langley’s theory of replacements


People my age are supposed to remember times long past though they can’t recall what happened yesterday. My memories of our long-dead parents are considerably dimmed, as if having fallen further and further back in time has made them smaller, with less visible detail as if time has become space, become distance, and figures from the past, even your father and mother, are too far away to be recognized. They are fixed in their own time, which has rolled down behind the planetary horizon. They and their times and all its concerns have gone down together. I can remember a girl I knew slightly, like that Eleanor, but of my parents, for instance, I remember not one word that either of them ever said.

 

——

 

WHICH BRINGS ME to Langley’s Theory of Replacements.

 

When it was first expounded I’m not sure, though I remember thinking there was something collegiate about it.

 

I have a theory, he said to me. Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation. All these herds of bison they are slaughtering out west, you would think that was the end of them, but they won’t all be slaughtered and the herds will fill back in with replacements that will be indistinguishable from the ones slaughtered.

 

I said, Langley, people aren’t all the same like dumb bison, we are each a person. A genius like Beethoven cannot be replaced.

 

But, you see, Homer, Beethoven was a genius for his time. We have the notations of his genius but he is not our genius. We will have our geniuses, and if not in music then in science or art, though it may take a while to recognize them because geniuses are usually not recognized right away. Besides, it’s not what any of them achieve but how they stand in relation to the rest of us. Who is your favorite baseballer? he said.

 

Walter Johnson, I said.

 

And what is he if not a replacement for Cannonball Titcomb, Langley said. You see? It’s social constructions I’m talking about. One of the constructions is for us to have athletes to admire, to create ourselves as an audience of admirers for baseballers. This seems to be a means of cultural communizing that creates great social satisfaction and possibly ritualizes, what with baseball teams of different towns, our tendency to murder one another. Human beings are not bison, we are a more complex species, living in complicated social constructions, but we replace ourselves just as they do. There will always be in America for as long as baseball is played someone who serves youth still to be born as Walter Johnson serves you. It is a legacy of ours to have baseball heroes and so there will always be one.

 

Well you are saying everything is always the same as if there is no progress, I said.

 

I’m not saying there’s no progress. There is progress while at the same time nothing changes. People make things like automobiles, discover things like radio waves. Of course they do. There will be better pitchers than your Walter Johnson, as hard as that is to believe. But time is something else than what I’m talking about. It advances through us as we replace ourselves to fill the slots.

 

By this time I knew Langley’s theory was something he was making up as he went along. What slots? I said.

 

Why are you too thick in the head to understand this? The slots for geniuses, and baseballers and millionaires and kings.

 

Is there a slot for blind people? I said. I was remembering, just as I said that, the way the eye doctor I’d been taken to shined a light in my eyes and muttered something in Latin as if the English language had no words for the awfulness of my fate.

 

For the blind, yes, and for the deaf, and for King Leopold’s slaves in the Congo, Langley said.

 

In the next few minutes I had to listen carefully to see if he was still in the room because he had stopped talking. Then I felt his hand on my shoulder. At which point I understood that what Langley called his Theory of Replacements was his bitterness of life or despair of it.

 

Langley, I remember saying, your theory needs more work. Apparently he thought so too, for it was atthis time that he began to save the daily newspapers.

 

—from E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley (2009)

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