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with a fictional character
about 25 years ago
This is the second half of the interview with Kirk Elbod about time and history -- which we continued on another day at a lunch counter in Durham, North Carolina. The time of the interview is 1989. See the first interview at:
ME: (Getting a bit impatient) I don't care about the cook. I want to continue our discussion about history.
K.E.: Precisely my dear Doble (he said again with a smirk). History is about time and our concept of time.
Watch the short order cook! The way he perfectly balances all the elements of an order so they come out all at the same time. First the burger on the grill which takes the longest to cook. Then he slices some lettuce, tomato and puts it on the side. When the burger is almost done he toasts the buns under the grill, and when the burger is completely done he toasts the cheese for just a second. Then, in one swift motion, he puts them all together on the plate, along with the mayonnaise and mustard and at last (we watched two burgers get passed to a waitress who put them in front of us) it arrives in front of me, with everything timed right. The perfect burger and the best short order cook I've ever seen.
(With this I only could wait because he was devouring his burger. Together we sat in silence as we ate our food.)
ME: (finally when we had finished) I believe the Harvard professor may be right. That we can lead perfectly good, useful lives, have children, be involved in our community and not know much about history, except perhaps a few essential facts.
K.E.: Superficially he is right. But the US is a democracy, and as such the people vote based on the information they have. What if their understanding is just plain wrong, and they make decisions based on a misunderstanding of history.
ME: I don't think it could be that serious.
K.E.: Judge for yourself. According to a poll most Americans think today that the Russians fought on the side of the Nazi's in World War II. In fact the reverse is true - not only did the Russians fight against the Nazis, they suffered more deaths than any other single nation or ethnic group.
ME: And your point?
K.E.: That today, right now, we might be spending less money on armaments, and defense if the majority of citizens believed the truth instead of misinformation. We might have saved billions of dollars if the public knew the facts. And this is just one example.
Now, as you know I'm not suggesting that everyone know all the history there is. My notion of the "vanishing point of history" means that we mainly need to understand recent history in detail, by which I mean about ten years before World War II to the present.
But clearly a majority of people do not.
ME: Well, there will always be experts who can interpret present events in terms of history for us. Why not leave it to them?
K.E.: Another specialist! (He almost shouted.) Specialization is an entirely another subject. But leaving history to the experts means that we will feel even more alienated than we already do in modern society. If we have to go to an expert to understand our own past...(he made an exasperated expression, reaching his hands into the air)
One of the main complaints I hear about the modern world is that people feel a lack of connection. A feeling of not engaging; alienation. But much of this is the fault of the individuals, not the big corporations and big government who usually get blamed. If you want to feel a part of your own time, and culture you need to do the work yourself; understand history yourself, for example.
But also specialists, hired by certain people, can put their own interpretation, their own "spin" on history, which is what the Nazis did. In fact they can reinterpret history and redefine history to suit whoever hires them. In the book, 1984, George Orwell warned us against things like this. Is this what we want in a democracy?
Let me give you a for instance.
Suppose that the United States had fought for 2 years on Russian soil, aiding armies whose purpose was to destroy Soviet Russia? If this were true, wouldn't it explain some of the current Soviet attitude toward the U.S., some of their military obsessions and paranoia.
ME: Yes, but of course it isn't true.
K.E.: Wrong, it is true. And very few people in the U.S. are aware that this ever happened. United States forces were in Russia, Archangel and Siberia from 1918 to 1920 aiding the White Army whose purpose was to destroy the recently established Soviet government.
|The United States Army in Archangel Russia in 1918. (Wikimedia.org)|
So this is what happens, even in a democracy, when you try to look up an incident that everyone would rather forget.
Let me attack the question from another perspective. Every time I see a news story on TV about a home being destroyed by fire, or tornado, or some such total disaster, the people invariably say "Even my photographs are gone." That's what they miss the most. Why? Because they can replace everything else, if they are insured, but not the photographs. Part of them is gone. The photos which are their personal history have been lost, and they feel as though a piece of themselves was destroyed. Which it has been.
Now those photos are history, not stuffy academic history but a personal, important, essential history which is badly missed when it is eliminated.
Dr. Donald's way of thinking cuts off our connection to the past. But history is our point of reference. It is where we come from. The past is where most of our concepts, our culture, and our language originated. Why else would we use a word like "horsepower" to describe a highly technical, modern engine? (He laughed.)
ME: To go back to why you brought me here: You said that history had to do with our sense of time.
K.E.: Yes, and the short order cook here.
Look at the cook again. Suppose he left the rolls in too long and they burned, or he didn't cook the hamburger long enough so it was a bit raw. Then he wouldn't be a good cook.
He is juggling, balancing each portion of the task so that even though the parts take different amount of time, they all are ready at the same time. A juggler, if you will. A time juggler in fact. And a very good one.
ME: And what does this cook have to do with history?
K.E.: We think history is unimportant, because we believe history is in the past and does not affect us. Dr. Donald's main criticism, in fact, was that the study of history was no longer relevant to today's world. But perhaps the past does effect us, more than we realize, in the present.
So the question really is one about time. Now, I do not pretend to begin to understand all the subtleties about time, but I do know that there is more to time than meets the eye. So let me indulge in some speculation here.
ME: Why, that very humble of you Kirk.
K.E.: What is time? This is the key question. What is the past, the present , and the future? Once something is done, can it be undone? Is their any point in crying over spilled milk? We are always "another day older and deeper in debt" and the river that you put you foot into is never the same. Is time the relentless forward movement of the ticking clock?
It turns out that our sense of time, according to psychological studies, is triggered by events. When an event ends, or one begins, or something significant happens within an event, then we feel the passage of time. In a sense the clock is a series of artificial, mechanical events which makes us acutely conscious of time, perhaps too conscious, or even self conscious - but I'll save that for another discussion.
However, life is lived by the ticking of events and more by the dynamics of events. It's as though each of us is a time juggler. We juggle a number of separate events in the air as we go though our lives. Not unlike the short order cook, only the events are larger.
ME: You've lost me completely. I don't understand.
K.E.: My point is that time is subtle. And events which give us a sense of time also have dynamics all their own. There is time within an event to make changes, in a sense to go back into time, until that event is over. This idea is expressed, for example, in the phrase "in time." Such as: I caught the jug of milk "in time", to prevent it from spilling; because I knew that if the jug fell and broke it would be too late; the event would be finished; and then there would be no use crying over spilled milk; instead I would be looking for the mop.
ME: Very cute Kirk (I said rather snidely)
K.E.: (ignoring me) The assumption is that the past is the past, over and done with - which is why people think they don't need to understand history. But my point is that time is in reality a myriad of overlapping events. And that within an event you may be able to - in a sense - reach back into time, by being able to affect changes. Or things from the past can affect the present.
Events are like time areas or time spaces. However, these spaces in themselves, are very subtle. They are like 'windows of opportunity'. The windows can close - sometimes suddenly and sometimes gradually. When they do, we can no longer affect changes: 'the opportunity has been lost' or the 'time is gone'.
We do this everyday, but don't really think about it. Before I leave the house to go on a trip I have the opportunity to remember a notebook I've forgotten, pick it up, put it in the car. I can do this any time before I leave.
But once I've driven away then it become harder and harder to do this. Five minutes down the road I still could, although it would be annoying. Two hours down the road and I'll just have to do the best with what I've got, make do without the forgotten notebook. The time to easily pick up the notebook and put it in my car is gone. And besides I've got to get to my appointments now and going back would make me late.
In an accident when things happen unexpectedly, quickly, and violently we may only have split seconds to try things, or do things before the accident has run it course and whatever we do will be of no use. "What's done is done."
|Accidents are examples of 'hardened time' (Wikimedia.org)|
As an occasional photographer, I know about this. Photographers in fact, seem to develop a sixth sense about time because frequently taking a photograph requires being at the right place at the right time, whatever that may be. For example, when I take nature pictures outdoors there may be hours when I can take a number of pictures over and over until I get exactly what I want. But all the time the sun is moving, the clouds may be building. Suddenly I look up and there's a bank of clouds covering the sun and I realize that I can no longer take pictures that day. It may be a day, or a months before I can get back, according to my schedule or the weather. In the meantime the foliage may have changed or someone may have bought the land and bulldozed it, which has happened more than once. When I return the place may or may not be the same as the time before.
A death bed confession is an example of a person using a last opportunity to set things straight, to do something before they die, before the window closes on them and they can no longer act. What they confess may have happened when they were very young, and they may have carried it all their lives. But before they die the window is still open for them to act. In effect, they want to reach back into time and set the record straight. In a sense a person 's life, from birth to death is one event.
ME: (I could sense he was through.) So what you're saying is that past, present, and future are not so clear as they appear to be and that some of history is still part of the present if we can only understand it in the proper light.
K.E.: Yes, and also that we need to try to understand the dynamics of time, because as humans, in a sense, all we really have is time.