". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, February 6, 2009

Speculations of Time, Direction and Language

Assmann, Jan. (2002). The Mind of Egypt: History and meaning in the Time of the Pharoahs. Trans. Andrew Jenkins. Metropolitan Books, New York.

This is a splendidly provocative work of history. It's German historigraphy at its best -- so very different from French historigraphy. The efforts of American historians feel nearly superficial in comparison. We do terrific work with the specificity of events, with cause and effect of individuals and forces. We are painstaking in the establishment of a narrative of realism. We do this very well. However our history is so very short in comparison with Europe's or Asia's. As for time, we in the U.S.A. in particular, perceive it as an arrow, with the past behind us as we race always to leave the past behind and to get ahead. With 3500 years of Ancient Egypt Assman has a long view as his purview indeed. Only in some pockets, as in New Orleans, do we deal with time as ritual circle, with time as what was is what is.

That's also what is so instructive in Braudel and the Annales -- le longue duree -- with the concomitant concept that the Mediterranean rim is its own culture, having more in common with other political entities on this same axis than with further entities of its own continent, distinct from Europe or the Middle East or Upper Egypt. As you see in the Caribbean and with the Gulf -- which is part of the theory of Pan-Caribbeanism. The Caribbean and the Gulf are themselves each distinct, and they are also distinct from their ruling or colonial powers as well as from South, Central and North American cultures.

No one had applied that historical-cultural-geographical vision to New Orleans, to Havana, to our own Gulf coasts before we did. Once others see or read of it in the books or in conference presentations, they go, "Oh, yes!" Havana and western Cuba is on the Atlantic - Gulf axis, with New Orleans, not the Caribbean. This has been my great contribution, I think. Therefore a study of the Nile, like a study of the Mississippi River, has to bring fresh insights, as the study of Mediterranean history will to Caribbean history. Lately symposia have sprung up about 'Gulf culture", and about the New Orleans - Havana - Haiti triangle trade and cultural exchange. Before us, there weren't.

That I did 9 hours of geography course and lab work for my undergrad science requirement contributed greatly to this. I remember one day on my first extended stay in Havana (previous to that on my Cuba trips I'd spent all my time in the east -- the Caribbean region of Cuba), leaning over the Mal├ęcon sea wall as all habaneros do, and staring out, to the north, registering what was probably an oil tanker in the distance. The color of the water, the currents, the sensation of it was all around me, spraying into my face. The water was frigid.

And I go ... "This isn't the Caribbean. Everyone talks about the water here as the Caribbean. But up there is Miami. Miami isn't on the Caribbean. The Caribbean Sea is on the other shore of Cuba. We are not rimming the Caribbean here. We are looking north and east, not south and west. This ... is the Atlantic." Technically speaking, if you look at the maps, right there, it is still the Atlantic. The Bahamas, Bermuda, for instance, are neither Antilles nor Caribbean. They are Atlantic Ocean islands. This is a concept that for some reason for many people seems difficult to grasp. Many people will not look at maps, for that matter.

After that lightbulb moment of mine, Ned acquired a geological volume of maps of Cuba and the surrounding waters at the open air used book market in the Plaza des Armas. It became a very large part of what he came to write in Cuba and Its Music, and then went into the New Orleans books. I compare this difficulty of geographical visualization with that of the Upper and Lower Nile many people have. They insist on reversing those directions of north and south, even people who have been there.

The New Kingdom's trade (the later Bronze Age) turned Egypt into an empire of cultural influence and mercantile dominance that reached north, east and west. The Met show, "Beyond Babylon," makes this clear. This means that large elements of Egyptian culture had to move into the flow of time as arrow, out of the ritual, cyclic round of time.

(Which then maybe explains why Egypt is never considered in the context of Africa, the continent on which she is located? Despite the political interpenetration of what is called Libya, and which must have run via trade routes -- the Sahara region was far less desert then -- maybe to the Atlantic? And south, Nubia -- which also interpentratred politically -- was the trade mediator between Egypt and the southern and central regions of Africa?)

How we exist in time, how we perceive time, is perhaps even created by language, particularly our language that describes our sense of the divine. Or also of the state. These all seem perceptually interpenetrative and influential: language, direction, time (all dragged by the arrow point of death?)

You and I, all of us live in arrow time, the time that took dominion with the dominion of Christianity (thus B.C. and A.D.). It is arrow time, the point of which is Redemption, when Christ returns again to earth, to judge the quick and the dead, and we all enter the eternal is, of paradise or hell, ending time, finishing history, forever. Whether or not we believe in this doctrine, even our brain cells are formed by that conception of arrow time. Our nation, the youngest of powers, came into being long, long after that sense of time took dominion. Whereas, other powerful nations, in their culture-forming pre-nation statehood, like France, England, China, etc. -- have their linguistic, directional, divine roots in ritual, cyclical time.

Pharoanic pyramidia monuments, embossed with hierglphic declarations, oriented to existence within time -- neither past nor future, but an eternal is -- present perfect, forever and ever.

New Orleans is also a monumental city of the perpetually existing dead, where time is ritually repetitive, rather than a future point. Who your ancestors are matters more than who you are.

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