses. I keep trying to get into Ulysses but I always fail. Ulysses is an almost impossible book to get into, very tough going, but not because Joyce was so intellectual and learned. Joyce wrote about ordinary events and people, but used new writing techniques to show how people actually thought and felt.  Since we often think about sex and bodily functions, or feel thoughts about people we’d never express, our minds are chaotic tangles of incoherent phrases and perceptions, and Ulysses tries to capture this stream of consciousness. In the 1910s and 1920s, readers found his experiments startling, offensive, unnerving and threatening.  Some European and American government officials thought Joyce’s apparent nonsense could be coded messages of espionage. Even his most ardent admirers struggled to decode his prose.

Joyce set the stage for comic observations about humanity that armies of standup comics still mine today. Yet, a hundred years ago, this so horrified government officials they did their damnedest to erase, and keep from the public. Their paranoia over strange ideas was fueled by radicals and anarchists who promoted conflict, disorder and social unrest. There were hundreds of terrorists bombings back then each year. The government associated anything Avant-garde with radicalism.

We have practically no censorship now, and a lot less social unrest and terrorist bombs. Strangely, the lingering forms of censorship we see today often come from terrorist bombers who want to revert our freedoms. The Comstock Law of 1873 was a kind of American Sharia Law, and the people who terrorized the literary world back then was the U.S. Post Office.

The founding fathers made free speech legal, but they didn’t understand what that meant. We’re still exploring the social implications of real free speech.  Kevin Birmingham’s book is a stunning history of the fight for free speech in the early part of the 20th century. He focuses on an array of literary freedom fighters who were directly or indirectly connected to helping James Joyce get his book published. Whether or not you’re interested in literary history hardly matters if you love history itself when considering reading this book.

History is like a jigsaw puzzle with an infinite number of pieces. A great history book is one that helps you put hundreds of pieces together to reveal the big image of the past. A great history book also helps connect its images with pieces of images you’ve assembled from other great history books. The Most Dangerous Book helped me see a lot more of 20th century American and European history.

I still find listening to Ulysses hard going, but I’m making a greater effort because of The Most Dangerous Book. Birmingham explained the tremendous struggle by Joyce to write his book, and why. Birmingham gives a great deal of background facts that interpret each chapter in Ulysses. But most important, he testifies to the valiant effort so many people made that allows us to read Ulysses and books like it. I’m very grateful to those people. I think we all should be.

JWH

Faith in Science

I am reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an overview of the men and women who brought about the age of computers. At other times during the day I’m listening to The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about how automation is making humans dumber. Isaacson gives the history of computers starting when they were first imagined as mechanical devices, but really came into being as electronic devices using vacuum tubes, and finally evolving into solid state devices we know today after the invention of the transistor.

Here’s my problem. I can sort of visualize how a mechanical calculator works, at least for adding and subtraction, but beyond that my brain explodes. I especially can’t conceive of how vacuum tubes were used to make a digital computer. I started taking computer programming classes in 1971, and even passed two semesters of assembly language. I used to be pretty good at binary and hexadecimal arithmetic.  But it’s extremely hard for me to imagine how a computer actually works. Essentially, it’s all magic, and I just accept that it’s possible to build a computer according to the laws of science – but my acceptance is really faith in science.

Nicholas Carr believes the more work we give to computers the dumber humans will become. Watch these two videos, and tell me if you understand them. The first is from 1943 and is about the basics of a vacuum tube, obviously a device essential to most of industrial progress at the time, but a forgotten tech today.

This is the technology that scientists used to build the first electronic programmable computers. Can you in any way conceive of how they get from vacuum tube to data processing? How much would I have to know to understand how the first computers were assembled? I keep reading about vacuum tubes, and even though I get a slight glimpse into their nature, I cannot for the life of me imagine how they were used to create a machine to do arithmetic, and show the results – much less understand the commands of a programming language, no matter how primitive that language.

I then thought maybe I’d understand vacuum tubes better if I could understand how they were made.  I found this film.

This film makes me mightily impressed with scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If civilization collapsed it would be a very long time before we could ever reinvent the vacuum tube, much less a computer.

What these two short films show me is human knowledge is divvied up so everyone learns extremely tiny pieces of total knowledge, but collectively we can create magical machines like an iPhone 6. A smartphone represents countless forms of expertise I will never understand, or even fathom with any kind of analogous modeling. An iPhone 6 probably has the equivalent of billions of vacuum tubes as transistors shrunk down into a solid state that are only individually visible with an electron microscope. It’s fucking magic. There’s no way around it. I know it’s science, but to my mind any mumbo jumbo I come up with to explain the miracle of a smartphone is no better than the incantations in a Harry Potter novel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all were Renaissance beings that knew everything the entire human race had learned up to this point? Would we all have more respect for science if our K-12 education had been about recreating how we got to our current level of technology? What kind of curriculum would be required so that each graduating class had to build an ENIAC to earn their high school diplomas? That would only put them 70 years behind the times.

I don’t want to live by faith in science, I want my brain to comprehend science.

I think Carr might be right. I think we’re passing our knowledge off to machines and slacking off ourselves. One day we’ll have intelligent machines that can actually do anything any scientist in history has every done. And all we’ll know how to do is double-tap an app icon to get it started.

JWH

How Many Pre-1950 Artifacts Do You Own?

Our book club recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz, a 1960 collection of three related stories about a future that barely remembers our 1950s civilization.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is set 600 years in the future after our civilization destroys itself in a nuclear war.  The stories are about the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, where a future Catholic monastery works to preserve the relics of a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz.  They do not know what the relics mean, and even illuminate one of Leibowitz’s engineering blueprints.

A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz

This got me to thinking about how many things I own might be preserved in the future.  And how many things from the past I own.  Making the cutoff date 1950, I quickly realized I have damn few relics from the past.  All I can come up with are photographs, and a few knickknacks Susan and I have inherited from our parents.  If I move the date up to 1960 I can add an old wooden radio cabinet, more photographs, some LPs, a handful of books, and our house, which was built in 1957.  If I jump to 1970, we add many more photographs, a few more LPs, and a fair amount of household items.

None of my older possessions are particular durable.  None will become antiques worth collecting.  The items I find the most meaningful are photographs and twelve hardback Heinlein juveniles I bought in 1968 with my first paycheck when I was 16.  I assume when I die my wife will give the books away to Goodwill and the photographs to my sister or her sons.

Our throw-away society doesn’t lend itself well to being remembered.   However, the sense of wonder generated in A Canticle for Leibowitz is because civilization collapses so thoroughly that most everything is destroyed, and what’s left is cherished.

I don’t think I own a single thing that would be worth preserving 600 years, but if I did, what one thing do I own that I would like to represent me and the 20th century to future people?  I would have to pick my hard back copy of Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.  I used to own a very nice slide rule from the 1950s, and if I still had that, I might have chosen it.  But the Heinlein book really does represent me well.  But what would people a millennia from now think of such a story?  Would their daily language even allow them to read it?

have-space-suit---will-travel

And if I’m honest, I know future people won’t give a  damn about our junk.  They won’t give a damn about what we think or believed.  Some of our crap might make it to museums of the future, and a few eccentrics might collect 20th century doodads, but really, how many people in the year 3013 will even think about us?  Just how much daily life from 1013 do we know about now?  The Al-Hakim Mosque was finished about a 1,000 years ago.

Mosquee_al-akim_le_caire_1

Things that really last are usually buildings, artwork, monuments – works that people create to last.  I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if we all built our houses with the intention they will last a very long time – so every home becomes a museum.  Would that stifle innovation, or stimulate creativity?  Most of the stuff we own ends up in landfill, so psychologically, doesn’t that mean we’re living with garbage and not art?

Imagine a world where the smallest house lot is one acre, and each house owner builds a home intended to last centuries, if not thousands of years.  That everyone lives in the equivalent of an English mini-manor house.  Picture manicured gardens outside, and beautiful art collections on the inside.  How would society change?  Would we still want cars and roads cluttering up the countryside?  Or visible power lines, phone cables, satellite dishes?  Would we design houses to withstand tornadoes and hurricanes?  Could we design roofs that could go 500 years without maintenance?

Homo sapiens have been around for tens of thousands of years.  History, not so long, say five thousand years.  Unless we destroy ourselves, homo sapiens, and their descendants,   AI robots, could be around for millions of years.  How long will we continue to process the resources of the Earth into landfill?  At some point we need to make things that will last, and yet, leave room for new art to evolve and be added.

If I was young I’d buy a plot of land and design a house to last.  I’d furnish it with antique scientific equipment, beautiful electronics from the 20th century, and as much art as I could afford.  I’d want it solar powered.  I’d want enough land to make an interesting landscape. 

It’s a shame I didn’t think of this sooner.

JWH – 10/14/13