Friday 09 Dec 2016

A Brief History of Now
Sjef Frenken

I'd been bemoaning the fact that so little of broadcast programming reaches back to the era before rock-'n-roll. And that there was not only little retrieval, you might say, of the music of previous eras, but also little sampling -- only a tiny bit of all the music currently being produced ever reaches the airwaves.

"But you don't listen to radio anymore, how would you know?" said Jack.

I said "No I don't listen anymore, but I don't think things have changed all that much over the past five years. Right?"

Jack had to agree, but couldn't resist putting up a last-ditch defense: "You have to admit we live in the here-and-now, not the past."

I said "The past is what gives shape to the here-and-now. Without a sense of the past, the present makes little sense. Who would you be without a memory of your own past? Same with society or a civilization. It has no depth. And when you come to think of it, the phrase 'the here-and-now' is a pretty puzzling concept."

"In what way?" asked Jack.

I said "Think of it: until the beginning of the previous century, 'here' was a solid place. But ever since we started digging into the nature of atoms, everything has become less sure -- we have probability instead of certainty."

"But what about the 'now'" asked Jack.

I said "Well, how would you define the 'now'? It would appear to be a very flexible concept -- is it a fraction of a second, an hour, a day, a month...? When someone cues you and says 'now', he obviously means 'this instant'. On the other hand 'now' can mean 'nowadays' -- a considerably longer period. Living in the 'here' may be possible, but living in the real meaning of the word 'now' is impossible."

"How do you mean?" asked Jack.

"Simple," I said, "as soon as you're aware of 'now', it has slipped into the past. 'Now' is such a thin slice of time as to be uninhabitable. You can't even cram the smallest word in the space of 'now'. It takes a lot of 'nows' to say 'now' -- maybe even a whole second. Every 'now' becomes history, as soon as it appears."

"You mean to tell me that, technically speaking, you can't live in the here-and-now," said Jack.

"Right," I said. "In any event, now?? is merely a very nebulous concept."

"How does the future fit into this scheme of things?" asked Jack.

I said "That's where all the 'nows' come from, although from one moment to the next, we can't really be sure that they are indeed heading our way. We hope and rely on their continued arrival, but we can't be sure. Maybe the river of time will run dry at some point, and we won't even see it coming. Remember that when the group of scientists working on the Atom bomb at Los Alamos in the 40s, weren't altogether sure that the chain reaction they were about to unleash, was controllable; that it might possibly continue and cause earth to disintegrate."

"And they still went ahead and detonated the thing?"

I said "They knew the Nazis were working on one, and it was either the good guys or the bad guys being first. So they went ahead. Mankind lucked out on that one -- up to a point."

Jack said, assuming a different voice, "So, as we march not very confidently into the future, we can look forward to ..."

"Not much," I interrupted him. "Think about it. The Greeks had it right: they saw themselves as walking backward into the future. They could see what was behind them, in their past; they couldn't see anything in the direction they were travelling, the future."

"I'm sure," said Jack, "that when they were actually walking on a road, they were facing where they were going, and not looking back to where they'd come from."

I said "I guess that's the difference between real life and quack philosophy."

"Carpe diem," said Jack. "I think that means 'live in the here and now.'"

"Close enough," I agreed.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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