The Hungry Teeth of the Ages


I long for a notion of history that invites us to take up the openness of the present.

If a purposeful stride carries you into the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), you can find yourself in front of a Roman bust within minutes.

These sculptures offer a vision of eternal life under the regime of time—eternity conceived as “infinite temporal duration,” in the phrase of one modern philosopher. Quarter-length torsos with heads turned to nobly face an ancient legislature or army, the busts convey a mythical solidity. A placard calls attention to the intricate curls of one emperor’s beard, which is the work of an artisan employing a drilling technique that came into vogue when the original autographs of the New Testament manuscripts were presumably still in circulation.

I look at these busts today and see only eternal forms; there is no sign of the mess and rot of life, of contingency. Consider the means by which the face is brought out of the marble block. The chisel comes down with variable force, clipping away the obstructing material in large chunks and flakes. When the form begins to yield itself to the eye, the sculptor’s gestures become finer and more precise. A cheek emerges, a nose, the curve of a lip. A face comes loose from the surrounding stone; chalky detritus surrounds the work in progress. Surely the act of creation is more complex, but I can only see these pieces through the genius of the greatest sculptors, those who could not have composed otherwise—like God, in their way.

When I first began to read history, the sculptures used to memorialize historical figures and events provided the guiding metaphor for my interpretation of the past. As with the figure freed from the block of stone, these great men and women each had an essential and immutable character, and as the chisel blows of circumstance fell, this character became manifest with the same mythical solidity that characterizes the Roman statuary at the ROM.

But the metaphor has a deadening effect. It leaves me with images of decisive battles with prophesied outcomes, reforms that were unstoppable, arguments that were won or lost before anyone spoke. The cumulative impression is simple: the past could not have been otherwise. The people involved could not have acted in any other way. And neither can I.

* * *

It took me a long time to comprehend the poverty of my historical imagination. I only realized its true extent in an encounter with a great historian.

In the 18th century, young men of aristocratic English origin customarily undertook a months- or years-long journey into continental Europe. Called the Grand Tour, the trip cemented the lessons of a classical education while acquainting participants directly with the cultural treasures of Europe. It was on a two-and-a-half-year long tour in the 1760s that an Englishman named Edward Gibbon found himself among the ruined columns of the capital of the ancient world.

In his memoirs, Gibbon writes:

[I]t was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.

The narrative about the decline and fall of the city of Rome expanded into a far larger project, and that project came to be known around the world as a great monument in its own right: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall roughly covers a period that begins in the second century C.E. and ends in the late 16th century. Though the historian possessed many gifts—as a stylist, as a thinker, and obviously as a chronicler of the past—Gibbon has one gift that I did not expect him to have: an ability to compose subtle psychological portraits, which he provides for the great figures in his narrative.

In place of essential, fixed forms, Gibbon manages to convey characteristics that can only ever be attributed to human beings in situations of uncertainty and risk. “A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him, at the age of nineteen, to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside,” Gibbon writes of Augustus.

His virtues, and even his vices, were artificial; and according to the various dictates of his interest, he was at first the enemy, and at last the father, of the Roman world.

His dissembling grew from prudent roots, as “the death of Caesar was ever before his eyes.” Brutus and Cassius had stabbed his own uncle in the senate, after all, and Augustus knew “[Julius] Caesar had provoked his fate, as much by the ostentation of power as by his power itself. ... The title of king had armed the Romans against his life.”

The judiciousness of Augustus, who brought peace and stability to the empire, takes on shades of cowardice and conniving; Gibbon tells us “he [was not] deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”

One portrait is enough to convey the shock of life Gibbon imparts, unexpected in the arid reaches of the well-known past. The characterization wells up within the marble of his sculpted image; I imagine ancient thoughts behind the tooth-white forehead of the ancient tyrant, a man who never ceased to look over his shoulder for the knife of the familiar assassin. Gibbon produces him for us as though summoning him from the dead. When he looked at the rows of the broken colonnade in 1764, did he see ghosts among the stones?

* * *

In Gibbon’s portrait of Augustus, as in so many others, I find glimpses of a different past than I am accustomed to seeing— less a landscape in a snapshot than the scene of a crowded dinner gathering, each quiet moment full of possible routes into the next sequence in a growing conversation, rife with tensions and motives and expectation. Is it possible to perceive life in what is long dead?

But even with Gibbon’s enlivened portrayals, the emperors whose lives he chronicles are also those whose artifacts survive. They remain immortal in the way they aspired to immortality: they are remembered, discussed, and interpreted in a future time. The masses of their contemporaries remain anonymously extinct, and I cannot help but picture myself in their company. For a normal person, what would it mean to enter into history instead of passively observing its progress? I still do not know.

At this point, I have not succeeded in scouring the past of its inevitability, or of imagining a sort of historical moral agency that could be possessed by the everyday citizens of past epochs. I cannot find my way out of the statuary, the impulse to turn people into revelations of timeless attributes, and to render events as fulfilled prophecies.

I have come to think that one means of escape from this paradigm might be found in a fundamentally different notion of the past than we possess in the West, one that resists empirical reliance on artifacts, monuments, and primary texts. I find something of this kind in a suggestive essay by the Catholic sinologist Simon Leys titled “The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past.”

Leys writes that while “[t]he presence of the past is constantly felt in China”—not least in “movie-theatre posters, advertisements for washing machines, televisions or toothpaste displayed along the street” that are written in a language that has “remained practically unchanged for the last 2,000 years”—the country evinces a “material absence of the past that can be most disconcerting for... Western travelers.”

Chinese artifacts can be found in museums around the world, but Leys argues that the central feature of Chinese culture as it was transmitted across generations for centuries was its focus on the written word. Interest in historiography and material artifacts developed relatively late in China’s history, in the context of great uncertainty and fear at the beginning of the Song dynasty in the eleventh century. For centuries before, calligraphy had been the order of the day—the most prestigious form of art, and coincidentally one of the most perishable.

But it is not coincidence alone that resulted in a dearth of durable Chinese artifacts. The embrace of contingency is a structural feature of the Chinese attitude towards the past: the same hope for a natural afterlife that the ancient Romans possessed is present here, but by a different means. Leys writes, “[L]ife-after-life was not to be found in a superstructure, nor could it rely upon artifacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.”

We are still in the territory of Gibbon’s prose monuments, but for an essential difference. The written word here does not seek to capture an individual in permanent characteristic gesture or expression, freezing them for history. It is, as Leys writes, a “permanence of names” that comes to inform the self-understanding of later generations. The essential thing isn’t the individual revealed under the aspect of eternity by the blows of circumstance. It’s the activity, the act itself that is of interest to posterity.

Leys observes that this principle manifests even in Chinese architecture and public space: perishable and fragile materials make up buildings that come down easily, requiring frequent reconstruction. As the poet Victor Segalen writes, “Nothing immobile can escape the hungry teeth of the ages.” In the Chinese embrace of this principle, Leys says, the problem has shifted; “Eternity should not inhabit a building, it should inhabit the builder.”

The transient nature of the construction is like an offering to the voracity of time; for the price of such sacrifices, the constructors ensure the everlastingness of their spiritual designs.

Gibbon may not have found a ruined colonnade to sit under, were he to have made his way to China. His reveries may not have proceeded from the toppled stones, but from his experience of a people who live within their history. Under the aegis of this philosophy, the smoking ruins of a temple or a palace are not a sacrilege or a cataclysm. They are an invitation to build again, to repeat the gesture, to act.

Leys goes so far as to suggest that though “grievous losses [have been] inflicted upon the cultural heritage of China,” the recurring destruction of everything from monumental spaces to art collections over the millennia has given Chinese culture an unsought gift: that of an enabling “creative forgetfulness” that prevents the weight of the past from obstructing the creation of new work in the present.

* * *

I am a Christian man, born in the West in a decadent age, a witness to the millennium. From here, the future looks dark: rising temperatures and seas, forced migration leading to war, a world that may succumb to a fever we have caused. Our problems exist on too large a scale for any of us to meaningfully imagine them.

The monuments with which I began this essay have one last function that I have not yet mentioned: They draw attention to the quality of the individual actor, and obscure the role of the community and the collective. Perhaps this is a final failure of my historical imagination: I am preoccupied with the prospect of individual agency, when the agency of whole communities might offer the only viable means of responding to the crises of a new global era. This is why I find some measure of hope in Leys’ account of the Chinese view of the past. The paradigm he outlines has a morally democratic quality.

But my imagination still operates within the boundaries that the Roman busts in the ROM suggest: one has the essential quality, or doesn’t. Meaningful moral acts are the purview of the inhuman greats, while my lot is to observe, and perhaps also to choose my own cellphone carrier or internet provider. This is the scale of my notion of my own agency.

Our own times require more of us than I am ready to give. My attempts to find signs of the contingency of the past, some flicker of agency behind the frozen images of our forebears, are also attempts to find grounds for imagining freedom. I long for a notion of history that invites us in to participate in the “permanence of names” and to take up the openness of the present, as we are called to do. If we are going to continue to survive, we can no longer imagine the future as ready-made, something to seize or receive. It will instead be the handiwork of us all.

Text: Martyn Wendell Jones
Calligraphy: Ms. Siu Man Ha