March 24, 2002
Don't Look Back

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the Instapundit and he wrote "(see above)". That was confusing: he meant 'see what I said in a previous note', which means that it was actually below, not above, the one I was reading. Of course, that's what happens when you write a lot of old-fashioned downward-scrolling articles and books, where before = above makes sense. A couple of days ago, I tried saying "below" to refer to a previous post, but that didn't look right either.

The fact that weblogs almost always go upwards while other reading matter goes downwards makes the whole above/below thing confusing and worth avoiding, at least while blogging. In fact, the whole arrangement of weblogs is confusing. If you read the entries in chronological order, you have find the first unread entry, read it downwards, and then jump up two entries to get to the top of the next unread one. If you read them downwards, half the time you don't know what they're talking about because it's something you haven't read yet. (This is especially true of NRO's "On the Corner", with its multiple participants.) All very unnatural. I wonder if we will ever switch over to having texts that scroll up the page line by line as well as paragraph by paragraph, so we can just start at the bottom and read smoothly upwards.

That would be no stranger than the ancient Greek boustrophedon writing, in which the odd-numbered lines were written left-to-right and the even-numbered ones right-to-left, reversing not only the order of the words and letters, but the way the letters were turned. The advantage was that the scribe and the reader did not have to keep jerking back from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, because they were in the same place. I've just discovered that some are trying to encourage English boustrophedon. See this advertisement for the Boustrophedon Text Reader, Version 0.14. I wonder if it will catch on.

Edging somewhat closer to my point, I am reminded of another odd confusion or asymmetry or whatever (can't think of the word) involving space and time -- not sci-fi space and time, just the ordinary everyday kind. English-speakers routinely think of the future as lying in front of them, and the past behind them. I'm pretty sure the same is true of most or all modern European languages, and probably many non-European languages as well. The idea seems to be that life is a metaphorical journey: we walk or ride or run -- given a choice, I prefer to mosey -- into the future, leaving the past behind us.

What I find interesting is that the ancient Greek and Roman metaphor was exactly the opposite. In these languages, the past is ahead and the future behind. Thus Latin ante means 'before' in time and 'in front of' in space. An 'ante bellum' mansion was built 'before the (Civil) War', while an 'anteroom' is in front of the main room. Similarly, post means both 'after' and 'behind'. I don't know when the transition occurred, and whether it left people as confused as I was by the Instapundit's "see above", mentioned above. (It's OK to say that, because it really is above.)

The ancient metaphor omits the idea of life as a journey, since humans rarely walk backwards. (Unless they work as moving men, in which case walking backwards is one of the first skills learned. Someone has to carry the front end of the couches and credenzas.) That may have something to do with the fact that ancient societies tended to distrust the idea of progress and looked to tradition for all their values. Then again, perhaps not.

To come at last to my point, the ancient metaphor makes at least as much sense as the modern, perhaps even more. After all, you can see the past and what is in front of you, while the future and what is behind are both invisible and often frightening.

Anyway, I was reminded of all this by Sgt. Stryker's latest post, Signs and Portents, particularly these two paragraphs:

Everyone seems to have some feeling or some nebulous half-realized notion that something's happening and that this "something" will have an enormous impact on the future. We can't conceptualize it, define it or point at it and say, "Aha! That's it!" But we know it's there, like some formless dark shape in the twilight wood, slowly stalking us and ready to pounce at any moment.

Since we don't know what it is or what it means, we try to visualize it, label it and explain it in terms we can understand and relate to others in some hope of gaining control over it. The problem, as I see it, is that this is futile since this "thing" is the future and it will involve things totally outside of our collective experience and defies any attempt at understanding it. But this doesn't mean we stop trying.

It all sounds very Roman and (I don't mean this as an insult) primitive. Perhaps it's time to sacrifice a bull to Mars or Mithra.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at March 24, 2002 10:00 PM