I found this bit of writing from my sophomore year of college. What blew my mind is had no idea how long I’ve been interested in time, deep time, memory vs. history, and monumentality, but here it is, ten years ago, me beginning to process these questions and ideas I have yet to answer. The Time Giant started here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a hypothetical creature. This creature lives for a thousand years, and has a memory of a thousand years. It watches humankind as generations upon generations pass. What does it see? To it, we appear to be a species that is constantly spawning like any other animal, and making the same mistakes over and over again. We as a generation must learn the very same lessons as the previous generation. So to this hypothetical creature, we seem a blind species, bumbling about in the fog of the limitations of our memory—but we have one defense: monuments. Through our monuments (whether they are architecture, literature, art, or now—the internet), we have the ability to set place markers, reminders which say “Hey there, next generation. Here is where we left off. Take a look on this stuff and continue from this point.”
We humans are the only creatures on this planet that have the capacity for this sort of memory, and—unfortunately—we often fail to acknowledge that the very fact that we have this power means we have a duty to use it responsibly.
Though I don’t agree that “everyone seeks everlasting fame” (the vast majority of people I know just want to get by), I found Patrick’s phrase, “creating history”, really got my cogs turning. Patrick was referring to creating history in the future, but I want to talk about the portrayal of the past (the work of any museum). One can’t help but mention 1984 in this regard, where the argument between the captive protagonist and the authoritarian government hinges upon the retroactive creation of history: whether any history is indeed “true”, or whether it is just what we all agree to have happened. At the heart of this argument is the question of absolutism and relativism: is history just what we say it is?—or does it exist in a true form beyond humans? It’s a tough question to answer because, on the one hand, of course we as human beings write our own histories, and thus all our histories are inherently flawed and only portray the limited perspective of the author, or even participant. Note: even the participant has a very limited perspective on what he or she has witnessed; as Gideon notes, history is the sum total of human choices, natural phenomena, and whatever divine phenomena—thus, even without accepting divine phenomena, we have too many variables for the human mind to fully take account. We can only endeavor to write histories as accurately as we possibly can, given the resources available—which is exactly what Orwell’s thought police do not do; they, on the other hand, assume that since there is some subjectivity in the compilation of history, the slippery slope fallacy allows them to invent histories entirely. Thus, if everyone agrees the world is flat, then the world is flat. They see no responsibility to do their best to be as accurate as possible. They do not believe in any “true” version of history outside of human experience.