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.
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.