A Case of Historical Embedding

by Patrick Călinescu


All the best ones, when you thought it over, were gay. It was much better to be gay and it was a sign of something too. It was like having immortality while you were still alive. That was a complicated one.


Don’t tell me it has crossed your mind that these lines have not been written on any of the days of the current contemporary era; don’t tell me it has already crossed your mind that their subject matter is not as apparent and straightforward as would at first glance seem to be the case. Above all, don’t tell me you know precisely where I’ve taken them from; neither ought you not to tell me that you also know what exactly they mean. If you tell me all this I will be forced to hold you in disbelief.


On the other hand, if you tell me that these lines have been written nowadays; and that their subject matter is quite obvious; and, furthermore, that I’ve clipped them off, as it were, from any of the countless propagandist encomia to be found on the Internet praising homosexuality and the international gay community—if you tell me all this I will be tempted to dismiss my former disbelief in you.


But you will be completely wrong if you do. Actually, you would have been utterly correct to have stuck by the former of these two scenarios; if only you had stuck by it. Nevertheless, as you’ve earnestly taken it to be the least manifest of the two, you’ve quite unsurprisingly traded it for the latter; which, on the face of it, you’ve considered the most manifest of them, and, anyway, considerably less hard to work out—and, necessarily, much easier to follow through; hence much closer to reality.


But whose reality? “The present reality,” I should be inclined to answer. The realities of the past are not so readily present in our minds, so we incline to attribute everything to the present. Even if it is not remotely so. This should not be seen as a defect on our part; rather, I think it should be seen as a consequence of our always living in the present. It’s only the present that we live in. The past—we merely remember; hence the natural tendency of interpreting it, if falsely, as if it were perfectly identical to the present. This tendency, however, is capable of great distortion in the fabric of both the past and the present. As to the future, we can’t remember it because we haven’t lived it yet. Neither can we live it on account of it’s not having come into existence yet. We can barely imagine it; scarcely draw its foundational premises within the outline of prophecy. So it’s only the present that we have to operate with.


Operating with either the past or the future with the specific tools of the present is rather complicated. The lines I’ve begun with, the identity of which I haven’t disclosed yet, are abundantly testifying to it. Operating on the past with the instruments of the present ultimately leads to the latter’s complete distortion. Avoiding such a dangerous procedure should be completely to the advantage of our correct understanding of time itself. Avoiding it is, then, just a plainer name for the more academic term of historical embedding. As to the future—again, there is not much to be said. The future has not happened yet; the future is yet to come; consequently, it is yet to be interpreted—or even misconstrued. It will be quite long until it can be properly embedded into history.


Returning to the lines with which I have begun my reflection: the lesson to be learnt from their being perused out of context is that it’s always the context that determines both the correct time in which they are written and the correct subject matter they are treating. Without any context to hold on to; more exactly, without the original context, not a single syllable of any written word can be adequately understood and, if I were to maintain my surgical metaphor, operated on. The right scalpel for the past will always be the past; the right scalpel for the present will always be the present; as to the right scalpel for the future, it hasn’t been invented yet. It will most likely come into being out of the very fabric of the freshly occurred future.


So: in order for the lines that open this reflection to be properly operated on, you must forget every possible innuendo that I, quite maliciously, have tricked you into believing as real. You must thus forget all I’ve said about those lines being part of one of the many “countless propagandist encomia to be found on the Internet praising homosexuality and the international gay community.” (My weakness is and has always been quoting myself.) Indeed, those lines have absolutely nothing in common with the gay community; neither do they have anything in common with the anthropological phenomenon of homosexuality. Rather, it has everything to do with an outmoded means of expressing one’s happiness. I’m referring to the good-hearted and light-souled happiness, which in the old days used to be put into such innocent words as the adjective “gay.” Sadly, particularly in today’s cosmopolitan and highly postmodern English, innocence as notion and fact has been stripped of much of its lexical and semantic powers. The former innocuous adjective “gay” is just a part of this loss.


Here, “gay” is the very tool which, if worked with and handled by the present (as it has been in my attempts to trick you into believing it has not), will seriously and wholly misinterpret the past. But “gay” is the same instrument which, if worked with and handled accordingly, will become the right scalpel for the past to cut itself off from the present. As a final incentive for this delicate procedure, I should perhaps remind you of my dear Floy who, by getting married to the man she’s always loved, becomes Mrs. Gay.


Need I say more?


Perhaps disclosing from where I’ve taken the lines with which I’ve plunged into my reflection would be quite a fitting ending. A gay one, at that. To prove that I’ve been fair to you (eventually, at least), let me give you the full textual whereabouts of my incipient quotation: it’s what Robert Jordan, at the very end of the first chapter of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, ruminates on as he internalizes both the past and the present into a correct example of historical embedding.

A Case of Historical Embedding

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