The scholar who descends into the catacombs of the past is endangered; he may lose his way. A given period, or a millennium, may become more real than the century he inhabits in the flesh. The documents may prove extensive; thread leads on to thread, passage to passage. My card files thickened with material tangential to the purpose with which I started. Similarly the dedicated archaeologist, laboring under an enormous compulsion, may hasten to the next tumulus carrying his discoveries only in his mortal head, while disease or a viper under a stone can suddenly ease his achievement. Equivalent perils confront the delver into libraries.
Several years of toil passed with every spare moment occupied in a way that would have astounded and troubled the brisk young editor. I was becoming insubstantial, the present with its publishing schedules a bothersome encumbrance. My laboriously scrawled cards, which only I could decipher, continued their extension through fireproof cases that still line my walls. At this point two things threaten the researcher.
First, he may become so lost below ground, trail leading on to trail, that he may never emerge to publish. He may be stricken by a phobia of incompleteness. He may become a perfectionist who will not set pen to paper until he has consulted every document of the century in which he has come to live. The past has infiltrated his arteries and his brain; he no longer has a sense of mortality. He has lost the realization that the flesh-and-blood inhabitants of his chosen period went about their affairs as living and limited human beings.
No man could possibly assimilate every lie, half truth, and truth that bewitched the minds of a past century. With the relative clarity of aftervision we can attempt, at best, only some insights, some relative comprehension of ideas which will always be appraised anew by later generations. So great is the lure of documents, however, that it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of omnipotence. The drone of that buzzing fly, the publisher, recedes into the distances of the future we have unconsciously abandoned. The dust of the catacombs gathers upon our skins.