Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor -- he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron -- remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily's father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris' generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it. ["A Rose for Emily"]
The river that moves the present into the past flows in two streams, as Faulkner knew.
To Colonel Sartoris, to Miss Emily, to the Confederate veterans who stood at her funeral, the past was "a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years." Traditional, magical, and (perhaps) Southern. But I, being modern and Yankee, do not find this. Time is a "mechanical progression," linear, and the past is only a "diminishing road."
Yet there is magic in it, too.
Jack Finney's "Time and Again" is my favorite time travel novel, but I haven't read many of them, and I read this one under conditions -- living alone in a small house in a cold woods -- ideal for letting imaginative fiction bloom.
In the book, a man from the present takes part in a government experiment to send him to 1882. But while reading it I bumped into little surprises -- references to car models, or Martin Luther King or the Cold War or dress styles -- that made me remember the book is no longer set in the present. It was published in 1970, and the setting of it (the "present day" parts) feels more like 1965.
Which makes it doubly rich to read now. When you open the book, you're doing the magic that the book is written to describe; you're entering into a definite moment in the past, visiting and moving among people (characters) who talk and act, unawares that they are being observed by someone from a future generation.
Then I think: 1882 was not the same thing in 1965 that it is today. I think the author chose his time distance with deliberation. (It also matters to the plot.) I think Finney wanted a distance that was just far back enough to be strange, but close enough to be essentially recognizable. The distance he chose was one that, if you look at it through half-closed eyes, would not be shockingly different from the present. But that made the strangeness of that past -- not what's different from here and now, but what's absent -- all the more jarring.
So 1886 to 1965 is like, what? like 1922 is to today. People still alive (and active) were born in 1922; that's no longer true of 1882. You might find a 1922 penny in your change at the coffee shop, and it would be an oddity, not an astonishing antique find like an Indian Head cent from 1882 would be. My grandparents, when they moved to Florida in the early 1960s still would get Indian Head cents in change at the grocery.
My first car was a 1965 Buick. A 1965 Buick when I got mine, in 1980, is not the same thing as a 1965 Buick would be today. My car was an old beater, not classic or vintage.
You could compare it to a 1990 car today, but it wouldn't be the same, because the barrier of years between included the gas crisis, which made something special out of battle cruisers like mine, with steering wheels the size of a large pizza and tanks you had to fill with leaded. You flicked on the high beams by stepping on a button on the floor with your left foot. Damn, I loved that car. The Degree of Strangeness is different than the number of calendar years.
Both of Faulkner's images are true. There is a linear regression of past years. But there are points along that scale where a given year changes color, from recent past, to nostalgic past, to antique past. At last (but in a time scale more grand than Faulkner's) they do all merge into the gray mass of years, so that, while we feel the difference between 1975 and 1995, we have no sense of the difference between 975 and 995. I can't tell you anything that happened in those years, or the decades between. They've gone dark. Locked boxes to which only historians of a certain stripe keep the keys.
When does it turn? Sometimes, there's a moment. One of the things I felt when the 20th century ended (an event that, more and more, seems to me to have happened in September 2001) is the loss of the 19th century as a neighbor. There was a comforting presence in that. For all our tumult, we lived next-door to the century that showed how human effort could better the world; the century that ended slavery in the civilized world and learned how to prevent epidemics from sweeping cities. Now the 19th century is one house removed, and our next-door neighbor is the lunatic 20th, with half-dried blood under its nails.
But sometimes it flows like the hour hand, imperceptibly. Yeats and Pound wrote about "the Nineties," meaning the 1890s. Those Nineties persisted in popular memory into the 1960s, when they wove a Victorian motif into Haight-Ashbury subculture, thanks largely to the seminal San Francisco acid rock band The Charlatans, who played a long-term gig in 1964 in Virginia City, Nevada, then still redolent of frontier saloon days. Their musical style has been described as "early wild-west-Victorian-hippie rock," and it influenced the West Coast music scene. Check out the late Victorian flourishes in hippie clothing and the Wild West styling on the Crosby Stills Nash & Young "Deja Vu" album cover. The youth of the 1960s allowed itself to be haunted by the Gay Nineties like a benevolent zeitgeist; an elder era safely beyond the taint of the parents they were rebelling againt.
But say "The Nineties," today, and you will be taken to mean something entirely different. Gulf War, grunge, Bill Gates. When did the change happen? In the 1980s, I suppose, which drove a stake through the heart of the 1960s, and when the next set of years hove into view.
If you hold a magnifying glass at a distance, things seen through it are upside down. If you hold it close to your eye, the view is right-side-up. And if you move it in and out, there is a point where the view must flip. There must be a precise focal distance where the image is neither upside-down nor right-side-up. What could you see then, if you could get that exact range? What magic would pour through?