Tag Archives: The Langoliers

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.

WHAT STEPHEN KING CAN TEACH US ABOUT HISTORY

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.

Poster for the 1995 ABC miniseries based on the novella.

Poster for the 1995 ABC miniseries based on the novella.

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?