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Human beings are human beings
This week we introduced a mini interview series called “Private Message” on Substack Reads. The first post was with. In it, I refer to a public conversation I had with E. Jean, at the Book Club bar here in New York. It was a cozy evening, attended by predominantly local Substack writers (though some flew in especially, such as the wonderful who writes Evil Witches).
Yesterday, as I was rifling through an old notebook, trying to find a clean page to write down an address someone was giving me over the phone, a loose piece of paper flew out of it and danced its way to the floor. It was a drawing of me and E. Jean that cartoonist(You’re Doing Great) sketched that night during the interview.
I remember this exchange that Sofia (love the name) captured here. As you may know, E. Jean has had the longest running advice column in American publishing (I am going to call it the longest-running advice column in the world, and as Werner Herzog put it, they can fact-check me to their deaths). This means that for three decades, people have been writing to E. Jean about their lives and personal problems. The world has changed considerably in the meantime, as have the ways in which we communicate and connect with each other. I was wondering whether E. Jean had detected any evolution or pattern in human behavior through the questions she received, any progress or regression.
“It is all the same,” she had answered me. For the past thirty years different people, of different ages and genders, different backgrounds, have asked her the same questions, over and again, perhaps in different ways.
“Human being are human beings,” she said. “They fall in love, they want children, things go wrong…”
This may sound like a non sequitur, but years ago, under a display of ancient beauty accessories in the archeological museum of Thessaloniki, I remember reading on the label that priests of the day reprimanded women for their vain preoccupation with appearance and cosmetics.
Writers know this well:
Willa Cather wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
James Baldwin said in an interview, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
Thucydides, in 400 BC, had the audacity to state in the opening of The Peloponnesian War that, “It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”
His book is a staple of professional military education at American universities, and the Naval War College especially. It is also the text that has launched a thousand others over the years, that use its learnings to explain contemporary this and that.
Recently, I was talking to a friend about Herodotus’ Histories, which is as great a feat in storytelling as One Thousand and One Nights. I was first exposed to it as part of the standard history curriculum in Greece, and later read Tom Holland’s English translation in its entirety sometime in my early thirties. I lugged the book around the city those days because I was reading it in part during my daily commute.
I revisited my copy and found this note-to-self among the marginalia:
“It is exhausting to think how futile it all is. How tediously repetitive. How it has been the same for thousands of years and how it will continue to be the same εις τους αιώνας των αιώνων, αμήν (unto the ages of ages, amen). How nothing changes and yet how it also changes in radical degrees. How you will not get to see exactly how far man will go. How you will become history, part of a mass “they,” without significance. How you fight your struggles only to be grouped in the end with all your enemies, or even your allies, your contemporaries, whether you like them or not. And the best choice you have is procreation? No better choice or chance than a dog or a donkey has. So we will go on living, doing exactly as we did for centuries, eons ago, only on different stars.”
I clearly had a moment of existential despair somewhere between stops on the F train, but given this was likely written during rush hour, I suppose the despair was merited. I do not feel the same way about it today. If anything, the sense of repetition gives me comfort. We are still in prehistory, the cavemen of the heroic space age, but we can rest assured: our essence will remain unchanging.
I will leave you with a poem by the wise and wonderful Wisława Szymborska. Nature, she writes, may be supplying us with pre-worn faces. Thankfully, today, we have better cosmetics.
Thoughts That Visit Me on Busy Streets
Billions of faces on the earth’s surface.
Each different, so we’re told,
from those that have been and will be.
But Nature—since who really understands her?—
may grow tired of her ceaseless labors
and so repeats earlier ideas
by supplying us
with preworn faces.
Those passersby might be Archimedes in jeans,
Catherine the Great draped in resale,
some pharaoh with briefcase and glasses.
An unshod shoemaker’s widow
from a still pint-sized Warsaw,
the master from the cave at Altamira
taking his grandkids to the zoo,
a shaggy Vandal en route to the museum
to gasp at past masters.
The fallen from two hundred centuries ago,
five centuries ago,
half a century ago.
One brought here in a golden carriage,
another conveyed by extermination transport,
Montezuma, Confucius, Nebuchadnezzar,
their nannies, their laundresses, and Semiramida
who speaks only English.
Billions of faces on the earth’s surface.
My face, yours, whose—
you’ll never know.
Maybe nature has to shortchange us,
and to keep up, meet demand,
she fishes up what’s been sunk
in the mirror of oblivion.