Mined from the notebooks, October 5, 2017. Posted Sunday morning, November 5, 2017.
“Brendan Foley, an underwater archaeologist, holds a 2,000-year-old bronze arm recovered from the Antikythera shipwreck.” Photo by Brett Seymour EUA/Argo courtesy of the New York Times.
I know I come across as a solid citizen of the Reality-based Community. Mr Facts. Mr Logic. Mr Does His Homework. I follow the links, do the reading, listen to the experts and trust the scientists. I'm a hard-headed materialist. If it can't be seen, toughed, tasted, measured, and quantified, it doesn't exist. If I'd been the thirteenth apostle, the expression would be a Doubting Mannion not Doubting Thomas. Only I'd have put my hands in the wounds. That Thomas, he calls himself a doubter? What a piker.
But skeptic and rationalist that I am, I have moments of weakness. When my mental discipline slackens and restless imagination takes flight. Then the universe seems to me a magical place, God exists, Martians do too, and all kinds of things are possible. It's not that I start believing in magic. It's that the magic that popular science fiction passes off as future science really does seem like future science. Warp drive, teleportation, whatever supposedly goes on to make food synthisers and the Holodeck work, truly intelligent artificial intelligence---I accept that it will all come to be. And given the way technology has developed and science has advanced in just my lifetime, it may be that the most unscientific part of my thinking is thinking that accepting it is believing in magic.
Time travel, though, I can't think of as anything but magic. Probably a result of too much TV and reading of comic books. Whether it's via the Wayback Machine or the Tardis or the Flash running backwards or the Enterprise slingshotting around the sun or the flux capacitor kicking in at the last, crucial second, it's all a version of Dorothy closing her eyes, clicking her heels three times, and saying, "There's no place like home, circa [fill in the date]."
Travel to alternate universes seems as plausible to me as falling down the rabbit hole or passing through the looking glass.
But even though I don't accept that time travel is possible, I believe the past is there to be traveled to.
I've seen it.
I see it.
Usually happens when I'm somewhere the past is still a physically functioning part of the present, not there as an artifact, a museum or museum piece, but as a building still in use as what it was built for or tool or machine or even article of clothing still being used the way it was the day it was first put to work. And then I see not just the things themselves but the people using them and all the things around them the people used to fashion and maintain their lives and the landscapes and cityscapes in which they lived those lives and them living their lives, which is to say, I seem living, alive in the past, the past alive in the present.
Used to happen almost every day when I lived in Boston. Happens most regularly and most vividly now when I'm driving along a country road and a remodelled vintage auto comes into view, tooling towards me in the opposite lane.
In Boston I'd leap between centuries in a matter of blocks. One moment I 'd be jostling through Fanueil Hall and suddenly I'd see myself rubbing shoulders with people who rubbed shoulders with Samuel Adams. Another moment, making my way to my apartment in Allston I'd pass by the doorsteps the young Jack Kennedy would have climbed to knock on the doors of the residents he was going to ask to vote for him for Congress and I'd see those steps and those doors and the people opening them and the hallway behind them and the rooms opening on those hallways and I'd see them as they'd have looked to JFK. I'd even hear the telephones ringing and the radios blaring. I would catch glimpses of the tiny screens of the TVs in the few houses that had them.
Out driving, when I see an old car approaching, a Model T, a ‘54 Chevy, any make and model with real fenders, any make and model with tailfins, any make and model pre-dating my first driver's license, in fact---because the past doesn't include my life, of course. That's still the present.---right before my eyes, the roadside changes, the road signs change, trees grow taller or disappear, farms appear and disappear, fields clear themselves or are overgrown, barns are raised or collapse or vanish into the woods entirely, the number and style of the houses change, accordingly.
Some of those roads haven't changed. The houses and farms along them have been there for a hundred years. The past isn't all in the past. It's even wrong to say Kennedy's Boston was part of the past. There were still plenty of people alive who'd voted for him in his first campaign for Congress. Still living in those same houses, very likely. There were still people alive who'd voted for his grandfather for mayor.
What I most like to see is that the people are like us. Are us. The changes in fashion, in technologies change some things about how they go about their lives, but the lives they're going about aren't that different from ours.
They don't think about all the same things, but they think along the same lines. We have lots in common to talk about. We make the same jokes. I know I'm not being profound here. I'm being sentimental. Can't deny it. Not trying to. It's what I'm being when I see the past. I know it, and I know what's going on. I want those people to be there because I want to still be here a thousand years from now when some sentimental descendent looks into the past and sees life going on in 2017. It's me imagining that life is eternal and we all live forever.
But knowing what’s going on doesn't stop me.
It also happens when I look at old photographs and certain paintings, although not, oddly, the most photographic ones like Vermeer's, probably because I'm so overawed by the technical achievement I forget to think about the subject. It happens when I watch old movies but rarely when I watch contemporary movies set in the past no matter how meticulously the designers have recreated that past. And it almost never happens when I read novels no matter when they were written, probably because I'm not seeing with my own inner eyes---the writer's vision takes over my imagination but at some level I'm aware of that happening and a stubborn part of me resists.
It happens more frequently when I read non-fiction and journalism, and then usually most vividly when I'm reading a newspaper or magazine article, probably because I'm not expecting it and I'm taken by surprise, with my intellectual defenses against it down. Which is what happened when I read this story in the New York Times, Bronze Arm Found in Ancient Shipwreck Points to More Treasure Below:
Measuring an estimated 160-feet long, the ship was like the Titanic of its time. It met its iceberg in the form of a violent storm that smashed it against the island’s cliff, scientists believe. The ship then had a turbulent trip to the bottom of the ocean where it most likely rolled several times, flinging its treasure, and goods across the seafloor. In the two millenniums since, earthquakes and landslides have rocked its remains, further breaking and burying its trove of Hellenistic and Classical pottery and artwork.
It's an interesting article, full of fascinating details about what's down there, the history of explorations of the wreck. the work of the archaeologists, how they go about that work underwater, and what they hope to learn from what they've been able to bring up. But here's the part that launched my imagination into time travel:
The ship that carried the treasures of Antikythera was something like an ancient supertanker or luxury liner that carried grain and artwork for trading in the Mediterranean, including marble and bronze statues being shipped to the richest of the rich, according to Dr. Foley. The site thus provides a peek not just into the lives of the elite, but also into the blooming global and urban society at the beginning of the Roman Empire.
On the face of it, that’s one of the blandest paragraphs in the story. Rich people spending lots of money in order to flaunt their wealth? Where's the news in that? But here's the thing.
I didn't see those rich people. I saw their agents coming down to the wharf collect their purchases. I saw the merchants and middlemen who were there to take their orders to their shops and galleries and showrooms. I saw the stevedores and longshoremen and other dockworkers unloading the cargo. The carters there to haul away the merchandise. I saw the shops and stalls and taverns and inns that catered to the dockworkers and the sailors come ashore and the townsfolk who'd come to the waterfront to shop and gawk. I saw the waterfront come to life and behind it the whole seaport town going about its daily business. And I saw the whole culture that sustained and maintained it, the customs and traditions and bureaucracies and legal systems, and the offices where those things were negotiated and bargained and contracted, and the workers in those offices doing the negotiating and bargaining and contracting, and it was all familiar.
The people wore sandals and tunics and togas, their tools were all hand tools or hand operated, there were many more animals about, but it was still a scene I knew first hand from my own wanderings along the wharfs and docks of port towns on Cape Cod and north and south of Boston and Boston itself. The people were people I recognized, engaged in the business and busy-ness that people alive today engage in in ways that are so similar as to be almost a continuation, as if I was seeing ancient Ostia and 20th Century Boston (when I knew it best) as existing and thriving together in the same web of international trade. Ostia might as well be Boston. Both might as well be London in the 18th Century, Shanghai in the 19th, Lisbon in the 16th, Venice in the 15th...you get the picture.
Anyway, enough magical thinking. To read Nicholas St Fleur's whole article, follow the link to Bronze Arm Found in Famous Shipwreck Points to More Treasure Below at the New York Times.