Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

The Coercion of the Past

On a trip to Mt View last weekend, I took along a mindless page-turner to help me relax and wile away the hours on the front porch of the Inn at Mountain View. Michael Crichton’s Timeline, is a novel about time travel in which four contemporary researchers are transported back to the late 14th century. For me, Crichton is usually boring for about fifty pages as he tries to build some kind of believable setting/background for the tale he is about to tell, and then he turns on the suspense. This book, though it might be boring for more than fifty pages, eventually turns into a good vacation read, 500 pages you can burn through in a day or two.

BUT I was really struck by this little nugget buried on page 359, spoken by the character who is financing all the experiments in time travel:

“We are all ruled by the past, although no one understands it. No one recognizes the power of the past . . . .

“A teenager has breakfast, then goes to the store to buy the latest CD of a new band. The kid thinks he lives in a modern moment. But who has defined what a ‘band’ is? Who defined a ‘store’? Who defined a ‘teenager’? Or ‘breakfast’? To say nothing of all the rest, the kid’s entire social setting–family, school, clothing, transportation and government.

“None of this has been decided in the present. Most of it was decided hundreds of years ago. Five hundred years, a thousand years. This kid is sitting on top of a mountain that is the past. And he never notices it. He is ruled by what he never sees, never thinks about, doesn’t know. It is a form of coercion that is accepted without question. This same kid is skeptical of other forms of control–parental restrictions, commercial messages, government laws. But the invisible rule of the past, which decides nearly everything in his life, goes unquestioned.”

Okay, Michael Chrichton is not a great literary stylist, but those thoughts about the power of the past–the coercion of the past, the invisible rule of the past–are pretty provoking. If someone had said those things to me when I was eighteen, I would have laughed. I was autonomous, in control, and immortal. The past had little to offer and absolutely no impact on me. The future was mine for the molding, and forward was the only direction I looked.

Now, as a 67-year-old retired English professor and writer, I feel more acutely the power of all the things Chrichton mentioned above, but even more so the coercive power of genetics. We are coerced daily by those diabolical double helixes of nucleic acids, handed down by great-grandfathers, great-grandmothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers. We swim in a shifting nucleotide that pulls one way and then the other. We don’t understand why we do half the things we do. We are like the poor Apostle Paul–“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” The human condition.

Ah, well. As a good Episcopalian, I say embrace it. Learn a new stroke. Swim on.


  1. Mary Ann Guinn

    May 23, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    I like being at a point in life to just relax in the river of history and genetics and “float down okay” in God’s Grace without having to define/explain it theologically!

  2. This reminds me a lot of my discussion of context in my lifespan course. I ask students to define adolescence. I get the usual, “teen years” and such. Occasionally, someone will be a bit more introspective and say, “a transition from childhood to adulthood.” Students usually feel fairly confident that they have NOW defined it fully until ask questions like, “What do you mean by a transition?” “Does it have to take years or can it be a short ritual?” “Is it the same in all cultures?” “Religions?” “throughout history?” They get the point fairly quickly. Things are always more complicated than they are!

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