When the Future Becomes the Present

The photo looks like something you’d find in an old cardboard box, perhaps—the box hidden in a corner of an attic, or a closet, or a shelf in the shadows of a basement. The grainy yellowed photo captures twenty-two people—friends and relatives—gathered on a beach by the Adriatic Sea, the group caught for a second in the midst of eating and drinking, the children in high spirits. From the dress of the people in this grainy, yellowed photo, you might imagine this scene was captured around a hundred years ago, and you would be right. The date written in the right hand corner of this photo is July 25, 1914.

Three days later the young artist Béla Zombory-Moldován (he’s the fellow seated near the center of the photo, white-capped and suited, looking directly at the camera) decided to take a morning stroll along the shore, in order to walk off the after-effects of yet another summer party. He paused to take in “the mirror-flat water stretching to infinity. It was sleeping calmly now, though it was capable of such cruelty; even so, I loved it. I could never have enough of this beauty.” But soon after this moment a figure appears in the distance. Béla, watching him approach, has “no inkling that the course of my life would be decided in the next few minutes.”

What changed his life was the news that Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, effectively initiating World War I. In a month Béla, newly conscripted into the army, will barely survive one of the war’s first battles, a virtual massacre when Russian artillery cut down over 100,00 Austro-Hungarian soldiers in Galicia (now a portion of Poland).

Béla eventually wrote a memoir of those days, yet never finished it, and only many years later did his grandson discover the manuscript and translate it into English as The Burning of the World. In his introduction, Peter Zombory-Moldovan writes:

Béla’s birthplace, on April 20, 1885, was the small and ancient city of Munkács, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It lay in the east of what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy ruled by Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria and holy apostolic king of Hungary.

The Carpathians are still there. All the rest is gone.

I read Zombory-Moldovan’s memoir in 2015, in anticipation of a trip to Budapest. Those were days long before the botched response to the Coronavirus pandemic carved a hole out of our daily lives, before the deaths of 170,000 people (so far) in the U.S. alone, before we were caught in an economic collapse far worse than the Great Recession, and before the last-straw public murder of a black citizen, George Floyd, set off a nationwide protest against the structural racism of our society—a protest that insists there will be no going back to the way things were.

I think all of us now harbor a moment from this year when we realized, past the point of any denial, that the world had changed. Vassily Grossman, author of the novel Stalingrad, captures with uncommon and unsettling power a crucial moment in World War II, and the growing rift between the past and the future.

[A]clearly audible voice pronounced with awful certainty, “Comrades, Germany has attacked the Soviet Union. Everyone to the airstrip!”

Soon after this came a moment that lodged itself in Novikov’s memory with a particular sharpness and precision. As he hurried after the pilots dashing towards the airstrip, he stopped in the middle of the garden where only a few hours earlier he had gone for a stroll. There was a silence, during which it seemed that everything was unchanged: the earth, the grass, the benches, the wicker table under the trees, a card chessboard, dominoes still lying scattered about. In that silence, with a wall of foliage shielding him from the flames and smoke, Novikov felt a lacerating sense of historical change that was almost more than he could bear. It was a sense of hurtling movement, similar perhaps to what someone might experience if they could glimpse, if they could sense on their skin and with every cell of their being, the earth’s terrible hurtling through the infinity of the universe. This change was irrevocable, and although only a millimeter lay between Novikov’s present life and the shore of his previous life, there was no force that could cancel out this gap. The gap was growing, widening; it could already be measured in meters, in kilometers. The life and time that Novikov still sensed as his own were already being transformed into the past, into history, into something about which people would soon be saying, ‘Yes, that’s how people lived and thought before the war.’ And a nebulous future was swiftly becoming his present.

I think most people today reading Grossman’s words can hear, in the growth of that widening gap, our own recent experiences, that “only a millimeter” moment when it became clear the Covid-19 pandemic, once troubling news happening elsewhere, was now firmly lodged and expanding in our own lives.

In these smart phone camera-crazy days nearly all of us, I’m sure, has a “lost world” photo commemorating one of our last pre-Covid social events.

I have my own photo that rivals Zombory-Moldován’s. I snapped this photo in the Cervejaria Trindade, in Lisbon, on Friday, March 6 of this year, during the writing residency of the Vermont College International MFA in Creative Writing and Translation. There we all sat, students and faculty crowded together on a long table, and if you look closely, you can see further tables in another room, all packed. Behind us, a long line of people waited, and not so patiently, for a table to open up. No one wore a mask—in those days, who even had them? What pleasure we took in each other’s company, unaware of the abrupt changes later in the month, when we all returned home and could no longer trust even the simple air we breathed, which was possibly rife with virus droplets.

That March 6, back in the U.S., New York had only 44 confirmed cases. Five days later, on March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the spreading Covid-19 virus a “pandemic,” my wife Alma and I had left Lisbon and were preparing to give a joint reading in Brussels. Our “the world has changed” moment came when our daughter called us in the middle of the night, warning us of the immanent cancellation of flights from Europe to the U.S., leading us to a mad-cap rush to the Brussels airport in a 3 AM rainstorm.

When the course of an individual’s life is suddenly and decisively altered, how can one accept wholeheartedly any appearance of calm later in life, or shed the fear that behind the ordinary lurks chaos? People who have survived serious car crashes, debilitating illness, or the sudden loss of a loved one know the difficult path that follows, when perhaps never again is there any true relaxing.

What happens when millions share a sharp division from one world to another? Will we be able to give each other strength, or will we be held back by our collective wounds? The U.S. scorecard so far is less than promising. Even after something declared “normalcy” is eventually achieved, how will our individual and collective inner lives adapt, how will we birth ourselves into a future we can bear to live in?

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August 21st, 2020 by admin