Change: Scale and Choice (I)
23 November 2010

Re-reading The Keep this morning, I reached the scene (Chapter 6) in which Danny, the fictitious protagonist — he’s a fiction within Jennifer Egan’s fiction — encounters the baroness in the eponymous tower. The baroness, who appears to be a maiden at a distance, gradually ageing as Danny gets closer, spouts a lot of clever, snobby insults, which Danny, being the good “number two” that he is, takes in stride. “The oldest thing in your family closet is a tennis racket from 1955, whereas I have a thirteenth-century sarcophagus in my basement.” The put-down seems terribly familiar. By now, the stock European conviction that Americans are unsocialized savages seems itself to date from the thirteenth century, as does the Wildean waspishness. It’s no surprise that the baroness turns out to be a fabulous creature. She’s expansively unreal.

So are the underpinnings of her orgulous attitude. In the scheme of things — but I ought to tell you that, for me, the scheme of things is about 170,000 years in length. I read somewhere that human beings have been human beings — vulgo, we’ve been us — for about that long; and I’m sticking with it. Let’s not trouble our little heads with the age of the planet, or the dating of the earliest fossils, or the millions of years — millions — that were spent by dinosaurs romping and pillaging. Let’s leave “Lucy” and her toolkit out of it. It’s enough to ponder the figure, in the lower six digits, within which the number of years of actual history — written records of one kind or another — shrivels almost to invisibility: the low four figures. It’s a stretch to say that there are more than three thousand years of human history. By history, I mean the sense that things change on a linear, irreversible scale.

Bishop Ussher famously dated creation to 4004 BC; he worked it out, one supposes, from the proliferation of genealogies laid down in the Hebrew Bible. I suspect that even the most scientific minds, when they’re out of the laboratory anyway, settle on a six-thousand year time-frame for human affairs: it’s what we know. We infer a good deal about what happened earlier; carbon dating has allowed us to place cave paintings in France and arrowheads in America on a time-line. But we don’t really know anything about the people who made those paintings — I like to think that they were sportive adolescents, without a spiritual thought in their heads — or who crossed the Bering Strait so that those arrowheads could be manufactured in what would much, much later, when the experience had passed completely out of mythology, be called “The New World.” The way in which we know about prehistoric human beings is qualitatively different, and distinctly less vivid, from our imaginative access to the lives of our oldest writers, among them the poet of the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). However archaic its style and patchy its narrative, we know what the Song of Deborah is all about.

We — mankind, human beings; what will be the next term? — face a barrage of challenges in our time, many of them old challenges that we’ve only just awakened to. We’ve imposed huge burdens on our notions of a just society, which, as recently as two hundred years ago, had nothing to say about universal health care. Two hundred years! How does that relate to a hundred and seventy thousand? It doesn’t; we can’t make it. But we’ve got to learn how. We are not going to deal with the problems that face us in an intelligent way until we grasp the scale of our past: how long it has taken us to get here, but how rapidly the pace of change has increased. Again, everyone is aware that things change faster today than they used to do. (There is actually a growing chorus of observers who point out that the pace appears to have slackened, and that this is a sign of decadence or benightedness.) But compared to what? To life forty or fifty years ago, when today’s boomers were children? To fans of popular culture who think back to the early days of the movies? To students of the Industrial Revolution, which begins in earnest at some point in the middle of the Eighteenth Century (not quite three hundred years ago). If you consider the pace of change on my time scale, and we play the game of stretching it onto the scale of a minute, then everything happens — now together with the reference points from which we gauge all change — within a second or two.

We need to change the way things change. That’s what I’ll take up in the second part of this rumination.