Monday, 1 August 2011

The Total Perspective Vortex

It's another Wednesday night. I've had a glass or two of a rather nice wine after another long and complicated day at work which included amongst other things leading a tricky meeting in the morning (taking my usual refuge by a flipchart) and making an impromptu speech in front of some bigwigs this afternoon. At the time, that all felt terribly important.

Another evening in front of the telly. That's not as bad as it sounds. TV was famously dismissed as "chewing gum for the eyes" and while it's not hard to find examples which support that, I'm a firm believer that TV has the capability of being as intellectually / culturally / emotionally stimulating as any other artform. But that's a debate for another day: the first point I'm straining towards is that I ended up watching a couple of documentaries on BBC2.

One was David Attenborough talking about the extinction of the elephant bird of Madagascar. He'd been there 50 years earlier and found fragments of an egg of one of these birds. I won't digress here into how he's possibly the only person who gives the cliche "national treasure" some genuine meaning. The documentary kept cutting between Attenborough in 1960 and the present as he reflected on his previous visit and what he saw this time and concluded about what he'd learned in the meantime, peppering the mix with the odd annecdote about how his original visit showed how times had changed (using an enormous old reel to reel tape recorder to broadcast the mating calls of lemurs, for example). There was as good an illustration of a personal history as you're ever likely to see. It ended with showing that he's now had his egg fragments carbon dated and found it was about 1300 years old.

The next programme was about the ancient history of Britain and was familiar schoolbook stuff: the building of Stonehenge and Silbury Hill and looking at Bronze Age technology with the usual reverential look at axe-heads, bones of forgotten VIPs and the more recent tradition of including showing someone using the same techniques so far as we can gather them to have been: in this case, forging a bronze sword. The programme went on to look at the Dover Boat, regarded as being the oldest surviving boat in the world. They reckon it's about 3550 years old. It was found in 1992 while the foundations were being dug out to build a subway in Dover. (You can read about it at the museum's site if you care to do so.) Impressively robust considering its age, the boat was made by stitching together planks of wood with thin branches of yew, like a kind of twine. All very stimulating in its own way.

It was having these programmes back-to-back that illustrated how much we cut out in recording history. It's all carefully edited to present a clear narrative, much like the programmes themselves. The contrast was interesting because the Attenborough programme explicitly made a feature of it. Being partly a sequel to a much earlier "text", it allocated him time to tell us stories "around" the original: how the owner of the hotel he was staying in reacted when he brough back specimens which promptly escaped during the night and reviewing his own diaries while criticising his younger self's tendency to anthropomorphise. (From the bits I can remember of my lit crit studies, I think this is "metatext". What I remember mostly is that if you stick "meta" on the front of other words you take on an air of intellectual rigour while actually becoming more enigmatic.)

The documentary about the ancient Britons on the other hand paid no attention whatsoever to individuals. It focused on the remnants of the civilisation and how these gave clues, but little else, to what these people were about. As always, the surviving artefacts tell the stories of the rich and powerful, with barely anything but implication about the lives of the majority of people living at the time.

I know it's an impossible question but every time I see some ancient artefact, I increasingly find myself wondering about the totally forgotten human being who made it. What was he or she thinking while doing the work? Did the guy carving the symbols on the axe handle stop at some point and go for a piss around the back of the shed? Who caught the wood which was burned to melt the copper and tin to make bronze? What was he worrying about? Did his back / teeth / head ache that day? Did he love someone? What was he looking forward to for tea that evening?

This might feel like a futile and absurdly trivial line of reasoning but don't forget that these are the things which rattle around in our heads for most of our waking hours. None of this is remembered. It can't be done: as a dataset it is too big and not useful enough

Douglas Adams wrote about a thing called the Total Perspective Vortex in which a man was put into a chamber which showed him his scale in relation to the entire infinite universe and it drove him insane. But that was only about space and if you were so minded, it wouldn't bother you: at least you're there somewhere. A more sobering thought still is seeing yourself in relation to time - because for most of it you simply don't exist at all.

So far as I can make out and discounting Genesis and other such myths, the earliest named individual human being who can be historically verified as having existed is King Narmer, a Pharoah who lived about 3100BC. Without going into all the questions of evolution, human beings as we currently know them were here around some 150,000 years ago. That's a lot of people we've forgotten.

All that ever survives of an individual is the products of his / her labours and even then for most it's often by mere chance. The Dover Boat lay hidden in mud for thousands of years, far longer that it had ever been in use as a boat: it's had a longer life as an artefact. All those hours put in by nameless individuals to chop down trees, shape the wood, construct it and move it to where it finally ended up... we can only guess. The fact that it has survived at all is impressive, but it's a mere suggestion of a lost time and lives which have been washed out of memory.

I can't even remember the name of the wine I've been drinking this evening let alone stand any chance of finding out who picked the grapes which made it. I just like drinking the stuff. Of all the time which humanity has ever spent thinking, how much of it has been about things like backache, doing the cleaning and unblocking the drains? In the total of human existence, we have collectively spent more time thinking about things like pain and dirt and love than we have about the balance of payments and fitness of football players. So if all the above sounds morbid, it shouldn't. It's actually quite comforting: any effort to be remembered is pointless so why do so many of us worry about it?

Earlier in the day, I was directed to this:

A Duke Ellington number played by two dozen Japanese people using theremins hidden inside Russian dolls. Sheer ephemera. Fun though, isn't it?

I'm off to bed. They did that in the old days too.