The White Guilt Issue (No. 11)

MY PEOPLE

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

–Langston Hughes

When I was in fourth grade, around the time Black History Month started getting widespread attention in my school, our teacher handed out a worksheet, photocopied from some book designed to promote multicultural teaching during the month of February. At the top, it quoted “My People,” by Langston Hughes. Then there was some information, probably about the Harlem Renaissance, or something, and then it asked you to write a poem about your people. I remember that I, usually so eager to leap into writing assignments, sat there, staring at the blank lines in front of me, completely at a loss. I was an upper middle class white girl. I had just learned about how my people, my race, had kept Langston Hughes’s people enslaved for the better part of American history. I knew also, from social studies earlier that year, that my people were responsible for wiping out most of the Native American population. And though I hadn’t yet studied it, and hardly knew its name, I had a vague idea that white people were also responsible for the Holocaust. What good could I possibly say of my people? I had, I thought, no right even to attempt to write a poem like Hughes’s, which was so beautiful, written about a people so deserving.

I know that eventually I wrote something, but it seems that I disliked my response so much, felt it was so wrong, so misconceived, that I did not save it. I do not know what the other kids in my class, who were, by and large, WASPs just like me, wrote. I do not know if they were overwhelmed with the sense of cultural guilt which struck me first on that day and has remained with me. Since that day, I have always had a peculiar awareness of the groups I belonged to, by accident of birth, realizing that none of them were things I wished to claim for my own. I knew also, though, that I could not abandon them and take up residence with some other group: I had no right to be black, or Jewish, or gay, and perhaps I even had no right to claim some kinship, or some understanding, with any of them. It is a lonely place to be.

Arbeit macht frei,” I added, realizing that Timothy wasn’t Jewish and probably wouldn’t get my morbid reference to Auschwitz.

One of the creepiest moments for me was discovering that six million Americans had taken Prozac. As a Jew, I had always associated that precise number with something else entirely.
–Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

By the time I got to college, I had succumbed to the idea that I was a white girl and there was nothing I could do about it. I used to tell people that I was majoring in Dead White Men, which was basically true, although as a Classics major these days, you are informed that the society you are studying, which lasted several decades in one form or another, and spanned, at times, most of the Mediterranean, was, in fact, one of the most diverse societies ever to exist. My senior thesis was about Herodotus, whom I think I admired most not for his inclusion of women (the topic of said thesis) but for his ability to travel, to go everywhere, and, it would seem, be accepted by everyone.

On the whole, though, I steered clear of multiculturism, and it steered clear of me, except for the one fascinating thing I discovered–there was, in many of the people I met, a preconceived notion of a subtle anti-Semetism on my part. Well, perhaps anti-Semitism is a bit strong–but it was assumed that, like the Timothy Elizabeth Wurtzel speaks of, because I was not Jewish, I knew nothing of it. Further, because I was from Iowa, I could not possibly know anyone who was Jewish. Judaism, it seemed, was a religion and a culture which extended no farther west than 8th Avenue. I became immediately defensive. I have Jewish friends, I wanted to say. I’ve read the All of a Kind Family books and the Diary of Anne Frank. And I was once told by an acquaintance in high school that, by virtue of my maternal grandfather having been technically Jewish by birth, I was “Jewish enough for Hitler,” thus making me feel, if only for a moment, that I belonged in some small way to the club. But I would always stop, midway through. I was no expert. And to say, “I have Jewish friends”–what an awful thing to say, as if that is the only reason I chose them as friends, so as to fill that segment of my multicultural quota. I wanted so badly, though, for people not to view me that way. I knew the meaning of Arbeit macht frei and the deadly signifigance of the number six million. The result of these accusations of a subtle anti-Semetism on my part had the effect of creating that feeling in me. I would catch myself thinking, What makes these people think they’re so special, that only they can know about the Holocaust, or even about something as innocuous as lox?

At lilac evening I walked. . . in the Denver colored seciton, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. . . . I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned.
–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

A few months ago a friend of mine confessed she felt incredible sadness at the thought that, no matter what she did, she would never be a gay man. At first I laughed, remembering a guy I knew in high school who used to say, “But I really want to go to Wellesley!” But then I remembered Kerouac, a man not generally endowed with any degree of political correctness (and in fact, I could easily construe several readings of the passage above as quite racist) and his lifelong desire to break on through, to belong to something other than himself, his mother, and the Lowell of his childhood, and, in the end, despite his virtual invention of a new American prose style, his complete inability to do so. Perhaps that is why am drawn to Kerouac, despite his misogyny: it is the way he “shambled after. . . the people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones. . . .” But where Kerouac’s desire to belong to some other people was fueled by a desire for kicks, a desire for something more in life, mine still remains a simple desire to escape from guilt. Both of us wish to leave a culture which is dying if not already dead, because some aspect of it is stifling to us. Kerouac never really found another place to go: he died in his mother’s house in Florida at the age of forty-seven. I am still looking.

I don’t have a conclusion to this issue; these are all things which have been preoccupying me for years, which were brought to the fore today after reading the title essay in Daphne Merkin’s collection Dreaming of Hitler. I feel I should report that about a year ago, I did play a game of pool volleyball with a bunch of people from Vassar. In a moment of inspiration, as we were trying to decide how to divide the teams, one person yelled, “Jews versus Gentiles!” and so ensued the game to end several thousand years of religious conflict, an hour of volleying slurs as well as balls across the net (“You friggin’ pork eaters!” “Christ-killers!”). Unfortunately, nobody thought to keep score, but we did succeed in scaring away the rest of the pool guests. I’d like to say that it just goes to show that if you spend enough time playing in the water in your underwear with people, the tensions of the world will be solved, because I’d like to end this on an upbeat note–but I can’t quite do that. I’m just going to have to let it dangle—-

On Not Knowing Math

8 May 1999–

for Ruth Greenwald, with immense gratitude, and Eugenie Hunsicker, with best wishes for the future

The other day I was talking to a girl from my English class, having, for the umpteenth time, the “I Suck at Math” Bonding Conversation. There are, of course, a number of these conversations among college students, the most popular being the “I Had No Friends in High School” Bonding Conversation and the “I Will Be Paying Back Student Loans Until the Year 20xx” Bonding Conversation, and I have engaged in all of them many times. Generally speaking, with the exception of the student loan conversation, these discussions have a limited basis in fact and are more like histories which you invent in order to better fit in with the group of people you now find yourself with. In my case, though, none is such a fabrication as the “I Suck at Math” speech, because it’s not true. I’m good at math, and while I do not have the natural affinity for it that I feel for languages and literature, I still like it pretty well. And yet over and over, I find myself saying, in order to fit in better, “Oh yeah, I’m no good at math either. All those weird little symbols, all that definition–it’s just beyond me.” And I’m guessing that the same is true for at least a few other people.

But why? What is so awful about math that people feel a need to hide from it, that people brag about their lack of ability with it? I have never once heard someone say with pride that she can hardly compose an English sentence, much less string several of them together in order to make a point, although I know many people for whom that is the case. Of course, there is an on-going cultural tendency towards telling girls that they’re not naturally apt at math and that they don’t need to be. A great deal has been written about this, and I often think it’s a rather tired issue, until I remember that there were traces of it even here, in my supposedly liberal, highly educated town.

I was lucky enough, for my first two years of high school, to study math under Ruth Greenwald, surely the best teacher, of any subject, that I or any of her other students have ever had. Miss Greenwald was not just a teacher of mathematics, she was, more than anyone I have met, a true teacher of liberal arts, a teacher of thinking. In that class you did, as William Blake put it, “see a world in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.” Ruth Greenwald was also adamant about excellence, and adamant about behavior. Excitement and inquiry were welcome in her class; showing off was not. And you were never permitted to do less than you could. I still have, tucked away in my filing cabinet, an algebra test with the grade D, and the injunction, “You can do better!” That is the only time I have ever been told that–and not because my work was always of top quality. The very next year, in Pre-Calc, I had a different teacher, whose methods bored me. I quickly lost interest, and my work began to slip. This teacher informed me at the end of the year that if I took AP Calculus, I would flunk it, and encouraged me to sign up for something called Discrete Mathematics. I told her if she didn’t want me in her class, I wasn’t going to bother with math at all, and I took an extra free hour.

It was that conversation, I think, that began my earnest participation in the “I Suck at Math” conversations. I do not think that that teacher’s comment was particularly related to my being female, for I know a number of other young women who liked her and viewed her as a role model. This teacher was popular, and she won a number of teaching awards, based mostly on the numbers of her students who went on to score well on the AP Calc exam. I think it is more likely that she didn’t view me as a potential high scorer and therefore didn’t want me in her class–by contrast, she encouraged several exchange students who were doing well to take the exam–to spend $70 on a test which would have no relevance when they returned home, just because they would do well on it. What sickens me is the idea that only the superior students were worth bothering with, that those who were merely good, or mediocre, were, rather than encouraged, shunted aside. I suspect this happens in all subjects, but math seems particularly prone to it. Why exactly that is will remain a subject for a future issue–this is long enough already.

NOTES: Some of you have sent in favorite poem submissions (see A New Rambler Supplement, 4/26/99)–thank you. As for the rest of you, while Pinksy’s collection is over, the doors here at The New Rambler remain open, so send ’em on.

The title of this issue, as some of you may know, is borrowed from Virginia Woolf’s excellent essay “On Not Knowing Greek”–but my explanation of the relation between math and Classics will also have to wait for another day.

There’s a show on VH1 (MTV, but without the edge, you know), called something like “Before They Were Stars,” whose purpose is to dig up embarassing footage of people who are now rock stars, so we can see what they looked like when they were just starring in their high school musicals or performing in local talent shows. Okay, blah blah, nice concept–celebrity humilation (especially of strong women–I’m trying hard to avoid a digression on Katharine Hepburn here) goes over pretty well. What fascinated me most, though, was an early clip of Paula Cole (of Lilith Fair and Dawson’s Creek theme music fame) singing “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in a high school production. The show then cuts to a modern interview of Paula Cole, saying “Oh my God, that awful song!” and discussing how sickening she thought it was that she was helping reinforce all these negative gender stereotypes. I was literally stunned. She thought “I Enjoy Being a Girl” (a song favored by drag queens and given a rocking remake by combat boot clad folksinger Phranc) reinforced negative ideas about femininity? Somehow, this strikes me as awfully strange, coming from a woman whose first album contained a song about a hopelessly unrequited love, in which the girl sings to the guy, “And she is your Holy Mary, and I am so ordinary, and you can use me if you want to,” without a touch of irony. I like that song, actually, but when it comes to positive messages for young women about their femininity, I’ll take “When men say I’m cute and funny/As round and around we whirl/It goes to my head like brandy/I enjoy being a girl!” any day.

Poetry

As many of you are probably aware, a terrible disease has overtaken this country, a disease whose primary symptom is the renaming of all months, days, and weeks, so that they no longer honor the gods of the ancients or the Sabbath or whatever else, but rather secretaries, veterans, mothers, mental health, stuttering awareness, and whatever else it has been decided needs to be recognized especially, or only (depending on your point of view) at a certain time of the year.

Since I can think of no way to beat this tendency, and since it does occasionally produce good things, I have decided to join it–not that I’m going to name a Samuel Johnson Appreciation Week (though that might be kinda fun). But, I am going to jump on the tail end of the April Is National Poetry Month Bandwagon, and urge all of you to contribute to Robert Pinsky’s 200th birthday present to the Library of Congress. It’s pretty simple: basically, you send an e-mail to stating your favorite poem–anything goes (although if it’s not in English they ask that you provide a translation, and they’re not accepting unpublished work). Robert Pinsky, as you may know, is our poet laureate, and he’s been accepting submissions all year, I think. Anyway, he’s going to have 1000 respondents read their selections onto audio tape, and some more onto video tape, and then put the whole mess in the Library of Congress as a sort of time capsule. So, get out your Oxford Book of English Verse or copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends or collection of haiku or whatever, and send in your selection by April 30th–that’s Friday–sorry about the short notice. And if you CC your submission to me, I’ll compile a list of favorites of The New Rambler.

Some of you may also have heard me talking about my Alphabet of Verse project. It is now done, in hard copy, and I’m working on getting it up on the Web, but that may not happen till this summer. Poetry, should, however, be a year-round preoccupation, so I trust you will all be as happy to spend a September evening with Ted Hughes or a drear-nighted December with John Keats as you are to spend a cruel April drenched with sweet showers with Eliot and Chaucer. Enough erudition–and a real New Rambler will be on the way, sooner or later.

In Praise of Elizabeth Wurtzel

If I were to ask the students in my class to quote any one line of ‘Ozymandias,’ I doubt that one of them could do it. Almost all of them, however, would be able to tell me that Shelley was a drunk and died by drowning. –quoted as best I can remember from JD Salinger; I can’t find the book at present

If there is one thing in the world I hate, it is people who express opinions of books they haven’t read. Of course, there are many things that I hate, and I express my views on Charles Dickens, whom I’ve barely read, all the time. But, to quote that ever-useful line of Walt Whitman’s, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” This business of casting the ballot on books one hasn’t read happens all the time; in the past few months, however, one work seems to have born the brunt of it amongst the people I know: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s second book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women.

Wurtzel’s first book was a memoir, Prozac Nation, and I could talk forever about what a fantastic book it is, how it is one of the only true represenations of depression that I know, and how I think it forms a paradigm for a new kind of writing, a post-everything mentality, blah blah blah. But a lot of other people have written about that. The book made the New York Times best-seller list. I’m not too worried about its place in the world. Bitch, however, I would like to address.

Bitch is the most refreshing book I have read in a long, long time. But every time I start to say that, somone says “Oh, I read a terrible review of that,” or “Oh, Naomi Wolf says that’s pseudo-feminism,” or, most frequently and worst of all, “Oh, I hear that got terrible reviews,” which would seem to suggest that the utterer of that statement isn’t even stealing the reviewer’s idea, they’re stealing someone else’s idea of the reviewer’s idea. And of course there are the comments I get when I carry the book around (which I kind of like to do even when I’m not reading it; sometimes I even think of putting the cover on other books, kind of like that grade school trick employed to read comic books in math class, but then I wouldn’t have the book on hand to read excerpts from it, as I started to do for a small audience while waiting to get my oil changed). These are probably due to the cover, which I have kindly stolen for you, courtesy of the good folks at amazon.com.

Bitch is the most refreshing book I have read in a long time because it achieves all of the things which The New Rambler strives for: it is brazen, it says the hell with most journalistic conventions, it concerns things which nobody seems to care about (Amy Fisher, Margaux Hemingway) or new aspects of things which have been overdone (Nicole Brown Simpson, Hillary Clinton). Bitch remembers women who go unremembered, or who are remembered only for their deaths or their sins, as Shelley is remembered for his drinking and his drowning. At 400 pages, yes, it rambles (but of course we encourage that around here), but amidst that rambling is some of the only intelligent stuff about being female that I, Miss Anti-Women’s Studies USA, have ever read.

Wurtzel has been criticized for being overly inflammatory, for not having a clear point, for contradicting herself, and for being unduly disclosive, among other things. I don’t always agree with Wurtzel; in fact, I’d really like to grind an ax about Jane Austen with her sometime (I’m pro, she’s con). But I don’t always agree with my friends, either, nor do our arguments always come to coherent conclusions. If the course of human history hasn’t yet answered the questions posed about the role of women in society, it seems unlikely that any one book will provide all the answers. But to find the right answers, it is often necessary first to ask the right questions, and I think Wurtzel has a lot of those, questions about just why one bothers with dictums one did not invent. Referring only in part to the atrocity known as The Rules, she writes:

Well, I for one am sick of it. All my life, one person or another has been telling me to behave, saying don’t let a guy know you’re a depressed maniac on the first date, don’t just be yourself, don’t show your feelings. . . . I don’t like it. It seems like, all this, all these years of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi–all that smart writing all so we could learn to behave? Bra-burning in Atlantic City–so we could learn to behave? Roe v. Wade–so we could learn to behave? Thelma & Louise–so we could learn to behave? The gender gap–so we could learn to behave? Madonna, Sally Ride, Joycelyn Elders, Golda Meir, Anita Hill, Bette Davis, Leni Riefenstahl–all those strong indefatigable souls so we could learn to behave?

Get out there, read Bitch, or read something, and remember how to think.

But Can She Type?

Ides of March 1999

I feel this issue ought to be about the Ides of March, or at least the number nine (number nine. . . number nine), but I’m afraid it’s not. It’s about typing.

When I was about, oh, say nine years old, I came across a poster in my grandmother’s house. In it, an old woman sat looking up at you with an expression on her face I still can’t place, and underneath was the caption, “But can she type?” I got the feeling that this was supposed to be a joke, so I applied to my grandmother for explanation. She informed me that the woman in the picture was Golda Meir, who had been the Prime Minister of Israel, and that yes, in fact, this poster was hilarious. I didn’t get it, so I just put it down to another one of those weird grown-up tics, like taking half an hour to finish a drink or engaging in long conversations with boring people after church.

Ten or twelve years later, I’ve grown up enough to realize that social chatter is necessary and not always boring and that one does not really want to gulp cocktails, but that poster still baffles me. Of course, I can see various possiblities for why someone might consider it funny. It could be pre-feminist “funny,” like ha ha, what good is a woman if she can’t type?, rather like the bit in The Bell Jar when Sylvia Plath’s–excuse me, Esther Greenwood’s–mother tells her that she’d better learn shorthand, because nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.

It could be feminist era “funny,”–still what good is she if she can’t type, but this time like the punchline of the feminist lightbulb joke–“That’s not funny!” Or it could be post-feminist “funny,” as in, Look how far we’ve come and still the only question is, “Can she type?”, in which case it’s really not funny at all but quite sad.

The really sad thing is that Sylvia Plath’s mother was right–a plain old English major, or Classics major, or what have you, isn’t much good for anything. But throw in shorthand–or these days, computer skills, and suddenly they’re a much nicer commodity to plug into the machine.

I often say that I was a Classics major for the food, and as I made this little joke the other day, my friend remarked that one certainly didn’t go into Women’s Studies for that reason, and we had a laugh about Women’s Studies profs who probably think knowing how to cook is equivalent to laying down your life for the patriarchy. (I have no idea of the veracity of that; I never took a Women’s Studies course, as I object to them for my own reasons, which have very little to do with whether the cookies come from the oven or the store). That’s nonsense, of course: everyone should know how to cook. Food is a necessity of life, and you ought to be able to prepare it. But I can understand the problems it poses too, because I don’t think anyone ought to spend her life cooking, or typing, or cleaning, for others unless that’s what she really wants to do. I always cheer on Esther Greenwood/Sylvia Plath as she continues, “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters,” and decides that if she never learns shorthand, then she’ll never have to be a secretary. At the same time, though, I get irritated every time I see someone pecking out letters with two fingers. I’m proud of my typing ability (due entirely, I imagine, to the large amount of time I spent in college sending instant BroadCast messages to friends), to the point that I frequently put down “Typing, 63 wpm” on my resume. But it kind of sickens me at the same time.

Later this month I’m going to have the rather stunning experience of getting paid to write something, which seems quite odd after four years of shelling out thirty grand in order to have the privilege of writing papers about John Smith and William Bradford, or women in Greek drama. It brings a whole new level of understanding to the Ani Difranco couplet, “I want you to pay me for my beauty [or talent, in this case], I think it’s only right/’Cause I have been paying for it all of my life.” On the whole, though, I still agree with my father (and whomever he got the line from) that the only man who has freedom of the press is he who owns his own press, and that’s part of the reason that I started The New Rambler. But to publish yourself, you need to know how to type, and run a computer, and do some stuff with the Internet. . . and that, in the end, is how I justify those skills. Learn them for the Man if you must, to make a living–but use them for yourself. Golda Meir would be proud.

An Interesting Series of Commercials

In 1969, African-American students at Vassar College took over several administrative offices, demanding a department of Africana Studies, more black professors, and a special advisor to black students. Most of these requests were duly granted. But that’s not all the students were asking for–they also wanted separate housing, off-campus. Desegregation of schools and buses and restaurants in the South had happened less than a decade before (and was probably still going on, since “all deliberate speed” was a rather loosely interpreted phrase), and yet these students wanted to resegregate themselves. The administration, needless to say, was less than psyched about this plan, though the students did get their request for a short time.

It would seem that this trend towards resegregation is taking place again, thirty years later, but this time it’s the segregation of music videos, television networks, and, of all things, fast food restaurants. Yes, really–Burger King’s recent advertising campaign has really convinced me that they are trying to be The Black Burger Joint. These ads rarely show humans. They don’t tell little stories, like McDonald’s ads, or provide testimonials to Dave, like Wendy’s. Rather, they just push the product–showing you pictures fries and burgers, steaming and dripping onions or cheese. But is that all they’re pushing? Listen to the music in the background. One commercial featured Motown-type vocals singing a song–which I have since been informed is the theme from The Jeffersons, a ’70s TV show about a black family moving into an upscale white neighborhood–that goes, “We’re movin’ on up/to the East side, to a big [something] apartment in the sky . . . we finally got our piece of the pie.” The text that flashed underneath the food was “Now that’s an uptown deal–at a downtown price.” In another commercial, the ambience is provided by a big-band recording of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And the once commercial in this series which did have people, from several months ago, showed three black women singing and dancing a la the Supremes, complete with a flashback in black and white. And of course there is Burger King’s current slogan: “When You Have it Your Way, It Just Tastes Better.” I think all of this is a concentrated and targeted effort by Burger King to appeal to the downtrodden, and particularly historically down-trodden African-Americans, by offering them their “piece of the pie,” an opportunity to “have it [their] way,” and to move on up and be part of the number when the saints go marching in. Empowerment through TV advertising–you’ve just got to wonder what Malcolm X must be thinking right now.

To read more about the student takeover at Vassar, check out the entries from 30 April-2 November 1969 in this chronology of Vassar History (partially compiled by my old housemate, David Ley).

A Series of Commercials I Would Like to Kill

“Easy Mac–no brain required!” No brain required?!? This is supposed to be a good thing? You know the country’s in trouble when advertising is being that blatant about not wanting you to think. Granted, the general idea behind advertising is to prevent individual and original thought, but they usually try to be a little more subtle about it.

Irony

Apparently the Italian government is quite upset with the not-guilty decision of the court martial of the Captain William Ashby (accused of involuntary manslaughter–the plane he was flying cut through some gondola cables and killed 20 people). I haven’t reviewed the evidence myself, so I can’t give an opinion as to the correctness of the decision. But indignation about the findings of other people’s courts seems a little out of place for a country whose own courts just ruled that it is impossible for a woman wearing jeans to be raped.

The Grammar of Time Travel

NEWS:
The New Rambler has not disappeared; it’s just been lurking. That’s why it’s called an occasional periodical, you see.

The web page has some new stuff on it and will have yet more shortly, so check it out. You can read about Burger King commercials and how they relate to the Department of Africana Studies at Vassar, the movie Life is Beautiful, and (soon) why you should stop what you’re doing and listen to the New Bad Things. Go there.

And keep your eyes on the Iowa City (and Cedar Rapids, though I generally choose to ignore that part) ICON in the coming weeks. . . you might see a familiar name in its pages.

But now down to business. . . .

“If you read science fiction, you’ll like Herodotus.” –a college professor to her advisee in Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of science fiction, mostly just because I’m far too snobby about literature for my own good. Lately, however, I’ve been giving some thought to the genre, brought on by either watching too many X-Files reruns or rereading too much Madeleine L’Engle (supposing such a thing to be possible, which I doubt).

Mostly I’ve been thinking about time travel–not about the possiblity of it, since, as a friend of mine pointed out, if time travel existed we’d have known about it long since by way of visitors to the past, or present, or what have you, from the future (unless, of course, all those folk are equipped with little Men-in-Black lasers and they’ve wiped our memories out)–but more about why humans have thought up something they don’t have verb tenses to express. Somewhere in Robert Heinlein’s 1957 sci-fi novel (so much for my good taste in literature pose) The Door Into Summer (which I highly recommend to anyone who likes cats or is feeling in need of a Damon Runyon-esque fix), which is all about time travel and a man trying to fix his life through it, the narrator comments, in the midst of a bewildering explanation of his where and when-abouts, that if time travel becomes common, they’re going to have to invent a whole new class of verb tenses. He’s probably right–and yet think of the distinctions language already makes. I try to point out to my Latin students that, as confusing as they find Latin, English has just as many peculiarities and degrees of specificity. In Latin, for instance, “I carry,” “I am carrying,” and “I do carry” are all expressed by the same verb, while in English they all have a different connotation, despite the high school English teachers who try to squash this perfectly natural impulse to use the continual form when talking about continuing action (I harbor no grudges, I swear).

You see, I think that time travel does exist, and it doesn’t require machines–just words. If we can imagine completed action in the future (“I shall have carried”), action which, had it occurred in the past, would have produced a different outcome (“If I had caught the train, I would have made it on time”), action which, if it did occur, would produce yet another outcome (“If he should come, I would be glad”), to name just a few, are we not travelling around in time, at least in our minds? I used to get in trouble in history classes because I wrote all my papers in the present tense, a habit learned through writing English papers, which are traditionally written that way. I never did it deliberately, but when I tried to force myself to write in the past tense, it never worked. Latin and Greek both have something called “the historical present,” a way of telling about a past event in the present tense to make it seem more alive, a story-telling technique which most people use all the time without realizing it. And it seems to me that if you’re writing about history, you are necessarily reinterpreting it, and it is happening for you. Why not write in the present tense? Or (the horror! the horror!) switch back and forth–for, as a friend of mine in high school said, we don’t think or live in one tense most of the time–why write that way?
I’ve realized that I don’t have room to bring Herodotus into this issue–but then, he’s history; he’s not going anywhere. In the meantime, I wish you all a future more vivid (my very favorite Greek condition).