Showing posts with label Time. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Time. Show all posts

11 April 2013

History is Mystery

by Eve Fisher

File:NAMA Machine d'Anticythère 1.jpg
Part of the mechanism in the Athens Museum
Some of you might have caught the Nova show a week ago on the Antikythera mechanism, a device from approximately 100 BCE found in 1901 in a Greek shipwreck near the island of Antikythera.  It is the world's oldest (yet found) working analog computer:

File:NAMA Machine d'Anticythère 6.jpg
Reconstruction in Athens Museum

and it generated complete astronomical information and forecasts:  sun, moon, planets, and eclipses, from now until...  whenever.  A very complex machine.  It's assumed the found object was a factory reproduction of an original designed by the great Syracusan mathematician, Archimedes.  In the process of discovering all of this information, the historians used all sorts of mystery-solving techniques - questions, x-rays, research, reconstructions, debates, etc. - to try and figure out what that super-corroded device was, what it was for, and how it was made.  Fascinating.  Catch the reruns, or rent the DVD.

And it explains why so many of us historians are also mystery fans/writers/etc.  Because history is all about solving mysteries, very cold case mysteries, with limited evidence, almost no eye-witnesses, and a whole lot of deduction.  Yes, a lot of people think that history is nothing but names and dates, but I can assure you that's the least of it - the historical equivalent of a GPS system, keeping you afloat in a vast sea of time.  But the real purpose for history is to find out how things got the way they are. History is all about solving the mystery of us. 

Of course, some things never change: human nature (curiosity, greed, anger, pride, love, lust, all the emotions and desires), and what comes of that human nature (the pursuit of power, pleasure, wealth, appetite, and occasionally peace). 


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Frontisepiece to Rousseau's "Emile"
Some things change dramatically, in a paradigm shift that makes it inconceivable (to us) that things were ever different:  our modern concepts of privacy, romance, childhood, individual rights, and personal comfort are all just that, MODERN concepts. Romantic love used to be considered a form of mental illness (read Chaucer).  What we call privacy used to be proof that you were either had no status or were in prison (who would ever be alone if they didn't have to be?).  Rousseau practically invented modern childhood in "Emile" (ironic, considering that he put each of his four children in an orphanage).  And most societies have always been willing to sacrifice individual rights for societal order, especially if it keeps the barbarians (within and without) at bay.

And some things change all the time, especially fashion and beauty, which are simply exercises in the verb "to change". 

Where does technology fit into this?  Well, I couldn't help noticing that, even on Nova, the scientists were constantly amazed at the complexity of the Antikythera Mechanism, and the ingenuity of the ancients.  And this is a classic example of one of the two great biases that historians face, within themselves and within their students/readers/society:
BIAS # 1.  Time is an arrow, leading to us, and we, right now, are living in the best of all possible worlds at the best of all possible times, and anyone in the past who didn't live the way we do, especially in terms of morality, government, technology, and religion, were stupid, not to mention just plain wrong.  A major subsection of this bias against our ancestors' intelligence is all about technology.  I cannot tell you the number of people who say, well, if the ancients were so smart, how come they didn't come up with the technology of today? The answer is to consider where and how technology was used in the ancient world:
    File:Rome Colosseum interior.jpg
  • WAR:  Greek fire; gunpowder; Archimedes and his war machines (first laser prototype; the Archimedes Claw).
  • TIMEKEEPING and ASTRONOMY:  Chinese paper and compasses, originally used for timekeeping, astronomical observations, divination, and prayers; the Antikythera Mechanism, used for timekeeping and astronomy; water clocks, mechanical clocks, etc. 
  • ENTERTAINMENT:  Look no further than the Roman Colosseum, which used a huge amount of technology of all kinds to present battles on land and sea. 
  • PUBLIC HEALTH:  Flush toilets and sanitary systems of the Indus Valley (Harappa, 26th c. BCE), Knossos (18th c. BCE) and other ancient civilizations; public baths (Indus Valley, Greece, Rome,Ottomans, Japanese).
        Sounds pretty modern to me...
    • NOTE:  I'm well aware that time only moves in one direction (at least in this brane), but it's far more like a tree, with multiple branches and twigs and stems and leaves, than an arrow. There have been societies and civilizations that have vanished completely off of the face of the earth. There are echoes everywhere of things and people that were, but left no trace. And even if they leave a trace, no explanation. Not everything connects. History is full of red herrings. 
The other major bias is the exact opposite:  

    File:Leonidas I of Sparta.jpg
BIAS # 2.  We are a degenerate and weakened species, and things used to be much better, back in... well, the Greeks believed in a Golden Age before their own Age of Iron; the Hindus for millenia have believed we are in Kali Yuga, the age of the demon; and today a surprising number of people like to tell me how much better things were in the 1950's (and I suppose they were, if you weren't a woman, gay, black, or other minority). 
    • NOTE:  Just to show how dangerous this bias can be, a classic work of nostalgia history is Plutarch's (ca. 46-120 CE) "On Sparta", in which that violent, anti-education military slave state is presented as the ideal civilization, strong, brave, and free from the corruptions of commerce and money.  Obviously, Plutarch had an axe to grind.  But very few people even think about that.  Because he himself is an "ancient writer" a lot of people swallow everything he wrote as if it were absolute truth, not paying attention to the fact that he wrote almost 500 YEARS AFTER SPARTA'S DEMISE.  That's the kind of thing you have to look out for.  And part of the reason yes, you do have to know your dates... 
My general analysis of bias holders is that the first is primarily held by the young and/or successful; the second is primarily held by older people and/or those who feel throttled by present-day culture (whatever the present day is).  My other great observation is that either bias gives you a perfectly logical reason to ignore the past.  They both imply that we can learn nothing from the past, either because we are absolutely superior or infinitely inferior.  Either way, we are on our own.  Me?  I know that everyone who ever lived were just as human as I, and the basic lesson of the past is that, until human nature changes as completely as fashion or song stylings, history is going to continue to be the same damn thing over and over again.  We'd better start paying attention. 

12 March 2012

As the World Turns

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

Time continuum. Time Marches On. Time to Go. Time To Live or Time to Die. There's A Time for Everything.

How do you envision time? Sixty seconds, sixty minutes, twenty-four hours. Thirty or Thirty-one days, excepting February with its twenty-eight days. Three hundred sixty-five days in a year, except for 2012 when we had 29 days in February.

As long as I can remember I seem to have somehow envisioned time as a sort of elliptical or oblong shape. Maybe when I learned the earth revolved around the moon, and I didn't want to see time as a circle. And as time passes and we reach each season it does somehow seem to be oblong and not a circle. More of a chance for there to be room for four seasons if time is elliptical.

But how do we define time when we write? Often to denote the passage of time a writer will title each chapter with a week-day name or a month's name. Or if they want to show something that happened in the past they might write, March 12, 1989 as the chapter's heading. What about if you're just wanting to show time passing throughout a day? You could put "Morning or Evening or Midnight."

Often a writer will just end a scene with a small climax and skip a couple of extra spaces, make putting *** ellipses to denote the scene change involves time or place. There are many ways to show time in our writing.

But don't forget there are different aspects of time. There is the chronological passing of time but there is also the emotional passing of time. An emotional clock so to speak. Albert Einstein once said when a guy sits with a beautiful girl for an hour it can seem like only a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than an hour."

Remember when you were little and waiting for Christmas to come? It took days and weeks and hours. When you had your first child you turn around twice and he or she is starting to school and you have no idea where time went.

What factor comes into play with emotional time having such a huge range for your reader. Tension or fear are the obvious ones. When your character is relaxed time moves almost quicker than you can believe it. When your character is tense, time stands still.

You can and should incorporate the emotional clock in your writing always. I remember one writing teacher who told my class when your character is involved in an action scene you want to write short, action words and sentences. People punch, jab, smack, slap, or explode. You don't want to drag out a fight scene. Unless you've researched some good karate moves and want to add them so it's more realistic.

At the same time, if details are important to the story and you are building up the tension you probably want to give long descriptions that lead to the action. That lets your reader know that something important is going to happen. Something significant.

If you gloss over things then the reader won't attach any importance to that at the moment. And sometimes that's a good place to hide a clue or a red herring.

Just don't ever use words because you LOVE words and want to use a lot of them. Words need to show in a clear and concise way that your character is going to experience fear or tension. You need to show that your character is going to have to choose a course of action. If he or she chooses wrong it might mean death for him/her or someone he/she cares for.

Words need to move the story along not slow you down. However, after some significant tension is met but it's not yet the climax of the story, that's when you need to slow down to allow your character and your reader to relax, to reflect. Maybe discuss the problem and see if a solution can be found.

I hope I've made a case for you to use a emotional clock when you write. The hour and minute and second hands of your clock are spinning and days are getting longer now so make every moment count in your work.