You can’t just hate the present and long for the past, any more than you can make the future better by demanding of some nonexistent authority that they make it so. To make the future, you have to actually learn about the past, its glories and its follies alike, its conflicts and its contradictions. If we want to be like our forebears who successfully made it new, we have to, you know, be like them. We have to mine the incredibly rich resource of our past, and use that resource in whatever way we need to create new forms of art and politics, forms that are relevant to us. And then we have to hope that the future will treat us the same way, because then it will be alive.
Noah is absolutely right about this, because, you know, when is Noah not right? But I will just add that if you suggest that there is anything, anything at all, that we can learn from the past, a vast loud chorus will show up to shout: NOSTALGIA!
The six “stories from the past” were published in: 1916, 1980, 1869, 1952, 1983, and, basically, 1906-08 (the period during which Henry James dictated to a secretary his prefaces to his novels). Might it not be possible to have a more expansive sense of “the past”?
So here are a few essays that reckon with the ongoing value and power — the power to speak to us, to our condition — of genuinely old texts:
W. H. Auden, writing in The Griffin (February 1959):
For several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Greek culture was unknown to the West except through the Latin culture it had permeated. When the humanists of the Renaissance made contact with its literature at first hand, their admiration led them to believe that, by imitation, they could turn themselves into Greeks. This belief was fantastic, but the intense study of a past culture which it inspired initiated a new process of intellectual discovery. It is not really his technology which distinguishes “modern” man from his predecessors, but his historical consciousness. The discovery of the mind by itself is discovery in a unique sense. To discover something normally means to become aware or to understand the nature of something which was already there waiting to be discovered, but the discovery of the intellect is an act of creation: “The self does not come into being except through our comprehension of it.” The most significant intellectual advance of the last two hundred years has been the discovery that by reliving the stages through which we have come to be what we are, we change what we are.
Thesis: Our current lack of historical consciousness — indeed, it is a refusal of historical consciousness, a shunning of the past — causes a loss of what the rise of historical consciousness provided to us: an understanding of how we came to be what we are. The fully presentist mind can have no self.
For Wulfstan [preaching in the year 1014] diagnosing his society’s ills as breaches of law was not a source of despair, but an opportunity. It meant he could offer a plan of action. In this sermon his purpose is not just to denounce and lament, to criticize without providing solutions. His aim is to preach repentance and amendment – to convince people that things can get better, even in the shadow of the end times. The end will come; he has no doubt of that, and right now things are almost as bad as they can be. But there are measures we can take in the meantime, he suggests, things that will help. They won’t stave off the apocalypse or keep the Antichrist away. Yet they’re still worth doing – both morally right in themselves and a remedy for present evils.
His message is simple: repent, repair, do better. There’s no pretense that it’ll be easy. “A great wound needs a great remedy,” he says, “and a great fire needs a great amount of water if the blaze is to be quenched.” The worse the situation, the more work and collective effort it will take to mend it. But the promise that it can be mended is, nonetheless, a remarkably hopeful takeaway from such a fierce and angry sermon.
We haven’t fully reckoned with what the cultural oligopoly might be doing to us. How much does it stunt our imaginations to play the same video games we were playing 30 years ago? What message does it send that one of the most popular songs in the 2010s was about how a 1970s rock star was really cool? How much does it dull our ambitions to watch 2021’s The Matrix: Resurrections, where the most interesting scene is just Neo watching the original Matrix from 1999? How inspiring is it to watch tiny variations on the same police procedurals and reality shows year after year? My parents grew up with the first Star Wars movie, which had the audacity to create an entire universe. My niece and nephews are growing up with the ninth Star Wars movie, which aspires to move merchandise. Subsisting entirely on cultural comfort food cannot make us thoughtful, creative, or courageous.
Fortunately, there’s a cure for our cultural anemia. While the top of the charts has been oligopolized, the bottom remains a vibrant anarchy. There are weird books and funky movies and bangers from across the sea. Two of the most interesting video games of the past decade put you in the role of an immigration officer and an insurance claims adjuster. Every strange thing, wonderful and terrible, is available to you, but they’ll die out if you don’t nourish them with your attention. Finding them takes some foraging and digging, and then you’ll have to stomach some very odd, unfamiliar flavors. That’s good. Learning to like unfamiliar things is one of the noblest human pursuits; it builds our empathy for unfamiliar people. And it kindles that delicate, precious fire inside us — without it, we might as well be algorithms. Humankind does not live on bread alone, nor can our spirits long survive on a diet of reruns.
This is good, but notice that there’s no reference here to the possibility of searching the past for worthwhile art.
Every department of Knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole. I am so convinced of this, that I am glad at not having given away my medical Books, which I shall again look over to keep alive the little I know thitherwards…. An extensive knowledge is needful to thinking people — it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the Burden of the Mystery: a thing I begin to understand a little, and which weighed upon you in the most gloomy and true sentence in your Letter. The difference of high Sensations with and without knowledge appears to me this — in the latter case we are falling continually ten thousand fathoms deep and being blown up again without wings and with all the horror of a bare shouldered creature — in the former case, our shoulders are fledge, and we go thro’ the same air and space without fear.
— Keats, letter to John Hamilton Reynolds (3 May 1818), making a very similar case to the one I make in Breaking Bread with the Dead. Pynchon: “Personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth,” and in this case intellectual bandwidth — the breadth of understanding that comes from having some understanding of very different disciplines. Keats loved poetry as much as anyone ever has, maybe more than anyone ever has, but he didn’t want to forget his medical training. The more knowledge he has the less susceptible he is to the “heat and fever” of the moment.
History in general is easily manipulable, and can always be applied for the pursuit of present goals, whatever these may be. It has long seemed to me that one of the more noble uses of history is to help us convince ourselves of the contingency of our present categories and practices. And it is for this reason, principally, that I am not satisfied with seeing history-of-philosophy curricula and conferences “diversified” as if seventeenth-century Europe were itself subject to our current DEI directives.
One particularly undesirable consequence of such use of history for the present is that it invites and encourages your political opponents likewise to marshall it for their own present ends. And in this way history becomes just another forked node of presentist Discourse — the foreign and unassimilable lives of all of those who actually lived in 1619 or 1776 are covered over. But history, when done most rigorously and imaginatively, gives breath back to the dead, and honors them in their humanity, not least by acknowledging and respecting the things they cared about, rather than imposing our own fleeting cares on them. Eventually, moreover, a thorough and comprehensive survey of the many expressions of otherness of which human cultures are capable in turn enables us, to speak with Seamus Heaney in his elegant translation of Beowulf, to “assay the hoard”: that is, to take stock of the full range of the human, and to begin to discern the commonalities behind the differences.
Anyone who happens to know what my most recent book was about will not be surprised at how vigorously I nod my head at this.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of the present moment as a Power, a power in the Pauline sense of a massively distributed, massively influential, universal agency directing the course of this world. It seems to me that the Present is a jealous God: it wants us to think only of itself, and never of the past or the future except insofar as images of them serve this instant.
But if we must think of either the past or the future, the Present prefers for us to think of the future, for two reasons: one, any future we imagine is just that, imaginary, and is really a kind of projection of our hopes and fears for our own moment. And two, thinking about the future produces anxiety, which has the effect of driving us back towards the Present, where we can be distracted from that anxiety. That is to say, the future is potentially useful to the Present in a way that the past is not.
Now, to be sure, we can interpret the past in such a way that we reinforce our current habits and attitudes and prejudices. (I have written about this in Breaking Bread with the Dead.) But this is of limited usefulness to the Present and is not really worth the risks. From the perspective of the Present, any genuine immersion in the past is likely to complicate our understanding of this moment and make it harder for us to know precisely what to do, because of all the complexity, good and bad, of the behavior of those who lived and fought and prayed and loved before us. If we learn to have compassion for those people, we just might translate that into compassion for the people who share this world with us but do not think just as we think. And that the Present cannot have.
Why does the Present not want this? Because present-mindedness is instantaneousness, it is automatic response, it is the gratification of whatever emotion happens to arise. As the poet Craig Raine has said, “all emotion is pleasurable” — this fact is the constant pole star of the Present.
These thoughts, though they’ve occupied me for a long time, were recently brought to the forefront of my mind by an essay on Harper Lee by Casey Cep, which contains this passage:
There is an important and interesting conversation happening now about the relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird to our country’s pursuit of racial justice and how we teach civic virtues like tolerance. For a long time, Lee’s novel has been one of the most banned books in the country, first criticized by conservatives who disapproved of its integrationist politics, then by liberals who disapproved of its use of racial slurs, and all along by censors of all persuasions who object to its depiction of rape and incest. Lately, though, the novel’s detractors are not calling for a ban or censorship, just retirement: taking it off of syllabi in order to make room for books by a more diverse group of authors, offering students work written with an eye to the current fight for racial justice, not one from the last century.
I don’t really care whether people keep reading To Kill a Mockingbird. What interests me about this paragraph is the idea — and it’s not necessarily Cep’s idea, just one that she rightly discerns as common — that there is a “current fight for racial justice” that’s different from “one from the last century.” But, you know, Dorothy Counts is still alive.
John Lewis, the last of the Big Six, just died a few months ago. I myself remember quite vividly the integration of Birmingham’s schools. This isn’t ancient history we’re talking about, and we shouldn’t allow the artificial convention of “centuries” deceive us into believing that it is. The story of Dorothy Counts and Ruby Bridges and John Lewis and all the rest of those amazing people who now get lumped into that comforting abstraction we call the Civil Rights Movement is our story, though the Present wants us to forget that, wants to separate us from our brothers and sisters, wants to break all chains that link us to one another — so that we can be wholly absorbed into Now and indulge our instantaneous emotions rather than reflect thoughtfully on the ways that the past is not dead, it is not even past.
The Present wants to infect us with what I have decided to call palaiphobia, from παλαιός, palaiós, old, worn out. That’s how it alienates us from one another, makes us wholly dependent on what it can offer: sentimentality and rage.
UPDATE: My friend Adam Roberts has, quite justifiably, wondered whether my coinage uses the right word. Here’s what I wrote in reply to him:
I have to say something about my decision to write of palaiphobia rather than archephobia. It was an agonizing one, I assure you. In these matters I take my bearings primarily from New Testament Greek, as you know, and of course there’s considerable overlap between the two words. When Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5 that the old has gone and the new is here, he uses ἀρχαῖα; but when he talks about the “old leaven” in 1 Corinthians 5 he uses παλαιὰν ζύμην. As far as I can tell ἀρχαῖα and παλαιὰν would be interchangeable in those contexts. Both words can be neutral in their valence. But if you look at the overall patterns of usage, it seems that there’s something more generally disparaging about παλαιὸς, whereas there’s at least a potential dignity in ἀρχαῖα. When Paul talks, as he often does, about the “old man” that we must put off, he says παλαιὸς ἄνθρωπος. And παλαιὸς often has the connotation of something worn out, as when Jesus talks (in Matthew 9:16) about patching old clothes, ἱματίῳ παλαιῷ. I wanted to capture that disparagement in my coinage, the sense that the past is worn out, useless, of no value. I wonder if you think that makes sense?
Online is increasingly where people live. My average screen time this past week was close to ten hours a day. Yes, a lot of that is work-related. But the idea that I have any real conscious life outside this virtual portal is delusional. And if you live in such a madhouse all the time, you will become mad. You don’t go down a rabbit-hole; your mind increasingly is the rabbit hole — rewired that way by algorithmic practice. And you cannot get out, unless you fight the algorithms to a draw, or manage to exert superhuman discipline and end social media use altogether. […]
In the past, we might have turned to more reliable media for context and perspective. But the journalists and reporters and editors who are supposed to perform this function are human as well. And they are perhaps the ones most trapped in the social media hellscape. You can read them on Twitter, where they live and and posture and rank themselves, or on their Slack channels, where they gang up on and smear any waverers. They’ve created an insulated world where any small dissent from groupthink is professional death. Watch Fox, CNN or MSNBC, and it’s the same story.
Point out missing facts or context, exercise some independence of judgment, push back against the narrative — and you’ll be first subject to ostracism and denunciation by your newsroom peers, and then, if you persist, you’ll be fired. The press could have been the antidote to the social media trap. Instead they chose to become the profitable pusher of the poison.
This is precisely and tragically correct.
I immediately wrote to Andrew to tell him that he needs my new book, stat. But even Andrew, who writes on a weekly basis, who has stepped back from the moment-by-moment insanity of journalistic Twitter (and from the hour-by-hour insanity of the old Dish), probably doesn’t have time to step back a bit further still over the next few weeks and read some old books.
Or doesn’t believe he has time. Maybe, and maybe for journalists more than for anyone else, this is in fact the perfect, the ideal, the necessary moment to recover “real conscious life outside this virtual portal.” One might begin with the epistles of Horace, a man who in exile from Rome learned to love the countryside. Just a thought.
Stochastic resonance (SR) is a phenomenon where a signal that is normally too weak to be detected by a sensor, can be boosted by adding white noise to the signal, which contains a wide spectrum of frequencies. The frequencies in the white noise corresponding to the original signal’s frequencies will resonate with each other, amplifying the original signal while not amplifying the rest of the white noise (thereby increasing the signal-to-noise ratio which makes the original signal more prominent). Further, the added white noise can be enough to be detectable by the sensor, which can then filter it out to effectively detect the original, previously undetectable signal.
I mention all this because I think reading texts from the past — something about which I have written a book — is a way of usefully introducing stochastic resonance into our mental lives. Maybe I’m stretching a metaphor here, but bear with me.
Some people say we live in an age of information overload. Clay Shirky has said that it’s not information overload but rather “filter failure.” A slightly different way to put Shirky’s point is to say that a super-surplus of input makes it difficult for us to discern genuine information, to distinguish signal from noise. We can’t sift and sort and bring order to all the stuff assaulting us.
But if you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.
When you approach the text from the past on its own terms and for its own sake, it becomes a kind of white noise in relation to present concerns. Your attention to the long ago and far away makes the tumult and the shouting die, the captains and the kings depart. (Allusion alert!) It’s when the current environment lies outside the scope of your attention, when you neither seek nor expect any connection to it, that you make room for random resonances to form.
And when they do form, you begin to discern the really key features of your moment more clearly. An image begins to appear where there had been formlessness. Useless and pernicious statements start to recede into the background as you perceive them for what they are. The salient and the helpful points move to the forefront of your attention.
You can’t force this to happen — indeed, any attempt to force it will result in the simple confirmation of what you already think. It’s only when the resonances feel truly random — when they arise at moments when you’re not looking for or expecting them — that they have the power of clarification. You can predict that resonances will occur; but you can’t predict when they’ll show up or what they’ll be.
This may be a subset of the Eureka phenomenon, but at the moment I’m inclined to think that it’s largely distinct from that, though not unrelated.
By the way, I think all that I’ve described here describes equally well the experience of reading much science fiction and fantasy. The fact that almost all of my leisure reading is (a) old books, (b) SF, (c) fantasy suggests that my fundamental orientation as a reader is a hopeful openness to stochastic resonance.
Once I saw how things were going I got away from Twitter and stopped checking my RSS reader. I didn’t want to hear any news, mainly because I knew that there wouldn’t be much news as such — though there would be vast tracts of reason-bereft, emotionally-incontinent opinionating. And I don’t need that. Ever.
Instead, I’ve just read Ron Chernow‘s massive and quite excellent biography of George Washington. It’s been a useful as well as an enjoyable experience. For one thing, it reminds me what actual leadership looks like; and for another, it reminds me of how deeply flawed even the best leaders can be, and how profoundly wrong. As is always the case when I spend some serious time with the past, I get perspective. I see the good and the bad of my own time with more clarity and accuracy. And if anything vital has happened over the past few days while I’ve been reading, I’ve got plenty of time to catch up. As I’ve said before, I prefer to take my news a week at a time anyway, not minute by minute.
One theme in Chernow’s biography particularly sticks with me. It concerns the end of Washington’s second administration and his brief period as an ex-President (he lived only two-and-a-half years after departing the office). That was a time when when political parties in something like the modern sense of the term — though many of the Founders referred to the power and danger of “Factions” — dramatically strengthened. It was also a time when journalists who supported one faction would say pretty much anything to discredit the other one, would make up any sort of tale. John Adams, violently angered by all the lies told about him and his colleagues — and there really were lies, outrageous lies, about him, just as there were about Washington near the end of his second term — strongly supported and oversaw the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts to punish journalistic bias and fake news, as well as to deter immigration — though Adams and his fellow in-power Federalists were only concerned to punish the lies that worked against their policies, not the lies that worked in their favor. (Plenty of those circulated also.) Washington, rather surprisingly and disappointingly, thought these laws good ones.
I draw certain lessons from this whole sordid history. Habitual dishonesty, on the part of politicians and journalists alike, inflames partisanship. You exaggerate the nastiness of your political opponents, and that leads people in your camp to think of the other side not as fellow citizens with whom you disagree on policy, but rather something close to moral monsters. Gratified by your increasingly tight bond with the like-minded, you stretch your exaggerations into outright lies, which gain even more rapturous agreement within your Ingroup and more incandescent anger against the Outgroup. Dishonesty begets partisanship, and partisanship begets further dishonesty. It’s a classic vicious circle.
And one more phenomenon is begotten by all this malice. Wheeled around in this accelerating circle of your own devising, you become incapable of comprehending, or even seeing, something that it is absolutely necessary for every wise social actor to know: In some situations all parties act badly. Sometimes there are no good guys, just fools and knaves, blinded to the true character of their own behavior by their preening partisan self-righteousness.
Some time ago I pretty much decided to read only books written before the atom bomb was dropped, when everything changed for all life on Earth. The industrial revolution’s bad enough, but nuclear weapons really are party-poopers.
I don’t stick strictly to this policy, but I often find it more rewarding to read what people thought about, and what they did with literature, before we were reduced by war and capitalism to mere monetary units, bomb fodder and password generators. And before the natural world became a depository for plastics and nuclear waste.
Anger and alienation have resulted, and they’re fine subjects, but there are times when you’d like to remember some of the higher points in the history of civilisation as well, and the natural world before we learned to view it all as tainted. The intense humour, innocence, sexiness and play of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for instance – could this have been written after Hiroshima? Could Gargantua and Pantagruel? Don Quixote? Emma? I don’t see how. Thanks to the offences of patriarchy, a lot of the fun has gone out of being human, and I like books that look at life in less constricted ways.
I love this statement because of its provocations — provocations that should be assessed with some care. For one thing, I don’t see that the variety of books has especially diminished since Hiroshima — I mean, Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Shack and a whole bunch of adult coloring books have appeared since the end of that war — and if we’re missing the distinctive (and very funny) kind of “sexiness” in Tristram Shandy I think that has a lot more to do with the sexual revolution and its unanticipated consequences than with the atom bomb.
But the idea that before the industrial revolution, with its accompanying “war and capitalism” and reduction of persons to “mere monetary units,” the natural world was perceived in a radically different way — that’s promising. Though I think the main thing that should be said about pre-modern nature is not that it was untainted but that it was scary as shit. Which is just as much worthy of our interest and reflection.
We could debate such matters all day — and should! Because there’s no question that the past really is another country, though they don’t everything different there. Trying to understand the continuities as well as the discontinuities is what reading books from the past is all about.
Anyway, my book is going to be great on all that stuff. Make sure it’s the only book published in 2020 that you buy in 2020, okay? Otherwise, stick with the old stuff. You’ll be glad you did.
This excellent post by my colleague Philip Jenkins reminds us of an earlier era — just 25 years ago! — when America was worried about right-wing terrorists. As I have often pointed out — see here and here — it’s not just the distant past we’ve forgotten, it’s the very recent past. And that forgetfulness makes it very difficult for us to come up with appropriate and proportionate responses to our current problems.
So: seven of the ten best ghost stories ever written have appeared in the past 18 years. Amazing! How do we account for the fact that just in this century writers have gotten so good at ghost stories — so much better that people who came before, like Arthur Machen and M. R. James and Charles Dickens? It’s a mystery.
The novelist Hannah Beckerman was asked, “I’m an English lit postgraduate who’s slipped into a reading rut since my final exams – what are some good books to get me back into loving literature?” Here are the first publication dates of the books she recommended:
1959–1994 (Paley’s stories)
Also, all of them are written in English and by people from England, Scotland, Ireland, and the USA. The two major temporal outliers (1937 and 1926) are both children’s books, and there are no adults-only (or -primarily) novels from before 2002.
Is it really likely that all the books that might be recommended to someone who wants to “get … back into loving literature” are from our culture, our language, our time? And that none of them are poems or plays?
“Yes, we have a responsibility to train for the world of employment, but are we educating for life, and without historical knowledge you are not ready for life,” Blight told me. As our political discourse is increasingly dominated by sources who care nothing for truth or credibility, we come closer and closer to the situation that Walter Lippmann warned about a century ago, in his seminal “Liberty and the News.” “Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo … can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” he wrote. A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos. As he has proved ever since he rode to political prominence on the lie of Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump is all three. And, without more history majors, we are doomed to repeat him.
I would give a big Amen to this but with one caveat: it’s not more history majors we need, it’s a more general, more widespread, acquaintance with history. Without that we are fully at the mercy of our now-habitual and increasingly tyrannical presentism.
But what is this freedom that Manjoo and so many others suddenly crave for themselves and their children? That’s more than a little mysterious. Slaves everywhere presumably know that they are unfree, even if they accept the legitimacy of the system and the master that keeps them enslaved. But what is this bondage we couldn’t even begin to perceive in 2009 that in under a decade has become a burden so onerous that it produces a demand for the overturning of well-settled rules and assumptions, some of which (“the gender binary”) go all the way back to the earliest origins of human civilization?
I think Linker could have, with equal appositeness, referred to 2014: If you got in a time machine and showed the Farhad Manjoo of 2014 a copy of his 2019 column, he almost certainly would not believe that he had written it. A stance that in 2014 was been so uncontroversial that it didn’t rise to the level of consciousness — that it’s okay for us to refer to ourselves by gendered pronouns — is now the unmistakable sign of “a ubiquitous prison for the mind.” And yet so thoroughly is Manjoo immersed in the imperatives of the moment that he’s not even aware of the discontinuity. That is the real prison for the mind.
Let’s stop and think about this. Sasse’s day job requires him to spend dozens of hours a week immersed in the affairs of the moment. When he turns on his TV: affairs of the moment. When he ferries people around as an Uber driver, he hears about people’s take on the affairs of the moment. When he listens to the radio: affairs of the moment. When he’s on social media: affairs of the moment. But if, in his leisure hours, he wants to read old books, he’s THE WORST. He has committed the unpardonable sin.
It is not enough for many people that they be so utterly presentist in their sensibility that their temporal bandwidth is a nanometer wide. Everyone must share their obsession with the instant. No one may look to other times. It’s not just presentism, it’s totalitarian presentism.
Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches. Check out the bestseller list for April 1935 or August 1978 if you don’t believe me. Originality is partly a matter of having your own influences: read evolutionary biology textbooks or the Old Testament, find your metaphors where no one’s looking, don’t belong. Or belong to the other world that is not quite this one, the world from which you send back your messages. Imagine Herman Melville in workshop in 1849 being told by all his peers that he needed to cut all those informative digressions and really his big whale book was kind of dull and why did it take him so long to get to the point. And actually it was a quiet failure at the time. So was pretty much everything Thoreau published, and Emily Dickinson published only a handful of poems in her lifetime but wrote thousands.