Let me first thank John DeBello and Joe Henderson for generously contributing their guest articles over the past three days. If you missed them, I encourage you to scroll down to read their reminiscences of the 1984 Sarajevo games and the 2005 Athens games.
We may have a couple more Olympic articles, though they likely will appear after the games have ended. One of our correspondents on tap to provide the Canadian perspective is at present in mourning, along with the rest of his country, after the U.S.-Canada hockey game. Get over it, lads. Look for some other guest writer specials from time to time.
What I disliked about this week’s guest author exercise was asking accomplished writers to do the significant labor of building a couple of thousand of words into an entertaining piece that would only live for a day or so in a small corner of the Wide-Whirled Web. Henderson’s used to it, of course; he’s been filing stories from far-flung press boxes to beat an 11 p.m. deadline since before the fax machine was invented. His work ended up printed on sheets of paper that, after they were read, went out in the next day’s recycling. The next day, he wrote more, and has repeated that daily exercise for 30 years. At least in the Trib, his articles appear in a quarter of a million copies of the newspaper, and now online, too. THAT’s a significant readership.
DeBello is also familiar with the evanescence of the writing game. While you can rent or buy copies of the feature films he’s written and directed, a lot of his work has appeared in front of very specialized, very small audiences, sometimes only to be shown once, and then relegated to an archive. For example, I went looking online for the production he mentioned in his article, done for the Los Angeles Olympics of ’84; couldn’t find it. It had its day, ran its course, and now it’s shelved somewhere.
Most of us are at ease with this idea that very little of what we do or say will live very long, and that a generation or so after we’re gone ourselves, there won’t be much for anyone to point to saying, “He did this.” That’s why I retained the top header photo of the stadium at Olympia. Nothing, we like to say, is more fleeting than the fame of athletes. Certainly none of us can name any of the heroes who strode that ground in triumph 2,000 years ago.
But we like to preserve the high points. In the days of print, we would clip articles out of the newspaper that mentioned our friends or family; now we might print out a Web page. As long as there’s been photography, we have made albums or framed their photographs. With the advent of digital cameras we capture every living moment to obsession. (I marvel at the sight of sports heroes riding in the championship parade through the streets of a city, making videos of themselves and the cheering crowds. Aren’t those peoples’ lives well-documented enough?) YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and the myriad of other online social sites let us create vast digital monuments to ourselves, all in response to this innate urge to say, “I am here. I did this.”
While digital media have made such self-expression nearly ubiquitous, they’ve also shortened the life span of any given expression. Post a really funny comment to Facebook or a totally killer tweet? Within minutes or, at best, hours, it’s buried beneath a flood of other chat. Likewise with this blog. Henderson and DeBello’s excellent pieces are in the archive, and someone browsing the Web for “Sarajevo 1984” might find John’s article, but that lone hit will compete for attention with other returns: perhaps hundreds of them.
Human history and literature ARE the record of our collective attempt to capture the essence of what we are, what we know, who we are. We humans have been writing things down for a long time: maybe 30,000 years, if you include cave paintings. In the third century B.C.E., Alexander the Great conceived of the mighty Library of Alexandria. After a few centuries, it had become the greatest collection of all the world’s knowledge. History, from Herodotus to the present-day, attempts to record all human endeavor. The same with myths, epics, biography, memoir and scores of other forms of literature. To those, add photography, video (soon in 3-dimensional high-definition) and audio recordings of every type: ALL now loaded into massive server farms for instantaneous retrieval.
The miracle of the human mind is that we can incorporate so very much and make of this millenia-long welter of knowledge something that is always with us. We can’t truly know what those cave paintings meant, but something about them resonates with us: we sense the shared human-ness of the ancient people who made them. That becomes part of us. The Library at Alexandria was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago, with the loss of thousands of ancient texts. But even knowing what has been lost still informs us. Soon, each tweet and YouTube video and, yes, blog entry too, will be more or less lost to us. But we amazing creatures remember and learn. Kant said the mind is a unity which unifies. This ability to bring to bear the ineffable something that makes us human upon everything we experience and then to incorporate it into our experience is astounding. The final step is not merely to state it, but to relate it. We extend our lives beyond ourselves by communicating with one another. Alexander had a great idea, preserving all of the world’s knowledge, but we survived the destruction of the library he proposed because we are greater than words written on papyrus.
This I do know. The most important thing is not simply to write something on a screen or a piece of paper or on a granite tablet. The important thing is to relate these things to one another. Only when we connect and communicate personally are we fulfilling the enormous promise of being human. That is what gives our words and pictures their life.
Otherwise, we are Ozymandias. In Shelley’s poem of that name, Ozymandias, his name for Rameses the Great, erected a mighty statue of himself. On it were the words:
“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
The poem ends with the image of the statue as a ruin, weathering away in a forgotten wasteland:
“The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Don’t just post a video. Occasionally pick up the phone and talk. Someone will remember your voice.
Photo of the sports stadium at Olympia, Greece, copyright 2010 Joe Henderson. Used by kind permission.
P.S. I already checked. There IS an ozymandias.com. There’s also a blog, ozymandias.wordpress.com. Darn. Wish I’d thought of that.