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Friday, April 22, 2016

The Ever-Changing Past

It is often said that you can’t change the past. But there’s no important sense in which that statement is true. It is much truer to say you can’t stop the past from changing, not for a moment. The past is in constant flux. It is only just barely less secure than the future.

                What is the past? From the point of view of the present, which is the only point of view we can know at all—and we know it very badly even as we experience it—it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist except as part of the present. In the present it exists as signs, as traces, as memories, all of which are at least as fallible as any first-hand witness. We don’t really know what’s happening to us as it’s happening. And don’t know what has happened better for having gotten some perspective on it. (In the history of literature both perspectives are privileged over and over, from Shakespeare’s “true avouch of my own eyes,” to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, "Every age,/ Through being beheld too close, is ill discerned/ By those who have not lived past it.") The traces may be visible like skid marks on the road, or they may be invisible like the untraceable pain you feel at the sight of a tearful child.

                The point is that even if we were there we’d have gotten it wrong, and pulling back and putting it into its broader context we still get it wrong. Because there is no right. Because neither history nor any “event” in history ever existed as such. History never existed as something that can be encompassed by language and represented in its fullness. It never had a fullness. It was never something you could know.

                And all the scared extremists cry, “so anything goes, huh? Your version of history is as good as mine, and there’s no one to mediate among them?”

                But that’s obviously not true either. Some versions of history, like some versions of scientifically verifiable facts, are better than others. Science is not the model for history; it’s no more than one part of the far more complex paradigm by which good history is constructed. As a heliocentric universe is better than a geocentric universe—though neither is right—so some versions of history are better than others. And competing versions may be equally good. The point remains that none are right, none could be made right even under ideal circumstances, even if everyone had recorded every motivation and we had all the documents, and even if we could rule out unconscious, instinctive, or otherwise unknowable causes for historical events. (The very concept “event” is already wide of the mark.)

                The past is open and constantly in flux. In response to this fact, we need to hold our understanding as lightly as we must hold our memories, no matter how clear they seem. We need to take seriously other people’s stories. It is in stories and only in stories that the present traces of history are arranged into the meaningful patterns we call knowing. Every story is made up. Made up stories (a redundancy therefore) are the material out of which the present is constructed and that construction is maintained.

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