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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2 thoughts on “On 3 moods toward the past: smashing, worshipping, and loving while transcending

  1. I would like to try to reframe the three moods described in terms of moods of mind, moods of spirit and moods of body. Consider this rambling stream of consciousness, stemming from my immediate thoughts as and when I had I read the 1st Mood, 2nd Mood and 3rd Mood.

    With moods of mind, I encounter the flow of mythology as it passes through my life. I am taught to think from two different cultural perspectives, and this consequently we call being a part of our multiracial society. Mythology comes into being when storytelling smashes bigger ideas that only the most erstwhile thinkers would comprehend or get, the rest of us get a smashed up form of culture that is suited to the common denominator. That storytelling is further smashed in the electronic age, into soundbites and hence I am referring to the instant messaging culture or 140 character story. We can assemble the latter through mechanisms such as Storify, but such assembly means that some process of smashing and mythological processing must have been at hand. Putting together a coherent picture of life, as a relationship with the present as well as an interaction with our ancestors is important to me, though I doubt my capacity to intellectually integrate – and while smashing or destruction is a part of the natural ebb and flow of life, creation is the other choice I have – and the mood of the mind thus becomes not simply the processing of my frontal cortex but my capacity for imagination.

    With moods of spirit, I encounter the constant noticing and battle against idolatry – whether that be an egotistic form which in its worst from becomes spiritual egotism or group-think, which is to be led without thinking about what it is I am actually following. I am already aware that from a religious point of view, there must surely be a good reason why the first commandment centered around idolatry. From a scientific point of view, science works best when one does not go native and can take a rational perspective free of attachments and identifications. How that manifests into my life is something I am trying to be more aware of, but the center piece of the mood of spirit is always Socrates refrain, “To Know Thyself”. Yet the individual is best viewed as the total system, and then noticing where we are divided by our beliefs, nationalities, affiliations etc etc becomes central to my personal inquiry. Worshiping therefore is to be noticed, because I don’t want to be tethered as a human being, I want to be free. That takes spiritual resolve for we will always have ties that bind.

    With moods of body, I encounter the creation of memes and fashion. Our dance as people is primarily through our body, the work we do requires our body – which in turn ties us to professional affiliations and thus further changes how we adorn ourselves and what part of the elephant we lay claim to be describing or representing. The greatest body is not simply the body of our work but the cultural body we represent and the moods of body (IMHO) thus contribute to the organizations that appear, the institutions which we foster and the nature of the cities which we each help to create. Civilization emerges in this view, from the moods of the body – for even though we live in virtual times, our identification is ever present. In yesteryear it was found in the nature of hierarchy but today it has moved from the macro to the micro, and at the micro level, the moods of the body yield in our image creation – or brand. It is the body which marketers segment and the alchemy here is to notice the division, so we can notice the greater whole. The transformation here being unity through diversity.


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