How the past improves the present
Years ago, I read Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, in which he wrote of a friend whose “manners were a history of civilisation”. I knew – or rather, I felt – immediately what he meant by this and decided that, should I have any say in what goes on my gravestone, and putting aside more humorous lines like Spike Milligan’s “I told you I was ill”, I wanted Broyard’s sentence as my epitaph. Years later, I would have a similar frisson of familiarity at Lawrence Durrell’s description of Austen Harrison, for whom “style was not only a literary imperative but an inherent method of approaching the world of books, roses, statues and landscapes”. Of course, I didn’t want to appropriate these descriptions without earning them. I knew the sort of person I intended to become: someone who was cultured. Only I didn’t know exactly what that meant.
It was an aspiration that came partly from admiration leading to emulation. Those I most looked up to seemed to not only have absorbed culture but had become a part of it. It came more importantly from experience – recognising admirable qualities in cultural figures felt like discovering myself. I felt more stable and secure each time I managed to fit the sphere of my experience into a larger sphere of history and culture (discovering, for instance, that my amateur style of short sentences and simple syntax had been done before and better by this Hemingway chap; later I learned that Ancient Greece made more sense than the teachings of my modernised church). I had a place, and that place was as ephemeral as it was firmly planted in the unfolding timeline of the universe.
I began to look more consciously to contemporary figures for examples of who to be, the Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, Alberto Manguel types, and in following the references they made to other thinkers, a path through history and culture to which they introduced me, I discovered something far more valuable than who to be: how to be. As Hitchens himself has said, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” This requires a constant endeavour to widen and deepen one’s knowledge. What became clear early on and has become only more salient as this endeavour continues is the importance of placing myself in the temporal world as much as the geographical, political, or social worlds. What is only is with reference to what was.
“Personal density ... is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.”
~ Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the character Kurt Mondaugen elaborates on a concept he names “temporal bandwidth”. He explains that this is “the width of your present, your now ... The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.” I can’t help but picture this bandwidth as the image evoked by T S Eliot of one’s shadow, which is “striding behind you” at morning and “rising to meet you” in the evening. The longer my shadow is, cast backwards across centuries and forwards as potential in the future, the more solid I feel against the intense light of history shining on our present moment.
It’s interesting that Pynchon opted for the word persona rather than, as intended according to a straightforward reading of the quoted line in context, identity. It is easy to see that a grounding in history, understanding what led you to where you are and having some notion of where you are going, will provide a more solid sense of self within a person. Think of people as works of narrative, as we weave a story about who we are; if we forget earlier chapters, we have less grip on the present scene, the tale loses meaning, and each subsequent page (with each previous page forgotten) becomes a cause for indifferent shrugs at what is happening now. That is how temporal bandwidth relates to identity, but persona is something else.
In Jungian psychology, the persona is the self that is perceived by others. When we wear a suit to work, a dress choice intended to signal professionalism, the people we interact with are addressing the suit. That is a persona. So how could it be that this widening sense of past and future affects how we are seen by others? I think it is that to be seen as a knowledgeable person grounded in history and well acquainted with culture – while certainly a pose one can strike for mere effect or social status – is to be a bringer of those things into the public sphere. People who view life as a great work of literature onto which all other literature and art can be brought to bear remind us daily that there need not be a compartmentalisation between “real life” and intellectual pursuits, between popular and highbrow, between the mundane and the transcendent. A wide temporal bandwidth is not only a boon to the self, it is a benefit to those around you.
There is a counterpoint to temporal bandwidth. The title of a work of unorthodox biography by Clive James gives us the term “cultural amnesia”. James’ book is an introduction of sorts to those who shaped the twentieth century, a project that rings the bell of remembrance, hoping to carry on its echo the conversation of which the twentieth century and its players were merely one part. To fail to hear that echo or, unimaginably worse, to let it fade into silence is cultural amnesia. And within the vast body of things we should not forget is Aristotle’s horror vacui, nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum, because when the conversation fades out we are not left in silence for long; the space is filled with the cacophony of conversational ephemera, the “hot takes” and memes of a narrow temporal bandwidth. And if the value of a novel that has lasted a century or two needs defending over the “virtues” of Snapchat, your temporal bandwidth might be anorexic.
“When the gears slip and I coast in neutral, paying no attention to the world, to where I am, who am I? My memory brings the world back to me.”
~ Christopher Potter, How To Make A Human Being
Modernism in the twentieth century often manifested what C S Lewis termed “chronological snobbery”, the conviction that the new is inherently better and anything of the past inherently worse. Artists, prone to hyperbole, are not immune to making vapid claims, and one of the more striking to me has always been Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “on or around December 1910, human character changed”. Woolf qualifies this mildly, but the statement remains a deepity: a proposition that contains two readings, one that is true but trivial, one that is bombastically false. Human character changing in a month, a year, even a decade, after many millennia is absurd; on the other hand, that emerging technologies were changing specific features of some societies is true but not worth the pomp of this declaration. It seems that Woolf was caught up in the shock of the new and succumbed to chronological snobbery.
It is often assumed that Ezra Pound’s modernist command to “make it new” is a call for pure novelty, and such readings focus on the “new” of the statement. But the “it” is overlooked – wrongly, because this is the true object of the imperative. What is “it” that we are enjoined to make new? Traditional components of culture – art, literature, religion, philosophy – that have lost their vitality and which Pound sought to reinvigorate by making “new” again. Though its legacy frequently obscures its genealogy, Pound’s use of this expression itself illustrates the point: he borrowed the phrase from Confucius. The most seemingly novel creations, however tailored to modernity, all owe a debt to traditions that came before. There is nothing truly new under the sun.
T S Eliot made this argument in an essay called ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Though a self-styled modernist, he dissented from the modernist rejection of tradition, insisting that the contemporary world can only be fully understood with reference to its history. To comprehend where one stands in the present moment, one must look back at the path that led to this place. (Some view of the path ahead is also beneficial.)
“The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”
A sense of place along a timeline makes the notion of contemporaneity coherent; this “historical sense” is what makes the artist aware of “his place in time” instead of drifting in a meaningless soup of moments with no relation to each other. It is this need for contrast with and relation to the past that Eliot writes of when he claims that a poet cannot be valued in isolation, but must be set “among the dead” poets and artists. It is here that these dead poets – along with the traditions they represent, the history they are a part of – come alive again in the now and “assert their immortality”.
Immortality, perhaps, but of a kind that must be granted. So long as we remember them, engage and argue with them, and modify their achievements to fit new purpose, those figures of the past will remain alive today. If we forget them, we kill them. So how does Eliot give them life, widen his and our temporal bandwidth, and attempt to cure us of cultural amnesia? He writes The Waste Land, a long poem that looks modernity in the eye in an effort to confront the new, and yet does so with constant reference to the past, from poets (“mon semblable”) who came before to Arthurian Legend to Biblical scripture. Indeed, The Waste Land is seen as a dense poem, difficult to traverse or decrypt, and often the best access a new reader has to understanding it is through knowledge of its historical references. The past is a passport to the present.
“What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past ...”
~ T S Eliot
Returning to the notion of temporal bandwidth, nostalgia should not be included in the variety of methods for widening it. Nostalgia is a symptom of thin bandwidth, and when it occurs as predominantly in pop-culture as it does in ours (from Stranger Things and Ready Player One to the endless reboots of decades-old franchises to high-street fashion) we should pay attention to how little we are paying attention. Seeking stability for our turbulent present, we look to the past, but there are two flaws in the way we do this. First, our temporality is so confined to the present moment that the eighties are ancient history. We go no further because the boundary of our attention is apparently limited to a mere thirty or forty years ago. On the scale of humanity, this is still a wildly negligible bandwidth.
Second, nostalgia does not access history in its reality, it is instead a preservation of an ideal. The eighties may not have really looked as they do in Stranger Things, and our childhoods may have been messier, more complicated, less colourful than we tell ourselves they were, but it does not matter – we are not looking closely at the past with nostalgia, we are wrapping ourselves in it as a comforter. To truly widen our bandwidth and grow within the broad purview of history, the past must be examined, grappled with, argued against, even occasionally refuted, but never negated or accepted uncritically.
The Waste Land opens with the most memorable lines in twentieth-century poetry:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.”
This modernist triumph, testimonial to the present time, performs two subversions simultaneously; the first is to tip on its head our usual assumptions about spring being a joyous season, bringing us out of the sad darkness of winter, and the second is to do this by referencing – and tipping on its head also – the opening lines of that famous 14th-century (hardly modern) narrative by Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales:
“When April the sweet showers fall And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all The veins are bathed in liquor of such power As brings about the engendering of the flower ...”
Eliot is telling Chaucer, “I see you, but I don’t agree with you.” Perhaps April is modernism, the arrival of a new season/movement that thaws our collective numbness to the world around. Certainly, the modernists were excited by contemporary life and saw it as a shock to the system; Eliot, however, is not so naively optimistic about it. It seems somehow cruel to him, even if necessary or, like the turning of a season, inevitable. This remembering brings with it pain – when I read of the spring rain “stirring dull roots”, I think of biting down on a sore tooth and the ache in its nerves at the root reminding me of a problem that is still there, even if I had forgotten it.
“Winter kept us warm,” The Waste Land continues, “covering / Earth in forgetful snow ...” Here too, Eliot is at odds with the positive outlook of his fellow modernists. Traditional art forms and methods had, according to the modernist paradigm, anaesthetised us to real life. We had become comfortable, apathetic even, with novels and paintings that continued to portray life as it was even as life changed drastically and rapidly around us. But Eliot acknowledges the appeal of such cosy “warm” forgetfulness. He is not endorsing tradition nor rejecting modernity wholesale, he is examining both critically. He does this by reversing Chaucer’s previous idea, so that in opposing an idea from the past, from “traditional” literature, he also places himself in opposition to the present and modernism. Eliot is cleverly placing the present and the past in the context of the other, simultaneously widening his poem’s temporal bandwidth.
“He who cannot draw upon three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.”
~ The Kindred, ‘Heritage’
If we view the temporality of our experience as one dimension of bandwidth, we can see as a second dimension the scope of our experience. The past takes us into a depth, while breadth is opened up by the variety of our interests. Just as it is a mistake to interpret a book or a movie through a single lens, only through a feminist or Marxist or New Criticism paradigm, it is detrimental to our experience of the world to view it through the single prism of a particular interest.
In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera writes that “the rise of the sciences propelled man into specialised disciplines”, such as cosmology or evolutionary biology. Equally, the filter bubbles of our online world and the career-defined orientation of our schooling has led to people increasingly focusing on particular areas of interest and has reduced our peripheral contact with subjects outside of those remits. “The more he advanced in knowledge,” Kundera goes on to say, “the less clearly he could see either the world as a whole or his own self ...” We see so clearly one section of the world that the rest of it blurs until we think the whole universe can be reduced to what we are looking at.
The idea is quickly disappearing of the cultured person who has read a few of the seminal texts from antiquity, passably reads or even speaks more than one language, can follow a conversation on physics or philosophy, and can recognise great works from several artistic periods. Not that I am lamenting the loss of the “jack of all trades” – better to be a master of one – but there is a richness to a kind of roving curiosity, which for Susan Sontag defined the writer as “someone interested in everything”.
As L P Hartley tells us, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So, for the same reasons we travel geographically, to discover how things are done differently and take the lessons back to our own lands, we should travel temporally through the foreign countries of Aristotle’s Athens, Picasso’s Guernica, and any other historical moments waiting for our remembrance to bring them to life again. “Speak, memory” – Homer opens The Odyssey with this petition to Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Speak she will, so long as we listen.
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• Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage (1993)
• Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957)
• Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)
• Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
• Clive James, Cultural Amnesia (2007)
• Christopher Potter, How To Make A Human Being (2014)
• C S Lewis, Surprised By Joy (1955)
• Virginias Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924)
• T S Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ in The Sacred Wood (1920) and The Waste Land (1922)
• Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (1387)
• The Kindred, ‘Heritage’ from Life In Lucidity (2014)
• Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (1988)
• Susan Sontag, Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (2009)
• L P Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
• Homer, The Odyssey (circa 8th-century BC)