We've all, at some point or another in our lives, had this fantasy. Whether we perceive modern life as too hurried, unsatisfying, devoid of meaning, or we see ourselves as slaves to the demands of technology, some of us yearn for a simpler time when many of the great political, ideological, and literary debates of decades gone by had yet to be settled. Conflicts or movements of the past in which we picture ourselves an integral part of. For we are confident that our presence would have resulted in an outcome to our liking. Great ideas that we wish we'd thought of. Music that we know we should have recorded. Inventions we know we were destined to be associated with. It is the inevitable 'what if' question we often think of. It is the restless explorer in all of us.
RJ Matson, New York Observer, Buy this cartoon
Allow me to indulge in my fantasy below the fold.
Are most of us obsessed with the predictability and reassurances of the past for we know the ending all too well? Or, are some brave enough to travel to yet-to-be-explored frontiers? In his classic novel, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells set out to discover the future
A dreamer obsessed with traveling through time builds himself a time machine and, much to his surprise, travels over 800,000 years into the future. The world has been transformed with a society living in apparent harmony and bliss, but as the Traveler stays in this world of the future he discovers a hidden barbaric and depraved subterranean class. Wells’s translucent commentary on the capitalist society was an instant bestseller and launched the time-travel genre.
In this diary, I largely chose the past over the future. No, I'm not a Luddite afraid of change and unpredictability and the proverbial 'fear of the unknown.' But, neither am I terribly impressed by new technology. And I'm fully aware that I might be committing heresy to proclaim this on a web site powered by the latest in new technologies. I may use it, savor it, even admire it. Yet, somehow, I'm never overwhelmed by it. Or, afraid to be made obsolete by it. It is simply the dual, ambivalent, contradictory nature of our souls. It is what explains my user ID. So be it. It's like trying to explain why I've never owned a camera or a wrist watch my entire life. Friends don't understand it but I am who I am. Explaining away certain idiosyncrasies one possesses might be an exercise in futility.
So, let's embark on this journey. Being a student of history and politics (both in the formal and informal sense), I am often curious as to why certain events happened, what circumstances led to these changes, what the ramifications were, and the characters involved. The last few centuries provide ample opportunities to indulge in this fantasy. From the period of the Renaissance to the Second Industrial Revolution -- one of great technological, social, and economic change -- to the culturally radical 1960's and 70's, the past is full of fascinating periods in which I could see myself living in. Undoubtedly, many here are old enough to have actually lived in and, perhaps, actually met some of the people listed in the poll. Question: if you could go back in time, which period of history would you like to live in, who would you like to be, and which historical figures would you like to meet?
I, for one, am endlessly fascinated by the 1918-1939 Inter-War era. Here's what I would have done and people I'd met through this journey
- As a foreign reporter based in Europe for the New York Herald Tribune, I'd have interviewed all the important political figures of the period -- among others, Ramsey McDonald, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, Leon Blum, and, yes, even Adolf Hitler. To get into their minds, trying to figure out what motivated them, and what their insecurities were.
- Traveled all over Europe to see the debilitating effects of the Great Depression, maybe even experience life as this great author did.
- Upon trips back home to the States, interviewed one of the most under-appreciated heroes of that turbulent era.
- Had dinner with one of my favorite novelists.
- Written extensively on the gathering storm in Europe and how I could persuade my government to act swiftly and decisively.
Will it happen? No, but I can dream, can't I? For now, I'll be content with reading more about developments in this period, some resulting in catastrophic disaster. Death to tens of millions, many in the most horrific fashion. Displacement for millions more. Unprecedented destruction of property. And yet, it ushered in the birth of a new era, where the Rights of Man started to become a reality and democratic principles began to take hold. Empires withered away. Millions of colonial subjects experienced freedom for the first time. Living standards rose world-wide. In other words, a world reborn.
Here's the burning question of this evening: if you were provided the opportunity, which group or groups would you like to join for dinner? And, what questions will you ask of them? I'm sure I could think of dozens, if not hundreds, of questions for the dinner participants I've listed in the diary poll but I'll list five such questions:
- Of William Shakespeare I'd ask, did he really write all those wonderful plays and if he could have, which ones did he regret not writing?
- I'd ask FDR as to how did he cope with the pressures of guiding the country through the Great Depression and World War II. And, what did it feel like being married to Eleanor?
- Muhammad Ali, at one point arguably the most famous person in the world, would certainly be an entertaining dinner guest. I'd enquire about the years when he had been stripped of his World Heavyweight Boxing title due to his religious beliefs and being a conscientious objector who refused to fight in Vietnam.
- In my dinner with Karl Marx, I'd ask him as to what he thought of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin? And, of the three leaders, whose vision of Marxism (as implemented) would he have endorsed?
- I would ask Albert Einstein the following question: if he could foresee the horrors of the nuclear age, would he have chosen a different profession?
- I'd be scared to death of asking Sigmund Freud anything as he'd probably have figured out my questions and motives well before the words came out of my mouth.
Yes, I deliberately didn't include other famous madmen like Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. Most of my friends would like to meet them and arrest them on the spot to prevent the horrors they caused for much of humanity. Given my obsessive interest in history, literature, and political science, almost all of the people I'd like to meet and spend an evening with are long dead. Some became very famous, others didn't quite fulfill their potential, and had what one would consider unfinished lives. A few are alive with chapters yet unwritten and to be added to their list of accomplishments.
So, choose among my groups. Or, add your fantasy dinner companions and groups and what you would talk to them about. List a few burning questions you'd ask of them. Most of the groups I chose represent a particular theme or series of events. In some groups, I added an outsider like, for example, Groucho Marx to the first group of Karl Marx, Barack Obama, and Adam Smith. This is a club he'd definitely join. Oh, and Sarah Palin's rubbing elbows with Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Molly Ivins. Out of place perhaps? You betcha!
If you aren't familiar with any of them, just Google them or look them over in Wikipedia. And remember to take the poll too.
With a few edits and some additions, this diary is a combination of a couple of such diaries that I wrote back in 2006 and 2007.
Crossposted at Docudharma