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Short Story: Chronos and Old Facts

Chronos and Old Facts

A short story by Anthony Horvath


The sign on the door read “Bureau for Decommissioned Facts.” I pushed the door open gingerly, almost sheepishly. My quest to find this heretofore unknown department of the Universal University was not merely a recent one, but one that was given to me and not one that I had initiated. The department chair had taken me aside in the cafeteria, and in a tone that wavered between fatherly affection and patronizing condescension, insisted that I take a trip to Building 51023414, use the elevator to go down to the lowest sub-floor, and learn what could be learned in the BDF.

Naturally, I found the suggestion extremely curious, if only because I had never heard of the BDF and had never noticed a building marked 51023414 before. From some of the remarks made by the department chair I had some inclination to think that this quest was bestowed upon me in relation to a paper that I had recently submitted for publication. It was a paper that I was particularly proud of: bold, ambitious, counter-intuitive, and well-substantiated. Yet here I was, descending into the bowels of an ungodly numbered building as though I were back in high school and being sent to the principal’s office.

I beheld a nondescript sterile-white room. A black desk was in the middle of it, standing in stark contrast to the rest of the décor. A woman I instantly dubbed in my mind the ‘Prune Woman’ stared at me behind thick black-rimmed glasses. An older lady, to put it nicely. She glared at me. “How can I help you, sir?”

“My department chair sent me here,” I offered, not really knowing what else I could say. One of her eyebrows raised in an inquisitive manner.

“Which department?” she inquired.

“History,” I replied.

“Of course,” she said. “It usually is. Right this way.”

I followed her to the back of the room where, to my surprise, a door opened up for us out of the white wall where a moment before there hadn’t even appeared to be a seam for one. There was a long hallway ahead of me that seemed to stretch out of sight. There were bare outlines of other doors that I managed to discern only as I went by them and knew now what to look for. Little placards with numbers were on them but they were too small to read. We went a little ways where a sudden turn greeted us. She led me down this new hallway for a dozen steps but not more: she threw open another door. I stepped inside the door warily, expecting more of the same. My expectations were not completely off.

There was still the sense that it was a surgical environment, but in here there were several old desks. They were stacked with manuscripts, scrolls, books, and artifacts. On one of the walls was a series of lights that were marked with more unreadable markings. In fact, upon further scrutiny, the wall was filled with little indicator lights. It had the appearance of what one might expect to find in the control room for a space shuttle. Some of the lights were a faint green, others a mild yellow, and still others a glaring red. Every moment or so one of the green lights would go to yellow, or a yellow one would go to red. However, nothing red ever went yellow, although I thought I saw a few yellows turn green. Standing next to one of the desks, poring over a book, was a scruffy, middle-aged man. He greeted me.

“Welcome to the BDF, friend. Old Martins retired did he? I’ve been expecting to see the new blood down here for quite a ways now. I’m Chronos. Not my real name, of course, but that’s what they call me,” the man said, looking at him through reading glasses. ‘Prune Woman’ turned without a word and returned to her station at the front desk.

“What’s this all about?” I asked, unable to bring myself to call him by his alleged name.

“Well, obviously it looks like you need an orientation about how things work here,” Chronos told me. It wasn’t a completely patronizing tone of voice.

“Does this have anything to do with my paper? I thought it just the right thing! The current was going the other way but I showed using a variety of primary sources that the current was very likely going the wrong way,” I objected.

“Ah yes. Primary sources. That’s fine material to use, normally. But not always. That’s why you’re here. You have got to learn when it’s scholarly to use it and when it is scholarly not to use it,” Chronos said, continuing to peer at him through his glasses.

“What on earth are you talking about?” I replied incredulously. Chronos merely sighed.

“Well, obviously I don’t know what you’re paper was about, but it doesn’t really matter. Come here and look. Let me see if I can explain,” he said, leading me to the wall of lights. For the first time I noticed an old computer near the wall of lights. Clearly the computer was interfaced with the lights, but I couldn’t quite make out how.

He scanned the wall for a few minutes and finally settled on one particular yellow light. He pointed to it. “Ok, see this? This light represents the authenticity of a certain document dated at around 529 AD. It’s the Rule of St. Benedict. Ok, now watch.” We waited for a few minutes, but Chronos kept his eye on the dim yellow light the entire time. Suddenly it flashed to red. “See?” he exclaimed. “Now this light represents the alleged authenticity of a document believed to be dated at around 529 AD.”

“You just said the same thing twice,” said I.

“Some scholar you are,” he retorted. “I did not say the same thing twice. The second time I said ‘alleged’ and ‘believed.’ Did you not notice?”

“But there is hardly a difference!” I rejoined.

“There is absolutely a difference. In my first statement, I was decisive. In the second statement, I introduced ambiguities. Surely you see that, now?” he asked me, carefully studying my reaction. I thought about it for a minute, and as I thought, Chronos sat down at the computer and did a little typing. Shortly after, a little number appeared below the light representing St. Benedict’s Rule. I strained my eyes to see what the number was, and with a startled jump I realized that the number was not merely today’s date, but also the exact time when the light went from yellow to red.

“Do you mean to tell me that up until that particular time it was known when Benedict wrote his Rule but after that time it was not known?” I demanded incredulously.

“Well, no, not exactly. Actually, it would be more precise to say that while that light was still yellow, scholars were permitted to consider the document reliable, but once it turned red, it was not to be considered reliable any more.”

“But why?” I protested. “Surely you are not saying that when it was written changed?”

“When it was written is no longer of any consequence,” he replied, “Because since it is now classified as unreliable, scholars will be free to make hay out of any particular date that they choose. That is not my business. My business is to facilitate the decommissioning of ‘facts.’ Historical facts, in particular. That’s why you are here in my office and not down the hall in one of the scientific facts offices,” Chronos patiently explained.

“But what changed?” I insisted.

“What do you mean ‘what changed’?” Chronos asked.

“One second the document was reliable and the next it wasn’t! What new evidence emerged to justify this new classification?” I wanted to know. But Chronos laughed.

“Evidence?” You’re in the Universal University, now. Don’t you know by now?” he guffawed. Apparently he could tell by my face that I was not at all humored by this, so he adopted a sterner look and opened his mouth again to try to explain things. “No evidence was required at all! It simply became an ‘old book,’ and everyone knows that old books can’t be true. Old manuscripts can’t be trusted. That’s why we have the BDF. We want to have an objective way of deciding how much time has to pass in certain instances when a thing that was considered reliable in one second is no longer reliable the next second.”

“That is absurd,” I declared. “There must be more to it.” Chronos gave a grumpy sigh and sat down at his computer. He typed into it for a little while. After a few minutes he laughed as though he had found the solution.

“I think I have it, now,” Chronos said. “Professor Tiwmid is set to publish a book in a week attacking the views of certain conservative scholars. Oh, this is a fine example. The scholar that Tiwmid is going after is no doubt pinning a great deal on the authenticity of Benedict’s Rule. Well, now that the Rule is no longer authentic, Tiwmid can discredit that scholar’s argument. I see the notation here where Tiwmid put the Rule on the fast track. It wasn’t supposed to be decommissioned for another hundred years, but he needs to make his money now, while the opinion is still controversial.”

“I thought you said that this was an objective process?” I snarled. Chronos looked hurt.

“Of course it’s objective. He had to submit a form, just like the rest of us,” Chronos said.

“I’m sorry for being obtuse, here, but do I really take it to mean that prior to this particular moment here…” and here I pointed at the date and time I saw Benedict’s reliability go from yellow to red… “Benedict’s rule was a historically reliable manuscript, but after that moment, it was not reliable, anymore?”

“Yes, that’s about right,” Chronos seemed please with my progress.

“And there was no underlying evidence to support this?” I clarified.

“That’s not exactly true. Tiwmid says it is no longer reliable, and he’s a scholar, and not one of those sort of scholars, if you know what I mean,” Chronos winked. “That’s evidence. Plus he submitted the proper forms…” Here Chronos tapped away at the computer once again, suddenly worried that protocol hadn’t been followed. Apparently, it had been followed, because Chronos looked up at me again with relief in his eyes. I decided to play along. Something had clicked in my head that had never really made sense before. I decided to press it.

“So, let’s take Josephus as an example,” I started. Chronos was ready.

“Josephus’s material became unfactual two or three hundred years ago. Officially decommissioned by one of my ancient predecessors. I saw the forms myself,” he rattled off.

“Right,” I replied. “So, when we look at the passage called the Testimonium Flavium, where Josephus appears to talk about Jesus, one day the passage was a legitimate reference, and the next day it was not.”

“Exactly,” Chronos replied.

“Right,” I continued. “So, the fact that Eusebius cites the passage nearly verbatim-”

“Eusebius was also decommissioned!” Chronos interjected, but I waved him off, because of course that was what I was getting to.

“The fact that the passage was repeated nearly verbatim only two or three hundred years later by Eusebius and there is no other textual manuscript evidence to support any other reading until 1,000 AD, is of no consequence, because Eusebius’s light went from yellow to red a long time ago, and of course, Josephus was right along with him. But what about the manuscript evidence from 1,000 AD?” I wondered to Chronos.

“Yes, you mean the Arabic text showing a different version of the passage?” Chronos asked.

“That’s the one,” I said.

“That hasn’t been decommissioned yet,” Chronos explained. “So, it’s still authentic. Let’s remember, too, that scholars can’t possibly imagine how Josephus could have ever said what he is purported to say, so it had to have been twisted-”

It was my turn to interject. “Even though there is no actual textual evidence of that.”

But Chronos continued his thought, “It had to be twisted because of course Josephus would not have said such a thing and naturally it would have been in the interest of Christians, and Eusebius in particular, to twist it in their favor. Plus, remember that there is textual evidence. The Arabic text.”

“So, the Christians, and Eusebius in particular, would have had motive to twist it but the Muslim Arabs of 1,000 AD, would not have had their own motive to twist a passage that would have been damaging to their system?” I squinted at Chronos.

“Ah, I see where you’re going. But you’re missing some critical points. First of all, you forget that the textual tradition doesn’t matter much in the case of Josephus or even Eusebius. You might say that they now belong to the public domain of scholarly imagination. Scholars can’t imagine how Josephus could have said such a thing and they can imagine how Christians would have wanted to contort the passage, but the Arabic texts don’t belong to the ‘public domain’ per se, so is still considered an incontrovertible piece of evidence. In summary, the Testimonium Flavium must be some piece of forgery because scholars say it must be, and they are supported by evidence that has not yet been decommissioned.” Chronos glowered at me.

“So, as I understand it, then,” I said thoughtfully, “I used primary source material that was decommissioned. It was simply too old to be believable. Once a fact becomes a certain age, it can no longer be true.”

“Well, that’s a bit too far,” Chronos tried to correct me. “It depends on a lot of things. Remember, people still have to submit their paperwork. That’s one thing. And not every request is granted. For example, if one scholar is looking to make a load of money off of some hot and controversial claim that requires decommissioning of a particular fact but another scholar has his own books to sell that requires that fact to remain authentic, many times we’ll just slap it into the yellow category. Then we send a memo to both scholars so that they know when the fact is no longer a fact. That way we can coordinate the effort of both scholars so that both make a load of money.”

I could see that here I was faced with a choice. If I continued to sound disgusted by the concept, my own career as a scholar would be in jeopardy. It sounded too absurd to believe, but when I thought about some of the scholarly research that I had read I had noticed that there was quite a bit of outright dismissal for various pieces of evidence that seemed to be based mainly on the scholars’ credulity or incredulity, and not because of some other concrete piece of evidence. When attempting to persuade them of my view, upon failing I had mistakenly thought I needed to construct my argument better. I didn’t realize that what was actually going on was a mercenary application of chronological snobbery. I needed to craft my questions carefully for Chronos. No sense in burning a bridge before it was necessary, and this was especially the case while I was still standing on it.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not bright enough to pick up the logic in it all. It just seems to me that the validity of a fact should not have an expiration date. Just because a fact is fifteen hundred years old doesn’t seem to me to be less a fact. How can that be?” I played dumb.

“I said that you went too far in saying that. Let me give you an example from a different field of inquiry. See, in the history department, we decommission facts when they get into a certain age range, usually at the request of this professor or that. But if you went down to the science department, it’s a slightly different story. Some of us purists think that they’ll eventually step into line, but they’ve only just opened up an office in the BDF in the last few decades, so they’re just learning the ropes. It used to be that in science you needed to have empirical evidence of something occurring, and it had to be occurring all the time and observable to everyone, more or less on demand, in order to be considered ‘science.’ History, of course, is filled with all sorts of examples of supernatural accounts (decommissioned on sight, of course, without further scrutiny), so science has little use for history or much historical data. So what they do is affirm as true anything that they see with their own eyes today and then skip ten to twenty thousand years, again, mainly as scholars think is appropriate, and then a fact is a fact again. Like I said, we purists insist that that ‘fact’ belongs in the category of history as much as it does ‘science’ but they make the curious exception. At any rate, as an example, even though there are no earth rocks 4.5 billion years old, scientists believe that it is a fact that the solar system was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and since they have found meteors-”

“Meteors. So, not earth rocks.”

“Since they have found on the earth meteors that are 4.5 billion years old and they think that the solar system is 4.5 billion years old, it follows that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. And see, that is a valid fact, even though it is very old, and very much older than, say, a witness account to the first sack of Rome- a fact that is due for decommissioning in the next century, likely. No one saw the solar system form, no one saw the earth form, or the meteor, or saw the meteor fall; no one has even a half a mind that any kind of empirical reconstruction is necessary, but it remains a valid scientific fact. The basic philosophy is at work in both fields.”

“So what kinds of facts do they decommission in the science department if not simply old facts?” I wondered.

“Obvious facts, mainly. For example, normally if a scholar says something like ‘Most scholars think’ that instantly makes the next thing out of their mouth credible. However, there are scholars who might look at a piece of evidence and say, ‘This is obviously evidence for design.’ In that case, the science department will have to look at that new instance (and I hear that the instances multiply exponentially) and devise a way in which something that is obviously perceived as having design can be imagined not to be. All they need to do is find a way to imagine how it might not be designed at all, and then they can officially decommission it,” Chronos patiently explained to me.

“You said something about the basic philosophy. What did you mean by that?” I asked him.

Chronos did not appear to be happy that I still didn’t get it. He sighed deeply and explained, “Don’t you see that there is no money to be made confirming and corroborating what has already been figured out? In order to stand out in a way that gets people to pay attention to you, you have to go against the grain. For example, no one is happy if yet one more piece of evidence surfaces to show that Jesus existed. That would never make the news. That would never get you on camera. After all, most people already think that. But if you could show that Jesus was a homosexual! Now, that would be something. To continue using Jesus as an example, it so happens that right now scholars are laying the ground work for being able to convincingly show that Jesus did not exist and simultaneously that he was a homosexual, or a revolutionary, or whatever else. It takes a real scholar to pull that off!” Chronos finished in a flourish.

Interesting, I thought. “So, what about that wall of lights? Won’t the fact of its existence one day be decommissioned?” I asked. Chronos laughed.

“Yes, exactly. First, the historical fact that the wall existed, or was designed, will be decommissioned. In a million years- I presume that’s how long it will take for them to figure out how to do it- they’ll come up with a naturalistic explanation for it,” Chronos said.

“But you know when the wall was created,” I pointed out.

“Yes, of course. But in fifteen hundred years, if the documents still exist then, the records giving us that information couldn’t be considered true. That isn’t quite enough, probably, for the scientists to decommission it as being obviously designed, as I said, they typically need to posit millions of years, but then they just need a scholar to say that it is millions of years old, and then that opens up the way for them to reasonably imagine a process by which the wall of lights could arise without being designed. Naturally, we’ll all be dead, but there will come a day when scholars a million years off will know without a doubt that we are in fact all wrong in thinking whatever it is that we have been thinking is right.”

“In the case of the history department, that only needs a dozen centuries or so, right?” I said to Chronos.

“That’s right. In a thousand years, in the twinkling of an eye, despite our own awareness that we exist, in fact, scholars will know that we did not exist,” Chronos replied.

“Now, it seems to me that the average person on the street would never buy this,” I said innocently.

“Oh ho! The average person on the street is an idiot. Even if he is not an idiot, if he’s not a scholar, all we have to do is point out the fact that he is not a scholar, and that is usually enough right there to cow them. You have to be brilliantly intelligent to get a PhD, as any PhD will tell you. Plus, you have got to understand that if we use lots of big words and specialized language, the average citizen will not ever be in a position to understand what we’re talking about, anyway. Ask one to hand you a pen and he might do well. Get some pen experts together talking and have one of them ask the average citizen to hand over an individualized opaque chemical dispersing instrument (or whatever a pen expert would call it)” Chronos laughed “and the average citizen will just stare. Big words and snobby dismissal. That’s all that is needed to sell lots of books. It’s all about challenging the status quo. The BDF is a critical component for furthering the careers of generation after generation of scholars. If the scholarly community ever made up its mind about a fact and held that fact as genuine in perpetuity, you’d say the fact once and that would be all you need. That’s not a recipe for making big bucks, or if you aren’t into that sort of thing,” here, he must have seen my disgusted look, “gaining the respect of your peers. Each generation needs to have its set of established facts thrown out the window and new facts ushered in, or else everyone is poorer. Well, scholars are, anyway.”

“So, tell me why you think my department head sent me here, exactly,” I offered.

“Clearly he didn’t want you to embarrass yourself by publishing a paper that used sources that had been decommissioned! That is one thing. Now that you know about all this and have been orientated, we’ll see to it that you are kept abreast of all recent decommissionings in the BDF journal. Yes, yes, I know the subscription costs $10,000 a year, but we have to make our money somehow, too. Another thing might be that you used simple language that would be intelligible to average folks. You’ll want to gussy that up some more and remember that you’re not out there to convince anyone of any fact, or be convinced by anyone else of any fact, but rather flash them around as it suits you. If you can’t complicate the language any better, include a bunch of references to this person, or that, like to ‘Guthrie’ or to ‘Sabmud’ or whomever and you can say any stupid thing you want and your argument will not be stupid. Then, you get the average person to buy your books and then they feel intelligent because they walk around feeling like they are ‘up to date.’ They never need to know the difference,” Chronos answered me.

“This is all a little bit more than I can handle,” I said to him. Chronos suddenly looked at me fiercely.

“You’ve got to handle it! You’ve got no choice. If you don’t play be these rules, we’ll ostracize you faster than evidence of the slowing down of the speed of light was decommissioned.” Chronos gathered up steam. “We’ll make you a walking decommissioned fact, my friend. Toe the line. It’s the best for everyone, and that includes you.”

Really, I had already made up my mind. I didn’t feel like giving Chronos my verdict, though. It became obvious to me in the course of the conversation that he himself was merely a bureaucrat, and he felt puffed up to be processing objective ‘paperwork’ by scholars, just like he alleged that the ‘average citizen’ felt puffed up using big words and flashing names around. That’s why he was down here and not up there making the big bucks. Of course, $10,000 for an annual subscription… I let him walk me to the door. He had really become quite cordial with me and made a few comments suggesting he wanted me to put in some words about him with the department chair and I made it sound as though I would. I turned to look behind me as he opened the door for me to exit. The Prune Lady was glaring at me. I was going to offer a witty rejoinder to put them both in their place and suddenly just felt pity for them. I shook the man’s hand and stepped out the door. The door shut behind me, and I was alone in the hallway, and alone with the decision that I had made.

I exited Building 51023414, left the campus, and never went back.


1 comment

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