The Time Traveller from the Future Stands Amazed
“The memory has entered your mind,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “but it must be discovered. It will emerge in dreams, or when you are awake, when you turn the pages of a book or turn a corner. Don't be impatient, don't invent recollections. Chance in its mysterious workings may help it along, or it may hold it back. As I gradually forget, you will remember.” (Shakespeare's Memory, 1983)
One is attracted to the study of history by the way that knowledge of the past expands life beyond your chronological age. Sometimes you can feel that you've lived forever.
This feeling is enhanced in our day, with nearly a century of historical costume dramas and film footage to draw on, providing a vocabulary of images of the past. This visual language allows us to experience in our imagination a time before our birth.
This was made highly evident to me one Friday, when I went to an exhibition at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto. For a split second, I was part of an 18th Century costume ball.
This was a room imitating a masquerade ball with the table laid out with sugared pastries and fruits. The point of this display was the centerpeice with the ceramic figurines. Looking at the ostentatious decorations and the obviously unhealthy snacks, one couldn't help but think, no wonder they had their heads chopped off.
I was there to see the costumes, the garments of those that lived that many years ago — the real clothes that hung around the flesh of those names in our seldom read history books. These are the fabrics woven by caricatures, and worn by folks who are impossible to us now.
I noticed the truth of the historian's claim — they really were shorter than us, much smaller. There's no way I could have fitted into any of them. Here was the dress worn by flat chested petite women, whose feminine hands extended beyond those sleeves.
One dress in particular, a faded rose silk, which was worn by some aristocratic lady 250 years ago sparked a flashback to the yellow of candlelight and her hair combed — for that split second, I was there, at the ball, surrounded by the other individuals.
You wonder if this is memory, if you're really nothing more than an immortal amnesiac, and have dreamed that that twenty-seven years of your lifetime. Others might point to ideas of mystic psychic ability, or speak of “genetic memories.” There are many ideas, all of which are very intriguing and somewhat exhilarating. You think that time travel may be possible, and that we may have access to these records, in an age that cannot go without video documentation.
In the end, these stories that are found in costume dramas do not matter. Their value instead is how they give you visual access to a world that has disappeared. When you're at the museum confronted with the actual leftovers, you can imagine being there in a way that expands beyond the years of your life — you become the immortal amnesiac, confused by buried memories.
These costumes, worn by real people, so many years ago. You imagine the tiny feminine hands, flashback through movies to candlelight, tiny people stinky and glistening. Ballroom, accented voices. Sun shone as it does today. I am so very tall compared to them. Dust. All of these disasters, like the Revolution, are to come. Such a skirt was worn by a Madame, a trés belle, a Casanova lay.
I'm outside at a fairground, one of those beautiful sunny summer days. There's heat, there's dust. And there's a makeshift stage. Up there, the petit people in their costumes, of lace, silk, and embroidered wool, act a Pantallone, Dottore and Harlequin.
The sun shines then as it does now. We are different creatures. Under the same sun, shaped in the same way. I am a creature who has seen Earth from space, who watches animated stars fly by overhead according to a schedule. We're in our synthetic fabrics, our engineered winter coats, our pens that not only contain their own inkwells, they are inexpensive and disposable.
Here the pink skirt, laying flaccid on this mannequin torso, headless like the aristocrats of that century, an event which began to form the new minds for the new healthier, taller, and longer lives bodies of our two centuries past. This beauty, skin glistening with the oils of the infrequently bathed, hair tied up in some fashion. She had flirtatious eyes, a romance in that gaze, enhanced by the candlelit setting. Yes, the rich decadent short people are having their pastry party. Casanova is around somewhere feeling up those skirts.
The idea in the film The Shinning was that the Overlook Hotel shined: that it has impressed into its fabric the psychic impressions of the horror that had occurred there. The impression was holographic and projected itself into the minds of the boy Danny and the father Jack, causing Jack to go insane and Danny to have horrible visions.
“Da Quincy says that our brain is a palimpsest. Every new text covers the previous one, and is in turn covered by the text that follows — but all powerful Memory is able to exhume any impression no matter how momentary it might have been, if given sufficient stimulus.” (Borges, “Shakespeare's Memory”, Collected Fictions, p. 512)
In the summer of 1992, my pet project consisted of writing a history of the world from the perspective of the 24th Century.
Inspired by Star Trek, which I more than borrowed from, I adopted the position of an historian named Jesus McLeod. This was to be his biography on the cover page:
Jesus McLeod was born in Edinburgh in 2286. After 3 years working as a digger during the construction of subcontinent Pacifica, he studied history at the University of Luna. He received is PHD in History in 2315. His specialty is human history.
That is, in a galaxy of aliens, Jesus McLeod was a professor of Earth history, teaching on the Moon.
Working with a typewriter, I kept the pages in a red folder.
It was a wonderful exercise, as I had to study history in greater detail than was being offered in school.
In Star Trek, there is a great world war that marks the early 22nd Century. I had to come up with a scenario to work into my account.
Informed by the recent dissolution of the USSR, the subsequent declarations of independence throughout Eastern Europe, and the Referendum on the Charlettown Accord regarding Québec, this scenario offered itself:
England, once a proud member of the European Alliance, saw her commonwealth only in history books and was losing British individuality (as a part of the E.A., England had to devote most of its resources to the the Alliance, leaving very little to support itself). It was for these reasons that Prime Representative of England, Martin Fenwick, re-instated English Parliament, re-declared himself Prime Minister, and on 17 March 2105, declared English Independence and broke from the E.A.
The E.A. did not recognize independence, and on 18 March gave England an ultimatum: rejoin by 25 March, or the E.A. would attack and conquer (the reasons for not recognizing English independence were that the E.A. — with England — were heavily involved in establishing a colony on Mars. The E.A. needed English resources).
Jesus McLeod was modeled on English historian Martin Gilbert. He had written a biography of Winston Churchill, which had been my summer reading that year. With the politics of the early 20th Century in mind, one world war had mirrored another:
Canada warned the E.A. on 19 March that an attack on England would bring her into the war. Australia gave the same warning on 20 March. Scottish Prime Representative John McDonald stated, "The English situation is nobody's business but our own. Any interference by Canada or Australia will bring our wrath. I make this clear: we do not want war."
Remembering the events of January 1991, when on the 15th, the world held its breath awaiting the attack on Iraq (which came on the early evening of the 16th) I wrote:
However, as 25 March came and went without a word from England, the world braced for war. On 26 March, the Lunar Government declared its neutrality in case of war. Mars said it would turn its back on Earth in case of war, and trade exclusively with the other planets and colonies. (The resulting war strengthened planetary pride and planetism).
Both statements had been made in the morning of 26 March. That night, at 10:02pm (English time), a squadron of warplanes (which were no more than air-show jets fitted with construction explosives) were detected on British radar and surveyor satellites.
In the morning aftermath of March 27th, it was discovered that the English Parliament had been destroyed. It was completely reduced to rubble. The Battle of Britain II had begun.
My narrative goes on to include P.M. Fenwick quoting Winston Churchill's “we shall never surrender” speech. Eventually, England's allies withdrew, and England was left to fight alone, despite being …
“… reduced to a 19th Century lifestyle (candles replaced electric lights, automobiles similar to Model-Ts drove on the streets, there was no television and very little radio; computer systems were practically extinct)”
The tale of World War III ends with Fenwick's assassination by the E.A. secret service on 9 June 2117. The deputy Prime Minister, in league with the E.A., promptly surrendered after being sworn into office.
Ten years later the world faces another war with Iraq as I walk along Bloor St. in Toronto. The future imagined is now present reality. The Time Travelling Historians of the Future are popping into our existence doing research.
Notes from an unfinished essay, January 2002:
The museum is stocked almost by default by the surviving high end cultural artifacts of aristocrats. It is they who had the wealth to both acquire and preserve these items. Their artifacts survived through their practicality (furniture) or because of the quality of their craftsmanship (art goods). The signature of the artist or master craftsman functioned in the past the way a logo like Prada does today. When you leave the ROM and walk past the suit displays, and the wealthy shoppers on Bloor St, you're looking at the museum displays of 200 years from now.
However, there's no need to wait that long. In Prada's New York store, which opened in December 2001, “shoppers have a terrific alternative to fashion's normal seasonal inventory with clothes from Prada's collections past”.1 In other words, the museum and the store have merged, feeding on a collectible longing for the past (that a museum as its best or worst represents) by becoming a museum of itself. If the cultural cachet of celebrity endorsement is not enough for you, something like Prada becomes a desirable object because of the way it makes itself seem historical.
This is not surprising in our culture of mid-career artist retrospectives and 20 year re-releases of films readily available on video and dvd. Feeding upon an insatiable curiosity to live forever and know the world of 500 years from now, playing up on those desires to say, here look, this is the R.O.M of 2203, here is a glimpse of that future world. By glimpsing it you have a powerful secret — you are the time traveller who steals the time machine and goes into the future to gather the technology that you can invent in your own time, to become rich and famous.2
In our time, the centuries ahead of us are compressed into a sub-genre of the present, all perspective of where we are going is squished down into the vanishing point of a digestible commodity, in such a way that our cult of commodified youth makes us correspond to the fetishizing of the teenager, who can't look ahead.3
- Ingrid Sichy, "The Rebel in Prada" Vanity Fair, Feb 2002, pp. 111-114 / pp. 133-135
- This storyline was explored in three Star Trek episodes:
- Star Trek The Next Generation, ep. 209, "A Matter of Time" (1991-11-18): a man from the 22nd Century travels to the 24th Century to steal tech he was going to 'invent'.
- Star Trek Voyager, ep. 150 & 151, "Futures' End I & II" (1996-11-06, 1996-11-13): a 29th Century timeship crashes in 1967, the technology of which is reverse-engineered by an alternative Bill Gates (whose company, Chronowerx, is analogous to Microsoft) and who is thus responsible for the late 20th Century computer revolution.
- “There is no looking ahead for teenagers. All they have is now!” — excerpt from Boston Public for a commercial which aired in January 2002.
“Shakespeare's Memory” by Jorge Louis Borges, published< in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (Penguin Books, 1999, ISBN 01402.86802) pages 508-515
Harlequin Unmasked, Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto, September 22 2001–January 20 2002
Royal Ontario Museum, European etc collection, Toronto
The cover image is a screen capture from Robotech episode 1, “Boobytrap” © 1985–2002 Harmony Gold USA
Photo of the Earth from space: NASA website
Other photos taken on 13 December 2002, Bloor St, Toronto, except for “Prada” which was taken on 7 March 2002
The Shinning Warner Brothers, directed by Stanley Kubrick (based on the novel by Stephen King) 1980