A couple of years ago, a new global social malice appeared, involving sort of death and kinda divorce. In November the Briton Amy Taylor (28) filed a divorce claim on the basis that her husband David Taylor (40) virtually cheated on her. Her fury stemmed from the pixelated canoodling of his digitally generated avatar in Second Life, their favoured online multi-player game. Five months earlier in Japan, a 43-year old woman was so incensed to have been suddenly divorced by her husband in Maple Story, that she hacked into a computer and killed his character. What could be less edifying than reading of real-life marriages of long evenings apart on computers conjuring a vicarious illusion, presumably to compensate for the disappointment of reality? These news stories immediately took a place in my esteem amongst the least helpful ever produced.
Faced with admitting the waste of twenty-five seconds reading this stuff, or exercising a search for some goodness in it, I chose the latter, on the grounds that such lavishly pointless things as this can often be so intrinsically bad they come full circle and manage to be good again. Kitsch decor can do it, bad literature can be enrapturing, as can the Austin Allegro Vanden Plas, its trundling little chassis led by a Rolls-Royce style grille never failing to fatally subvert the image of the consenting driver. Where one precisely reaches the quality of so bad it’s good I’m never sure, but I am convinced that just a little thought can reverse the fortunes of a miserable scenario. If this qualifies as curious thought, it’s now new: comedians have been feasting on this sort of carrion for centuries. And they have no monopoly, as one of the great compensations of middle age is to elect to reverse misfortune through the gift of self-deprecation, a virtually unrivalled defensive mechanism so marvellously alien to the incongruous pomp of the Allegro Vanden Plas.
Thus, even before turning the newspaper page it struck me that I was possibly being just a bit snobby. In this light, I recalled a fellow contender for the worst news article ever from about 1984, a Peterborough Evening Telegraph feature of a 15 year-old mural painter who had chosen a 12ft by 8 ft wall in a corridor of Deeping St James Youth Club upon which to depict a sunset over water in the manner of Claude Lorrain (1600-82). Look- the overhanging stone pine references the typical foreground convention of the master! Hark- a charming if awkwardly proportioned deer emerges from the undergrowth! It was clearly a ridiculous stab at being adolescent, but was somehow encouraged by the warden, probably as a disguise for graffiti. Which now, I sincerely hope, covers it completely. You may have guessed that young painter was myself. And what was this but a conjuring of a private, nerdy world few normal kids would enjoy? After this minor introspection, the coalescing of the Second Lifers failed marriages and my own failure to seize the essential moment of living, in the very flush of youth, may offer some hope of positive reconciliation.
Still following? But the circle of virtue is not fully turned yet. As a historian and architectural conservationist with the good fortune of an immersive career, there could be a still greater resonance in a self-analysis, through the painting I unfortunately chose to emulate back then, of the importance I hold on halting the decay of the past. I need to be harsher on my own preconceptions.
At 15, I felt I should like to belong in the sublime, idealised, Claude’s world of ancient Roman sunshine for some unidentifiable reason. Therapy might identify a mawkish sentimentality for hills and warmth in recompense for an upbringing in the Fenland. But in essence, the familiar otherworldliness of Claude’s three hundred and fifty year-old originals superbly bridges the real and the imagined: it is in its own way, a virtual world. The action wasn’t in manipulating digital characters within a VR scene but creating characters, and allowing them a static existence within a fixed notion of space and time. Claude’s time is so vague as to be a mythical era- this imprecision coupled with the deep perspectives allow the imagination to simply wander in. This imaginative interaction with art makes you your own avatar.
For these reasons, Claude’s paintings best depict the phrase The Past is Another Country. I admire this multi-layered concept because it undermines our familiarity with the world. It can be read as literally true, given that borders shift, laws change and populations expand and renew afresh. England was at its most English in the age of the Angles and Saxons, but would be topographically and linguistically incomprehensible to the English who belong to the land, and vice versa, today. It leads to the conclusion that nowhere, and nothing, remains exactly the same. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said: If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. It was always thus.
So how can we talk about the ‘real world’ when it’s an evolving, changing entity? It’s a fact that much of our identity and sense of cultural ownership comes from identification with the past. But the past is in itself the extinguished part of the manifold continuum. So what is an understanding of the past, if not created through the happenchance of evidence, a selectivity from that evidence to fit a thesis, and the editorship of partial ignorance, the visual effects from which are generated by our own internal virtual worlds- our memory and imaginations? For most of history, we simply weren’t there: our understanding is not through experience or objectivity. So far, so post-modern: if it’s academically outdated, it merely reinforces the point that things change.
The apparently static moment when we sit and stare is itself passing, of course. Proust described the singularity of existence as knowing the incurable imperfection in the very essence of the present moment. The logical conclusion to this is that any truly objective sense of history must be set in the full course of time and similarly experienced as a dynamic, changing series of encounters and circumstances which predicate the ongoing decisions that contrive to cause events, which would of course require reliving the life of what is usually a dead person. And we can’t seem to manage that within the realms of available science or innovative teaching methods.
Whilst I spend my professional life trying to stave off the effects of time and weather to buildings, I realize I may have had underestimated the philosophical outlook of the divorced couple: as noble, interesting and amusing as history can be, it may be that a convincing virtual world set in real time and with the endless possibility of interactivity allowing decisions to affect outcomes could actually be closer to the historical experience than reading about it from historians. Although it mightn’t compensate for a lousy marriage, it could be argued that living the vicarious life of a virtual person is to experience the next best thing to history, explaining the vivid emotional responses. Perhaps, in plugging away trying to stem the losses of the past, I just can’t face reality.