Past presents, present pasts


Reading Daisy Hay’s Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age, I came to the pages dealing with the contortions of William Pitt’s increasingly repressive administration in its attempts to shut down protest in the 1790s, particularly the recasting of the 1351 Act, which had made it a crime to ‘compass and imagine’ the death of the King, that is, to intend the death of the king, as it was commonly understood. ‘Pitt’s lawyers redefined it, so that an act of imagining alone became a crime. To commit treason one needed merely to have imagined the King’s death, not to have acted to advance it. Writing and speaking thus became treasonable.’ Since the government was appointed in the King’s name, any action which threatened ‘the security and stability of government legally constituted an attempt to “levy war” on the King himself. Political protest thus became treasonable by its very nature.’[1]

I was reminded, unsurprisingly, of a very much more recent decline and fall—but reminded  also of the first undergraduate essay I wrote on my History course, about the French Revolution or, rather, the domestic effects in this country of the dramatic events in France. The marker’s comments included the suggestion, I recall, that I try to refrain from running before I could walk (but also queried my use of the word ‘climactic’, about which I was right and they were wrong, not that I ever dwell on that at all). I’d read fairly widely, and, I suspect not unusually, the book I found most stimulating—and exciting—was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I didn’t make a habit of reading 900-page history books but made an exception for this one. At that time, Margaret Thatcher’s government tended to behave as though anything that couldn’t be measured, weighed and, ideally, made a profit from, didn’t exist, so I was strongly drawn to such sentiments as followed Thompson’s assertion that definitive answers to such a controversy as that over the effect on standards of living of the Industrial Revolution still evaded us. ‘For beneath the word “standard” we must always find judgements of value as well as questions of fact. Values, we hope to have shown, are not “imponderables” which the historian may safely dismiss with the reflection that, since they are not amenable to measurement, anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. They are, on the contrary, those questions of human satisfaction, and of the direction of social change, which the historian ought to ponder if history is to claim a position among the significant humanities.’

Still, the quotation most familiar to readers of the book, certainly the last few words of it, is the intention stated in the ‘Preface’: ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ That last phrase is often quoted and recalled but sometimes as if it simply refers to the assumption that, coming later, we simply know and understand more. As Thompson notes further on, though, ‘for those who live through it, history is neither “early” nor “late”. “Forerunners” are also the inheritors of another past.’[2]


(James Longenbach, poet, teacher and fine scholar, died 29 July this year)

Tricky business, the past. That familiar quotation briefly conjured up another, William Faulkner’s ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, which he puts into the mouth of one of his recurring characters, the lawyer (and occasional amateur sleuth), Gavin Stevens, in Requiem for a Nun. I noticed a few days ago how many literary anniversaries cropped up on 19 December: Constance Garnett’s ‘heroic life’ began at 11 a.m. on that day in 1861;[3] the French writer Colette was married to Henry de Jouvenel in 1912, a simple civil ceremony in the mairie of the sixteenth arrondissement: ‘Madame Colette Willy, woman of letters, notorious lesbian, bare-breasted music-hall star, and social pariah, was now the baroness de Jouvenel des Ursins, and the wife of one of Paris’s most influential political journalists.’[4] From Coleman’s Hatch the following year, Ezra Pound wrote to William Carlos Williams, in a letter that reads with great poignancy now: ‘I am very placid and happy and busy. Dorothy is learning Chinese. I’ve all old Fenollosa’s treasures in mss.’ And: ‘Have just bought two statuettes from the coming sculptor, Gaudier-Brzeska. I like him very much [ . . . ] We are getting our little gang together after five years of waiting.’[5] A little over seven months before German forces cross the Belgian frontier near a place called Gemmenich. . .

But I was thinking, particularly, of David Jones: poet, painter and, for a while, soldier, enlisted in the 15th (London Welsh) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. For two weeks, his battalion was billeted in farm outbuildings in Warne, a mile south of Rocquetoire, ‘all this time the cold rain continuing, more rain than in any December for 39 years.’ On 19 December they boarded ‘grey-painted London buses for La Gorgue, near Estaires.’ They were headed for the front line at Neuve Chapelle.


(David Jones via The Spectator)

‘In the trenches’, Thomas Dilworth wrote of Jones, ‘he became convinced that any distinction between past and present was superficial, accidental, largely unreal. History had not ended; it continued.’[6] In his  ‘Autobiographical Talk’ (1954), Jones said: ‘You see by what close shaves some of us are what we are, and you see how accidents of long past history can be of importance to us in the most intimate sense, and can determine integral things about us.’[7] Like other literary soldiers—Blunden, Sassoon, Ford, Graves among them—the war haunted his later life and writing, perhaps to a greater extent than most of the others. ‘Decades afterwards, a door slamming or a car backfiring would startle him back to the trenches. In distant thunder, he heard artillery.’[8]

Close shaves and roads not taken. Year’s end, year’s turning: there’s a strong tendency to look both forward and back, reviewing what’s past and anticipating, hoping or—increasingly, these days—dreading what’s to come. For some, such reviews have a tendency to ripple outwards, to include peripheral as well as central figures, the gone as well as the present, not only the dead but the lost, the ghosts of those still living, somewhere, but in places either no longer known to us or just inaccessible, for varied reasons: neglect, forgetfulness, estrangement – or those unexceptional divergences in the trajectories of all individuals’ lives. There in their hundreds, perhaps thousands: friends, colleagues, acquaintances, fellow students, fellow teachers, lovers, almost-lovers, antagonists, the watchers and the watched, the lives that touched us, held us, struck us, changed us, missed us by inches—or by a country mile. ‘If I thought I was not thinking about the past’, Deborah Levy wrote, ‘the past was thinking about me.’[9]


Yes. We are not only subjects but objects, not only observers but observed. That’s the sort of thing that can easily slip a person’s mind as they look about themselves, so much to see, so much to learn, so much to talk about, read about, write about, think about. Recounting his work on an illustrated history of exploration, an impossibly huge task, the contributions sent to his publishers routinely thousands of words too long, Eric Newby comments: ‘I had, and still have, the conviction that I must let the reader know if I discover anything interesting, and unfortunately so many things are interesting. At least they are to me.’[10]

Things certainly look grim just now – and have done this past year, three years, decade, steadily worsening. And not only individuals get lost. The things we—some of us—care about are under threat and under attack, some are already gone and we won’t be getting them back. But after all it isn’t after all, not yet all, anyway. We are still here, still there, the more energetic actively resisting while others, on occasion, discover something interesting, at least to us – and let others know.

So: a wave from the bunker to any passer-by. And, to various friends who, in Auden’s phrase, ‘show an affirming flame’: Joyeux Noël, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Nadolig Llawen – and Happy Holidays.


Notes

[1] Daisy Hay, Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age (London: Chatto & Windus, 2022),

[2] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; revised edition with new preface, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980), 485, 12, 648.

[3] Richard Garnett, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991), 11.

[4] Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 247.

[5] Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 65.

[6] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War (London: Enitharmon Press, 2012), 62, 63, 93.

[7] In Epoch and Artist (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 25.

[8] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 54

[9] Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 162.

[10] Eric Newby, ‘Walking the Plank’, in Departures and Arrivals (London: Harper Collins, 1999), 39.

2 thoughts on “Past presents, present pasts”

  1. In your last two posts you have outdone yourself–and I wouldn’t have thought that possible, given your customary stirring eloquence. Thank you for reminding us that The Waste Land lives, and that past intellect remains life-giving, as vital for the present as anything in the present. And that it’s a blessing for the future too, whatever the future brings. Thank you for all that you’ve done and written, and will do and write, and thanks to the Librarian. Happy Christmas, Happy New Year.

    Like

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