In the history courses that I teach here at Wheaton, my students and I spend a lot of time wrestling with basic concepts that seem simple until we really start to think about them. Foremost among these is the term history itself, but I don’t like to start there. I think we have to meditate on the idea of the past first, so that’s where we begin. We’re not after a dictionary definition of the term, by the way. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that concepts like these are best understood through metaphor. Metaphors are less precise than simple declarative statements, but they are also immeasurably richer. They are more open-ended and evocative than anything Webster’s can provide. They are also better at stimulating our thinking, our imagination, and even our sense of wonder.
Nor do we have to decide on one and only one metaphor for each concept we are trying to understand. We can alternate between any number of metaphors that each point toward a particular facet or function of the concept we’re trying to wrap our minds around. The Scriptures do this all the time. The descriptions of Jesus in the gospel of John would be a classic example. The writer tells us that Jesus is “the vine,” “the door,” “the way,” “the good shepherd” etc. We’re not supposed to choose between them like on a multiple choice exam. (“Circle the answer that best describes . . .”) Rather, we can find value in all of them, believing that each points us toward a crucial truth.
When it comes to the past, historians’ favorite metaphor is drawn from a little–known British writer from the mid-twentieth century named L. P. Hartley. Hartley opened his 1953 novel The Go-Between by observing “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The metaphor warns us against the trap of viewing figures from the past as if they were our neighbors dressed in funny clothes. We should expect a degree of culture shock when we go to the past, and much of the value of studying history is lost when we remake peoples from the past in our own image.
The “foreign country” metaphor reminds us of one fundamental truth about the past: it was often profoundly different from the present. I regularly draw on a metaphor from C. S. Lewis to convey a different, equally critical point. In his essay “Historicism,” Lewis observed that
“A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. . . . At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of ‘history’ falls off the world into total oblivion.”
By likening the past to a roaring waterfall “fall[ing] off the world into total oblivion,” Lewis was underscoring an epistemological truth about the past: the vast majority of it is beyond our knowing. As Lewis put it, “It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”
I just finished a book that makes (possibly?) a somewhat similar point about the past, although I’m still working through what I think about it. I suspect not many of you have read Stephen King’s 1990 novella The Langoliers. Let me say up front that I generally despise horror movies and novels, and I’m not a fan of King’s work overall. And yet The Langoliers makes a fascinating argument about the passage of time. Rather than offering a pithy metaphor for the past, it is more accurate to say that the entire book (or almost the entire book) is an extended metaphor that challenges the way that we naturally (and often unconsciously) think about the past when we are studying history. When I ask my students to tell me what makes a work of history interesting, often the highest compliment they can offer is that it “makes the past come alive.” If I wanted to summarize what King does in The Langaliers, I would say that he puts the past to death.
The Langaliers tells the story of American Pride flight #29, a red-eye flight from southern California to New England. During the flight, a handful of passengers who had been asleep awaken to discover that most of the two hundred other passengers have disappeared and the remainder are flying over a dark, desolate, and apparently uninhabited continent. As the story unfolds, we viscerally feel their surprise, then their terror, as they gradually come to realize what has happened to them. What they eventually figure out (spoiler alert!) is that they have flown through some kind of “time rip” over the Mojave Desert and have actually traveled backward in time, although only by a very few minutes.
As the sun is coming up the pilot lands the jet in Bangor, Maine, although nothing about the airport there seems quite right. The terminal is empty, still, eerily quiet—there are no sounds, no smells, no movement of any kind. The colors of the décor seem faded, the beer in the snack bar is flat, the sandwiches taste like sawdust. Everything about them is oppressively, utterly lifeless.
King speaks through a passenger named Bob Jenkins (a mystery writer) to explain what they have encountered. “I think we’ve gone into the past and discovered the unlovely truth of time-travel,” Bob speculates. “You can’t appear in the Texas State School Book Depository on November 22, 1963, and put a stop to the Kennedy assassination; you can’t watch the building of the pyramids or the sack of Rome; you can’t investigate the Age of the Dinosaurs at first hand.” Bob then raises his arms wide and gestures all around them:
“Take a good look around you, fellow time-travellers. This is the past. It is empty; it is silent. . . . I believe we may have hopped an absurdly short distance in time, perhaps as little as fifteen minutes—at least initially. But the world is clearly unwinding around us. . . . It feels old and stupid and feeble and meaningless.”
In sum, King turns the lifeless Bangor airport into an extended metaphor for the past. It is devoid of everything that gives life: empty, silent, meaningless.
If we stop here, it might be possible to think of the metaphor as entirely consistent with our hope of making the past “come alive.” The metaphor would underscore the truth that historical facts never “speak for themselves.” It would also call attention to the indispensable role that the historian plays in generating historical insight. The surviving shadows of the past lie lifeless and inert until the historian comes along and breathes life them; only then, and only in this way, can the past ever “come alive.”
King, however, doesn’t stop here. Maybe the predicament that his characters faced wasn’t sufficiently terrifying; maybe he wanted to make a more disturbing point about the past. Enter the Langoliers. We first hear of them through one of the story’s central characters, a deeply disturbed young businessman named Craig Toomey. Craig’s father had been a desperately ambitious businessman who died of a heart attack when Craig was nine. The elder Toomey had thought that the greatest offense in life was to waste time, and so he had raised his son on bedtime stories about monsters called Langoliers who come to eat up lazy children.
But then the passengers of American Pride flt. #29 discover that Langoliers really exist, billions and billions of them. These small, insatiable, razor-toothed eating machines race perpetually around the world from east to west, consuming the gray shadow of existence that remains after the past becomes the past. Their next stop, of course, is the Bangor airport.
After a couple of grizzly deaths, the passengers manage to take off again with the Langoliers fast on their heels, and as they zoom into the clouds they get a glimpse of the monsters at work below. They watch as the Langoliers eat their way through “the rotten fabric of the dead past,” gulping huge chunks of past reality and leaving nothingness in their wake. Bob Jenkins again explains what they are seeing:
“Now we know, don’t we? . . . what happens to today when it becomes yesterday, what happens to the present when it becomes the past. It waits—dead and empty and deserted. It waits for them. It waits for the time-keepers of eternity, always running along behind, cleaning up the mess in the most efficient way possible . . . by eating it.”
Weird, huh? It’s a bizarre story, but King has given us a metaphor that hammers home the truth that the past is dead and gone. In isolation, its message is too dark, too pessimistic about our ability to learn about and from the past. But it might be a healthy corrective to the more common popular view that exaggerates our ability to know the past with minimal effort. I think I’ll share this story with my students this fall and see what they make of it. In the meantime, what do you think?