We just commemorated the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the twin towers in downtown Manhattan. I was in high school at the time the towers were being built, and I remember the floors being added, one upon another, as if it were a stack of pancakes.
I returned to New York to see construction of the new World Trade Center building, which New Yorkers have dubbed the “Freedom Tower.” Both times, I was in school; first as a student, later as a teacher.
Thinking about both experiences, I have identified two forms of déjà vu. The first one most people are familiar with. It consists of a replay of something imagined or anticipated earlier. It forms an instant correspondence between your imagination and an event or series of events as in the movie Ground Hog Day. And, of course, the event or series of events is repeated.
But I believe there exists another kind of déjà vu. Let’s call it déjà vu vu. This one also involves your imagination and actual events, but there are two major differences: (1) déjà vu vu is not limited to one event or series of events, (2) the events of déjà vu vu might parallel each other in many ways, but they are not identical. That is, you are not recalling a single event but calling to mind two separate events that resemble each other.
My own experience illustrates this. The following sentence applies to 1972 as well as 2012, when both versions of the trade center were under construction. “I am at school in New York City watching the World Trade Center being built.” No one would call this déjà vu, but it certainly characterizes déjà vu vu.
Déjà vu vu is more complicated than déjà vu, because it concerns the intellect. You spot similarities between events and then figure out how those similarities relate to each other. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. And sometimes you read meaning into something where none exists. How many times have I done that? It’s part of our human nature to seek meaning in life, to identify patterns, to create order out of chaos. Just watch children playing.
A subtle distinction needs to be made between God’s creative act in the opening of John’s Gospel and our creative act as human beings. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Word here is logos, meaning order, design, structure. God creates order out of chaos, and the order of relationships among things is right. “Just” might be a better way to describe it.
What about us? We create order out of chaos, too, but often our attempts add to the chaos. You don’t even need to consider babies being made in laboratories or artificial intelligence (if there is such a thing). All you have to do is look at your own life. I kid people that if I were a superhero, they would call me “Complexity Man,” because I take the simple and make it more complex. Working in academia for twenty years hasn’t helped, either, but that’s another post.
So, I am left with two events, two sites, two periods in my life that appear to be connected. Are they? I don’t know for sure, but an objective observer might point out that both have something in common: me. What I am tempted to see as God’s creative act might just be me following instinctive drives or patterns of behavior. After all, I grew up in New York, and this has been a return home.
True to déjà vu vu, we’ve seen this before among the ancient Greeks and Romans. In Homer and Virgil, the overarching theme is to return home by overcoming obstacles both internal and external. In Homer’s case, home turns out to be very different from what it was at the beginning. With Virgil, Aeneas creates a new home after the fall of Troy, which is Rome. The rest is literally history.
You can’t write about returning home unless you’ve set up the need to leave home. The ancient world had its reasons: revenge, resources, love, war. In modern society, though, we seem to move just to move, which is very unsettling. We are constantly leaving, moving, trying desperately to return home.
I am going back to California this week not for the sake of moving, but to be with family in what will be my last move. Well, before the big one.
To paraphrase an American legend, it’s going to be déjà vu vu all over again.