Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Future of the Past

The bad news about the survival of the past’s literary culture grows day-by-day. The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home, which is owned and maintained by a non-profit organization, is facing bankruptcy. The Mark Twain House & Museum is facing bankruptcy. The Mercantile Library of New York has sold its building and is looking for a new home.

Perhaps in these cases we are not only talking about the past as a predictor, but as a movement through horizontal space that re-senses our perceptions of the author and his or her literary work. When we visit these homes and imagine Wharton or Twain lolling on the terrace with a cup of tea, we create a literary moment. We write this as a short memoir, and a dialogue with the author.

The new media and our conception of the future will change that movement and our relationship with literary authors. If we don't visit the author’s home physically, we often do so as an imaginative construct with the help of two-dimensional media. Isn’t that what photography and film initiated? A visit to The Mark Twain House in Second Life, anyone? But what does it mean for our experience if we only visit in cyberspace? Read the first chapter in Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality. Eco visits the Museum of the City of New York to see a diorama of early New York, and then walks outside to see contemporary New York. Neither one then feels “real” anymore. He discusses the false sense of visit in the nineteenth century invention of photography. So what will a “visit” in cyberspace mean? And does it matter to a better understanding of Twain’s art?

In 1971, the village of Illiers, in France, where Proust spent his Easters and some summers and which he “immortalized” in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time as “Combray”, changed its name to Illiers-Combray as part of its commemoration of the centennial of Proust’s birth, thereby mixing fact and fiction. If some historians have cringed at such re-creations as Colonial Williamsburg and Civil War battle re-enactments (look out, the sesquicentennial of 1861 is around the corner), how will we react to “cyber-creations” that enable us to “walk through” early nineteenth century London and “greet” the Dashwoods?

1 comment:

Lisa Guidarini said...

No!! That's terrible news. I visited both homes last summer, on vacation in New England, and found both stunning. It was surreal being where these two literary greats once walked. It's devastating knowing they're facing bankruptcy. I hope someone, or a group, will intervene.