Notes: The Tithe

Doing the right thing by posterity

THE CARTOONISTS Dik Browne and Mort Walker once wrote a book called The Land of Lost Things, in which a little boy, having become separated from his parents, finds himself in the mythical place where all lost things go. The bewildered boy is surrounded by ear keys and mittens and teddy bears, by baseball gloves and twinless socks. Eventually, of course, he makes his way out.

The land of lost things, settled entirely by immigrants, has its share of emigrants, too—of things that return, often after long absences, to the world they came from—and the emigrants are almost always welcomed back with warmth and delight. I was reminded of Browne’s book not long ago by news of the chance discovery in London, during construction of an office complex on the Thames, of the foundations of the Rose Theatre, where Shakespeare’s first plays were performed. The event aroused enormous public support for the preservation of the site,

Several years ago a stir was created by the discovery in Greece of the remains of Philip of Macedon, a man who paid tuition bills to Aristotle, and whose tomb no one had ever hoped to find. Earlier, Leonardo’s notebooks, Boswell’s diaries, and the Dead Sea Scrolls won broad public interest and acclaim when brought to light after many centuries.

As a teenager, I started saving newspaper accounts of discoveries like this — “33 BACH ORGAN PRKLl DES ARE DISCOVERED AT YALE”; “A SCHOLAR S FIND: SHAKESPEAREAN LYRIC”; “SOVIET WRITER SAYS HE HAS FOUND BODIES OF CZAR AND FAMILY”—but the seas of time washed the yore upon the now so regularly that finally, with Canute-like resignation, I gave up. Yet each new report in the press (“CHESTERTON APHORISMS FOUND IN 2D WRITER’S BOOK”) provides a curious sense of reassurance. Even when the discoveries contribute nothing of importance, really, to our stock of knowledge or beauty, they at least suggest that though the past may one day lock us up, it won’t necessarily throw away the key.

THE UNCOVERING OF the Rose Theatre raises a disturbing question, however. Is the modern world doing its duty by future generations and losing enough splendid things for posterity to find? There is reason to believe, I fear, that the supply of future objets trouvés is being diminished in two ways. On the one hand, what we wish to destroy is today destroyed with an absoluteness of which the ancients were rarely capable, and to which they rarely aspired. For example, no equivalent of a Wailing Wall remains from the original Madison Square Garden. On the other hand, a growing preservationist impulse, combined with the advent of mass production, makes it harder for many things to become lost in the first place. Will a copy of The Godfather ever not exist? There is a remote possibility, I suppose, that statistically the matter is a wash—that because we are making so many more things than we used to, the same number of significant artifacts might be left behind as have always been. But I don’t think so. During the past two decades, for example, only a couple of things have gone missing that our grandchildren would be excited to find: eighteen and a half minutes of a tape recording made in 1972, and Jimmy Hoffa. Compare this dismal legacy with that of a typical year in antiquity—612 B.C., say, when the entire city of Nineveh was consigned to oblivion in a single day.

The time has come, I think, for concerted action. I would propose the levying of a national tithe, whereby a certain percentage of what is new and of social or cultural importance—10 percent seems about right—is simply squirreled away in some odd place. Under such a regime (to illustrate) Philip Roth would not actually have published his tenth novel, The Professor of Desire, but instead would have delivered the manuscript to a government functionary, who in turn would have deposited the work in a trunk (say) in the attic of a country house in Scotland (say); the functionary would then have been sworn to secrecy, or shot. A similar procedure could be followed with paintings, television shows, movies, presidential documents—anything, really. The bodies of some of our significant dead (perhaps every tenth person whose passing is noted in limes “Milestones” column) should be treated in the same way. The English have been doing this willy-nilly with their monarchs from the start. King Edward the Martyr (975-979) didn’t turn up until 1931, when he was found by a gardener in Dorset; he was stored until recently in a cutlery box in Woking, England, pending the outcome of litigation. The whereabouts of William the Conqueror (1066—1087) are unknown to this day, save for a single thigh bone, discovered in France in 1987.

One last detail. Much of what turns up unexpectedly raises piquant problems of identity. Those bones of Philip’s—are they really his? That Shakespearean lyric—Shakespeare’s? This vexing quality adds mystery and spice, and ought to be encouraged. I see no reason, for example, why the title page of the hidden Professor of Desire might not conveniently have become detached, or why some future pope should not be buried, in full regalia, in Muncie. We may not be around for the headlines, but we will have had our fun.

—Cullen Murphy