Friday, 6 August 2010

You are a traveller, come back in time

You read a historical novel, and marvel at the vividness of its account of Tudor London, or Napoleonic Paris. 'What would it be like to be there, at that time? How marvellous it would be to travel back in time!' The glamour of the past. Strip out one thing only (and you can do this, if you are honest with yourself): the appeal of the past as a thing finished and complete, in which the brute ontological anxiety 'but what will happen tomorrow?' is not there. Because, to travel back in time and actually live in Tudor England or Napoleonic Paris would be to live with precisely that anxiety -- that this core human anxiety determined existence in the past, as it does in the present. And when you understand that, you can sit on a bench in any square in any town today and feel yourself to be a time traveller from a far future to sample the exotic glamour of the past. 'Well well,' you can tell yourself. 'This must have been exactly what it was like, in the early years of the twenty-first century ...'