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An essay by Vernon Lee

Puzzles Of The Past

Title:     Puzzles Of The Past
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

I am full of curiosity about the Past. This does not mean that I read the memoirs of Napoleon's marshals, or that I write queries to antiquarian papers, or that I enjoy being taken to see invisible Pictish barrows and Roman encampments; in fact, nothing could be further from my character and habits. But the Past puzzles me; and I like being puzzled by the Past.

Not in its details, but in all manner of general questions, and such, moreover, as very rarely admit of an answer. What are the relations of the Past and Present? Where does the Past begin? And, to go further still, what _is_ the Past?

All this sounds abstract, and even metaphysical; but it is really quite the reverse. These speculations are always connected with some concrete place or person, and they arise in my mind (and in the mind of the twenty thousand persons whom I don't know, but whom I resemble), together with some perspective of street or outline of face, and always with a faint puff of emotion. I will give you a typical instance of one of these puzzles. It formulated itself in my mind a few weeks ago at Verona, while going to see a certain little church on the slopes above the Adige. You go through the priest's house and vineyard; there is a fine carved lintel and a bit of fresco, all in the midst of a rag fair of squalid streets. What a place this must once have been! I felt the charm and splendour of piled-up palace and hanging gardens in former days. In former days! And a little doubt dropped into it, "If former days there ever were." For who can tell? This crumbling, ragged business which to us means that we stand before the Past; this gradual perishing of things in neglect and defilement, may very well have formed a necessary part of our ancestors' present. Our own standard and habit of tidiness, decorum, and uniformity may be quite recent developments; barbarism, in the sense of decay and pollution, may have existed together with prosperity. It is quite possible that dead donkeys were left in the streets of Haroun-al-Raschid's Bagdad, or Semiramis' Babylon, as well as in those of poor little modern Tangier. And the Verona of the Scaligers may have been just such a Verona as this which delights and depresses us, only with new beautiful things being built quite naturally alongside of decayed and defiled ones; things nowadays all equally levelled in ruin and squalor. The splendour of the Past may be a mere fiction of our own, like the romance of the Past which we say we no longer believe in. But history gives us, I think, no definite answer.

With this question another is closely connected. I must explain it by a simile. A foreign friend of mine insists, with some show of reason, that much as any two countries of the Continent may differ, England contrives to differ a great deal more from all of them than they can differ from each other. Well, it sometimes strikes me that, in a similar way, our Present may be wholly detached from the mass, however heterogeneous, of the Past; an island divided from the mainland of history by seas of difference, or rather, like the great Arctic countries, a separate Continent, shrouded in mystery, of which we know only that its hitherto explored shores face, without ever touching, the other mapped-out Continent we call the Past. For just think, let us say, of the change implied in the multiplication through machinery of a stereotyped form, as against the production of an individual object by individual hands. Why, such a change means democracy far more than any other change in laws and franchises; and it means, among other things, that any art sprung really from the present will have to be of the nature, not of the painting or sculpture of old days, of the architecture which made each single cathedral an individual organism, but of the nature rather of process engraving, of lithography (are not our posters, Cheret's, for instance, the only thing which our masses see, as their distant forbears saw frescoes in churches and _campo santos_?), of book printing, in short; and will not literature and music become more and more the typical kinds of art, the creation of one brain projected over millions of acres and through mere wires and cylinders? And think also of the difference in locomotion. Say what you will, people who rode in coaches were bound to be more like people who rode in litters, for all the difference between Rome under Caesar and England under George III., than like people who go by train. That is all on the surface, serious persons will answer: the pace at which people's body and goods are conveyed along may alter without their thoughts or feelings being changed the least bit. Perhaps. But are we so absolutely sure of that?

For instance, are we sure we should have been able to get on for half an hour together with even our own great-grandparents of little more than a hundred years ago? There they hang, our great-grandfathers and mothers and uncles and aunts (or some one's else, more likely), painted by Reynolds or Raeburn, delightful persons whose ghosts we would give anything to meet. Their ghosts; aye, there's the rub. For their ghosts would have altered with posthumous experience, would have had glimpses of the world we live in, and somewhat conformed to its habits; but could we really get on with the living men and women of former days? It is true that we understand and enjoy the books which they read, or rather a small number of pages out of a smaller number of books. But did they read them in the same way? I should not wonder if the different sense in which we took their favourite authors, or rather the different sense in which we discovered that they were in the habit of taking them, created considerable coolness, not to say irritation, between the ghosts of the readers of "The Vicar of Wakefield," or "Werther," or the "Nouvelle Heloise" and ourselves. Besides, they would be monstrously shocked at our ways. They would think us marvellously ill-bred. While we! I dare scarcely harbour the thought, much less express it. Anyway, it is certain that they occasionally allowed Sheridan and Miss Burney (I am not even thinking of the remote people of Fielding), and even, alas! Miss Austen, to paint pictures of them which we would scarcely own up to from novelists and playwrights of our day, and therefore I return to my puzzle: is time an unbroken continuity, all its subdivisions merely conventional, like those of postal districts; or, as I suggested above, are there real chains of mountains, chasms, nay, deep oceans, breaking up its surface; and do we not belong, we people of the nineteenth century, rather to the future which we are forming than to the Past which, much to its astonishment (I should think), produced us?

There are other puzzles about the Past, far more intimate in nature and less grandiose, but, on the whole, far less easy to answer. One of these is difficult even to word, but every reader will identify it in connection with some of the most delightful experiences he has been admitted to. Roughly, it may be expressed as follows:--Were old people ever young? Was there a period in the world's history (and not so far back) when everybody was enchantingly mixed of primness and romance, had little graces of manner, nods and becks and wreathed smiles, with a tendency every now and then to employ language rather stronger than the occasion warranted? Did youths and maidens wander about with faint moral odours of pot-pourri and quaint creases of character, as of superannuated garments long folded in a drawer! Or are these qualities taken on by each generation in turn, in which case will the Hilda Wangels and Dodos of to-day delight the twentieth century as possible inmates of Cranford?

Having worked my way to so marvellous a puzzle as this, I had better remove the strain by hastily suggesting another question, which will satisfactorily get rid of the others, to wit, whether the Past did really ever exist?

On the whole, I am tempted to believe that it did not. I can even prove it by a logical stroke worthy of the very greatest philosophers. Granted that the Past is that which no longer has any existence, only the Present could ever be real now; as the Present and the Past cannot co-exist, the Past evidently never existed at all; unless, indeed, we call in the aid of the Hegelian philosophy, and set our minds at ease by a fine reduction of contraries, to the effect that since the Present and the Past exclude one another, they evidently must really be the same thing at bottom.

This is cogent. And yet a doubt continues lurking in my mind. Is not what we think of as the Past--what we discuss, describe, and so often passionately love--a mere creation of our own? Not merely in its details, but in what is far more important, in its essential, emotional, and imaginative quality and value? Perhaps some day psychology may discover that we have a craving, like that which produces music or architecture, for a special state of nerves (or of something else, if people are bored with nerves by that time), obtainable by a special human product called the Past--the Past which has never been the Present.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Puzzles Of The Past