“History is not the past. It is the present.”

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

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.

By the Time I Retrieved My Fly Swatter,
the Fly Had Flown Off

Our concept of time constrains, to one degree or another, everything we do. Delay frustrates the best-laid plans, stresses every outcome, and makes for bad decisions. Look at the climate crisis. We still can’t comprehend the magnitude of its unfolding. The remedies proposed are insufficient and politically impossible, even if we had the time and will to impose them.

Democrats keep struggling to agree on their social spending plan, and the results look worse and worse. Biden wants an agreement before he goes to the Glasgow conference to avoid looking like a climate blowhard. But the pressure of time won’t make for a better deal. To link an event like Glasgow to drafting major legislation is typical of how we lock ourselves into political and social deceptions.

And yet I think we all function better with deadlines. Channeling the pressure of time to an agreed-upon outcome produces results, especially when dodging the deadline has serious consequences. But this only works on the mundane level of things to do. How does Nancy Pelosi enforce her legislative deadlines? Out of necessity she fudges them.

Political impotence is the result and has been for years. Anything short of major political reform won’t change things, and so we’ll keep trying to swat flies like Sinema and Manchin because we’re not going to see major political reform, are we?

My outlook is gloomy because real political reform seems more than ever a pipedream, and the world is enmeshed in a capitalistic system with deep historical and social roots. Amitav Ghosh has written a new book about this which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Our concept of time has led to the great divorce from nature that has finally resulted in massive climate change. We still see time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. But in fact, as I’ve said before, “progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.”

The way we perceive time is basically an illusion. So says physicist Carlo Rovelli in a wonderful book, The Order of Time, which I’ve read. “Perhaps, therefore, the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe: like the rotation of the heavens, it is due to the particular perspective that we have from our corner of it.”

Still, our awareness of time passing “contains all the ambrosia and all the gall of life.”