I received a copy of a trade magazine in the mail that I used to write a regular feature for as part of my last job. My feature was also always the cover story. The new issue included the latest of these regular features, now, of course, written by my successor. To read the magazine presents a seamless tradition. There was and is no byline on this feature. To the casual observer there has been no change at all. Life goes on within and without me. Holding a copy of this magazine in my hand led to some bittersweet reflection about the footprint that we leave in life.
I am one of those vain animals that has always longed to leave my mark upon the world – some tangible proof that I was here, that I existed. Perhaps it’s not just simple vanity or a purely self-centered self-interest. I have always been captured by history, and in particular art. Beginning with the evocative fossilized remains of the first human footprints to the air-brushed (yes, air-brushed – they would blow the pigment from their mouths over the back of their hands as they pressed them to the cave wall) outlines of human hands along with graceful renderings of animals in the Lascaux caves we leave our prints on the more durable materials that compose our world.
Pharaohs and Kings had their names and idealized images carved into monumental stone so that they would live eternally in the hearts and minds of those that followed, but even the humbler of our species created marks to trace their path by. If you observe closely the stones upon which ancient stone masons worked you can see the lines of their tools etched into the stone like you can see Van Gogh’s brushstrokes on canvas, even the bristles from his paintbrushes, more tangible even than the signature. Greek potters began the cult of personal identification by beginning to mark their wares with a signature much like earlier Ancient Egyptian stonemason crews also left their ‘team’ mark on the stones.
As we advance in time artists, scientists, philosophers, and more began to leave their names more indelibly than kings and priests. Eventually even more humble people make footnotes in the history books, the images, and the remains of our various civilizations. In my research of the American West I come across hundreds of such people, moments of their lives captured in birth certificates, newspaper reports, tintypes, and inscriptions in the family bible.
Our popular culture worships celebrity and notoriety, which is sort of the dark underbelly of the shining desire to leave a tangible traceable mark upon history; a trail that can lead from one moment in time to another and allow people to make connections between the past and the present and feel the wash of history flow through them as something real and relevant. Celebrity can be a vanishing thing; here one moment and gone the moment after.
My impulse to write or make art is inextricably tied up with my desire to one of the threads of the fabric of the world. It’s a desire for a tangible immortality that transcends time or fleeting fame. I was here. I existed. Perhaps it stems from doubt about the existence of an afterlife, or perhaps it’s just natural hubris, but when I look around me at my achievements past and present there is really only one way that I feel I have made a unique contribution to the world, and that is my community site Pan Historia.
However how indelible can a web site be? I know that I have touched hundreds of people, and that I have made a difference in some of their lives that will be remembered all of their lives, but how about the future? I believe this question can be asked of the whole of the internet. It’s very nature is ephemeral and ever changing. Who tomorrow will remember communities like Pan Historia or even MySpace or Facebook? Where are the graceful strong carved lines in stone? How can I rest assured of my immortality when in a the flip of a switch all that I have worked for is gone forever with one electronic wink? Achievements on the internet seem as brief and fragile as human life itself.
Proud as I am of my personal achievements I do feel like I am rushing headlong to the abyss, and I don’t know what is on the other side. Desperately I crave the book that I can cradle in my hand, put on my shelf, and know that it will be here after I am gone. Books burn, degrade, rot, or get recycled, but surely one such tome can survive the ravages of cruel time to carry my name long after I am gone? Some future person will happen upon it on a dusty shelf in an obscure second-hand bookstore, a throwback to a gentler slower past, and there will be my name, my words, and it will be as if I still live.