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World: Analysis From Washington -- Avoiding The 'Vivisection of Time'

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 3 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As the calendar rolls over into the new millennium, many people around the world are attempting to liberate the future from the past or the past from the future in order to advance their own personal and political goals. But both efforts are doomed by the nature of the human condition and time itself.

That is the sobering message of the winning essay in an international competition organized to mark the selection of Weimar, Germany, as the European Cultural Capital for the year.

Written by a 20-year-old Moscow student, Iveta Gerasimchuk, the prize-winning essay argues that modern humanity, unlike the ancients, does not fully understand that "it is impossible to separate one day from the next" and thus "liberate the future from the past" or the past from the future.

Those who strive to liberate the future from the past, Gerasimchuk argues, "firmly believe that time is infinite, and they are not interested in how much of it has passed; after all, there is no limit to infinity and there is no limit to the changes of the world in it."

Those who seek the opposite, who want to protect the past from the future, she writes, "are not sure of the future, nor are they sure that time is infinite. However, they are sure of the past, and hence strive even more to liberate the past from the future, which brings changes."

As Gerasimchuk makes clear in her essay, which won out over more than 2,200 submissions, these differing philosophical perspectives on time both reflect and drive the thinking of many leaders around the world, even if few of them are prepared to face up to what she calls this "vivisection of time."

Those who want to free the future from the past, she notes, include many who believe that only by denying the past can individuals and societies move toward a better future. They properly note that an obsession with what has happened up to now often makes it impossible to move in new and different directions.

Thus, many people have argued that post-communist countries should avoid what they suggest would be a debilitating focus on the tragedies of the past and instead focus only on what they argue are the challenges of the future.

In contrast, those who want to free the past from the future, Gerasimchuk suggests, often deny any possibility for change at all. Desirous of holding on to what has been achieved up to now, they tend to view the future and the change it brings as threats not only to themselves but to the very possibility of good.

Examples of this kind of attitude are even more widespread, especially in groups and countries who currently enjoy a favored position.

But the efforts of both groups, Gerasimchuk argues, can -- just like vivisection -- sometimes prove fatal to those who practice them.

On the one hand, those who try to free the future from the past often find that the past exercises an even more powerful influence over the future than might otherwise be the case.

And on the other, those who try to free the past from the future almost inevitably discover the reverse: that the future and the changes it brings will exercise an even more powerful influence over the past than might otherwise be the case.

In an age when most people seem to live in a permanent present and at a time when many are focusing on a single date of the calendar, the lessons Iveta Gerasimchuk offers in her essay are particularly important. For as she notes, "the ancients understood that it is impossible to separate one day from the next, one year from the next." Many in the modern world clearly have not learned that lesson and as a result have lost sight of some important signposts all people need to function in an integral and fully human way.

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