Given the opportunity, I will always give the same speech. I will summon the topic left out of the million haphazard discussions in life, and using all my accumulated repartee, using any indirect tactic or leaning on any fortuitous association, happily rail non-stop. I am unchecked. I have this crazy image–it’s like there is some starving old man who is keeping to the cellar; and given the chance, I will open the cellar door, and let him, I mean invite him, back into the kitchen–where we can discuss who he is, why he is starving, how to reconcile him with his thoughts.
It is the main subject, the big speech I was giving Theo the other night, when my wife and Diane were in the other room looking at her paintings. I should set this scene just a little, before I shock another audience, this time of untold numbers. This big speech where I had Theo pretty well trapped in the kitchen, between me and the threat of the cellar door, it seemed. This is the speech in which I reveal the base of my thinking. It is about how the thought of the past has nothing to do with time. Sounds contradictory on the face of it–but the more you think about it you have to question: where did this association arise between time and the idea of the past?
I was about five years old when I set my mind on solving this dilemma, and not only haven’t I solved it–but the dilemma is becoming . . . more explicit. But I say that all people have a thought of the past first, before they know almost anything, like a breathless commentary supposed in their fragile awareness, and put it up as a promise for long adventure, a poetic life. They think it up, the category of the past, and then try to fill it in. Nature itself seems old. Thought itself has this complex origin, and retains this structure. When the schoolboy hears about History, he figures at first and innocently that is the same thing, or close enough. He doesn’t suspect it has been co-opted by some opposing theory, about how it is just there as a result of passing clock-time. For what does time have to do with the first sense of history? I say nothing–if I get the chance to speak.
“History is right before us, like the sequel / In the story of fabulous rare exhaustion… ” (The Modern Epoch, E. Williams, 1986) The past is visible in the yard, from my perch in the tree, through the very medium of the air. The first task a child has is looking back, like into the origins of a mystery. For we are in a mystery; is there some doubt about that? Or do you think the great arbitrator of hard science is about to clear everything up? People get literally smothered out, and forget their original idea. The details, old books, cathedrals, get moved from one category to another! But you had the thought of categorical difference! Many things in the history of the world seem to belong there, all the stranger things are immediately invited up from the cellar! There are old men with crutches living down there, and also an tunnel that connects with the old subway, and out onto the meadows. Like in that movie I saw . . . or that dream I had. Believe me, I don’t just make this stuff up. And if anything miraculous was historical, it would have to be truth. Repeat: if the past has a miracle, or six or seven, in it, it must be truth. The third time is the charm: miracles are going on in the present all the time, it is just the past we have prohibited them from. But you didn’t imagine it. You got the category of this “past”, just sitting in a tree, or marching through the intersection, and glancing back at the world. The thought of the past came before the revelatory content that fills it up. And incredibly . . . still does.
Why am I so sure of this, when I can’t get a single other person to agree with me on it? Oh, I get small victories; I get looks, even looks of pity. Talking with Theo it seemed he must see at least that I had this sustaining conviction of my source in remembered sequence from my childhood. Yea, maybe that’s the way you remember life, but memory is faulty, I think he finally said. Well, my wife, she understands me! at least while I am talking to her; and from the application I have made of this thinking in my writing–which could go either way in a defense, like at that trial I attended in my novel, Alien Construct. My wife and I are all tangled up in a number of fidelities. She might believe me as a matter of faith, or as a kind of investment in eternity. She doesn’t appear to require this truth as badly as I do, though.
But I am not quite done with it. This thought of the past is a deduction, made from being in the world; it isn’t an abstract notion, or a fanciful imposition come up with out of the blue and then put upon reality, at all–but it is a childish opinion, an idea gained from experience, brought about by staring at the world: that this place has a secret, something it is not telling us–which is as good as saying: a history. It is the extension of a personal concern about being in a mystery. And the first aspect given to that mystery: that it is not revealing of the whole story.
And is not about to reveal itself, like in some philosophy class, or by the gross analogy with the passage of time. This other story does not immediately locate itself anywhere in time. It could, for all the naive, mystery-ridden, observer knows, be a matter of location, like maybe the solution is just over the horizon; maybe it requires a shift of focus, or another thought! It is not given that the secret history of the world is impossible to find. But it is also an immediate impression of the world that it (the world) is a totality. How is that! A totality that excludes the truth? Well this just creates unbelievable interest and tension in life. This is my big speech I always give–when given the chance.
People just let me say this for them, I think. They are afraid of being told they are crazy, or something. But now I have everyone’s attention: so I can state it simply. It’s that one gets the first idea of history itself from the place. And if we look at the content of this idea, this deduction from looking at the world, we can see it is not the idea of time. The idea of time comes from other experiences entirely, I venture to say . . .