If history were the past, history wouldn’t matter.
History is the present, the present.
You and I are history.
– James Baldwin
At the beach near our house, on a warm day in early autumn when the tide is low and gulls coast on the blustery breeze, my son scours the shore for a skipping stone. He finds one, thin and smooth and black, that precisely fits his small hand. He ambles toward the water, heedless of tangles of seaweed and shallow pools sculpted by the tide’s egress. His rubber boots make rough imprints in the ridges of the sand. He passes the trails of white foam made by the strongest wavelets and keeps going, past the threshold of the beach and into the water. He stands with his feet covered, his arm poised, his gaze alternating between the passage of incoming water and the languid surface of the outgoing sea. It stretches across the bay, out past the peninsula of dark trees, and meets the sky at a horizon flecked with the shreds of clouds.
He throws the stone. It tumbles in the air, startling three gulls from their perch atop the breakwater, and descends in a shallow arc toward the water. It grazes the surface, makes a small splash, skips once through the veil of the splash, then falls again, vanishing. The water closes over it, restores itself like a dreamer waking from sleep. But deep inside the sheltering water, the black stone will continue to turn and spin. Far down, it will sing its forgotten songs in the dark.
This is a book about stones and memory, about what we preserve and what we discard, about the claim of the past on the present. Stones are often the carriers of that past, and their influence is not limited to archaic mythologies. The foundation stone of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Washington Monument, and the sacred Kaaba stone in Mecca are examples of ancient symbols pressing their way into modern life. They lie at the heart of the world’s most troubling conflicts. Their gravity reaches across the ages we’ve tried to forget, peels back the facade of the present, and reveals the past still working out its unfinished dreams.
Stones inspire myths, which in turn create the histories of the human spirit. But myths are necessarily complex and contentious; their narratives interweave with the details of archaeology, anthropology, literature, religion, and many other fields of inquiry. Myths, which are impossible to untangle from the clamor of voices that would lay claim to truth, are never true to fact, as facts are never the whole truth. We craft persuasive tales from fragments of the past, from silhouettes, from footprints in the sand muddied by countless crossing tracks. We make interpretations, we reconstruct the old voices. And when we speak in those voices, which are also our own, the dialect of our discourse is mythological.
The scission between the mythic impulses of the heart and the intellectual imperatives of the mind lies at the crossroads of human history. The tension between them is the source of art, science, and politics. The structure of these pages is intended to mirror this tension: contextual and historical themes, artifacts of the intellectual quest – about a quarter of the book – appear in endnotes. The notes are a view from the shore, from the secure footing of the modern self seeking to understand the roots and conflicts of family and culture. The myth narratives, by contrast, follow the path of a stone thrown by a child: into the ocean, down to where hidden things sing and dream and wait.