Human identity seems similar to other animals’ identity in that it pays attention to places and things and especially other living things, and of living things the most, those one loves and is loved by. Our three brother cats know where their siblings are, more or less, at all times, and if they have been outside alone or sleeping, they often will notice where their brothers are. Laura and I are also fairly scrupulous about attending to each others’ locations, and to the cats’, but we also operate in the context of time with respect to one another. We both are, according to what our parents and friends have told us, completing our sixty-seventh year of life on Earth, though hard evidence about the earliest years is spotty, and therefore curiously precious to us.
Big Time matters a great deal to modern humans, that sense of where we are in the Universe’s history, but there, too, we encounter a lot of spotty record keeping about the early durations, and we disagree, sometimes violently, about how to measure or name those durations. What are “years” when the planet’s circum-solar orbit did not exist? Now that gravity waves have been detected and measured, our flexible space-time may start to seem even more unstable and harder to use to locate ourselves in a shared “when.”
This zone of thought was brought to my mind last Saturday (2/21/2016 CE) when L and I spied a carved stone at the base of the B&O Railroad bridge that crosses Main Street (AKA “Old Frederick Road”) in Ellicott City, our home town of twenth-six years, by some measurements, at least. We walk under the bridge many times each month for exercise, but for some reason we had not noticed until very recently the two carved stones that were part of the northern buttress of the bridge. The first, a literal “mile stone,” stood out from the base far enough that I finally observed and photographed it a year ago this past fall to use for my last semester teaching a literary survey course. It was a literal representative of the need for “milestone” literary works which, though somewhat arbitrary in their choice, are valuable in a survey course because they help us orient ourselves to a series of works in time. This particular milestone tells travelers they are ten miles from Baltimore, which by inference one would reach by following the tracks in the direction of the buttress below which the stone was placed.
For an example of a literary milestone, I often used Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. The play, probably written late in CM’s sixteenth-century career and obviously before his violent and tragic death on May 30, 1593, bridges some stylistic gaps between the older, more abstract theater of the medieval moralities and mystery plays and the later, historically mimetic theater we identify as “Elizabethan.” Marlowe includes, but mocks, an allegorical drama of the “Seven Deadly Sins” with which Lucifer distracts Faustus when the doctor is on the verge of renouncing his soul-destroying pact. Marlowe’s audiences apparently knew and loved these stiffly formulaic dramas, and we can see, in the doctor’s bawdy banter with the demons playing the Sins, that theater-goers probably were expected to shout criticisms and jokes to the actors as part of the performance, very Rocky Horror for those who know the midnight movie tradition. Marlowe also uses an “angelus” or “messenger” to announce place and time between some acts that are separated by many years or miles in their locations. He apparently does not entirely trust his audience to be able to follow these leaps in space and time without explicit guidance. In a decade or so, these ancient trappings of medieval theater would be largely gone from London-produced theater because audiences had relegated formulaic theater to pantomimes and were used to flying through history and geography to follow authors’ whims. The play thus serves to mark an approximate era in which audiences’ minds changed and the theater left some conventions behind to change with them. The “tragical history” formula Marlowe also points forward in time, which is why it makes a nifty milestone work. This shadowing forth of some kind of historical event which the author enables us to imaginatively participate in, which Marlowe uses for the play’s main action, remains with us to this day in stage drama, novels, and video productions, like Hilary Mantel’s modern dramatization of Thomas Cromwell’s sixteenth-century political career in (so far) Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. He’s not the first English author to dramatize history–More’s Richard III might be a candidate, or even Chaucer’s tales of Canterbury–nor the last to use allegories, but like the ten-mile marker, it’s a useful event in time to help us understand where drama came from and where it was going.
When I employed that “sixteenth-century” locution above to locate Marlowe in time, I called up a cultural norm that I expect my audiences to share, but which is entirely dependent upon some debatable assumptions about how to measure time which we all generally know about but agree to ignore so that we can get on our way discussing people, places, and things rather than the time-space they move in. That was brought home to me by the second stone inscription we just discovered under that bridge, like the milestone a silent presence for a quarter of a century of my life (did it again!) but standing there to surprise me on our walk this past weekend:
Even non-Christians are used to the “Anno Domini” dating that suggests this bridge was built 1829 years after the birth of a God in whose “years” Christians are living. Fewer of us are used to living in the “Anno Lucis” or “Year of Light,” a Masonic dating system which uses some version of Bishop Ussher’s calculation of the date of Creation by adding up the ages of the Patriarchs in Genesis. From this process, which I confess I have not performed, myself, one apparently can date “Fiat lux” to four thousand some odd years before the infant God’s first wails. All that is implicit in the stone, carved by some reverent mason (or Mason) roughly one-hundred-eighty-seven years before I typed this blog entry. Nevertheless, it has been still the same “now” for all of us.
Small, atomic-level time is something we all share whether we like it or not, because the Internet is governed by International Atomic Time (known as TAI, after its French acronym), the averaged vibrations of caesium atoms in hundreds of atomic clocks in dozens of laboratories around the world. Without its agreed-upon and relentlessly recalculated accuracy (one second’s uncertainty in 30 million years?), networked computers could not communicate with each other, GPS satellites would not work, and the digital world as we have come to know it would cease to exist. (Shouldn’t it scare us that we are, most of us, mostly, totally unaware of all this going on while we sleep and eat and drink our occasional Merlot?) But Big Time has yet to be governed by any such device or system. I suspect that, if Big Time ever gets its “Clock,” those who live by it will view us as we now view Neanderthals, beings to whom we are distantly related but, alas, barely sentient lugs, or at least sadly under-informed. For now, let us enjoy our time. Please spend a bit of it just feeling the stuff all around you. You might discover something great.