Langley’s Theory of Replacements

From Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow:

Homer & Langley I have a theory, he said to me. Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation. All these herds of bison they are slaughtering out west, you would think that was the end of them, but they won’t all be slaughtered and the herds will fill back in with replacements that will be indistinguishable from the ones slaughtered.

I said, Langley, people aren’t all the same like dumb bison, we are each a person. A genius like Beethoven cannot be replaced.

But, you see, Homer, Beethoven was a genius for his time. We have the notations of his genius but he is not our genius. We will have our geniuses, and if not in music then in science or art, though it may take a while to recognize them because geniuses are usually not recognized right away. Besides, it’s not what any of them achieve but how they stand in relation to the rest of us. Who is your favorite baseballer? he said.

Walter Johnson, I said.

And what is he if not a replacement for Cannonball Titcomb, Langley said. You see? It’s social constructions I’m talking about. One of the constructions is for us to have athletes to admire, to create ourselves as an audience of admirers for baseballers. This seems to be a means of cultural communizing that creates great social satisfaction and possibly ritualizes, what with baseball teams of different towns, our tendency to murder one another. Human beings are not bison, we are a more complex species, living in complicated social constructions, but we replace ourselves just as they do. There will always be in America for as long as baseball is played someone who serves youth still to be born as Walter Johnson serves you. It is a legacy of ours to have baseball heroes and so there will always be one. Well you are saying everything is always the same as if there is no progress, I said.

I’m not saying there’s no progress. There is progress while at the same time nothing changes. People make things like automobiles, discover things like radio waves. Of course they do. There will be better pitchers than your Walter Johnson, as hard as that is to believe. But time is something else than what I’m talking about. It advances through us as we replace ourselves to fill the slots.