They say the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. When L.P. Hartley wrote this opening line to his best-known work The Go-Between, it’s possible that he intended nothing more than to restate Heraclitus for a 1953 audience: don’t let your nostalgia get the best of you. Like Heraclitus, it’s equally possible that Hartley said more than he meant. The past is indeed a foreign land, and one that you can only ever hope to be a tourist in, at best. Understanding is relational, comparative. When thinking of the Black Death, I cobble together what little I know of European fatality rates with a few contemporary stories and top it off with the “bring out your dead” segment from Monty Python. I have no deep understanding of 14th century Europe, at least in a sense that someone from that time would recognize. No matter how much I might learn from accounts of the time, from the archaeology, or from high-fidelity reenactment, no true understanding is within my grasp. My perception is indelibly colored by my own experience. I might be able to fantasize or live-action role-play being a Medieval peasant, but I’m no more able to truly know life under James II than I’d be able to pass as a native of Outer Mongolia.
So how can I know that the lessons of Aristotle, of Augustine, of Desiderius Erasmus, of Hegel or Lao Tzu or Mengzi or Voltaire or Benedito de Espinoza speak anything of use to me today? I might be able to mimic the hermeneutical discipline needed to correctly interpret long-dead philosophers, but there is a great deal unwritten, a great many tacit assumptions that might never occur to me in my age of low infant mortality and flush toilets. Then again, to expect study of the canon to carry a faithful reproduction of the conditions under which it was written is juvenile, the mewling whinging of a freshman assigned reading that will cut into his valuable skirt-chasing time. We read classics to give us an idea of our intellectual heritage, to anchor ourselves in a tradition, to explore well-trod ideas, to give context to who we are, what we are doing, whence we came.
The dreams changed abruptly after the storm. A young super-genius, last survivor of a dying planet, successfully builds a faithful replica of the girl he pined for and lost before the destruction of his species. His devotion to accuracy meant that his own creation scarcely knew who he was and cared about him even less. For many years, she worked tirelessly to bring life back to the ravaged planet, seeding ever more elaborate gardens, tending whatever animals she could breed, cleaning the stench of war from the barren land. All the while, the man who had built her from spare parts and brutal honesty only fell deeper in love as he witnessed her heroic, doomed efforts.
He contributed where possible. Perhaps motivated by a desire to help, perhaps inspired by her noble example, his schoolboy infatuation ripened into a mature love, one leavened by a common purpose, the sort found in Dante Alighieri’s descriptions of Beatrice in Paradisio rather than the facile pining of the first few cantos of Inferno. He learned to sacrifice for her rather than to sacrifice to her. And his sacrifice was to resurrect the wild things of the earth. While she tended her formal gardens, he sowed wild seeds of elm, of juniper, of snowberry and buckthorn. He saw that ginseng and wild rose and cottonwood took root as she planted apricot, pear, and tomato. His heather and dandelion flourished in the creases left by her walnut and turnip.
She noticed. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the opposite of love is not hate but rather indifference. And the more he healed the wounded planet, the more her indifference turned to curiosity, then to affection, and finally, as the sun began to set on his God-granted three score and ten years on earth, to deep devotion. In that last twilight, they shared a love as perfect, as deep as any that ever existed between man and woman.
Eternity is a long time. By comparison, the wait for the sun’s inevitable death is a brief twinkling. Yet time passes no slower for a plastic and silicon immortal than it does for anyone else. She found as the years wore on that her lost love did not diminish, but rather metamorphosed into a queer obsession. Equal parts bittersweet melancholy, futile hopelessness, and grinding solitude consumed her. One hoary morning following a ten thousand year ice age, she decided to pluck all memory of the last man on earth from her permanent files and bury it deep beneath the bones of a mountain.
There it sat, slumbering as her feet scratched gossamer annulets around the lush gardenscape that had grown under her patient care. And then one day, by pure accident, she found the device containing the excised memories and without knowing what it contained, reinstalled it. And again she fell into deep despair. Fantastic new species arose around her, yet she took no joy in any of it. Another thousand years ticked by before she again tore the pain from her tormented mind to hide it deeper, more securely, and again a thousand years after that she found it, reassimilated it, and stuttered her loneliness into the uncaring chasm at the end of the world.
A thousand times this bleak drama repeated, so the dream logic tells us. A thousand times over two million years. Each time the memories dwelt in a hidden hidey-hole, each time they were restored to calamitous misery. It eventually occurred to her that this gruesome cycle needed to end, so she devised a casket that contained not only the memories of her beloved, but the knowledge of its construction and the keys to open it.
And so it was for the rest of the days of the world, until the sun ballooned in its terminal throes to swallow the tiny blue-green orb upon which we all dwell that the lone neverending girl carried a tiny egg around her neck and a slight smile on her lips, content in her cherished ignorance.
Pigeon Point overlooked Hungryman Cove. A little further north was the former Jarvis Turn, now since converted into staging waters for the pleasure of wicked men. Nearly two days Brigit and I waited for our friends. Two days consumed by the worst our imagination had to offer should the scaphists find little Anika, broad Clay, and loyal Clotho.