The past shapes the present—they teach us that in schools and universities. (Shapes? Infiltrates, more like; imbues, infuses.) This past cannot be visited like an ageing aunt. It doesn’t live in little zoo enclosures. Half the time, this past is nothing less than the beating heart of the present. So, how to speak of the searing, unpindownable power that the past—ours, our family’s, our culture’s—wields in the present?
Stories are not enough, even though they are essential. And books about history, books of psychology—the best of them take us closer, but still not close enough. Maria Tumarkin's Axiomatic is a boundary-shifting fusion of thinking, storytelling, reportage and meditation. It takes as its starting point five axioms: ‘Time Heals All Wounds’; ‘History Repeats Itself’; ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’; ‘Give Me a Child Before the Age of Seven and I Will Show You the Woman’; and ‘You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice.’
These beliefs—or intuitions—about the role the past plays in our present are often evoked as if they are timeless and self-evident truths. It is precisely because they are neither, yet still we are persuaded by them, that they tell us a great deal about the forces that shape our culture and the way we live.
Examining the theme of trauma and grief over the course of five extended essays, cultural historian Tumarkin (Otherland) presents a remarkable tour de force. Each essay derives its title from a different axiom to pick two: "You Can't Enter the Same River Twice" and "Time Heals All Wounds," and explores an easily sensationalized subject, such as, in the latter, teen suicide. That the essays come across as original is a testament to their artful construction, as they organically navigates the networks of a community and evoke a larger system through its smaller components. "Time Heals All Wounds" delves into the repercussions of teen suicide for families, schools, and communities, and moves through different stories as if they were all part of the same larger case. In addition to trauma, the essays also touch on the effects of time, as in "History Repeats Itself," about a lawyer whose commitment to "being embedded in the community, walking the streets, using the same public transport as my clients" causes Tumarkin to reflect on how time "lets trust stick, and relationships take anchor." Perhaps most impressive is how Tumarkin openly courts, yet escapes, clich . These essays will linger in readers' minds for years after.