Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Tower of History

"As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian."

- Michael Oakeshott, quoted by Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books

It occurs to me this morning (see how much you can get done if you don't waste time shaving?) that History is the true Tower of Babel. Once, perhaps, there was purpose to it; once we built story upon story hoping to pierce the very vault of heaven [1]. But now we know that the future is a sky we shall never touch, and History has become just a place we live in.

Age upon age, floor upon floor, men speak their different tongues [2], live out their crowded, ordinary lives. Real estate is expensive here - it's not easy to get a place - so you would think the conversation between those who did make it would be truly sublime. But it is not so. In truth, History resembles nothing more than an after-event cocktail party, the kind where everyone who's anyone is invited, and no one is quite sure who the host is. Everywhere you look people laugh and quarrel, swap anecdotes and recipes, check out each other's clothes and gadgets. Someone is always standing in the corner, sulking. Someone else is rapping on his glass with a fork, trying desperately to get everyone's attention so he can make his big speech. Someone is shouting into the deaf old woman's ear, asking her if there's anything else she needs. The intense, glowering young man has finally decided to make his move. The girl in white recognises this, and is afraid.

And all the while we are conscious of the footsteps above us, the dimly heard shuffling of the future, wondering what it is that they might be doing up there, and whether their party is really so different from ours.

And what of the future, directly above us? Does it also show such curiosity towards us as we do towards it? No, for it has its own future to listen to. And besides, what is there to be curious about? Everyone there has passed through the past, the facts are known, are remembered, and it is only those who stand by the windows, and hear the snatches of conversation floating up through the air, who realise that they have misjudged the past, that it too has evolved, that it is utterly different from how they remember it.

The view from one side of this tower is pretty much the same no matter what floor you're on, as is the view from the other side (though being a tower, and circular, there are as many sides to History as there are angles). As we climb higher, our view broadens, true, we can see further. But outside of this tower there is really nothing to see - just a low plain running to whatever horizon we happen to be staring at. And going higher also means that the details become more blurred, till we can barely see the ground we stand on.

There is no leaving the tower, of course. There are no elevators, and the way down the winding staircase, even if the guards were to let us through, is much too long for any one man. That is why we continue to invent the future, that is why we continue to build. Not because we have any hope of finding heaven, but because what other way is there for us to escape the crowded, smoky confines of this present of ours but by building a future on top of it? And so, every now and then, a group of young people will break from the herd, climb their way up to the roof of this edifice (some will fall on the way) and build for themselves a new story, whitewashed and roomy and perfect. Except, of course, the minute their work is finished the people they were trying to leave behind will pour into it, the future will be hijacked by the crowd, and they shall be pushed again to the edges, to the windows, staring out from their suffocation.

We could jump, you say, but in truth even that is impossible. This is where the tower stops being a tower - gravity in time works differently from gravity in space. If you were to throw yourself out of History, you would not fall back into the past [3] - instead you would hang suspended in mid-air, with nowhere to go. You would become (the word is Kertesz's) fateless.

What are we to do then? How are we to escape this present, this press of bodies - some living, some dead - that ceaselessly push up against us? We cannot. Our only hope is to turn our back on this mass of humanity, lean as far as we can out of the window, and with as loud a voice as we can muster, shout our name into the sky. And hope that someone, up there in the future, will hear us.

[1] There is the question, of course, of whether History is a circle or a straight line. Personally, I'm of the opinion that it's a spiral, though whether we're going up or down is a matter of taste.

[2] What they're actually saying, of course, is usually the same thing the people in all the other floors were saying. They just don't know it because the words are different and the accents have changed. Which, of course, is the whole point of the Tower of Babel. Remember all that stuff about 'divide and rule'? It's right there, in Chapter 11 of Genesis:

"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."

[3] At least not if you jump alone. If you managed to take the whole floor with you, then it may be possible to destroy History, but why would you want to? You'll only have to start building it all over again.

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J. Alfred Prufrock said...

You know what, this is very well written but the central vision of the tower can't carry it. The spiral for mine. One-way spiral. Think what Cohen could do with that.

I notice you actually express displaced emotion a couple of times here. Tsk. Next we know, you might even approach that soap-box! (Who said I'm grinning?!)

The Borges reference was wonderful. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

i’m casting another vote for spiral. even if it does bring to mind rather chilling images of yeats’ widening gyre spinning out of control.

Tabula Rasa said...

the metaphor is interesting, but it's constrained by the unidimensionality of time.

i vote for cone.

Falstaff said...

All: okay, okay, you can all have History in whatever shape you want. Just ask the toy balloon man nicely and he might even make it into a poodle for you. With a little fluffy tail.

JAP: Don't blame me, blame the folks who made up the Bible. If there was a spiral of Babel I would happily have adapted it. And what? Displaced Emotion? Where? Where? How come spell check didn't catch that?

hatshepsut: I don't know. I've always thought of Yeats' version of history as being more like an audiotape. One spool fills up the other thins out. Then you flip the world over and start all over again.

tr: I'd prefer my history in a cup, thanks. With praline on top.

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