We commemorate Memorial Day this weekend and, in a special way, I would like to remember Vincent Cannizzaro, whom I wrote about last year. I did not know Vincent, but he was from my neighborhood in the Bronx. He died on February 26, 1967 in the Mekong Delta. He was twenty years old.
Twenty years is not a long time, not nearly enough to gather “rosebuds while ye may,” which is unfortunate, because I believe that time exists only in the past. I mean that there really is no present. Everything we know about it, from the Eternal Now to carpe diem to Robert Herrick’s rosebuds is an illusion.
The present, as in this moment, can be divided an infinite number of times until what we thought was the present occurred five milliseconds ago. Or five minutes. Or five years. Whenever we try to capture the present, it slips through our fingers into the past. It is like grasping the wind, as the prophet says. The present is a concept, a theory, a Platonic ideal that exists only in our minds. We made it up to prevent ourselves from going insane, which is not a bad thing. However, it has become a highly effective propaganda tool for government and corporations.
The past is all consuming. Not only does it contain all previous historical and biographical events, it contains future ones as well. How so? The future exists as an extension of the present. The future is here in the present, waiting its turn like adult teeth pushing out juvenile ones. But the present exists in the past, which means that the future is a function of the past, too, embedded in it. The future is not some random, independent reality. It moves from the past into our lives and back out again.
So the future, like the present, is past. Don’t let the calibration system we devised to track time (i.e., numbers) fool you. It is as much an invention as the present. Creating a unit system to keep track of a nonexistent reality is quite the trick, although I’d rather see somebody pull a rabbit out of a hat.
What does all of this mean for Memorial Day? Simply that the past is all we have and, barring the invention of a time tunnel, our only access to it is through memory. Memory, then, is the key to human existence and must be protected. What we remember and what we forget are a matter of life and death. What is not remembered is not alive and never even existed.
In 1984, George Orwell wrote that the only thing required to wipe out the past is “an unending series of victories over memory.” In Ancient Rome, Augustus did that with bread and circuses (panem et circenses). Today, we do it by sedating the masses with all kinds of diversions. Soon, memory chips will be implanted in our necks, hooking us up to the cloud. Prepare to be assimilated.
We each have a responsibility to preserve the past in our own way, which might include rituals like visits to a graveyard or looking though photos and diaries. Personally, I like studying history.
I suspect there will be a lot of activity at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial this weekend in Washington, DC, which brings up another point. Not all memories are pleasant. They can dredge up things from the swamp of the past that we would rather forget. But if we do not deal with them now, will they not erupt with even more brutality when we least expect it? You can count on it.
The best way to honor Vincent Cannizzaro and others like him today is to retrieve our future from the shadows of the past and give it life, for good or ill.
Anybody remember Irma Thomas? I bet Mick Jagger does.
Note to self: Under-cooked beans can kill you. Who knew? Does cooking have to be this complicated? For the Back to The Future (1985) photo, see Collider; The Time Machine (1960), MK Gallery; The Time Tunnel (1966-67), The 100th Planet.