A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.
As a fan of the Daniel Day Lewis-starring adaptation of Last of the Mohicans, I read the original James Fenimore Cooper novel (albeit a long time ago) and enjoyed it up to a point. It didn’t inspire me to read any more of Cooper’s works, however. But that may be because it never occurred to me to read Cooper backward…
A significant characteristic of Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales (of which Last of the Mohicans is the second) is that they were not published in chronological order. In fact, the final book in the Leatherstocking series, The Deerslayer, takes place earlier than any of the other stories, when Cooper’s protagonist Natty Bumpo is a very young man. Reading the Leatherstocking stories in order means effectively reading backward into American history. Reading them backward means tracing the history of Cooper’s memory of America. Jerome McGann, professor of English at the University of Virginia and amusingly chagrined Cooper scholar, argues that Cooper’s corpus as a whole benefits from a backward reading, as doing so serves to combat the preconceived notions that many readers bring to a reading of Cooper’s works. Lampooned by Mark Twain in 1895, Cooper has—in McGann’s view—taken on the qualities of a caricature. By reading backward through his writings, the reader has the opportunity to see him anew, as he regresses from the seasoned author he was toward the end of his life to the inexperienced scribe of earlier days.
Exploring the development of an author’s prose is not the only benefit to such an approach, however. As many writers have noted, the author of an earlier novel is not the same person as the author of a later novel. Writers, like all people, change in tune with (and sometimes out of tune with) changing eras, and their writing—whether fiction, essay, or poem—reflects that shifting relationship to the self and its environment. Thus, reading backward constitutes a excavation, not just of style, but of history, and of our memories of that history.
Moving backward through a body of work provides fascinating insights on many levels. One of my favorite characters in the relaunched Doctor Who series (and indeed in any speculative fiction) is River Song, a woman whose life is presented to the audience out of chronological order. The viewer’s first experience of this character is at the end of her life, and subsequent appearances generally show her as a becoming a younger, and far less experienced, woman. As the series’ narrative progresses, she is more impulsive, more co-dependent with the man she loves, and more naive. For many people, because River’s story was presented out of order, the trajectory of her appearances on the show gave the impression of a strong woman reduced to a spineless love interest—a woman whose story was subordinate to that of the male characters—and such a representation garnered a lot of criticism.
If you watch River’s story backward, however, a very different narrative emerges—one where a woman in a difficult situation escapes using her own wit and cunning to become a powerful, independent, and strongly self-assured person. In the case of River Song, timing really is everything. Many other films and television shows, Memento being perhaps the most notable example, also utilize a backward moving narrative (or a non-linear one) to powerful effect. Presenting a story from end to beginning, rather than beginning to end, force the audience to work their way back into a conclusion that already existed and had dominated the story before properly understood by those observing it.
Getting Back Out of a Black Hole
In 1976, Stephen Hawking proposed that information that fell into a black hole would be lost forever, an assertion that was vehemently challenged by Gerard t’ Hooft and Leonard Susskind, the latter of whom wrote a brilliant book detailing the work that went into disproving the central tenet underlying the theory of Hawking Radiation. The disproving of the theory, however, offered little in the way of explaining how information lost to a black hole might be recovered, and physicists have been grappling with that question ever since— a problem that is known as the Black Hole Information Paradox.
Now Hawking, along with his colleagues Andrew Strominger (of Harvard) and Malcolm Perry (of Cambridge), have come up with a theory that may explain what happens to information that falls into a black hole. They believe it may be stored on the black hole’s event horizon and visible—not from a far distance in space, but from a far distance in time. If correct, Hawking, Strominger, and Perry’s theory means that informational escape from a black hole is possible in time, when the inevitable evaporation of the black hole leads to a return of said information into the universe. Of course this doesn’t really mean much for the poor schmucks who find themselves falling in, but in a universe of infinite possibilities, it’s better than nothing.
Final Thought: Looking Back in Anger
Of course not all backward glances are healthy. It’s overly common these days to find people using their rose-tinted nostalgia for a bygone era to smugly disparage the trends of the present day. In a heartfelt essay for Medium (published earlier this year), educator José Picardo takes this behavior to task, presenting the case of a photograph from the Rijksmuseum, which shows a group of children supposedly glued to their smartphones while a Rembrandt painting languishes in the background. This photograph apparently went viral last year and was used by many to herald the end of civilization. As Picardo notes, however, the photograph in fact shows nothing of the sort. Instead, it shows the moment after a lecture when the children used an app created by the museum to complete an assignment related to the lecture they had just listened to.
As examples like this remind us, looking back into the past can be a power critical tool, but only when employed in tandem with a rigorous objectivity that seeks the truth rather than the comfortable and self-aggrandizing belief.