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Calm • Perspective

Escaping Into History

We think ill of escapism. We tend to direct our admiration towards those who stick around and face their own times with courage.

Still, when everything has been said about the virtues of anchoring ourselves firmly to the present, there is also – at points – a case to be made for an opposing move: for the virtue of sometimes absenting ourselves from current circumstances and heading off in our minds to more distant, more bearable and more interesting ages, in which we can recover our poise and strengthen our powers.

Anonymous Venetian artist, The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus, Venice, c. 1511

We should, at moments, be allowed to admit to longing to be living in a different age, and not to have to think about all the things that people of our times are so strongly supposed to be obsessed by. We may not always want to worry as we’re told to, or appreciate the famous person we’re meant to admire, or be incensed by the political events that are meant to outrage us. We may want to take pride in not knowing the name of someone deemed to be the summit of bravery (or of idiocy), or of having no clue about a particular song or sporting event.

We might – instead – secretly want to accompany a set of what would now be called Venetian trade representatives on a mission to Syria in the 16th century, when the country was at a crossroads of East and West, to get better prices for yarns from Persia and cardamon from China. We might want to browse in Damascus’ grand bazaar, then the greatest shopping arcade in the world, or go off to the royal baths, decorated in astonishing floral patterns of silver and azure tiles, adjoining the main mosque. Or we might simply want to stare in admiration at the exotic cypress and palm trees in the Emir’s garden, vividly contrasted against the unusual pale blue of the Levantine skies.

There are, in the end, perhaps enough people fretting right now about the present moment. We have done our fair of it too – and will do so again, no doubt. For now, without telling anyone else, we might for a little while be allowed to evade our anxieties and our disappointments with a period of rest in one of history’s many charming byways. 

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