Historians work with the most film noirish of content. Their subject is elusive, shifting in dusky menace and yet seemingly liable to an opaque, brutal fatalism. A certain moodiness, more bleak than optimistic, blankets their work. Resting at the center of it all is an enduring mystery. Tolstoy invites us to consider this mystery today.
For Tolstoy there is an unknown, perhaps wholly unintelligible, force animating the movements of history. The ancients, he reports, locate this force in the Gods who direct feeble men towards a predestined end. The moderns, on the other hand, reject deities as causal explanations for the motives of history. But like Jonathan Harker says, the old centuries have powers of their own which mere modernity cannot kill. So though the moderns discount the Gods they simply substitute Great Men into the role of Gods. There remains still the mystery of the ultimate cause. The historians have solved nothing.
Their impossible grasping must, on some level, be familiar to everyone. How often, after all, is our perception altered either by the focus gathered of time or the insight gleaned from new experience? How quickly do our old certainties crumble? How fickle is truth? Only the stillness of change is spared the splintering terpsichorean march of history.
In the end perhaps our fruitless appetency for understanding in this shifting world is like Doc Riedenschneider’s reflection on the double-cross he suffers in The Asphalt Jungle. “Put in hours and hours of planning,” he says. “Figure everything down to the last detail. Then what? Burglar alarms start going off all over the place for no sensible reason. A gun fires of its own accord and a man is shot. And a broken down old cop, no good for anything but chasing kids, has to trip over us. Blind accident. What can you do against blind accidents?”
The rottenness of the matter that is the foundation of everything: Liquid, dust, bones, filth. Or marble as hardened as dirt, gold and silver as residues, clothes as hair, purple dye as shellfish blood. And all the rest. The same with our living breath — transformed from one thing to another.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations