Past perfect

The most distinctive quality of history is that we know how everything turns out. In one sense this is obviously untrue, since many events or sequences of events begun in the past have yet to be completed, and in any case the division between an event and its consequences that lead one after another up the present and will surely trail on into the future is always to some extent arbitrary. But the sense of the finality of history does not depend upon actual knowledge of the events of the past; even someone living in profound ignorance of all that has gone before must sense in some instinctive way that everything that has happened has somehow led up to the present moment. In this way memory flattens both the anxieties and fears and hopes and ideals that normally animate our minds. One can look back to a gentle landscape of memory now blessed, through hindsight, with an absence of all fear, only to be remonstrated a moment later by the realization that the cloudy utopia of hopes for the future has hardened into the persistently ideal-resistent present (pace Hegel).

There is, in short, nothing in history that can redeem us from the suspicion that our lives are perhaps entirely mechanical affairs, a simple matter of robotic cause and effect. This is the peculiar fatalism of history, propogated upon the absolute necessity that, under certain circumstances, one thing leads to another. Thus it is not just that things happened a certain way but that, really, conditions being as they were they had to. This is the inviolable hand of sufficient cause. David K. Lewis had to defend the notion of alternate universes totally bereft of contact with our own simply to justify the validity of the counter-factual, the notion of “alternative history.” But the sheer counterintuitiveness of this suggests that imagining an alternate present, as opposed to alternate futures, is always bound to be a travesty of the facts.

Yet what redeems history is its connection to the present, to the seeming possibility of exerting some influence upon the workings of the world in the act of passing through time. Everything has its sufficient cause, even personal motives, but it is in no way demonstrated that human actions are rigidly dependent upon the totally predictable, insensate causality of other objects. It is, in fact, the very quality of life that they do not seem to be.

But history still impresses us, not just by the seeming inevitability of the progression of things but also of their ending. It seems to be the universal experience of ideas that they originate in the long distance of anticipation, perhaps fleet briefly into a physical existence in a passing present and then recede from view as they are done away with, even as the totality of creation renews itself. And even in existence one seems to encounter what Joseph Conrad called the inevitable degradation of the ideal through its realization. And even anticipation is really a vision of the past reconstructed and rearranged. The study of history, then, is bound to lead to suspiciousness of any ambition to transcend the progression from future to past through the very thin barrier of living moments. This is why the heroes of a Walter Scott novel, such as one I have just completed, Old Mortality , are never the idealists, who are fanatics in their belief in the absurd notion of being able to find a refuge from time in some imagined living eternity after death. His heroes are rather the stoics who attempt to impress some personal mark of honor or virtue onto the passing moments. For any attempt to found an ideal upon the hope of actually living wholly enveloped within a continuing and undiminishing present, safe from decay or decline, is bound to failure. It is only by focusing on the quality of individual moments, on rendering them valuable in retrospect, rather than on their doubtful perseverence, that life is rendered equanimious, the past satisfying for having been well used rather than discomfiting for being gone.

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