- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

By Alexander Stille
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 339 pages

Alexander Stille tells us that "The Sphinx still stares impenetrably across the millennia, but instead of contemplating the mysteries of existence its gaze is now trained at the Pizza Hut and Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants that have opened just two hundred yards in front of it." This bizarre juxtaposition is just one example of the collision between the relics of the past and the exigencies of the present that are the subject of Mr. Stille's new book, "The Future of the Past."
During the last four decades of the 20th century, Cairo's population mushroomed from two million to 17 million, bringing the fast food franchises and other accoutrements of urban life to the edge of the desert where the Pyramids still stand as testimony to the engineering prowess of the ancient pharaohs. The Sphinx was around 1,000 years old in 1401 B.C., when King Thutmosis IV began to restore the crumbling monument and, in the manner still practiced today by politicians, erected a slab where he took credit for the project.
Thanks to their remoteness and the dry Egyptian climate, the deterioration sustained by the Pyramids over the millennia since then was limited, but its rate has greatly increased over the past two centuries, since Napoleon invaded Egypt and reintroduced its wonders to the West.
The Sphinx is one example of the race that is now going on between two competing forces unleashed by modern civilization. Environmental pollution and human impact are accelerating the deterioration of historical relics, while researchers are developing an ever greater ability to extract details about the past by subjecting those relics to examination using all the resources of high technology. While the Egyptian government is trying with limited success to preserve and restore the symbols of its long national history, foreign researchers have been building computer models of the Sphinx and other monuments, allowing anyone with an appropriately equipped computer to take a "virtual tour" without setting foot on Egyptian soil.
Mr. Stille's book is not a closely argued exploration of a particular thesis on the relationship between the past and the present, but a series of vignettes, most of which originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine, describing a variety of very loosely connected subjects in the detailed manner familiar to readers of that periodical. Each focuses on a particular individual who has devoted his or her life to a fairly esoteric subject, and describes their interactions with their colleagues, rivals and, usually, the bureaucrats and political operators who complicate their missions.
After a chapter in which he discusses the different ways in which modern Western society and China have regarded relics of the past with the former wanting to keep them in their authentic state of discovery and the latter seeking to improve them Mr. Stille moves on to a description of the attempts of the Italian government to keep their nation's artistic patrimony at home by combating the Sicilian tombaroli (literally, grave robbers) who make their living by selling buried antiques to dealers, wealthy collectors and museums who have traditionally been willing to open their wallets and close their mouths when a particularly attractive piece of antique art comes their way.
Next, he moves to Madagascar, an island whose unique and sometimes not yet classified fauna provide wonderful opportunities for biologists seeking to make a name for themselves. Mr. Stille focuses on primatologist Patricia Wright, whose dogged efforts after she discovered the golden bamboo lemur resulted in the establishment of a nature reserve that is great for the lemurs and their rich environmentalist supporters, but of doubtful benefit for the poor human Malagasy population.
Mr. Stille has a particular talent for discovering interesting people. One is Veer Bhadra Mishra, who is both the hereditary head of a major Hindu temple, regarded as a god by some of his devotees, and a qualified hydraulic engineer who is seeking to clean up the notorious pollution of the holy Ganges river. Another is Giancarlo Scoditti, an Italian-born anthropologist who in the 1970s studied the people of Kitawa, an island off the coast of Papua-New Guinea and became so immersed in their society that today, when the inhabitants have become considerably Westernized, he knows more about Kitawan culture than any of the natives.
And then there is Reginald Foster, the son of a Milwaukee plumber who became a Carmelite monk and is now the Latin secretary to the pope, who composes all official Vatican documents in that language. Mr. Foster, a theological liberal who dresses like a blue-collar worker, spends his non-working hours teaching Latin intensively as a spoken language to anyone willing to take his rigorous but highly entertaining classes.
Other chapters in this highly eclectic book deal with oral poetry and revolutionary politics in Somalia, the bumbling efforts of the Egyptian government to recreate the famed library of Alexandria, and a complicated financial scandal which led to the forced retirement of the enthusiastic Irish cleric who tried to bring the Vatican library into the 20th century. In the final chapter Mr. Stille discusses the double-edged nature of the information revolution of the second half of the 20th century. He tells us, "While the late twentieth century will undoubtedly have recorded more data than any other period in history, it will also almost certainly have lost more information than any previous era."
That comment refers to the fragility of the electronic media used to store information, even that as important as census data. Not only does the stored data decay over a period of decades, but it uses technology that advances so rapidly that by the time anyone wants to study the information nobody recalls the obsolete hardware needed to recover the data, so for all practical purposes the data is lost.
In a vain attempt to tie all the book's loose threads together, Mr. Stille adds a rambling conclusion about writing and our relationship with the past. Putting it in a nutshell, the invention of printing was a good thing because it multiplied access to information. Television, on the other hand, has stopped people from reading, reduced their participation in society, and generally dumbed them down. The world has become commercialized and people are discontented because they have lost their connection with the past, but perhaps they will use technology in unimagined ways to regain control.
Mr. Stille could have avoided all this philosophizing and drawn a lesson from his own fascinating portraits. Human beings remain the unique individuals they always have been, and when they are truly determined to do something, they don't let anything get in their way.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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