"We inherit a legacy no less precious for being often indecipherable or inconvenient." xxv.
Lowenthal's book is a picaresque on history itself: the long tale of how we and our predecessors have felt about the past. It gathers photos of reworked castles with reviews of obscure science fiction; it features launderette signs and transi tombstones; it spans the homesickness of long-dead soldiers and what may be charming colonial re-enactments at Williamsburg. At first the subject seems too large to be discussed, and then - when the reader is convinced that Lowenthal has the courage, at least, to do justice to the topic - the various motifs seem too disparate to form a harmonious whole. Yet Lowenthal does make a fascinating and sustained argument. Unfortunately, this review cannot capture his many examples, and in so failing, it fails to capture the book's chief strength and charm - indeed, the book is largely illustrative rather than argumentative. For the sake of brevity, this review will feature rather his thoughts than his illustrations. Lowenthal argues two main points: first, the past is, of necessity, always reinterpreted by the present; it cannot be comprehended in whole, and so must be continuously comprehended in part. The past is real, but it cannot really be known. It is important to accept this fundamental tension as part of the endeavor to know (or use) the past. Second, the past is now being treated differently than it has been previously. Nostalgia has become a kind of consumer industry; objects and places are boxed and marketed rather than creatively re-used. In particular, the current generation has lost touch with and access to Biblical and classical history. Lowenthal is uneasy about the current instinct to preserve rather than incorporate the past.
The book has three parts. Chapters 1-4 describe how the past alike enriches and impoverishes us, the reasons we embrace or shun it. Chapter 5 shows how our recollections and surroundings make us aware of the past and how we respond to such knowledge. Chapters 6-7 discuss why and how we change what has come down to us, to what ends we use, salvage or contrive to use it for ourselves and our heirs.
Nostalgia, Repossessing the Past, Risks of Revisiting the Past
First described as a serious psycho-physical ailment affecting soldiers and travelers, nostalgia has become something quite different in the 21st century. Nostalgia allows modern collectors a consumer-friendly way to bring bits of safe, sanitized and certified past into the present. We feel that the past cannot be, must not be lost. So interactive museums, exercises in science fiction, and even the science of memory (from hypnotism to cosmic physics) are used to reclaim lost years and lost experiences. Fictional time travelers go to explain lost causes, to find the golden age, to change future disasters or polish-up present achievements. Satirists and cynics, by contrast, think that the past would surely disappoint. We would have lost necessary skills or be forced to learn skills useless in the present. Essential events (the birth of one's ancestors) might be put at risk. The past simply seems more glamorous and manageable than the present. In fact, it would be unmitigated hardship.
Benefits and Burdens, Threats and Evils, Tradition and Innovation
The past offers many benefits: Lowenthal's initial list includes familiarity, recognition, reaffirmation, validation, individual and group identity, guidance, enrichment and escape. In sum, the past gives legitimation, substantiation, pleasure. (Lowenthal remarks that these attributes are not exhaustive, simply heuristic.) Lowenthal adds more benefits. The past offers precedence (sanctified order), remoteness (romantic, unproblematic life), primordial beginnings (the key, the answer to basic questions) and primitive innocence (a natural, honest, simple life). The past also offers continuity (harmony and ceremony) and termination (stability). However, the evil memories of the past can poison the present, stymie new growth and ideas, undercut the value of the people and objects in the present. Exorcism and iconoclasm are the need to oust the past, to shed malignant compulsions, to shake off dead hands. Ambivalence about the past is inescapable and balance between tradition and innovation absolutely necessary. How giant are the giants of the past? This is the pronouncement each child-age makes upon its predecessor-parents.
Ancients versus Moderns
Chapter 3 compares how different periods in the past dealt with their pasts. The scholars of the Renaissance held a deep admiration for, and sometime slavish adherence to classical canons. The relationship was as to a present-day rival. To emulate (even to surpass) was the goal. Revival of language and literature became an act of creation. The Querelle and the Enlightenment found a different peace with the past. To conservative French and English, nature was decayed and decaying. Innocent and earlier nature was better. But developments in printing and in science required formed the core of the querelle. Learning no longer depended on the authority of antiquity - in fact, it required the absence of the old, a blank space in which to inscribe new truths. Imitation was a dead end. The balance of admiration tipped toward the present. Victorian Britain felt industrial change slice a physical gap between the present and past landscape, present and past folkways. A deep and anxious nostalgia bubbled up from the cracks, the beginnings of preservation, a patina over a selective pastiche of the past. Most particularly under fire were Biblical convictions and classical traditions. Victorians worked in the present to build up a sprawling, haphazard Empire of conquests, trade and tradition into a brittle strength, but longed for a simpler medieval past. Americans, by contrast, needed to be separated from their European heritage and past, to be young and unspoiled, to repudiate structured and civilized evils. Of course, no sooner done than Americans needed an American heritage: Lincoln's cabin, Washington's teeth, Franklin's spectacles. The Founding Fathers became sacred, colonial times, comfortable, cheery, brave, simple.
The Look of Age
Many organic metaphors suggest our preference for youth and fear of age. Even cultures that respect age seldom think it beautiful. Youthful nature is preferred and youthful nations make a myth of their own vigor. Aging artifacts are seen as ugly - they require to be returned to a state of newness. By contrast, a group (starting in the 18th century) developed a fondness for antiques that looked antique: cracks, stains, patina, soot authenticated and were cultivated as taste in the 18th century picturesque movement. Ruins were built qua ruins. Some materials and styles, of course, were believed to age more beautifully. Marble, for instance, lined up in classical columns, or statuesque and classically headless. More problematic was the fondness for charming picturesque poverty - perilously close to cold-heartedness, to aesthetic indifference to misery. Transi, tomb decorations of skeletal or putrescent bodies, mediated between the fear of death, repugnance towards decay, an acceptance of mortal change, and an expression of faith.
How We Know the Past /Interconnectedness
Lowenthal says that we know the past through three avenues: memory, history and relics. To make a simple point, much of the earth's physical history has no witnesses - how, then, can we know it? At some level, the same doubts carry over to the parts of history that we accept from accounts. Memory - personal and collective - is also subject to doubt. It is a selective sensory bricolage filtered through present purpose. Historical practices - authorized memory - differ widely in purpose and in truth claims from culture to culture. Crucial to history is chronology, causality and memory. The task is (again) selection, evocation, and arrangement. Historical fiction partakes of these traits, attempting to create a self-contained and imaginatively true past. Yet our author worries - a consumable and palatable merchandized past disturbs him. Scholarly pasts also worry him: we create a past dissected in ever smaller parts, labeled and boxed, irrelevant and unexemplary. The third avenue, relics are as uncertain as memory and history. Relics are ceaselessly created, fixed and effaced. They bear certain qualities: enriching the present with layers of meaning, embellished the present with memorialized moments, and sometimes puzzling the present with anachronistic obsolescence, but they are mute without signs and marks of interpretation. Relics carry connections to memory and history, and serve as mutual metaphors. (The mind is a recording instrument; memory is like geologic strata). Specific relics make or take on special resonance, as in Freud's Gravida. (p.255) Lowenthal mentions films as a special kind of relic, making vivid the past and erasing boundaries while at the same time setting frames firmly in place. The past is altogether inescapable, ephemeral, impossible to fix.
Changing the Past, Why We Change the Past
To mark off the past we identify, display, protect, remove, embellish and readapt relics. Labeling has become crucial to the effort of naming the "past." Reconstituting and readapting relics has simultaneously become more and more controversial. Among the areas for contention are not only relics, which can be easily faked, duplicated and sold, but also historical re-enactors. Of course, history as entertainment involves decisions about characters, costumes, selection of details. How true is the re-presentation of the past? Where does the fakery start and end? Even fraught with uncertainty, owning or sponsoring reproductions are a way of declaring personal education, aspirations, social and group attainments and allegiances. There is, for example, a Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, a Victorian Gothic castle in Tarrytown, New York. As reconstructions are made, and mythologies built up, the common person may be only partially aware of the flow of change, of the "ought-tos" and "shoulds" that are being claimed. Of course, there is hoaxing, deliberate mischievousness or chicanery. Lowenthal says "[w]e interpret relics to make them more comprehensible, to justify the present attitudes and actions, to underscore changes of faith." (325). We bolster national or local claims for significance We then have a past enlarged, diminished, embellished, purified, lengthened, abbreviated, not ever entirely accurate, but serviceable. However changed, to have any part of the past at all, we must repossess it carefully and creatively. When finally cut off from creative re-use, whether for good or ill, the past dies indeed.
"New means of access make modern concern with the past supremely self-conscious and self-confident." (367) More research and more ways of capturing details, however, sharpen the contrast between present and past and make the past more alien. Generally speaking, the force of past tradition, exemplary deeds in the past, of idealism rooted in the past, are less powerful to moderns than they were to our ancestors. Imitation and communion are also diminished as forces for scholars. Simple rumination also, perhaps, less indulged. In the past century we have lost 2 millennia of references to classical language, and 2 millennia of metaphorical re-workings. Post-modern scholars quote the past with puckish humor but without passionate response. In this generation preservation has become global. Who gets the money to preserve, and why? Former generations were more utilitarian in their use of the past. Our current method is less organic, less useful, less inspiring. "To enter vicariously into our predecessor's modes of experiencing their pasts and to compare our own feelings of those of other times, may itself prove illuminating." (407) This comparison was the heart of Lowenthal's effort in this work.