Proust says you can find it again only in art. “It” — lost time — being the years of your life now behind you.
But what is the past? Is it still alive somewhere, in a separate universe — where every single moment that ever was goes on existing?
That was an idea that used to excite me. While still in high school, I came across a play called “Berkeley Square” which was so sad! The hero — a modern young American — found himself transported through time and space into an eighteenth- century English drawing room, where he fell in love, by candlelight, with the beautiful heroine. By the end of the second act, she loved him too (despite his unusual clothing, manners and speech).
Alas, in act three he was unable to bring her back with him — forward with him? — when he had to return home to electric lights and penicillin. All they could share across the centuries was a lifetime of eternal love. (At the same time? That point was not made clear.) He had her faded portrait. She had her memories of a man not yet born. Thrilling!
Later, my college roommate and I developed this separate-universe concept of time over pints of coffee ice cream (delivered from town to campus as late as ten p.m). On dateless weekend evenings, we asked ourselves the question: What if a time traveler could change the course of history?
There was even a scenario for the film: Storm at sea. Ocean liner traveling from New York to Southampton is thrown off course, collides with large iceberg, sinks before they can lower the lifeboats. One passenger, knocked unconscious, floats ashore before freezing to death. He’s a young academic, specializing in medieval English history. Wouldn’t you know? He washes up near Tewksbury, England in 1471! During the Wars of the Roses!
Our hero is discovered by bearded land-owning nobility on horseback. They wear heavy armor and carry lances and shields modeled on the exhibits in the armory section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is also a lovely young maiden with long golden tresses who tends to his minor bruises and helps him brush up on his spoken Middle English.
But the whole point — and we had to get there before the ice cream was all gone — is that our hero has been rescued by members of the House of York; in gratitude for the good care he’s been given, he volunteers to carry a message from one part of their army to another that will (1) prevent a significant battle from taking place; (2) make peace between the two sides; and (3) thereby change everything we always thought came afterwards.
Change everything! No more Tudors, no Henry VIII, no Church of England, no Virgin Queen, no Puritans, no Restoration…. I tell you, the ramifications would have been stunning!
But here’s the kicker: this very important message is written on paper. Not even parchment. Paper! And our hero falls off his horse in transit. (Horseback riding is not part of the Medieval English History Graduate Studies curriculum). The concussion knocks him clear back to the twentieth century in America, where subsequent amnesia about his fifteenth-century adventure prevents him from telling anyone about it.
And the piece of paper in his hand? What of that? It stays behind. (Probably because it didn’t come from the twentieth century in the first place. We never really worked out that part.)
What do you think happens to a piece of paper lying on wet muddy ground over the course of five and a half centuries? You’re absolutely right. That’s why the Wars of the Roses ended as it did. And not our way.
Addendum: There was an alternate scenario where the paper is in an oiled bag which somehow or other rolls into a dry cave and is eventually found by twentieth-century medieval historians, including the hero. This extraordinary discovery jogs his memory. He then snaps out of his amnesia so he can tell everyone what occurred while he was time-traveling.
The alternate version had the merit of leaving history as it was while also demonstrating that our hero might have been able to alter the course of events if he had been a better horseback rider. But we rejected it as too complicated and philosophical for a movie.
There was also a book I read later, when I was almost grown up but not quite, about parallel dimensions of time: Two Shakespeares writing separate Hamlets at the same moment — one entirely different from what the other Shakespeare was scribbling over there in his dimension. Two American revolutions, with different outcomes. Two World War I’s. And like that. But suppose there were three dimensions of time? Or four? Or five? You can go just so far with this kind of thing before you get dizzy.
So let us put childish things aside, and look at the real past. The past that’s really past, and not quivering out there in some other dimension we will never know. The one Proust was writing about. Where does that past reside? In your memory?
Maybe. Some of it. Or you think it does. But how good is your memory? Do you really remember your grandmother’s face (if you ever saw it)?
Or — as we ask a recalcitrant witness in the courtroom — is there anything that would refresh your memory? (Like a photograph of your grandmother?)
I have plenty of such refreshers. They’re all down in the basement, in well-labeled files. (I’m a pack rat for paper.) Let’s look, for instance, at my graduation album from Public School 99, Queens. I was twelve and a half. You’d think I’d remember something. On one random page I see, in blue handwriting: “United States is your nation/ Kew Gardens is your station/ But you had to go to 99 to get your education. Till nail polishes…Elliott Settle.”
Who is Elliott Settle? Try as I might, I can’t remember. We sat in the same classroom for at least ten months, I asked him to write a remembrance message in my album, and he has completely vanished from my recollections of my past. If it weren’t for the album in the basement, I wouldn’t even know his name.
Another remembrance from an author I have no memory of whatsoever: “To Nina Raginsky, Love and kisses. In getting 100 she never misses. Robert Bier.” Robert Who?
Kinder words from one William Konigsberg: “When Cupid shoots his arrow, I hope he ‘Mrs.’ you.” Can’t remember him either.
I do remember William Weibel: “December 23, 1943. May your life be like arithmetic. Joys — Added. Sorrows — Subtracted. Friends — Multiplied. Love — Undivided. Your friend, Bill W.” But that’s only because, in a misguided demonstration of affection, he took a big bite out of my brand new pink rubber eraser in seventh grade. What girl could forget that?
I also remember Georges Petipas, or at least what he looked like. I’m not sure we ever spoke to each other, although if he’s still alive and wants to prove me wrong, I won’t argue. He turns out to have been pretty wise, even before high school: “Yesterday is dead. Forget it. Tomorrow is not yet come. Don’t worry. Today is here. Use it. Georges P.”
You may notice quite a few boys wrote in my album. This did not escape the attention of Althea, who neglected to sign her last name and thereby also ensured my inability to recall who she was: “Dear Nina, If all the boys were across the sea/ What a good swimmer Nina would be. Love, Althea”
I want to cry. All those children gone from me as if they had never been. Even Willie and Georges gone, except their names and faces. And so too am I gone, little girl Nina with her perfect grades and an eye for the boys and no idea of tomorrow. All that’s left is the album.
Better get out of the basement. I can always come back another time.
Meanwhile, as I look for a Kleenex:
- Proust was right.
- Memory fails.
- Better make art. (Where you can make things up when you don’t remember.)
And if you can’t make art, blog about it.