There is no exit from the dictionary.
~ Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club
Words beget and are begotten by other words in endless circular succession. There’s certainly no lack of them in our house. My son, for one, never shuts up except when he’s got his face in a book. Even then, I swear, the unspoken syllables float around the living room like ghosts of the unborn. The other day at dinner I convinced everyone to sit perfectly still and say nothing, just for ten seconds. It was the loudest ten seconds of my life: the unnaturally prolonged thunderclap of a twenty-pound dictionary being slammed shut.
[Y]our knowledge of the past – apart, occasionally, from a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor – comes entirely from written documents. You are almost completely cut off, by a wall of print, from the life you want to represent. You can’t observe historical events; you can’t question historical actors; you can’t even know most of what has not been written about. Whatever has been written about therefore takes on an importance which may be spurious. A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are just the bits that float to the surface. The historian clings to them, while somewhere below, the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.
~ Louis Menand
The present moment has a swaggering step, a Jovian aspect. As the platonic ‘moving image of eternity,’ it’s sure of its own importance. The past, immediate or distant, is only a mass extinction, a forgotten myth, irrecoverable and irrelevant in the blinding splendor of Now. Menand’s summary of the historian’s plight (from his foreword to Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station) may just as well describe our relation to our personal or family past. ‘The written word is the choicest of relics’ (Thoreau), but most everything is forgotten. Only a few survivors are pulled from the water: a half-dozen letters from a childhood friend; a great-grandmother’s birth certificate; the scribbled recollections of an uncle; a photograph of a boy on the pier with his brother and grandfather, holding a little trophy of a fish. The ship went down unnoticed in the rippling sea behind him.