What is the shape of History? We’re taught to think of Time as an arrow, with the Past unspooling behind us and the Future twinkling in the distance as we ride the Present like a crowded bus down a straight road. Aristotle once argued that humanity experiences the world as a series of Nows. It’s easy enough tag this split second of existence but as soon as we’ve done so the moment has passed into Then.
Of course History and Time are not the same at all, though we tend to think of the latter as the raw material of the former. The only way to tell that Time has passed, that the objective reality we subjectively perceive is happening, is the motion of objects. A bird flies from one tree to the next in a second or less. The ice cube in my glass melts away entirely by the time I’ve vacuumed the stairs. Such observations constitute a kind of quotidian physics. Time is the measurement of time. It has to do with duration and interval, with velocity. Things go as they will, fast or slow, though Hamlet’s (timeless?) insight complicates this observation. After all, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” So this semester, having dragged on forever, has three weeks to go, which will be over in the blink of an eye.
Time cycles. Seasons turn. Bodies in space move in rhythm. One rotation every 24 hours. One revolution a year. But we all know that the units devised to measure the apparently objective passage of time are actually arbitrary. Their primary function is to exist as a standard, an abstract point of stasis in the world’s ceaseless flux. If a minute lasted thirty seconds each day would take 48 hours.
There is a venerable belief that the Present represents a degeneration of some more perfect Past. In the beginning all the world was a paradise, it is said. Or, more accurately: to start there was nothing until an omnipotent force created the world, which was a heaven. Then somebody managed to fuck it up. According to this plot of decline, History moves from a superlative original– a Golden Age– to a debased facsimile. Many (not all) medieval Christians tended to think of their own world as profane wilderness to be endured only with the solacing faith that in the End the righteous would be redeemed. The course humanity travels in this eschatological version of events models a kind of cycle, though one with a definitive terminus: from Eden (Heaven on Earth) to Sodom (the sphere of worldly suffering and delusory, carnal pleasures) to Heaven (or Hell).
Secularizing this paradigm led to the notion of a Dark Age and, necessarily, its plural. The Medieval world, which was more complex than popular culture leads us to believe, was derided as a festering bog mired in ignorance by Moderns who believed they epitomized the virtues of civilization. The founding gesture of Modernity was to reject its predecessor as an absolute Other. On this side of the line cultivated individuals, on that side a seething mass of barbarians. Conventional historiography of the Roman Empire searched for the causes of Rome’s seemingly inevitable collapse. Narratives such as these are always retrospective and usually self-serving. They also warn of the possibility that what has happened may happen again. This leads us to Riddley Walker.