The past exists in our memory in gray, in marble. Greek temples, once painted, have been bleached by time. Old photographs are in black-and-white.
Because of this, we tend to imagine our forebears were more serious than we are, applying themselves dutifully to family and faith and the contemplation of eternal questions while we skitter around reading each other’s Facebook overshares and nurse hangovers and lose hours we’ll never get back watching E! TV. We always suspect modernity constitutes a decline from the past. We experience inner conflict: Drawn to silliness, to “pokes” and Buzzfeed and tiaras and dancing ’til the room blurs, we also hate the silliness in our natures, call it childish, seek to conquer it.
But is the contrast we imagine between the present and the past true? Or is it a trick? A few months ago, I wandered into the Martvili Monastery, a twelve-hundred-year-old church high on a hill in Samegrelo, on the road to Tehran from the Black Sea coast. The outside walls were temperate gray stone, and the monks who skulked like ravens around the windswept peak dressed all in black. But the inside was a revelation. Sections remained of wild frescoes that once covered the entire, huge monastery interior: red-and-white squiggles, black stars, red arrows; green village-scenes and tall yellow buildings; whole armies in fabulous chain-mail and twinkling gold headdresses; women in billowing dresses imprinted with blue peacocks, fabulous enough to put Lady Gaga to shame. The colors had faded over a millennium, but you could tell that when they were painted they matched any Ru Paul runway, any dance floor in West Hollywood.
And this was a church. Its holiness was so thrilling, so brazen, so defiantly worldly and alive. Discovering it was like clawing through the tissue-paper layers of the centuries to find a gift, a sparkling ruby.
Human memory itself is the partner to time’s power to fade. It bleaches and burnishes our reminiscences until nothing but faint outlines are left: that job was good, that relationship was bad, that year I broke my ankle, that vacation I got engaged. Thereby much of the color, the texture, the ups and downs, the spiky, head-spinning wildness of ordinary day-to-day experience vanishes. No wonder we project the same transformation onto our historical past.
But what if — when we walk past old ruins, ancient buildings, aging art — we permitted ourselves a flight of imagination and saw them as they once were, in colors as bright as Times Square’s? I suspect modern life might look different to us: more beautiful, more noble, more of a piece with the age-old human quest for joy.