From the Archives: "The Dark Backward"
What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?
If thou remember'st aught ere thou camest here,
How thou camest here thou mayst.
Prospero, Act 1, Scene 1, The Tempest
Hi, everyone. I hope your Thanksgiving holidays, already a week behind us, were enjoyable and rewarding if not relaxing.
Here is the third and last of my From the Archives posts before my return to new work on Monday. Each of them, chosen from the first month of Homo Vitruvius’s existence, has been intended to reveal some different aspect of me and my intellectual and writerly interests. Here, significantly, it is my historical perspective, and even more to the point, my historiographical perspective: how we study and record history. Our daily lives are, almost by definition for most of us, domesticated. What is, in fact, the extraordinariness of our existence gets swallowed up, day after day, each small goal after each greater objective, incremental deadline one by one, into a still more extended quotidian existence that loses cognizance, most of the time, for most people, of what is actually the very undomesticated nature of our presence on this planet, somewhere at the far relative reaches of space and time.
This can be true of even our highest intellectual life, which most people experience, if they do at all, during their time in college. There they learn about all these different scholarly fields and disciplines, including the ones they hate and couldn’t care a whit for. They are activities various people pursue based on their interests, like the chess or debate club, drama or swim team in high school. Math and chemistry, sociology and poli sci are endeavors some people pursue while they pass the time from birth to death. But, no.
More to the point, some way or another, many if not most of these widely different intellectual, academic, scholarly pursuits involve efforts to see into the “dark backward and abysm of time.” They constitute one disparate but ultimately concerted effort to understand how we got here, where and what here is, and what it all portends. It’s what Rod Serling’s “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” on The Twilight Zone — that major, clown, hobo, ballerina, and bagpiper — would have done had they only means and time.
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You don’t really know a thing until you know its history. You can know concepts and principles – about literature, which I teach, the different genres, and within them, forms and types and varieties. But you don’t truly, deeply understand something without knowing how it developed and came to be what it is. We all realize this. When we reach that point of wanting to know a person better – more fully – a potential lover or a friend – what is it we now seek to learn about them? Their past. Their family life, where they grew up, their formative experiences. Formative. Though Aristotle placed action ahead of character as the principal representation of tragedy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald clarified that “action is character,” and we contemporary folk claim to favor the walk over the talk, to know only what someone is falls short of understanding – that deeper knowledge – as deeply as possible how it is the person got to be that way. How he developed. How she evolved. What formed them.
A personal biography, a social and cultural history, are the buttresses of that which now is, always and ever rising atop what was. To stand on a floor without realizing that it meets your heels and soles, in fact, as the ceiling of another level beneath you – to stroll down that aisle moving you five hundred miles per hour, thirty-five thousand feet above the earth, and not understand why that floor isn’t dropping from the sky beneath you is to inhabit a realm of mystery and magic, not a world of knowledge. To live only in the present because one cannot see beyond it is to be here now not through enlightened, beatified liberation from time, but rather as a being darkly imprisoned within time. Every iteration of the now, if we scrutinize and peer more closely, arrives ahead of a train of thens receding back before and before now, like a sketch of a body’s motion through time, in addition to space — Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase — the historical trace movement toward being here.
It isn’t just people. Consider how many intellectual disciplines, whether the more theoretical or the practical and applied – all the many fields one can study at university – are actually a type of historical study. Somehow, I had come to this understanding by the time I first entered college. In seeking what was a very pressing matter to me in the second part of my eighteenth year, which was to understand the world in which I so painfully lived, I believed I had to start with the ancient Greeks. When I studied classical mythology, I was soon fascinated to realize that I was learning not just an elaborate early system of symbolic and narrative representations of human self-imaging and explanatory meaning making – I was also learning how human cultures and civilizations conquered and superseded each other, the gods and myths of one culture absorbing, altering, and renaming those of a prior. Gods die. People die – and are reborn as gods. Resurrection. Over and over again, in different guises. Finnegans Wake. When I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, my double major with English, my personally designed introduction to it was to study it historically. If, as Alfred North Whitehead said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” then I thought I should read the text before the footnotes.
Though I live and work as a humanist and artist, I also learn from the sciences, and the sciences that most interest me are significantly historical in nature. Astro and particle physics reach into deep space and the smallest spaces to determine the history of matter and the universe. Physical anthropology seeks, to title a tome, the origin of species. When I returned to college for a final, successful effort toward my B.A., my gratifyingly near perfect record was diminished by a B in my fourth semester of French and the same in geology. For the city boy I was, identifying carbon and quartz was a tedium almost beyond wakefulness before the rock and mineral of my life, of concrete, pavement, and brick. Many years later now, understanding geology as study toward a history of the earth, I happily plan a second attempt to learn it.
As that humanist concerned with all things anthropomorphic, my attention is always drawn to the latest developments in physical anthropology – paleontology. Most recent to catch my attention is a report in Smithsonian Magazine on research in Grotte Mandrin, a cave near Montélimar, France, where both Homo Neanderthalis and Homo Sapiens, evidence suggests, lived for tens of thousands of years: according to a paper published in PLOS One, a study and dating of tools discovered in the cave, of types found among humans in Lebanon also, suggests three different waves of human migration into Europe during the reign there of Neanderthals, the oldest wave now stretching twelve thousand years farther back in time to about 53,000 years ago. During the last wave, perhaps 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were out-competed into extinction. Was there contact? There are many questions. The headlight shines narrowly, with recesses and shadows everywhere.
Such findings and discoveries are always exciting, for those who take an interest: to peer into the “abysm of time” and gain some inkling of “[h]ow thou camest here.” The 1974 discovery of Lucy in Ethiopia, fossilized remains of a young adult female hominid dated to have lived 3.8 million years ago, was one such find. For decades, Lucy was the oldest fossil skeleton identified from after the human/African ape ancestral split. Labeled Australopithecus (distinct from homo) afarensis, Lucy was later superseded in age by the Ethiopian remains of Ardipithecus ramidus, a still earlier hominid evolution after the split dated to 4.4 million years ago. Peering still deeper into the abysm, we human time excavators came upon the remains of Tiktaalik, a 2004 discovery in Canada of a 375-million-year-old fossil indicating the transition from fish to tetrapod, a precursor of the amphibian: Tiktaalik’s fins contained a wrist bone and fingers: how we crawled, once, from the sea, before we descended to ground from the trees.
My favorite story of such discovery, because the most fully human, not only as it is in the human character to engage scientific wonder and thought, is the 2010 discovery in what is named The Cradle of Humankind, in South Africa, of Australopithecus sediba, 1.9 million-year-old fossil remains that indicate to some an adaptive shift (a transitional stage) from the larger hominid genus of Australopithecines to our own homo genus. This remains a debated conclusion (“and time yet for a hundred indecisions / and for a hundred visions and revisions”) but what compels me in any case is the human drama of the discovery.
The leader of the discovery team, Lee R. Berger, is an American paleoanthropologist who was accompanied on his field work that particular day by his nine-year-old son Matthew. Berger had already been searching in the areas for hominid bones, on a nearby hill, for two decades. This day, Matthew showed the luck of a beginner.
“Dad, I found a fossil!” the son cried out in the midst of scouring the earth. His father, excited for the boy, intrigued, came quickly. Approaching, his eyes sharpened their focus on the bone his son held aloft in his hand, the grown man’s words erupting then into curses, as he recognized, amazed and exhilarated, what he saw before him.
For the literary person, all the world is a text to be read, subject to hermeneutic analysis and divination. Paleoanthropologists are among the readers of the human evolutionary story, but the diviners are all of us. Closely observed, we are the melodrama of adolescence, the fire of ambition, and the felt experience of every individual life to which our evolution leads. From a far, far remove, we are also that single evolutionary-biological development that is every species.
I imagine, then – am I wrong? – that when we pursue our backward look into the dark of our history, the abysm of time, we are not a single historian or geologist, or a team of anthropologists or archeologists, but the species itself, through its myriad eyes and hands and sensors. And where once, until sometime in the nineteenth century, all we could make out in the gloom of the past was what had survived and revealed itself to us in remnant or relic, now we are able to reclaim parts of what once was, reach back to the earliest cells and enter them in understanding, tracing their development all along the evolutionary trail, until a primate climbed a tree, and a hominid dropped from a branch and loped across a plain, forged a tool, planted a seed.
All of this led to Lee R. Berger, who did his dissertation on hominid shoulder bones, among them the clavicle, exploring with Matthew among the caves Berger had discovered using Google Earth. It led to Matthew crying out in excitement and holding aloft the clavicle bone of a youth near his own age, who had walked the earth nearly two million years before him, and his father, come in response, cursing with astonishment at the sight of the bone he had studied so long to know.
And the long train of mind of the single organism, looking back in its several individual instances upon itself, to recognize itself, flashed with self-knowledge.
Somewhere over the earth should have passed an atomic vibration, a shuddering in the chromosomes, lightning in the sky.
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Poet. Storyteller. Dramatist. Essayist. Artificer.
“Not just words about the ideas but the words themselves.”