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Tuesday Quought: The Test of Time

“So conceived and supported, the Test of Time is nevertheless made ineffective by the intractable naiveté of its assumptions. For isn’t it naive to suppose that history will allow only the best to survive? (..)
(..) Considering the frequency of natural calamities, our treatment of warfare as a seasonal sport, and the insatiable squirrelliness of human greed, it should be an occasion for surprise when anything excellent survives.”
W. Gass, Tests of Time, The University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 110-111.

As is his habit, Gass approaches his topic as one who out of curiosity approaches a body lying on the ground only to skirt it and skid away at a 90° angle from his incoming trajectory without even having ascertained whether the person whose body was near inspected was still alive.

The question isn’t whether what survives is excellent but whether who excels is,  or can be, mortal. The answer is that the excellent cannot perish. The cause of all confusion is that the Test of Time is thought to hold with respect to works and names of personalities whereas any real test of time merely applies to who lives on – however anonymously – as a source of something that had not existed if she had not contributed to that something.

Let me explain:

The urge to say that the people living now are more and more crazy is one that is almost impossible to control. This is easy to explain. First: people were crazy, are crazy and always will be crazy. Second: the only actual people we know are those who live now. Third: we would like people not to be as crazy as they are. Fourth: we don’t actually know the people who lived before us so we can make all kinds of assumptions about them. Therefore: we believe that in the past people could not possibly have been as crazy as they are now.

We, the true elite, despise the now and its cultural leveling and find solace only in what withstands the Test of Time and what therefore can be accepted safely as true genius. Past genius is our anchor and avoids we have to set sail ourselves. In an attempt to use Gass contra Gass, I quote:

“Fan” is a shortened form of “fanatic”, and it is true that the fan’s faith is often half-sighted if not entirely blind, often fueled as much by the dislike its object provokes in others as by the love it inspires in him; so that the fan often falls for a message which isn’t there, is moved by emotions which aren’t expressed, by strategies which haven’t been employed. (ibid. p. 112)

Gass is being fanatic about the past and in his fanaticism he uses all messages and all emotions, regardless of them being optimistic or nihilistic, for the strategy of cultural pessimism; as always a question of self-affirmation by other-negation. It should not be like that. When genius endures time through works of art it is not a testimony to the scarcity of genius but it is a monument in honor of the unknown artist who was unable to network in with any fanatics; who did not have the time to just pursue her own cause; who did not have the means to contemplate and forget the odd ball his youth had thrown her; who did not have the stomach to re-work her work obsessively to achieve a perfection and balance that could not but attract the interest of others.

Because people are not only crazy, they are also sublime and it takes many of us to provide enough soil for one new seed to grow. A flower cannot be grown in the single grain of sand and therefore cannot but be a monument to the fertility of all elements of an ecosystem.

One person whispers, another listens and writes, another shouts, another listens and just shows up and so on and so forth until there is something that will stand the test of time, not the time that that something survives (what survived will not be guaranteed to survive) but the time it took to generate the flower that brings a new mutant seed into the world to grow if one whispers about it and another is not too self-centered to listen and so on.

Those who listen are as important as those who speak.

Those who are remembered are only important to remind us of those who aren’t remembered explicitly but were invaluable, as we all are and will be.

If you are a genius you can be right even when what you want to be is something wrong:

So be advised. For works of art, the rule reads: never enter Time, and you will never be required to exit. (ibid. p. 126)


June 7, 2012 - Posted by | Tuesday Quought | , , , ,


  1. Just wanted to whisper here: I’m not a cultural optimist, but this is a very fine post.

    Comment by Brad Johnson | June 7, 2012

  2. Thanks Brad, we’ll get you to the other side, although it might take us a while.

    Comment by Guido Nius | June 8, 2012

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