Time Travel

On optimism and despair


I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left. The New York Times reported that nearly seven in ten Republicans prefer America as it was in the fifties, a nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood.”

“Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others.”

“Meanwhile some on the left have time-travel fancies of their own, imagining that the same rigid ideological principles once applied to the matters of workers’ rights, welfare and trade can be applied unchanged to a globalized world of fluid capital.”

“People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive.”

“If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting.”

“At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory.”

“But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent.”

“But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.

We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride.”

That’s Zadie Smith in a speech originally delivered at a literary awards function in Germany 10 days after the American presidential election in 2016, and included in a brilliant collection of her essays, Feel Free.

Perhaps the more you despair right now, the more welcome this clear-eyed reminder of optimism, hope and personal duty.










*I found this piece in a wonderful site, Brain Pickings, a weekly long-form “inventory on the meaningful life” produced by Maria Popova. I’ve become such a fan that I support her work with a monthly donation but subscriptions are free. I highly recommend her.

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