Out of time. All these things
are really quite old-
-C.P. Cavafy, "On the Ship"
I have reached that age when every new person I meet reminds me of someone I once knew. Just as every news event brings to mind something that happened in that dense thicket known as the past.
Being a history addict can have its advantages; it tends to take some of the suspense out of the news, and explode the all too common delusion that we're now faced with something wholly unprecedented, something Entirely New! Right. Like a new brand of soap powder or toothpaste.
If living in history can be a great liberation that way, it also can be like living in a narrow cell - for it narrows the vision, and invites the smug assurance that this event or that trend or such-and-such a decision will turn out much as an earlier one did.
History may repeat, but it never seems to produce quite the same result. Much like a chemical formula that may have the same ingredients as before but hasn't been assembled the same way, or in which some additional factor, perhaps inconsequential in itself, has changed the whole effect. With quite different, even explosive, results.
Despite knowing all that, reading the daily news can still set off flashbacks.
For example, consider this item the other day about the progress of the Olympic Torch on its uneven way over hill and dale and angry protests. At the time, it was passing through North Korea en route to Beijing for the 2008 Games, aka the Genocide Olympics - in honor of communist China's complicity in the massacres in Darfur. The commissars' crackdown in Tibet has been unconscionable, too. But there was nothing but cheering when the Olympic Torch reached the capital of North Korea:
"PYONGYANG, North Korea - North Korea mobilized tens of thousands of citizens on Monday to celebrate the Olympic torch relay in Pyongyang, the flame's first visit to the authoritarian nation. Men in their best suits and women wearing traditional high-waisted dresses waved flags and paper flowers in the capital, greeting the torch like a visiting head of state. Unlike some other parts of the relay ahead of the Beijing Olympics, everything went off without a hitch in North Korea. Only the most loyal Communist elite are allowed to live in Pyonyang, a showpiece city filled with monuments to the hard-line regime."
Flashback to a starry night in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, in the fall of 1983, when there still was a U.S.S.R. We visiting editorial writers were taken to what was described as an old caravanserai on the fabled Silk Road. All was, we were told, as it was then. Ah, the romance of a lost past! It was something out of National Geographic. Escorted into a leafy courtyard surrounded by small dining rooms, we danced under a bright, moonlit sky speckled with bright stars - the kind of vista one can see only far away from the glaring lights of great cities.
The sound of oud and dumbek, tambourine and castanets, filled the air as we reclined on pillows to eat our lamb pilaf, drink the local red, and luxuriate as of old. Our hosts could not have been more gracious. After a few glasses of wine, a Sovjournalist with Izvestia told me the secret of life: "Want to be happy for a day? Get drunk. Want to be happy for a year? Get married. Want to be happy for lifetime? Get friends."
We drank to Soviet-American Friendship and anything else we could think of. I was feeling no pain by the time I wobbled up in search of a rest room along one of the corridors, opening the first door I came to.
I was back in the shabby present with a jolt - in some dusty office full of metal desks jammed together and cluttered with the detritus of the day's work - or rather, this being the Soviet Union and a command economy, the day's malingering. The office looked like something out of the 1930s with its pencil sharpeners and carbon paper, pencils and erasers and ancient typewriters. That's when I noticed the lettering on the door: INTOURIST. I was sober in an instant.
It dawned on me then that nothing had really changed in the Russian empire since Prince Potemkin was erecting those mock villages on the Volga for Catherine. All was for show on this enchanted night in Baku, and somehow I'd wandered backstage.
The show goes on. From the same AP dispatch: "As the 12-mile relay wound through Pyongyang, thousands of cheering people lined the streets waving pink paper flowers and small flowers with the Beijing Olympics and chanting 'Welcome! Welcome!' Middle-aged women in traditional dresses danced and beat drums in one square, while young girls held red balloons and bouquets of flowers."
This Olympic year, many a news story awaits to revive memories as the storied Torch wends its way toward Beijing: memories of the well-staged 1980 Olympics in Moscow, of the massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972, of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin under the New Order.
Yet the search goes on for the fabled Ithaca of international Peace and Friendship - for mir y druzhba, as our Soviet hosts in Baku were wont to say with a knowing smile. I see them even now, still young, out of time, waiting till the sun had set on the Caspian before daring to exchange confidences under cover of darkness.
And if you find her wanting,
Ithaka won't have fooled you.
you'll have understood by then
what these Ithakas mean.
-C.P. Cavafy, "Ithaka"
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