Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Present as a Coral Island...

Polished Petoskey
Originally uploaded by {D}.

One of the reasons I haven't posted much recently is that I've been reading about early medieval French history. It's not my usual sort of reading matter but I've been quite hooked firstly by a book that was pressed into my hands by a friend: Michael Crichton's 'Timeline' and secondly by an excellent historical biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir.

My friend insisited that I read Crichton's 'Timeline' because he knew that I enjoy visiting the Dordogne region of France, which is where the novel is set. The story imagines that an American hi-tech company discovers how to transport people back through time and that they test the procedure on several archaeologists, transporting them back in time to see the real world they are currently digging up in the south of France.

The four pages of bibliography at the end of the book suggest that Crichton has done some research both into the quantum physical possibilities of time travel and into the details of life in the 14th Century: books about medieval cooking and medieval prostitution among the many listed. He does do quite a good job of bringing the period to life through his descriptions and by gauging the reactions of his university-educated archaeologists when faced with the reality of taking part in jousting competitions, cutting the heads off angry medieval soldiers etc. etc.

What merits a mention on Connaissances is the French theme, of course, and a geological metaphor (the only metaphor in the book as far as I recall) which comes from the mouth of Crichton's baddy: Doniger, a man who has lost sight of moral values in his greedy application of high technology.

Doniger was walking around his office, mouthing the words to his speech... using Kramer as an audience of one. "We are all ruled by the past, although no one understands it. No one recognises the power of the past," he said, with a sweep of his hand.

"But if you think about it, the past has always been more important than the present. The present is like a coral island that sticks above the water, but is built upon millions of dead corals under the surface, that no one sees. In the same way, our everyday world is built upon millions and millions of events and decisions that occurred in the past. And what we add in the present is trivial.

"A teenager has breakfast, then goes to the store to buy the latest CD of a new band. The kid thinks he lives in a modern moment. But who has defined what a 'band' is? Who defined a 'store'. Who defined a 'teenager'? Or 'breakfast'? To say nothing of all the rest, the kid's entire social setting - family, school, clothing, transportation and government.

"None of this has been decided in the present. Most of it was decided hundreds of years ago. Five hundred years, a thousand years. This kid is sitting on top of a mountain that is the past. And he never notices it. He is ruled by what he never sees, never thinks about, doesn't know. It is a form of coercion that is accepted without question. The same kid is skeptical of other forms of control - parental restrictions, commercial messages, government laws. But the invisible rule of the past, which decides nearly everything in his life, goes unquestioned...

(The photograph of a polished coral fossil at the top of the page is by {D} on flickr. Petoskey stones are the state stones of Michigan where they can be found. The coral fossils they contain are Devonian age, around 350 million years old. The stone is named after an Ottawa Indian Chief, Chief Pet-O-Sega whose name means "rays of dawn".)


Joe Milutis said...

it's interesting that the baddy is speaking the language of the "everything is constructed" crowd . . . which is probably a typical swipe a academia which these blockbuster books do as a rule. His speech and its message is also why I grow tired sometimes of lazy evocations of zen "presentness": the present is difficult, the future harder (as Derrida, et al have pointed out.) If the monk meditates on the mountain, does the mountain exist?

Joe Milutis said...

but actually, now that I think about it, it's not as much "everything is constructed" so that it can be critiqued and or dismantled. It's "everything is constructed" by forces so slow and unrelenting and hardened, that you have no say in the matter.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Actually, I cut Doniger off before he had reached his conclusion, and it might be pertinent. He goes on to say:

...this is real power. Power that can be taken, and used. For just as the present is ruled by the past, so is the future. That is why I say, the future belongs to the past...

This shows Doniger's 'baddy' qualities: he wants to use the past to unconsciouly control people in the present, and in the future. He is also shown as being deluded: 'the future belongs to the past'.

In fact, Crichton's novel doesn't really explore any of the possibilities of how one might use the past to control the present as suggested by this passage. In reality, the past is just a bad thing that can happen to you in the present if you happen to use the time machine.


Crichton does make his academics face some difficult realisations in the novel: one of the characters, on observing real occurrences after being transported back to the past, reflects that he "knew this assumption of superiority (of modern man over historical man) was a difficulty faced by every historian. He just hadn't thought he was guilty of it. But clearly, he was."

Another character comes alive in the novel when faced with real situations, and cannot believe he had previously been satisfied with arid historical debate.

Perhaps Crichton's message is that academics, harboured from the world, are not necessarily best qualified or positioned for understanding the world and its history.


As for the 'unrelenting and hardened' forces: such forces do certainly exist in nature at the geological scale. One might think of Milankovitch cycles for example which are an important control on climate change.

But do they occur at the scale of a human lifetime? When you read history you become aware that men or women, through particular cicumstances, do influence the outcome of history, and that it is not a case of pre-determination, but that the whole thing rests very often on a knife edge.

Alison Weir's book about Eleanor of Aquitaine contains a great example: the divorce of Eleanor from Louis VII of France and her rapid remarriage to Henry of Anjou, later Henry II of England. An act of disloyalty and connivance that made Henry the most powerful player in Europe and put England and France at war for centuries. The only 'unrelenting and hardened' force which controlled this marriage was that 'the strong will out'.

Lucy said...

Enjoyable, including the comment thread, gives me a slightly vertiginous feeling!
the coral fossil is beautiful.

Lesley said...

I know someone who would love this book so I immediately looked for it on Do you think the title would be "Prisonnier du Temps" in French?

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello Lesley,

Yes, that is definitely the title in French. Reading Amazon's French reviewers suggests that this is one of Crichton's best books.