Living in the Past

These days, especially if one happens to be working on a story involving alternate timelines*, one thinks a lot about history, about wrong turnings. For instance, what would have needed to happen to head off our current, nearly full-blown, dystopia? I don’t know, and the fact that it all seems so unreal doesn’t help. We all live in a fictional world now. Bad fiction, true—a world of weaponized fear and poisons both physical and spiritual—but still, fiction. What strange turn will the plotline take next? What will we be told when we’re locked down and decimated anew? Will it be nuclear war, an invasion by space aliens, or just the time-honored trope that humanity is the cause of all the earth’s problems, and therefore we have no right to even exist?

People can and do respond with fictions of their own. Many seem to believe that ‘everything is fine and we’ll eventually get back to normal.’ That sounds like a tall tale to me. I would prefer to tell a story that recognizes the evil forces at work in our world and gives people heart to fight them. In the actual fiction I’m writing right now, though, I’m (so far) simply not admitting that recent history actually happened. At the very least, I’m not going to have my characters wear masks and hole up in their homes. If even our fiction admits these insanities, we will be completely lost. So at the moment, that makes my writing firmly metaphysical—even my “base” reality in Sean’s latest adventure, The Well of Time, is already itself an alternate world, one where the Black Death Lite© was never a thing. And I think I’m far from alone in this. 

Another small rebellion I’ve been indulging in is to read some old classic stories. C.S. Lewis says somewhere that if you have limited reading time, you should concentrate on reading books that were written in a different age, as a counterbalance to the influence of the prevailing zeitgeist. And what are the hallmarks of our zeitgeist? Contempt, even hatred, for the human and rosy visions of the “transhuman”**. And not so incidentally, a hatred of history, of things past. Old statues, old religions, old buildings—they just have to go. Otherwise, people might be able to compare the past to the dystopic present, and maybe even figure out the wrong turnings that got us here. 

And that, of course, would threaten the wonderful Cultural Revolution that’s just getting into full swing now. So now we have two excellent reasons for reading old books.

Recently I read three books from the past, and I offer some short takes here. Everyone knows the first two, and (almost) nobody knows the third. They are: Robinson Crusoe, written in the seventeenth century; Moby Dick, from the mid nineteenth century; and Collector’s Luck, written here in New Hampshire in the early twentieth century and appropriately enough, found in a local antique shop.

We’ll take them in order of age. Robinson Crusoe, it turns out, is really a cautionary tale. Early on in the story, Crusoe’s father sits him down for a serious talk about his son’s desire to go to sea, see the world, and make his fortune. The father points out that his fortune is already made—his family is upper middle class, so not wealthy and powerful enough to be consumed with duties and politics, but able to choose whatever career he wants, live well, and be respected in the community.

If you were to just read this part of the story, reflect for a moment on how sensible that advice is, then close the book and read no more—you’ll be doing a lot better than Robinson Crusoe did.

Of course, he does go to sea, and to no reader’s surprise at this point, is shipwrecked. What follows is his famous extended staycation on the desert island he manages to reach, alone at first and later with the original Man Friday. This is the only part of the story most people remember, but really it’s only about half the book. 

In the other half he proves that he didn’t learn much from his experiences. The colony he helps establish on his famous island, made up of convicts and reformed cannibals, eventually collapses. Crusoe himself goes on more voyages, gets Friday killed, and winds up getting shipwrecked again and having to cross Russia to get back to Europe, which sounds like one of those classic mistakes military historians would tell you not to make. There, he comes across a town that holds to the old Pagan ways, and being a “good Christian” he decides to sneak in to their temple under cover of night and vandalize the awful “idol” that these woefully ignorant people worship. 

Hmm, seems like we’ve run into that hatred of the past thing here again. Maybe all the Cultural Revolutions started when monotheism came in. If I get a chance, I’ll interview the former librarians of Alexandria and see what they think.

On the other hand, I’m glad I finally read Moby Dick. This really could be, in fact, the great American novel, which may or may not come as a relief to those who are still trying to write it. 

What makes it so great? Okay, I can list a few things. The fascinating historical details about life on a whaling ship. The sweep and intensity of the central theme, as obsessive as Ahab’s own quest, and the sense of brooding Destiny at work. As far as religion goes, no wimpy New Testament stuff here—instead we have the God who taunted Job with his Leviathan-taming prowess, and prophets popping up to foretell certain doom, just like in the good old days. In fact, Moby Dick could work just as well as a completely Heathen story, with the white whale waiting for Ahab at story’s end, inescapable as Beowulf’s cursed hoard and its guardian dragon.

The style mixes first person narratives from several characters (with stream-of-consciousness touches), mini-essays, and even one chapter written as a play, complete with stage directions. I don’t read criticism these days, but I can’t be the only one who thinks that James Joyce probably picked up a few of his own tricks from reading Moby Dick.

In effect, Melville creates an entire world from the bodies and skeletons of the great whales, like the gods making Midgard, the oceans and the skies, from the body of the primordial giant Ymir. 

I’m not tempted to re-read Robinson Crusoe, but I will most likely visit that world of Melville’s again.

The last book, Collector’s Luck, is, for a change, not a work of fiction. It’s the memoirs of a lady who lived in western New Hampshire in the first decades of the young twentieth century. She talks about her love for history and especially her search for collectable antiques, which take her from Boston to the wilds of New Hampshire, which she visited in a horse-drawn carriage, apparently still the best way to navigate those hills and mountains in the nineteen teens. 

Time has made her story even more charming, even cute—will you look at that, an antique lady searching for antiques! But she knew something many people have forgotten today: the legacy left us by previous generations is a precious thing. Their crafts, their stories, deserve to be honored. 

Or maybe even revived. Her book closes with a description of an old New Hampshire farm house where the settlers had built a well in the middle of the kitchen. A brilliant idea, poetic and practical at the same time, whether the main aim was to protect against attack or enable the family to avoid going outside in winter to pump their water.

An idea whose time may soon come again.

* The Weil of Time, the next installment in Sean’s Saga. Cover reveal is coming when I’ve finished the first version.

** Where’s Nietschze when you need him? “Uberman” was a lot cooler, and really not a bit more Naziesque.

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