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Living in the Present

Luigi Russolo, "The Revolt" (1911), via Wikimedia Commons.

In the latest issue of Harper’s, Chris Beha wonders if our obsession with the future is the result of an increasingly impoverished view of the past:

For most of human history, time was understood to proceed in cycles—the annual cycle of seasons; the generational cycle of life; in a longer view, the civilizational cycle of ‘ages’—each returning us to where we’d begun. For better or worse, people could be reasonably sure that a year from now they would be doing the same thing in the same place, just as a lifetime from now their children would be doing as they had done. There was still plenty of uncertainty—mortality rates were high, natural disasters arrived without warning—and a desire to manage that uncertainty through divination. But the occasional flood or fire or plague was ultimately just another link between the future and the past. The obvious cost of this regularity was fatalism, summed up starkly in Ecclesiastes: ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.’

If you wanted to put your life into a larger context that might give it meaning, you looked to the past—the age of heroes, the age of gods, the time of the covenant, the time before the flood or the fall. It was then that some lasting standard had been established against which your own life could be judged. You related your present circumstances to history by telling stories about it.

I’m engaging in just this kind of narrative work here, so you’ll have to excuse some oversimplification. Of course, a linear sense of time has always coexisted with the cyclical one. And periods of great economic, political, and social disruption have seen surges of apocalyptic thinking, when the focus shifts from origins to endings. But in most places at most times, the emphasis has been on continuity, on the regular rhythms of life, and meaning has most often been found in the past.

Modern life has more or less reversed this state of affairs. We have undone cyclical time by effacing seasonal change, but also by abandoning the notion that certain tastes or ways of being are appropriate to different periods of life, and by failing to accept aging and death as unavoidable realities rather than horrors to be fought at any price.

In other news: “More than 2,500 UK university staff have called for an investigation into the ‘scandal’ of excessive pricing of academic e-books. ‘Price rises are common, sudden and appear arbitrary’ with some digital books increasing by 200%, they say in a letter to Education Committee MPs.” Read more at the BBC.

East African runners rule the marathon. Why? Michael Crawley reports: “Out of Thin Air is Michael Crawley’s account of living for 15 months in Addis Ababa with a group of Ethiopian athletes; he is there primarily as an anthropologist but also as an international-level runner. He tries to be unobtrusive: he runs, learns Amharic, eats injera and gets as close as he can to his subjects. He ventures into the forest with them on their easy training days, joins in with 3am runs around the city, ventures to far-off mountains for training camps and even takes part in a few races. Although he is a Scotland international athlete, you can’t help but admire his bravery at entering the famous Jan Meda cross-country race, where his only goal is not to get lapped. At one point he meets a bus conductor who says he once tried running but quickly gave it up because he was no good – though he was faster than Crawley over 10km. What Crawley finds is an instinctive approach to the sport that can initially seem confounding.”

France has decided to dramatically increase the number of wind turbines over the coming years. They won’t help much with reducing carbon emissions, but they will make the country uglier, John Laurenson writes: “At the peak of the coronavirus panic on April 21, the French government quietly issued “Decree number 2020-456 relative to pluriannual energy planning”. Ignored by the media, it contains, nevertheless, a bomb. A dramatic down-scaling of nuclear power and up-scaling of renewable energy. France will, over the next eight years, build 6,500 new wind turbines to add to the 8,100 it already has. They will be larger than the existing ones so the new wind farms will enable France to more than double its existing installed wind power capacity. France is engaged in an act of landscape spoliation on a massive scale, from the vineyard slopes of Burgundy to the fortified medieval city at Carcassone. Construction recently began of a windfarm next to the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the craggy mountain near Aix-en-Provence, the one that Cézanne painted over and over again.”

Last week, Egyptian officials announced that “more than 100 intact wooden coffins with brightly painted scenes and hieroglyphs, and well-preserved mummies inside” were discovered at the burial site in Saqqara.

The historic religious sites of Nagorno-Karabakh are at risk. Armenians plea for help.

James Matthew Wilson writes in defense of Jacques Maritain and his approach to integralism: “‘Integralism’ will be almost a foreign word to many contemporary Catholics, but to those who have begun using it again, it is taken to have a single meaning: the renewal of what Maritain called the ‘sacral society’ of medieval Christendom, aided by the centralized power of the modern state. Maritain is thought to be an opponent of such a project. In fact, he merely thought it unlikely and more progenetive of dreamy hypotheses and claptrap—of mere ideology, that is—than of plausible vision. It was impotent to grapple with the urgent circumstances in which Christians actually found themselves.”

Abe Greenwald reviews Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies: “In Live Not by Lies, Rod Dreher makes an excellent case that totalitarianism has just about arrived in the U.S., and he argues that there is vital wisdom to be gleaned in the lives of Christian anti-Communists who not only helped bring down the Soviet Union but also preserved their faith throughout their long, dark nightmare.”

Photo: Willemstad Harbor

Forthcoming: Timothy Larsen, editor, The Oxford Handbook of Christmas (Oxford, November 21): “The Oxford Handbook of Christmas provides a comprehensive, interdisciplinary account of all aspects of Christmas across the globe, from the specifically religious to the purely cultural.”

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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