Once “time immemorial” ran out. Its expiration date had actually come and gone some while back, though few had bothered to check. From middle school essays to $5,000-a-plate fundraisers, mention of “time immemorial” had long been counted on to give extra life to a tired idea, even to bringing a moribund few, absolute croakers by all evidence, back from the dead on occasion. Without it, many claims to lofty oratory, and lofty thought, might have been taken less seriously or dismissed outright. The end of “time immemorial,” therefore, posed a true dilemma for those who had counted so heavily upon it over and over again. It was a dilemma they could not ignore once the facts were clear, however. 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 former ones. Something with equal resonance, equal lasting power. The problem was, agreeing upon what that replacement should be proved far more difficult than any imagined. And little wonder, given the infinitely accommodating nature of “time immemorial.” Who could not remember a telling instance in which it had served to steady some notion that would otherwise have collapsed immediately or else floated away into airy oblivion? It seemed nothing hadn’t relied upon “time immemorial” at some point for sustaining proof of its importance. The challenge before all who’d grown accustomed to such reliance, then, was to come up with a substitute before their confidence in the present as the latest variation on the past suffered irreparable damage. There weren’t just personal reputations or public policies at stake here. Large social, national, and cultural groups also looked to the past for evidence of their abiding value, something that justified their own present existence through appeals to permanent truths that “time immemorial” had always answered. It wasn’t the connection of past to present that mattered so much but rather the reassurance of the known. Just as yesterday’s sun was the same as the sun of the day before, such thinking held, so today’s would shine on the same peaks and shun the same valleys as ever. Not only was the present beholden to the past, then, but it had no real meaning beyond it. That confidence held for the future as well. Victory in the past was victory to come, and defeat would always wear the same face. Not remembering the past wasn’t as sure a guarantee of repeating it as precisely the opposite was, tying a string around your mind so you’d never forget. The loss of “time immemorial” was clearly a serious blow, therefore. Donations were sought and made, committees formed, congregations exhorted, political parties rallied—all in the name of finding a substitute with equal potency that might insure the continued health of the has-been forever. Who was prepared, ladies and gentlemen, to risk trusting the future to anything less?
Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Grosshans