A slight digression about verb tenses

You may notice that I do all these profile deals in the present tense, even now that I'm doing one that involves watching things that were committed to film at the dawn of the 20th century. I get called out for it from time to time, usually by someone confused who inquires politely as to whether I'm aware that my subject has done very little work for the past thirty-five years, on account of being somewhat dead.

As far as I can tell, this is an irreparable schism between how I think of people captured on media and how others do. I'm not sure I can make it make sense to anyone else. I think of recordings not as just collections of pixels and pitches, but as moments in time, uprooted and transplanted into a different section of the continuum. When you're on film, on disc, on paper, those moments that you spent on that creation are also impressed there. Your state of mind goes with you. There's a part of you there that never dies.

What I'm doing, when I do this, is casting around for all the little fluttering scraps of a person that I can find. I pick them up and I lay them out in my head, figuring out which things are next to which other things by noting where the lines coincide, and where they must overlap. Scrap by scrap, they become a picture. Sometimes I can see the private pencil lines beneath the bold public ink; sometimes I can't. My favorite ones are full of depth and color, little details poking out in unexpected places. Some alien, some strangely familiar.

I never actually get to know anyone like this. The pictures are all I have. I find that distressing, on occasion. But the pictures are fascinating.

The profiles are all in the present tense for the same reason eidetickers describe their mental photographs in the present tense: All the scraps are transplanted from the past, but I'm looking at the half-assembled puzzle now. The impressions I get are immediate, sometimes startling. "It just hit me," is pretty much the only way to say it. Two or three things will match up and suddenly I know something that I didn't before. Most are pretty neutral, aside from me being pleased with myself that my antennae apparently still work. But occasionally, I'm struck by something very emotional, and I have to stop what I'm watching, or put down what I'm reading, and just think about what I know for a while.

Chaplin published his book in 1964, but I met him when I opened it up in 2012. As far as the people-figuring-out lobe of my brain is concerned, I'm interacting with the pieces I have of this person in the present. I could edit these disjointed chunks of essay to force them into the past tense, but it would be horribly awkward, I'd probably miss a lot, and then when I read it back -- which I do before I post them, no matter what it looks like -- it would sound completely wrong.

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