7. STILL WATERS STAGNATE

Time is a transparent medium. People and cities arise out of it, move through it and disappear back into it. It is time that brings them and time that takes them away…Time flows into a man or State, makes its home there and then flows away; the man and the State remain, but their time has passed. Where has their time gone? The man still thinks, breathes and cries, but his time, the time that belonged to him and to him alone, has disappeared…There is nothing more difficult than to be a stepson of the time; there is no heavier fate than to live in an age that is not your own…Time loves only those it has given birth to itself: its own children, its own heroes, its own labourers. Never can it come to love the children of a past age, any more than a woman can love the heroes of a past age, or a stepmother love the children of another woman…Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. – Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate1

There is no round, consummate moon on the face of running water, nor on the face of the unfinished tide…There is no plasmic finality, nothing crystal, permanent…Life, the ever present, knows no finality, no finished crystallization. The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished. – D.H. Lawrence2

Time is a river.  One can never step into the same river twice- Age-old sayings.

Humanity is caught up and borne ever onwards by the never-ending, ever-changing, fast-flowing river of time and history, so full as it is of the blinkering jumble of serious and frothy events that make up our individual lives, and the collective life, through time, of our species. The only constant for us is constant change. If life didn’t change, it wouldn’t be life, it’d be a photograph. 3

Indian elites won’t admit this. Instead they pretend (as human nature dictates that we all do to some degree) that the river of time has flowed into and now ended in a wide, calm, totally-enclosed lake of the present, where the status quo will never fundamentally change – a variation of the absurd End of History theory, where everything that happened in the past is regarded as a mere lead-up to a now permanently still, fixed and unchangeable present. And from that they argue that everything fundamental regarding them that now is…should always be.

People read history and then seem to feel that everything has to conclude in their own time. “We have read history, and therefore history is over”, they appear to say.4

This is a fundamentally wrong and harmful view. Because this imagined, still lake of the present is really only a seeming widening of the endless river. The lake is an illusion. Around a time-bend of the shoreline the apparent widening narrows. And on the river flows, taking humanity, part of the river’s jumble and froth, along with it into the future. And for all of us in this ever-flowing river- all of us perpetually unable to lessen “the instability of all being under the influence of chance and time” –5 as it must be, nothing but perpetual change awaits; all emphasizing the reality that today’s Canada and our Indigenous peoples  part in it is not a finished product. Like the endless river, they and we are  all a constant work in progress.

So our lives glide on: the river ends, we don’t know where, and the sea begins, and then there is no more jumping ashore. 6

The waters of an ever-calm, enclosed lake will inevitably stagnate and become less and less able to support life. Life-lessening stagnation and decline is the fate Indian elites must expect for their peoples if they continue to embrace this blinkered, static and wrong view of history and time – if they continue to try to dam up time’s river – “this mysterious river of existence”- 7and  prevent it from flowing into and through them and allow it to carry them along with us- if they continue to  prevent the active, uncertain future from unfolding naturally and, by that blind intransigence, condemn their peoples to always be stepchildren of the times.

  1. Vasily Grossman. Life and Fate. London: Vintage Books, 2006. With Doctor Zhivago, tragedy-ridden Russia’s 20th century War and Peace, and almost as great.
  2. H. Lawrence. New Poems. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1916.
  3. David Mitchell. The Bone Clocks. Random House, 2014.
  4. American novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Saul Bellow, in his essay, Man Underground: On Ralph Ellison, contained in There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Collected Non-Fiction Essays, above.
  5. From Aileen M. Kelly, The Discovery of Chance- The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen, Harvard University Press, 2016
  6. Novelist George Eliot, from Felix Holt: The Radical, Penguin Classics, 1995
  7. Thomas Carlyle, quoted in The Club- Johnson, Boswell and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, Yale University Press, 2019

By: Peter Best