Once the expiration date on “time immemorial” came and went, but few noticed. From C-grade high school essays to $50,000-a-plate banquet speeches, mention of “time immemorial” had long been counted on to extend the life of many a mildewed idea, even to bringing a rancid few, absolute stinkers, back from the brink of history’s rubbish pit on occasion. Without it, many claims to lofty oratory might have been taken less seriously or dismissed outright. Quite understandably, therefore, the passing of the expiration date on “time immemorial” posed a true dilemma for those who’d always relied so heavily upon the expression. It was a dilemma that could not be ignored once the facts were clear, obviously. There was no dodging the need for a replacement, without delay, that was both flexible and durable enough to do for all future declarations what “time immemorial” had done for so many now-forgotten ones. Something with equally broad resonance and equal lasting power was called for. The problem was, agreeing upon what that replacement should be proved far more difficult than anyone could have foreseen. And little wonder, given the infinitely accommodating nature of “time immemorial.” Who couldn’t remember a telling instance in which it had served to prop up some shaky notion that would otherwise have fallen to pieces immediately? It seemed few declarations deemed worthy of being repeated and repeated again and again hadn’t relied at some point on an appeal to “time immemorial” to sustain their claim to legitimacy. The challenge before all who’d grown accustomed to such reliance, then, was to come up with a worthy substitute before their confidence in the present as basically the latest variation of the past suffered serious damage. There weren’t just personal reputations or public policies at stake here. Large social groups also looked to the past for evidence of their own abiding value, something that legitimized their present existence (however negligible it might in fact have become) through appeals to received truths they were convinced “time immemorial” had verified in perpetuity. The actual nature of the connection of present to past didn’t matter so much as did the sustaining reassurance of a continuation of the known, something you didn’t need to think twice about before advancing it as established fact. Not only was the present beholden to the past, then, but it had no real meaning beyond what had been inherited. That confidence held for the future as well. Victory in the past was victory to come, and defeat would always beget defeat. Not remembering the past wasn’t as sure a guarantee of repeating it as precisely the opposite was: i.e., securely tying a string around your mind so you’d never forget. Thus the loss of “time immemorial” was clearly a serious blow, making it imperative to find a substitute with equal oratorical oomph to ensure the continuation of the has-been forever. Who was prepared to risk trusting their future to anything less?
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans