Marc Bloch, an influential French historian of the 20th century, was a proponent of la longue durée1. His idea was to approach the study of history not through this particular life or that defining event, but by looking at the lumbering operations of long-term political, social and economic structures and their impact on everyday life. Bloch was as fond of the revealing detail, as of a generalisation. Which is to say, he understood deeply what wonderful but limited creatures humans are.
On 16 June 1944, the Gestapo shot him. During his captivity Bloch was interrogated by Klaus Barbie, whose grim nickname was the “Butcher of Lyon”. Though they tortured him, all that the historian revealed was his name. Bloch was in his fifties by then and was well-known, both as a scholar and as a member of the Résistance.
The Allies had landed in Normandy but ten days earlier, and the Gestapo saw that their own end was approaching. Either out of a confused sense of shame for their crimes, or an obscure resolve for one final act of cruelty, the Gestapo decided to execute all their prisoners.
When Marc Bloch was led out to face the firing squad, he was flanked by the youngest prisoner, a boy no older than 16.
“This is going to hurt,” he said.
Bloch replied, “No, my boy, it doesn’t hurt.” He took the boy’s hand in his and, keeping his eyes on the levelled guns, shouted “Vive La France!”
Five years earlier Bloch had published the two slender volumes of La Société féodale2, a monumental work in Medieval scholarship. Bloch begins by looking at the conditions in the 7th and 8th centuries that enabled the rise of a feudal society before examining the diverse expressions of this society that was prevalent in Western Europe until well into the 14th century. Bloch’s key insight is that while it would be reductive to talk about a feudal system, one can adequately discuss feudal society.
His work is full of wonderful asides, including this one:
The chronicle of Bishop Otto of Freising, the most universal of all universal histories, began with Creation and ended with the picture of the Last Judgement. But, needless to say, it had an inevitable lacuna: from 1146 — the date when the author ceased to write — to the day of the great catastrophe. Otto, certainly, expected this gap to be of short duration: “We who have been placed at the end of time…” he remarks on several occasions.
Although he clads it in Latin, Bloch can’t resist a gibe at his medieval colleague. From our modern point of view, Otto’s belief at an imminent apocalypse seems naïve. But though it has been consistently discredited by a couple millennia of human history, the idea that the end is nigh has been around since the beginning of Christianity.
In this sense, Otto is a mouthpiece of his time and faith. His repeated mantra – “We who have been placed at the end of time…” – expresses his cheerful resignation to the divine plan. But there is something else in it as well. Being placed at the end of time is not a mark of special favour. It is part of the human experience itself, regardless of whether the world is about to reach its fiery culmination.
Five years after Bloch’s death, the Argentine writer Jorge Louis Borges published a short story entitled “La escritura del dios”3. Its narrator is Tzinacán, a Mayan priest imprisoned by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, another of history’s butchers. Pacing in his cell, Tzinacán reflects on his incarceration,
We were, as always, at the end of time.
The idea prefigured in Otto is fully realised in Borges. Both convey a spirited resignation, but whereas the past is, for Otto, a ball-and-chain to be thrown off in exchange for eternal transfiguration, for Borges’s fictional Mayan the incalculable weight of the past is a mere platitude.
We are always at the end of time, in the same sense that we can experience nothing but the present. Do you feel the past press on your back, or are you able to plant yourself firmly in the present and gently orient yourself towards the future? It doesn’t matter, as Bloch showed in his final moments, how bleak the present seems, nor how brief the future will be. What matters is where you point your eyes. How you hold yourself.
We mark arbitrary beginnings and ends, commemorating them as special. In doing so, we obscure the ordinary, but profound experience in which the past ends and the future begins in every moment. We exist solely in that sliver of time called the present, which also happens to be – for Otto at the Morimond Abbey, Tzinacán in his damp cell, Bloch at the Montluc prison in Lyon, Borges in Geneva, and for you who are now reading these words – the end of time.