I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.
-Barry Hannah, Ray, p. 41
Hannah is dealing with the ‘age of confusion’ that was/is post-Vietnam America as he saw it. I’ve never read it, but there is a book about the artwork of Douglas Coupland (an author I really enjoy) that’s title carries the same idea. It’s called Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything.
The idea is also reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.
The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes” (Slaughterhouse Five).
The overarching sense of all of this is that everything for the modern American is jumbled up, misunderstood, confused, etc. There’s a lot more than that, but for the sake of this post, that’s all I’m talking about.
There is something instructive, however. In his great book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton called Tradition the ‘democracy of the dead.’ Tradition means giving your predecessors a vote that is equally as valid as yours. C.S. Lewis made the point that books from the past are the only tool we have to check our own chronological-subjectivism (see HERE and HERE). Alister McGrath summarizes Lewis’ position by saying that reading old books “frees us from the tyranny of the contemporaneous” as it keeps “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”
My point is that ‘living in so many centuries’ that everyone seems alive is not actually a bad thing. Confusion can be bad. Having a healthy relationship with history not so much. I feel like I know some dead people better than I know some of the living folks I talk to every day.