Louis Roney: Relative history

Louis Roney

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Relativity is everywhere you look. And who needs an Einstein to explain that the fourth dimension — time — is the glue that holds together the pieces of the world in which we live?

In history courses we learn about kings and emperors, wars and battles, invasions, sieges, conquests, voyages, stolen riches, famine, plagues, and man’s inhumanity to man.

Students are asked to memorize the dates of Alexander’s wanderings, Julius Caesar’s victories, Napoleon’s return from Elba, and Chamberlain’s cowardly meeting with Hitler in Munich.

But history is also the record of inventions and scientific discoveries, of architecture, sculpture, painting; the compositions of poetry, drama, prose and music.

James Watt invented the steam engine. And Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” Which event was more important in history? Whose history?

History is relative to different people’s interests, needs and points of view. Transportation has changed. The steam engine’s time came in 1775, and now is past. But Beethoven’s monumental “Eroica” remains with us now and for always. Great works of art create the illusion of timelessness. But even the “Eroica” is totally dependent on the sun’s shining — as are we all for, unless mankind can someday escape the solar system, the sun’s eventual explosion into a “red giant” will annihilate the Earth, and the “Eroica” with it.

Stephen Leacock quipped “Einstein made the real trouble when he announced in 1905 that there was no such thing as absolute rest. After that there never was.”

Reality is a constantly changing motion picture — not a still life. Change is the way of life. And change takes time. The change from young to old takes place too quickly for most of us.

While James Watt was fussing around in his workshop perfecting his steam engine, in 1775 Paul Revere was riding through the night from Charlestown and Lexington. That same year George Washington was made commander-in-chief of the American forces.

Around 2,100 B.C. Abraham left Ur in Chaldea. At the same time, ancient Peruvians were cultivating cotton.

Probably in 27 A.D., Jesus Christ was baptized. About that time, the Romans were invading Britain.

While Geoffrey Chaucer was finishing “The Canterbury Tales” in England in 1387, Germany was founding Heidelberg and Cologne universities. A 33-year-old painter named Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned by the Pope in 1508 to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The Pope was probably the most important person in Rome in his day. But who would recall which Pope was reining in the Vatican at that time, if Julius II had not been the Pope who ordered Michelangelo to hang upside down in the Sistine Chapel ceiling and paint for four years?

What do you think of when you think of the year 1941?

If you were in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, and survived, you will think of the Japanese sneak attack: “a day that will live in infamy forever!” in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

If you are an avid baseball fan, you’ll remember New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio’s hitting safely in 56 consecutive games — and the death of another Yankee great, Lou Gehrig, from a disease now named for him. If you are a physicist, 1941 is the first year of the “Manhattan Project,” which led to the atomic bomb. If you are an engineer, you may remember that the Grand Coulee Dam began operating that year in the state of Washington.

If you like reading fiction, you may remember the publishing of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The Last Tycoon,” A.J. Cronin’s “The Keys of the Kingdom,” and J.P. Marquand’s, “H.M. Pulham, Esquire.” If theater is your thing, you’ll think of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” If you’re a movie buff, you’ll recall Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” and John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley.” But don’t forget, 1941 meant “Chattanooga Choo-choo,” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” As you can see, it was a “relatively” interesting year.

Aren’t they all?