Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #175. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print, Feb. 6, 2022

On Oct. 28 St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis presided over a communication with the future. According to the St. Cloud Times, he “dedicated a time capsule chronicling St. Cloud residents’ lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The story continues. “The capsule is to be buried for 100 years – as a way to acknowledge the century that’s passed since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and give future residents a glimpse into the first 20 months of the most recent pandemic."

“‘You know, it would have been great to open up a time capsule last year from 100 years ago and know what they were thinking and, not so much necessarily all of what’s been reported, but the personal parts of it,’ Kleis said.”

The personal parts of it. Yes, that’s what we would like to know from our ancestors. Thanks to the time capsule, our descendants will get to know this from us.

My memory of the time capsule story – three months ago, hardly a major time warp – was triggered by a fascinating tale by Jennifer Egan in The New Yorker (Jan. 3 & 10), “What the Forest Remembers.” The narrator recounts a trip into the California woods by her father and some of his friends. She was only six years old at the time and did not accompany them. How did she know what happened?

She didn’t make it up.

Shortly before her father died, having already had five strokes, a dozen electrodes were attached to him and in the course of 11 hours “a copy of [his] consciousness in its entirety: every perception and sensation he had experienced, starting at the moment of his birth,” was recorded in what would become known as a “Mandala Consciousness Cube.” Eventually she authorizes its release to the “Collective Consciousness,” which then gives her access to the memories of her father’s friends as well.

The Mandala Consciousness Cube is the ultimate time capsule. It’s not just “the personal parts” of a life. It’s the whole thing, and not simply as remembered, but as it happened. The narrator is seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling the world as her father experienced it, moment by moment. And the reader realizes: When the narrator’s own Consciousness Cube is created, it will record how she experienced her father’s experience.

“What the Forest Remembers” sparked not only the recent memory of the St. Cloud time capsule, but also one from four decades ago, another New Yorker story (July 12, 1982) that has shaped my sensibility as profoundly as anything I have ever read.

In “The Encyclopedia of the Dead (A Whole Life)” the late Yugoslav author Danilo Kiš evokes the inexhaustible connectedness of everything.

A Yugoslav woman, whose father has recently died, visits Stockholm. Admitted alone, late at night, to the Royal Library, she discovers a series of dusty rooms, each containing many volumes identified with the same letter of the alphabet. She runs to the room marked “M” (her father’s initial).

She had pictured the Encyclopedia of the Dead as “one of those esoteric creations of the human spirit, to be savored only by hermits, rabbis, and priests.” It turns out to be quite different. “What makes this encyclopedia truly unique – aside from its being the sole copy in the world – is the way it depicts human relationships, encounters, landscapes: that abundance of detail our life is composed of.” By verbal and imagistic magic, the book “records everything. Everything.”

The entry for her father is only a few pages long, but the dazzling, even mesmerizing, profusion of details, networks, webs gives a lively sense of what omniscience would mean, of what it means for us that God pays attention to everything – “no sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight” (Luke 12:6).

The story underscores further that God shows no partiality, is not impressed by celebrity. Anyone who achieved sufficient distinction to make it into one of the prestigious biographical dictionaries is excluded from The Encyclopedia of the Dead, which is a kind of Who Was, But Wasn’t Who. The compilers aim at “righting human justice and giving [everyone] an equal place in eternity.”

Kiš conjures a quasi-medieval monastic community that investigates from the outside in; the narrator searches for what the compilers know about her late father. Egan gives us a futuristic technology that investigates from the inside out; her first-person protagonist is made privy directly to what her father experienced.

St. Cloud’s time capsule has something in common with The Encyclopedia of the Dead and the Mandala Consciousness Cube, though far less comprehensive. But all three are responses to Linda Loman’s admonition at her husband’s funeral in “Death of a Salesman”: “Attention, attention must finally be paid.”

As a friend of mine has said, we are caretakers of one another’s stories – across generations. Make a time capsule for your great-great-grandchildren.