A quote from Laozi, the author of the Tao Te Ching:
‘If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.’
Myself and my walking buddy might have had good reason to have broken from our walk towards Rome and gone to Marseille last weekend. Day 52 of the trek would have found us in Lentilles. I’m still not sure how we’d have made the 700 km diversion from the Aube which is poorly served by trains. Nonetheless, we both had high hopes that Leinster Rugby would have made it to another European Rugby Cup Final and made good on the failure to win a fifth title in Newcastle last year.
Marseilles comes to mind because I’m a bit depressed by the ignorance of historical failings. I’m anxious about the likelihood that such ignorance will lead to repetition.
Marseilles is home to some of the best disease research facilities in the world where they are housed in the Université de la Méditerranée. Ironically, there are pandemic lessons to be had from Marseilles. It was the first European port to host the bubonic plague of 543 CE. The good burghers of Marseille did it again in 1346 and this time 25 million died across Europe. They forgot their history and did it yet again in 1720. This last one is the most interesting for our 2020 pandemic. I’m not suggesting Marseille will be the locus of mistake, I’m just repeating George Santayana’s point that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
What happened in 1720 was that economic imperatives were allowed to prevail. The city was put into quarantine but the merchants were given some dispensations to continue to trade. Especially important was one shipment of silk that came on a ship carrying a few people known to have bubonic plague. The silk was traded when the quarantine was specifically and temporarily suspended. This one mistake is believed to have killed 50,000 people in Marseille’s Great Plague, the last in Europe. It took 50 years, two generations, for the city to recover. Please note: that’s 50,000 dead and two generations of economic damage.
While other people have big decisions to make, I’ll continue to find some of my peace in the present in making photographs. The camera renders what you look at and point it to with such detail that you can see what you didn’t when the shutter was open. The camera will bypass the subconscious filters that operate autonomically in your brain. The camera will often deceive too. It’s just another way of seeing. As John Berger wrote “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled”, so profound that it’s on the cover of Ways of Seeing.
We passed through Wales on a brief driving holiday in May 2015. Our visit to Conwy Castle was just before lunch and that was just ahead of driving to Holyhead and taking a ferry home. I used a 50 mm lens to peer out through the arrowslits of each of the eight nearly identical towers. I remain intrigued by the juxtaposition of modern traffic with pastoral and leisure scenes all framed by the preservation of historical warfare, views of subjugation that have persisted for nigh on 800 years.
Just imagine, the Black Death will have been seen from these very arrowslits.