Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Our Sense of Time

I’m reading again a book which was completed in 1899. At least I presume that was the year because the book, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, was first presented in 1900 as the second Gifford Lecture given at Edinburgh. By 1900, I learned today, the Eiffel Tower in Paris had already been in place for a decade. It was opened to the public on March 31, 1889—and since Google is featuring the tower today, now everybody knows. A hundred and twenty-six years ago! Did William James ever go up to see Paris from that height? My own reaction was a slight startle of surprise. That long ago? Somehow what I was reading—and Varieties is one of several books I’m reading in parallel from that time—does not smoothly integrate with this monument of technological self-assertion. At the same time, reading writings from that period had also struck me with the modernity of the views I was absorbing. All times, ultimately, reflect all aspects of a society, not merely its thought or its technology. And this coincidence in time, for me, is one of the proofs of that.

Just to stay with wondrous constructs, the Chartres Cathedral was completed in 1220. Looking for significant figures in that time, I come up with Hildegard of Bingen (who died while it was being built but 31 years before its completion), Francis of Assisi  (who died six years after the cathedral was done), and Roger Bacon (who was a boy of six the year when Chartres was finished). It all sort of fits, you might say.

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