IS THE PAST REALLY DEAD AND GONE?

In my last post I shared the plot of one of Stephen King’s lesser known works and asked whether it might contain a helpful metaphor for thinking about the concept of the past. King’s 1990 novella The Langoliers actually contains not one but two extended metaphors for the past. The first—we can call it Metaphor A—emerges when the surviving passengers of a jetliner that has inadvertently passed through a “time rip” arrive at Bangor Airport. Unwittingly having traveled fifteen minutes back in time, they enter a terminal that is still, gray, silent, and lifeless—a place of shadows but no substance.

The second metaphor—Metaphor B—appears soon thereafter, when King has a horde of vicious monsters devour the pale remnants of the past, leaving in their wake only nothingness. As I read them, Metaphor A evokes a past that can be visited with effort (sort of like a foreign country), albeit one that is lifeless and mute until the historian reanimates it and gives it voice. Metaphor B seems to go further. It describes a past that it would be inconceivable to visit because it has simply ceased to exist.

A scene from the 1995 TV miniseries based on King's novella. The Langoliers are consuming the pale remnants of the past, leaving utter nothingness when thy are through.

A scene from the 1995 TV miniseries based on King’s novella. The Langoliers are consuming the pale remnants of the past, leaving utter nothingness behind them..

I’m still wrestling with both metaphors, still going back and forth about their usefulness, and still interested in any thoughts you might have. In the meantime, I want to respond to a couple of good comments that have come in from readers who appear troubled by Metaphor B, and perhaps even more so by my comment that it correctly “hammers home the truth that the past is dead and gone.”

Pamela and Gary make strikingly similar observations. Pamela notes that the symbols of the past are “still alive within us;” Gary maintains that the past “is well and alive in each one of us.” Pamela writes that the past is “a part of who we are”; Gary alludes to “who we are because of the past.” Implicitly, both Pamela and Gary take their stand with William Faulkner, who once famously declared that “the past is never dead.” (In a lesser known passage that I like even better, Faulkner also wrote that “yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.”)

Boiled down, Metaphor B doesn’t work for Pamela and Gary (as it would not have worked for Faulkner) because the idea of a past that is “dead and gone” evokes a past that is wholly inconsequential to the present, a past that leaves no mark on our lives today. If that’s how the rest of you interpret the metaphor then I’ll abandon it immediately, because that’s the last message I’d ever want to convey.

Our lives are profoundly influenced by what has gone before us; that’s what makes our cultural obsession with the present so debilitating and so frustrating. Perhaps I should have written something like “The past is gone for good,” and left “dead” out of it. (Would that have made a meaningful difference to the message?) But I’m not quite ready to concede that to say the past is “dead and gone” is the same as pronouncing it irrelevant and meaningless.

Consider this example: My grandfather was one of the most significant people in my life as I was growing up. He lived in my home town, I saw him almost every day until I went away to college, and it is but a slight exaggeration to say that he helped raise me. I cherish his memory, I’m fond of telling his story (at age nineteen he began teaching grades 1-8 in a one-room Appalachian schoolhouse), and to this day I carry in my Bible a picture of the two of us on his back porch when I was in graduate school and he was in his late 90s. I also know that his influence on me is undeniable. I inherited his sense of vocation and likely his temperament as well. His positive influence over the first thirty years of my life helps to explain who I am today.

And yet, my grandfather has been dead nearly a quarter-century. Must I deny this in order to acknowledge his continuing influence on my life? Before you say it, I know that one way out of the dilemma is the Hallmark-movie sentiment that my grandfather really isn’t dead as long as he is a part of me and all whose lives he touched. (Digression here: No disrespect to anyone, but I’ve always despised this cliche. I suspect it’s a comforting figure of speech embraced by a culture that no longer really believes in the immortality of the soul but recoils from the implications.)

This expression may be harmless enough at funerals or on a sympathy card, but when we apply it to the past it’s misleading. In particular, by asserting that the past is “alive,” we lose a crucial distinction between the thing itself and our memory of the thing. In so doing, I fear we perpetuate the common misconception that the historian studies the past directly, which leads in turn to the erroneous conclusion that “history” and “the past” are synonymous. History is not the past itself but the remembered past, to quote historian John Lukacs, a distinction that is critical to thinking historically. Whatever its shortcomings, King’s Metaphor B keeps us from forgetting this crucial difference.

I can think of one other possible advantage to Metaphor B: Thinking of the past as dead may also serve to remind us that the people from the past that we are trying to get to know are also (in most instances) dead as well. As Christian historian Beth Schweiger writes, the goal of the historian is “to see and to know the dead,” even to “make a relationship with the dead.” Think for a minute about what this conveys. Faulkner’s sense of the past as “never dead” calls attention to its power; Schweiger’s reminder that the historian works almost exclusively with the dead evokes a past that is vulnerable, even helpless. How could the latter be true? When it comes to historical memory, the dead are always at the mercy of the living. Their ability to define the meaning of their lives ended at the grave. How they are remembered, why they are remembered, whether they are remembered is all up to the living, at least until Judgment Day.

Perhaps in the end we have to hold these two ostensibly contradictory understandings in tension with each other. Part of the historian’s job is to help the present see the powerful influence of the dead upon the living; a different part is to be a speaker for the dead, lest the past fade into oblivion.

Those are my two cents, at least for now. And if you recognized in the last sentence the title of a novel by Orson Scott Card, you know where I’m headed next.

Back soon.

5 responses to “IS THE PAST REALLY DEAD AND GONE?

  1. 6 August 2015

    Tracy–

    A few comments:

    1/  re: Metaphors A & B
    Stephen King’s metaphors don’t work for me.  How can one travel back in time but there are no people as in metaphor A and if the past is eaten up as in metaphor B how come archeologists keep finding bits of the past?  I know I know – it is only a story asking me to suspend my understanding of reality and replace it with King’s imagination.

    2/ re:  “Boiled down, Metaphor B doesn’t work for Pamela and Gary (as it would not have worked for Faulkner) because the idea of a past that is “dead and gone” evokes a past that is wholly inconsequential to the present, a past that leaves no mark on our lives today.”

    It might have been better to leave out dead from the past is dead and gone. I know it is gone.  I think my problem with that statement is that many people use it to say there is no meaning or relevance to one’s life now from the past – especially a bad past or one they don’t want to believe in.  To say or believe that is to become unconscious about the past’s effect on us. I think knowing the past can help us become conscious of its good and bad effects on our life. And knowing the past means it is not completely steering us down life’s road.  Of course this implies we have more power over our lives than is really possible.  But at least we have a  more conscious clarity of who we are and how we got here and that might help change a few things.

    3/ re: “When it comes to historical memory, the dead are always at the mercy of the living. Their ability to define the meaning of their lives ended at the grave.”

    And I think it works the other way also.  We are living at the mercy of the dead.  The choices the dead have made – such as our immediate ancestors most directly – have a profound effect on posterity.  Or a culture or a nation.  The Germans especially since World War II have a terrible burden created by the dead. Their past is well remembered and documented – even by themselves.  Of course some nations refuse to remember their past with the bad bits left in.

    Like most things in life history won’t always make us happy… Sadder and wiser perhaps. Happy history: could be a great field of research for a Ph.d student.

      Gary Hotham

  2. It’s okay with me if we don’t mention Stephen King at all–I’m still recovering from “IT.” 😉 I agree that we have both senses, or understandings of the past in tension, and I second Kathryn’s last sentence, adding that sometimes it is frustrating and not funny.

  3. King’s metaphors may serve as useful cautionary tales, but they are so arid I find myself recoiling from them. True, we as mere mortals can only access the past through the evidence and testimony left for us. But the fact that in some mysterious fashion the past still exists in the mind of God, the reality that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever seems to give a lie to the nothingness King imagines. I’ve always been fascinated by a sentence or two in Matthew’s gospel (ch. 27:52, 53) where tombs are opened and the dead are raised at the same time as the death and resurrection of Christ–then we never hear any more about this–but it reinforces the idea that God is the God of the living and not the dead. I realize these are random thoughts and don’t really address the issues you raise–the dead being raised doesn’t revisit the past as much as it creates a new present. I don’t want to over-spiritualize and certainly not sentimentalize our view of the past. But still, something’s going on, somehow I just sense the laughter of God, that there’s much more to this than we can imagine.

    • Thanks, Kathryn. I really appreciate these thoughts. And you are undoubtedly correct that there’s “more to this than we can imagine.” TM

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