So said James Baldwin in that fine mashup movie (2017) I Am Not Your Negro. It’s the most penetrating thought I know about how time works in the human mind. We never consider that everything we experience in this life is immediately relegated to the past. What we think of as the future is merely a projection of what we know. And the present is a kind of phantasm that, we think, gives us creative power over the ravaging effects of time.
So, as Einstein observed, our concept of time is essentially a fiction. Of course we need that fiction to survive and to manipulate the reality we create for ourselves. Part of that fictional reality is the notion that time always moves forward, that one facet of human life is the spurious notion of progress. In an earlier post I talked about this and referenced Carlo Rovelli’s wonderful book, The Order of Time.
But none of us are physicists like Einstein or Rovelli. We rely on some notion of an instantaneous present to exert control on human events. In Gaza, Israel’s reaction to Oct. 7 appeared to take no account of how it had created over time an intolerable situation for the Palestinians. When a country (or a movement) feels its survival threatened, statecraft and history go out the window. One sees this happening globally now.
I’m reading Naomi Klein’s recent book Doppelganger, which I recommend if you like good intellectual theorizing about why the world is so fucked up. She offers a way to reckon with not only the historical crimes of neoliberalism but a sense of how we are all looking in the warped mirror of doubleness.
Part of what she’s telling us is that we’ve lost our sense of history. If history is indeed what makes up our present, it’s no mystery why the world is floundering. Nations and people have forgotten who they are and how they got there.
Another rather more highfalutin piece by Thomas Mallon explores the ramifications of nostalgia and the social-political pain inflicted on those who believe in it, “a mental quicksand” at least for some. He also talks about the vagaries of memory and the permanence of the past in our lives as we age.
What we are always most nostalgic for is, in fact, the future, the one we imagined only to see it turn into the past. . . . But then comes the growing realization that short-term memory has nothing like the staying power of the long-term variety. Mentally, the seven ages of man speed up their full-circling, until the past’s sovereignty over the present is complete. The further along one gets, the more one understands that the past is indeed another country, and that, moreover, it is home. Long-term memory’s domination of short may be a hardwired consolation that nature and biology have mercifully installed in us.
Let me attest to the power of long-term memory as we age. Oldsters typically are bugged by short-term memory loss—forgetting your keys, blanking on a name, etc. But amazingly we remember the lyrics of old pop songs when we were kids, names of World War II battles, the food we ate at a long-past dinner, and so on. Long-term memory becomes an integral part of one’s present—a typical and surprising result of getting old. Our “present” has expanded.