From Campell McGrath’s Seven Notebooks:
To critique historicism in all its varieties is to unlearn
to think of history as a developmental process
in which that which is possible becomes actual by
tending to a future that is singular. Or, to put it differently,
it is to learn to think of the present—the
“now” that we inhabit as we speak—as irreducibly
The futures that “are” are plural, do not lend themselves
to being represented by a totalizing principle,
and are not even always amenable to the objectifying
procedures of history writing. For my “I am as having
been” includes pasts that exist in ways that I cannot
see or figure out—or can do so sometimes only retrospectively.
Pasts are there in taste, in practices of
embodiment, in the cultural training the senses have
received over generations. They are there in practices
I sometimes do not even know I engage in. This
is how the archaic comes into the modern, not as a
remnant of another time but as something constitutive
of the present.
—dipesh chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe
The future does not exist.
It is a wish, a dream, a ring of droplets sparkling in a spider’s
web after the clouds have passed.
It is rain, running water, the river that floods the valley, urging
the lilies to bloom and scouring gold from the beds of gravel
and driving the deer to the high mountain meadows where
the hunt is made complex by sublimity and spring snow.
The past does not exist.
It is a myth, a dream, a ring of ancient stones on the plain;
it is chert, granite, flint; it strikes a spark and the forest
But the trees remember their claim upon the land.
They grow tall and we hew them for timbers to build a
home not far from the river, with the mountains in view,
planting lilies, sketching clouds, panning for gold, praying
for rain, running from fire, fearful of flood, dreaming
of deer, wishing on stones.
It is the house of this moment.
We live in it now.
You must surrender your teeth to it,
sign your candied eyes away,
deliver yourself in rings and butterflies
like dough to the baker’s oven.
Years of light gone tungsten-silver,
fidelity to a tune no longer heard,
sacks of onions, a toy pony or zebra,
stepping-stones inlaid with marbles,
with blue and yellow tiles in the garden
and the garden whispering,
Come back to the earth, little stones!
And they do. It gives them up.
They are released
from a weakening bond poured ages ago
and shaped in plastic forms.
In the kitchen, and in the shower,
tiles are missing everywhere,
apples taken by October wind.
Red skin, sweet flesh, the nave of the core
like a chalice, like a hidden chapel
and its secret parishioners—the pips, the seeds.
Beneath their mahogany armor, oh
what mischief the seeds have planned.
Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in
play and nourished on play; music and dancing were
pure play. Wisdom and philosophy found expression
in words and forms derived from religious contests.
The rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living
were built up on play-patterns. We have to conclude,
therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases,
played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching
itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and
never leaves it.
—johan huizinga, Homo Ludens
In Flight, Seattle to Miami
Why pretend that we are blind to history, or it to us?
From 30,000 feet I can feel its metamorphic currents,
cars and trucks inching through workday traffic
along the boulevards and flyovers
of a mid-American city I do not recognize.
The river is green, carving its way among hills.
Low mountains in the distance, color of old grass cuttings.
Farms below with long aluminum-roofed outbuildings—
chicken houses or tobacco sheds—and now
a nest composed of mountains wrinkled as tobacco leaves,
green escarpment ancient and eroded, some Ozark
or Appalachian tier folding into winter-browned farmland,
rifts that read as emergent ribs of a long-buried leviathan
left to rot on the floor of an ancient sea,
wave after wave of ridgeline the roads align with
as the earth’s blueprint is accommodated and made real.
From here the continent flows outward in every direction,
a great scarred shield of rock no longer molten
but plastic, elemental, generative, telluric.
A larger river and a plume of steam from a power plant
at the bend below a dam which forms a licorice-black lake
like a jigsaw puzzle among jagged hillsides.
On the in-flight video soldiers are departing for war.
Sailors are tossing small children in the air
while a band plays classic rock aboard the USS George
a boy is wearing his father’s helmet,
a woman in desert camouflage beams at her smiling
Aggression: from the Latin aggredi, “to approach with
Ag —“out”—and gradi—“to step.”
From the Indo-European root: gredh, “to walk.”
To step out, to arise and go forth, to place one foot
in front of the other,
to walk into the world is to aggress upon it.
Civilization has to be defended against the individual,
and its regulations, institutions and commands
are directed to that task.
—sigmund freud, The Future of an Illusion
To say society is to speak of a history that is slow, mute
and complicated; a memory that obstinately repeats
known solutions, to avoid the difficulty and danger
of imagining something else.
—fernand braudel, Civilization and Capitalism
The life of civilization was for me like a dream from
which I tried to wake up in vain. Or—and this is also
true—my life was such a dream.
—czeslaw milosz, Unattainable Earth
In Flight, Miami to Phoenix
Somewhere over the deep blasted desert.
Snowy mountains far off to the south, must be Mexico,
pinwheels of irrigators in the desolate lands,
a geometry of human desire and earthly intransigence.
An Afghanistan of the soul.
Speaks of origins.
Speaks of deep time, warped striations, chthonic passage.
Speaks of ancient grasslands, the species evolving—
moments when it feels apprehensible.
Speaks of America.
Speaks of horses and thirst.
Speaks as one from whom a testimony
of absolute emptiness has been extracted
by the hoodless torturers of the sun.
Like toys from a box, shaken out,
bright cars and alphabet blocks
strewn across the floor of the desert.
Like cargo dumped from a plane by accident,
things left out in the sun too long,
grown up planless, and desolate, and ordinary.
Was it the same for the Egyptians,
for the anchorite
crying out in the wilderness,
O Lord, I have passed through the fire
of this life and survived?
Like a blade of grass in your wind, O Lord?
Like a blind man seeking to decipher
with his hands your words
inscribed on tablets of salt amid the downpour.
Amulet of chalk and circuitry,
a city burning
faintly green against the god-bone.
Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines
we have devised are possessed of a heart which is
slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times,
human civilization has been no more than a strange
luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of
which no one can say when it will begin to wane and
when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities
shine through the night, and the fires still spread.
—w. g. sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Even in that hour the knowledge
that our willful titanism cannot save us,
such prescient constructs no more
than ribbons time itself has braided
in our hair, courses of the river in flood
season after season rewritten
while bedrock glistens unperturbed.
Even chiseled, hawsered, sawn into blocks,
stacked, girdered, engineered, blessed,
it is no more than a division of spoils,
partitions of a hive which may yet
be thrown down from its perch
and burned in coils of scented smoke,
moonfall bitten blue and amoral
across the marmoreal sky
of a descent beyond reckoning,
baubles, buried treasure, canopic jars,
lost process by which we shall know
no home but eternity, no balm
but sweet water in the shade of date palms,
a ringing of earthenware bells,
small foundries forging ingots of tin,
oil lamps along the water where
boys on donkeys proffer cinnamon and figs
beside the granary of the Pharaoh.
Because it lives here, within us, has burned
its fingerprints into the fabric of stars
unspooled from the spinnerets of time
the spider, time the jackal, the ass,
time the healer, the embalmer, the annealer,
the annointer, the vain and destructive,
the intransigent, the incorporeal, the just,
the praiseworthy, the bereaving and bereft—
always the same, witness and vanishing,
ransacked, laid bare, scoured, thirsty,
incorruptible and transformed and always
We cannot touch it, halt it, name it.
It sails past, wind upon the Nile,
rowed by whom and bound for what shore?
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