Living in a Future/Past Perspective

9780679729976In his short story, “A Guide to Berlin,” from The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, the eponymous author writes the following passage:

The horse-drawn tram has vanished, and so will the trolley, and some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wishing to portray our time, will go to a museum of technological history and locate a hundred-year-old streetcar, yellow, uncouth, with old-fashioned curved seats, and in a museum of old costumes dig up a black, shiny-buttoned conductor’s uniform. Then he will go home and compile a description of Berlin streets in bygone days. Everything, every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful: the conductor’s purse, the advertisement over the window, that peculiar jolting motion which our great-grandchildren will perhaps imagine–everything will be ennobled and justified by its age.
I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.

Though the story was published in 1925, or perhaps because it was, the truth that the passage of time lends a kindly sheen to the events of yesteryear rings true still today. Hopefully that made sense, because there were a lot of references to time there.

Anyway, I like the perspective that even the mundane becomes fascinating when viewed through the lens of posterity. The tricky thing here is in trying to adopt this perspective without that necessary passage of time. What if we started viewing modern life as though it were merely a reenactment of life from the year 2014 as though we were one hundred years removed?

Imagine for a moment that you aren’t just a restaurant worker, but that you are a person doing your best to reenact the role of a restaurant worker of 2014 for an audience of fellow play actors.  Are you convincing in your reenactment? Perhaps you are acting as an accountant, limiting yourself to the technology of the current year in order to keep the books for your company. Are you believable?

And while you are doing that, I’ll be here writing and bookselling and being a father to the best of my ability, trying to realize that even my most mundane task is valuable because it IS valuable.

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