On 3 moods toward the past: smashing, worshipping, and loving while transcending

The 1st Mood: The Past Must be Smashed. 

“We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” –F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto (1909)

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” –Faulkner

Thanks to Faulkner, Ibsen, and Chekhov, we recognize that the past cannot be wiped out or destroyed. In Ibsen’s Ghosts, the father’s decisions are inherited, in the form of fate, by the son. Modern fate is like that: the coordinates of our lives are set by and only intelligible through existing social structures. Hence, for us there is no creation ex nihilo.

The 2nd Mood: The Past Must be Worshipped

“When the sense of a people is hardened like this, when history serves the life of the past in such a way that it buries further living, especially higher living, when the historical sense no longer conserves life, but mummifies it, then the tree dies unnaturally, from the top gradually down to the roots, and at last even the roots are generally destroyed.”–Nietzsche, “Use and Abuse of History for Life”

For Nietzsche, antiquarian history can be uplifting but also crushing: uplifting because through reverence the historical man “gives thanks for existence.” Nonetheless, over time and under the wrong cultural conditions, antiquarianism can turn the past into an idol, mummifying it, entombing it and thereby ourselves. Isn’t our cult of turning holy places into museums, our yearning to preserve neighborhoods through law a mummification of the past? The decadent impulse of antiquarianism: to clutch the past, to embalm it in nostalgia, to kill it again, while producing nothing of value in the present or for the future.

The 3rd Mood: The Past Must be Loved yet Transcended

“For it is central to the conception of such a tradition that the past is never something merely to be discarded, but rather that the present is intelligible only as commentary upon and response to the past which the past, if necessary and if possible, is corrected and transcended, yet corrected and transcended in a way that leaves the present open to being in turn corrected and transcended by some yet more adequate future point of view.” (137)–Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

The past flows to us through traditions without which our lives would not be conceivable in the terms we presently use: terms such as “self,” “democracy,” “freedom,” and “love.” When traditions work, they confer upon us roles, identities, a sense of rootedness. Yet traditions can be muddled, incoherent, lost, or imperfect. In multiple senses, they can fail us. When this happens, it is up to us to correct and transcend them: up to us to recuperate what is valuable, to correct what is mendable, and to transcend what is unsalvageable. The past–taken in, taken up, held onto–is also, and importantly, transmogrified. Like alchemy.

A Postscript

Run the forms of consciousness described above through your life as well as through different cultures. The question, “How do you stand toward the past?,” does not go away unless it is meditated upon and, even then, it is not immediately put to rest. Like our pasts, the question can only be quieted through inquiry, conversation, and practice.

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