Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson
What Time Is It?
In a "Letter from the Editor" in the January/February issue, I talked about sorting through stacks of folders stored at home, piles of books, miscellaneous articles, ephemera of all kinds, trying to restore a measure of order. That Sisyphean project continues. Not long ago, I came across a printout of a web-exclusive piece posted on December 18, 2006, on "The Year in Books." A few of you may recall seeing it at the time; if so, I hope you'll forgive me for bringing it to light here. As I read it over, it seemed, in an odd way, timely.
Hmmmm. If talking about The Top Ten Books of 2006 and the Book of the Year is an act of hubris, any pretension to survey "The Year in Books" is utter folly—unless writer and readers conspire genially as we do, say, when we suspend disbelief on beginning to read a novel or settling in our seats at the movies.
It happens that, in certain years, a book which has made a modest entrance turns out to shed light on many other books that might seem to be unrelated. So from the very first sentence you find yourself engaged in a kind of double reading, as you attend to the immediate context in the book you hold in your hand and at the same time begin to register connections branching off here and there and every whichway.
"Someone, sitting in a cave, punctures holes in a bone drained of marrow, raises it mouthwards, and blows—into a flute. Breath becomes sound, and time, through that sound, is given a shape. Being sound and shaped time, music begins."
Those are the enticingly musical first sentences of A Concise History of Western Music by Paul Griffiths (Cambridge Univ. Press), which doesn't merely pile century upon century but rather tells a coherent story, the theme of which is music's evolving engagement with time (so, for example, the development of Western musical notation moved in parallel with increasingly sophisticated devices for measuring time).
In this issue—see pp. 33-35—Heather Whitney, who teaches physics at Wheaton College, and Jeff Johnson, a recording artist and founder of ArkMusic, have pieces that come at the subject of "how music works" from different angles. Paul Griffiths' splendid book offers yet another.
How we situate ourselves in time—how we answer the question "What time is it?"—is diagnostic. The jihadists have an answer, as do those Christians (not so numerous as we're led to believe) who are persuaded that these are indeed the End Times. Not long ago my friend Roger Lundin, professor of English at Wheaton College and author of many fine books, sent me a photocopy of an article by the late Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, whom Roger and I both greatly admire. Appearing in the Autumn 2000 issue of the journal Christianity and Literature, the essay, entitled "Where Are We Now? Some Elementary Cosmological Considerations," was one of the last pieces Ong published. Given the current estimate of the age of universe—"more or less 12 to 14 billion years"—Ong laments that this "knowledge has hardly been assimilated theologically or otherwise by many human beings inside or outside communities of Christian believers."
Alas, Ong does not seem to have realized the extent to which this observation had already become a cliché: Better at this stage not to invoke it at all unless one is prepared to go beyond hand-waving—as Ong does only in a couple of suggestive passages, writing for example that "the real present time in which we live" (and which has as its frame of reference the historical time in which the events recounted in the gospels are clearly anchored) "is situated in real cosmic time," from which it follows that we "have to work out our thinking about the universe as God's creation from within this real time." And one consequence of that conclusion is that literalist readings of Genesis are "indefensible."
Well and good, but that doesn't take us very far. How exactly should we assimilate After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals (Indiana Univ. Press)? Donald Prothero's enjoyable tour of some of the high points of the last 65 million years or so, including many drawings and paintings attempting to depict denizens of the great Wyoming swamps and other distant climes, tries near the end to apply its findings to current affairs, scolding "our wasteful industrialized society" and warning that "natural processes may be trumped by our own interference again." Now our society may indeed cry out for scolding, and the ecological catastrophe Prothero foresees may indeed call for urgent action, but this sermon is so radically disconnected from the narrative that precedes it, the reader can only marvel at its sublime incoherence—and turn back to wallow in the book's intoxicating blend of strangeness and familiarity.