“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The famous last line from The Great Gatsby has been rattling around my head recently.
We live in interesting times. And much hinges on the past, on the stories we tell about who we were and how we got here. My job is to explore things from the past, to build narratives from those Old Things, to apply retrospective significance, and in doing so, to illuminate the present.
This matters. “Who controls the past”, wrote Orwell, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
But these past few months, my Old Things have been mute.
There’s a fine cartoon by Tom Toro: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it”.
But I have written before that the past is never repeated; besides, there is no such thing as ‘the past’. And to assert that situation x is equal to situation y gives an easy response to those who disagree. Conditions are different, they will say, the comparison is not accurate. The test is not whether the analogy is a perfect fit, but whether it is useful.
Yet my Old Things: my potsherds, the soil beneath my fingers, the bones I lift from the cold earth… all are silent. They tell me nothing, offer no balm for these times of tumult.
I have a difficult relationship with my own past. I am reluctant to subject it forensic study, perhaps because I am not fond of the version of myself that I find there.
The same can be said of societies. We like our narratives clear, and resist challenges. Revisionism has become a pejorative term. We do not like to see our imagined foundations undermined. Historical narratives are attractive because they offer the illusion of permanence.
“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,
The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.” Edward Thomas, Early One Morning
We’re comfortable with visions of our past selves that emphasise an honest struggle, a purity of ideals, identities, and common purpose.
But national narratives are prone to conflating two different visions of the past: remembered glories and ideas of longevity. A case in point is the phrase “we have always been”: you’ll see it everywhere. A fortuitous set of circumstances for one nation at a point in time is not a replicable model. For all our accomplishments, there is nothing innately superior about the British or American psyche, nor are we inevitably destined to prosper. The wave we rode through much of the 19th and 20th centuries has dashed itself against the breakwater of history, and much as the likes of Trump and Farage may tell us that we can go back, it is gone. I fervently hope we can find a new path through the surf, but history is rarely kind to those who would seek to slavishly recreate past glories.
And still my Old Things are silent, and Gatsby echoes around my head. I wander, and I draw. I beat on, to a small village church.It’s old, a muddle of mismatched masonry. The porch leans, the roof curves and the deep-sunk windows peer from behind choking coniferous fronds. Its original form is lost in countless rebuilds, its style a collision of architectural trends. I don’t agree with much of what’s said within it, but I’m fond of it. It makes no sense in isolation; it is part of a network, sharing resources and visions. In its ideal form, it is a place of sanctuary, welcome and tolerance. It’s not a bad analogy for a country.
Every step you take through the churchyard draws you deeper; your tread taps the resting places of all those who passed before and lie there still. The ground itself bulges skyward with the sheer volume of burials. Borne back ceaselessly into the past. You cannot escape it. So, embrace it; history has much wise counsel to offer.
There are cyclical patterns at play. We are caught in an eddy, disturbing dormant silts of self-interest, and snagging on the rotten branches of those who promise a free pass to a better life back upstream. No such promised land exists, nor has ever done so.
Above all, be critical. History is not whatever you make of it. Not all histories are equal. Over the next few years, many will invoke histories to warn or promise. To beat on through the mire will require effort and struggle, and not merely the passing of time. The course of human history does not run smooth and straight.