The Time Capsule: An Introduction to the Concept of History in The Assault

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This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series History and Time in The Assault by Harry Mulisch

In The Assault, in the winter of 1944-45, Anton reads a magazine article about a time capsule buried in 1938, to be unearthed six thousand years later. There’s a lesson about the concept of history in the description of the contents of the capsule and what the reader knows about the events since 1938.

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(First published 05-02-2014)  Anton was reading an article in Nature and Mechanics. For his birthday he had been given a secondhand bound copy of the 1938 edition: “A Letter to Posterity”. A photograph showed a group of well-fed Americans in their shirtsleeves looking up at a large, shiny capsule shaped like a torpedo that hung vertically above their heads. The capsule was about to be lowered into a hole fifteen meters deep. In five thousand years it was to be dug up and opened by posterity, which would then learn what human civilization had been like at the time of the World’s Fair in New York. Inside the capsule, made of amazingly durable “cup alloy”, was a fire-resistant glass cylinder filled with hundreds of objects: a microfilm containing a survey of science, technology, and the arts in ten million words and a thousand illustrations, newspapers, catalogs, famous novels, the Bible, of course, and the Our Father in three hundred languages. Also messages from famous men, movies [the translator means film footage] of the terrible Japanese bombings of Canton in 1937, seeds, an electric plug, a slide rule, and all kinds of other things – even a lady’s hat that was in fashion during the autumn of 1938. All the important libraries and museums in the world had received a document specifying the location of the cement-covered capsule, so that it could be retrieved in the seventieth century. But why, Anton wondered, would they have to wait until precisely the year 6938? Wouldn’t it be of interest long before then?

This quote from De aanslagThe Assault by Harry Mulisch, published in 1982, indicates that we are dealing with a novel about history.

The reader has the benefit of hindsight while looking over Anton’s shoulder. Several artifacts are locked in a cylinder, isolated from the rest of the world by glass, cup alloy, cement and fifteen meters of dirt.

A few people have determined what is important information for posterity, but the reader knows that their choices for the time capsule will be outdated as soon as seven years later, when the bombings of Canton are dwarfed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Already, it is clear to the reader that history is not only a matter of rather arbitrary selection; time itself changes the importance of historical events. However deep the time capsule is placed in the earth, covered with however many layers of protective material, history cannot be isolated from time.

And of course, the very assumption that humanity will even exist five thousand years from now is no longer automatic in the age of nuclear weapons. [Keep in mind that The Assault was written in 1982, when annihilation by nuclear war seemed to be the biggest threat. Now most people would say it’s global warming.]

Click here for the next post in this series about Harry Mulisch’s historical novel.

This post was previously published on the blog Resident Alien, under the title: “The Assault: Part 1: The Time Capsule”.

Header image: The Vintage News.

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