The Look of Time

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POLITICS AUGUST 6, 2010

The Look of Time

I was telling my friend I was planning to write about how we see time. This was on my mind because of some pictures I saw in The New York Times of the remains of an eighteenth-century wooden ship that had been unearthed by construction workers at the World Trade Center site 30 feet below ground. I had read that the perfectly contoured planks were sticking out of a "briny gray muck flecked with oyster shells," that the hull had laid underground undisturbed for over two hundred years, and that if it hadn't been raining that day and the ground muddy, what was left would have disintegrated upon exposure to the air—like a mummy, I thought. There was also a rather poignant photograph of a lone, silvery, completely intact, mud-covered, leather shoe. I told my friend that these pictures made me feel the haphazard layering up of time—what time and accident can do to the things of the world—and that they reminded me of the chance discovery in Rome of all those ancient marble sculptures of gods and goddesses, satyrs and fauns, heroes and emperors, pathetically fragmented and corroded, during the great building projects of the Renaissance.

My friend had also seen the pictures in the newspaper and he spoke with feeling of the melancholy of ruins and wondered how the ship had come to rest underground. Were we seeing the remains of a shipwreck? Had the hull somehow washed to shore? Were there any survivors? I felt sorry that I had to disabuse him of this romantic notion, but I had no choice. A few days after the original article appeared, I read another one which thankfully, though disappointing to our romantic fantasy, stated that these were not the remains of a disaster at sea miraculously preserved by accident. They were instead the more banal, disposable materials that eighteenth-century real-estate developers, if that was the right term, deliberately placed underground as landfill to expand the already too small island of Manhattan.

My friend then asked me if I was planning to write about how the Internet is changing our sense of time, the way it manically speeds everything up. He is a journalist and has always worked for newspapers and magazines, but recently he took a job on the Internet. It occurred to him as we were talking that he had—amazingly—edited 2,000 blog news reports, ranging from 300 to 900 words, since he began his new job in May. When he used to edit op-ed pieces for a newspaper, he said the number was about six a week. Talk about a work speed-up, we joked, or half-joked. I told him I didn't think I would write about that.

Misgivings about how the Internet exerts a tyrannical, mesmerizing feel of acceleration on everything it touches seemed to me to be the latest in a long and compelling line of criticism of what the sped-up pace of modern life does to people's inner time consciousness and sense of the world. I mentioned to my friend that in the mid-nineteenth century, John Ruskin wrote with disgust about how the train "transmutes a man from a traveller into a living parcel" and of the "flagrant," "impertinent folly" of building railroad stations with ornate decorations when travelers, always harried, can never pause long enough to take in anything, let alone anything beautiful. By 1930, Jose Ortega y Gasset could announce, with equal parts disgust and despair, that the modern age was characterized by the aspirin and the speeding automobile. And this reminded me of the popular psychological theory, before Freud thought up the idea of repression, that the much-noted increase in "modern nervousness" was due to the unrelenting pace of "modern civilized life." In 1893, a German neurologist, W. Erb, could already draw what is to us a very familiar picture:

The illimitable expansion of communication brought about by means of the network of telegraphs and telephones encircling the world has completely altered the conditions of business and travel. All is hurry and agitation: night is used for travel, day for business; even "holiday trips" keep the nervous system on the rack. ... Life in large cities is constantly becoming more elaborate and more restless. The exhausted nerves seek recuperation in increased stimulation, in highly-seasoned pleasures, only thereby to become more exhausted than before. ... Our ears are excited and overstimulated by insistent and noisy music.... 

What I wanted to write about, I told my friend, was something more elusive, the look of time, the kind of thing a character in an early Henry James story, The Passionate Pilgrim (1875), wondered about:

How does the look of age come? ... Does it come of itself, unobserved, unrecorded, unmeasured? Or do you woo it and set baits and traps for it, and watch it like the dawning brownness of a meerschaum pipe, and make it fast, when it appears ... and give thanks to it daily? Or do you forbid it and fight it and resist it, and yet feel it settling and deepening about you, as irresistible as fate?

My friend immediately thought of the Acropolis as the physical manifestation of time in action. The history of ruins-gazing has been an abiding passion of mine and I immediately thought of how archaeologists have radically transformed this ur-ruin. We have long grown accustomed to picturing Athens—classical, Periclean Athens—in noble, stately ruin, but, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Chateaubriand visited the ancient city, he saw an entirely different place—Turkish Athens, after centuries of rule under the Ottoman Empire. I remembered how exotic his description of Athens at the foot of the Acropolis sounded to me: "its flat roofs, intermixed with minarets, cypress trees, ruins, isolated columns; the domes of its mosques crowned with large nests of storks made an agreeable effect in the sun's rays."

I told my friend how the first Western travelers to Athens were mortified by the insensibility of its Turkish inhabitants to the classical world all around them, how they had built hovels on and out of the remains of the Acropolis and burned marble sculptures and columns­—the most extraordinary works of classical art ever to exist—for lime to use as cement without a second thought. I recalled my further distress at learning that the early Christians in Athens were as oblivious to the temple's grandeur as the later Turks: during the fifth century, they destroyed sections of the perfectly proportioned structure and beautiful frieze to accommodate an apse, windows, and bell towers when they converted the magnificent temple of Minerva into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and iconoclasts defaced many of the metopes. I was speechless when I read that during the seventeenth century, the Turks, at war with the Venetians, turned what remained of the Parthenon into a powder magazine, which was hit by a Venetian shell, reducing the glorious temple to ruin. So when we view the remains of the Parthenon today and its weather-beaten, corroded, fragmented sculpture, we are seeing not only the destructive effects of time in action; we are also seeing the even more destructive effects of human folly and sheer malice. We both thought about how the World Trade Center looked after September 11.

Wasn't our image of ancient ruins, I asked my friend, as shaped by modern-day archaeologists having removed all the post-classical accretions and turning them into tidy, labeled dig sites as Chateaubriand's image of the Acropolis was shaped by the picturesque imagination of the eighteenth and nineteenth century? What I had in mind here were the indelible marks of time, the qualities that are so ubiquitous at a particular moment as to be invisible to people living then, but which to later generations stand out—the kind of thing that ultimately gives away a forged painting, like the famous case of Hans van Meegeren's fakes of Vermeer during World War II. It has always amazed me that where even the most expert viewers were convinced they were admiring long-lost Vermeers, today the unmasked canvasses look mannered in the extreme and it is hard to believe that no one noticed that the face of one of van Meegeren's Christs was modeled after the woman thought most beautiful at the time—Greta Garbo. How were they blind to what is so obvious to us today? What, my friend wondered, as I often have, too, are we no doubt blind to in our moment?

This made me think of Alexander Pope's long-celebrated translation of The Iliad, where he faithfully employed the most elevated poetic style approved by tradition—rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, bold metaphors, striking word order—to ap­proximate the heroic spirit of Homer's epic. I had been writing about Pope's Iliad and wanted my friend to hear it, so I read the opening lines:

Achilles' Wrath, to Greece the direful spring

Of woes unnumber'd, heav'nly Goddess, Sing!

My friend, who is an admirer of Richard Lattimore's translation, thought Pope's Homer sounded artificial, overly self-conscious. I told him that eighteenth-century readers admired Pope's heroic couplets as the height of elegance and grace, that they imagined they were hearing in them the sound of Homer's sublime poetry. Then I removed from my bookshelf Lattimore's Iliad and read, 

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus

and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians 

While I was reading it aloud, it sounded as spare and minimal as Ezra Pound's Cantos, which I wanted to hear

And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and

We set up mast and sail on that swart ship

Was it only now, after almost a century had passed since Pound and half a century since Lattimore, that Lattimore's translation was beginning to sound as modernist—that is, tied to a particular time and style, "dated"—as Pope's sounded Augustan? My friend and I hoped not, as Lattimore's Homer was the Homer we both loved best, but we were also admirers of Pound. And, besides, my friend recalled, Pound was himself influenced by Homer. He remembered learning somewhere that Pound had drawn his opening lines from a Latin translation of The Odyssey that had been composed during the Renaissance.

Reading from Pound's Cantos reminded me of a lecture my husband and I had heard in the spring by the great romantic scholar, M. H. Abrams, who, at 98 years old, is as interesting as he was when he wrote his brilliant study, The Mirror and the Lamp, back in the early 1950s, around the same time, it now occurred to me, that Lattimore was translating Homer. By way of introduction to his lecture, which was, in part, about his lifelong love of poetry, Abrams recalled that when he was in college he had heard Pound and Eliot read. Here we were seeing a kind of layering up of time in human form—not a ruin, but a living monument to reading and cultivation. We were hearing a man who had heard the men who created modern poetry. And, for me, there were additional pleasing layers: we were in the presence of a man who had been in the presence of Eliot who had been a student of Irving Babbitt who had been a student of Charles Eliot Norton who had been an intimate of John Ruskin and friend to Emerson and Carlyle—all of whose work means a great deal to me.

My friend asked how Abrams was received by the audience. I told him that one young woman, a graduate student, turned to me after the lecture to express her surprise that she had been touched by hearing Abrams read. She said she wasn't used to hearing professors read poems aloud. But the turn-out had been small, which I could have predicted. It's not like Abrams is a cutting-edge theorist of post-colonialism. My friend wondered if Abrams sounded old-fashioned, perhaps quaint, to the postmodern, theory-driven professors and graduate students in the audience. Had he become a man of the past, irrelevant, to them?

“A man of the past”—recently I had been re-reading John Stuart Mill's essay, "The Spirit of the Age" (1831), and was taken by the peculiar way he employed that phrase. The essay is about what it is like to live in an age of "change," what it was doing to people, existentially speaking. Mill thought that "men are then divided, into those who are still what they were, and those who have changed." I expected the first group to be those who have been left behind—the superannuated—and the second to be the men of progress. But Mill thought it was the opposite: those who embrace change are "men of the present age"; by changing with the times they stay the same. Those who do not change with the times are changed into "men of the past." To the former, "the spirit of the age is a subject of exultation; to the latter, of terror." It then occurred to me how, because of the incessant speed of the Internet, no one is able to change fast enough to remain in the present; we were all being turned into "men of the past." I thought of my friend editing 2,000 blog posts in a couple months time and then of an article I had read about the Library of Congress setting up an archive of "Tweets" (in the last four years, ten billion of these electronic things have accumulated) and then I thought of the discovery of that ship that was used as landfill. How will anything, I asked my friend, ever outlast our time? Everything, I predicted half-jokingly, will end up as landfill.

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty. 

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posted in: politics, out of time, athens, rome, the new york times, greece, ezra pound, greta garbo, hans van meegeren, henry james, john ruskin, jose ortega, m. h. abrams, richard lattimore, w. erb

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