Personal effects (lighters, cigarette boxes, pens, a key) left in a field in Meja, Kosovo after Serbian massacre of 300 Kosovar Men -- 1998 (Copyright 1999 Joanne Mariner, Human Rights Watch)

V. All Mouth and Teeth and Motion

Returning, once again, to the question of how the scholar works in time with things that have fallen out of time, I am reminded of a story I encountered recently written by Stephen King titled "The Langoliers." It is, in many respects, a rather silly story, but it constructs a theory of time which I think applies to the way in which we need to begin thinking through the process of how past things -- such as the Beowulf manuscript, da Vinci's frescoes, and Schulz's murals -- relate to the present. The title of King's story refers to a kind of "story-within-the-story" that one of the characters, about midway through the narrative, relates about his childhood. Apparently, this character's father had been a bullying and frightening tyrant, and whenever he thought his son was being lazy or procrastinating about something he would tell him about "the Langoliers," who were all mouth and teeth and motion and moved with terrifying speed, devouring anything that moved more slowly than they did. They existed in the past, but if you wasted time they would catch up to you and eat you alive. This story so terrified this character when he was a boy that, as a grown man, he is intensely neurotic about wasting time and therefore he becomes the most "unhinged" when he gets caught up in the plot of this story that is, ultimately, about getting stuck outside of time.

In the present action of King's story, ten sleeping passengers on a plane headed for Boston wake up to discover that, even though they are tens of thousands of feet up in the sky, all of the other passengers, including the pilots, have disappeared, leaving behind only their material effects: watches, jewelry, false teeth, eyeglasses, wallets, books and magazines, etc. Somehow, we discover later, they traveled through a "rip" in the fabric of time and wound up in what appears to be an abandoned universe. Luckily, one of the remaining passengers is a pilot and he manages to land the jet in Bangor, Maine, but when the ten survivors deplane they discover that no one is there in the airport or anywhere at all in the surrounding countryside. They soon deduce (never mind how) that they have traveled to the past and it's a very unsafe place to be. In fact, it is literally in the process of using itself up -- matches don't work there, the beer in the airport cafe is flat, the sandwiches have no flavor that can be tasted, electricity cannot be generated, and in the distance beyond the hills, they can hear a terrifying sound -- similar to gale force winds, or a tornado -- which seems to be headed their way. In fact, this is the sound of time itself literally devouring the landscape and anything else in that landscape of material heft and weight.

Realizing that they cannot stay in the past which is, finally, a vacuum that devours everything in its wake, they re-board the plane and head back to Los Angeles, the assumption being that if they go back the exact same way they came (while asleep, of course), they can go back through the time rip and end up back in the present. Never mind how this all works -- it's utterly ridiculous from a scientific point-of-view. Nor shall we worry about all the plot complications I haven't shared, such as the subplot about the passenger who told his childhood story about the Langoliers actually going murderously insane and then even being devoured by whirling black holes with multiple rows of gnashing metal teeth (time itself) while the plane lifts off from the Bangor airport. The important thing is, the remaining passengers make it to the Los Angeles airport (with the one exception of the pilot who, after teaching one passenger how to land the plane, stays awake in order to steer the plane through the time rip and therefore heroically sacrifices his life for the others), and guess what? No one is in Los Angeles either, no one at all. They are now in the future and they have to wait for the present to catch up with them, which it eventually does because, oddly enough, this is a horror story with a happy ending.

The moral of the story, finally, is that one cannot travel to the past nor to the future, because nothing is actually there, and the past is even violent and dangerous due to the peculiar physics of the place. In the end, the only place that is livable is the present. But the question is begged: don't the things of the past -- those watches and pairs of eyeglasses, the beer bottles and sandwiches, and even the buildings -- endure somehow and come into the present, and isn't the past, then, always -- if even in fragments -- in the present (in other words, not completely devoured by time's voracious maw)? The answer, I think, is both "yes" and also "no," for the obvious reasons--the basic principles of evolutionary biology suffice to demonstrate that the past comes into the present through a process of ferocious will and replication, random accident, and even sheer, dumb luck, and it is through this very same process that the past often stays behind as well. The more important question is: how are we to reckon the evolutionary process by which the past comes into the present, and most properly take account of both what is lost and what remains? How, in other words, do you give the dead what they might have wanted (if you think that's important), while also attending to those around you in the present who might be in need of some possible answers to the difficult question, "why does the past matter?" -- and even, the more anxious question, "why does the past matter in this particular instant of time?"

Leonardo da Vinci, Armoured Car, Codex Arundel, f. 1030 (1487)

Leonardo may not have cared enough about the future in his fresco preparation in the refectory at Santa Marie delle Grazie, but we know that he was anxious about how some things might get lost in time, and he tried to prepare for it. In 1508, when he was living in Florence and collecting notes for his Codex Arundel, a compendium of many subjects -- including astronomy and optics, geology, hydraulics, architecture, war machines, and the flight of birds -- he wrote the following note to himself regarding his work before departing for Milan: "Take care of all these matters tomorrow, copy them, and then mark the originals with a sign and leave them in Florence, so that if you lose what you take with you, the invention will not be lost" (qtd. in Alessandro Vezzosi, Leonardo da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance, trans. Alexandra Bonfante-Warren [New York, 1997], 106).

Ultimately, then, the job of the contemporary scholar is to work to connect the excavated artwork -- even when that artwork exists only as a fragment, or only exists in imperfect, perhaps incomplete copies -- to what is essentially a re-creative and generative act in the present that will take us closer, not necessarily to how the text or painting might have looked if only it had escaped the ravages of history, but to the more mystical yet also intellectual energies of creative expression which always, in all times and places, has its limits. According to Leo Steinberg, in his book Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper (Zone Books, 2001), it was the limits of the expressible that da Vinci pondered most deeply in his work:

It was the lure of these limits that busied his passions, whatever the cause to be visualized--muscle work or the propagation of light, turbulent water or doctrinal symbolism, or, if the painting required it, the transparency of the paradox that more and more still equals one. The task throughout was to discover what art could be made to do.

It may be that this, finally, is art's primary function -- to explore, for instance, as I think the Beowulf-poet did, the cultural anxiety produced by the tension between history's and memory's points of incommensurability (and between asymmetrical modes of remembering and forgetting), and this anxiety produces a field in which the dead who are supposedly buried in the world of the poem continue to gesture, with each reading of that poem, against the grain of their own oblivion.

from Eileen A. Joy, Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History (book-in-progress)