Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What Should We Do With the Past?

This sentence seemed to form in my head, without my willing it, much as sentences form when we are half-asleep: "Hammer your thoughts into unity." For days I could think of nothing else, and for years I tested all I did by that sentence. --W.B. Yeats

With this post, I am going to take up a theme of deep and abiding importance to me, although I am not sure if I can really express it adequately. Apologies if I flounder and seem to make little sense. Apologies, too, if it seems irrelevant.

For at least the second half of my life so far-- I am now thirty-five-- I have had an intense preoccupation with my own past, and with the notion of the past in general. When I say "the past" I am not talking about Viking Dublin or the Mesolithic era, but the past in a more personal sense-- living memory, family folklore, that sort of thing.

When I was thirty years old, I went to the thirtieth birthday party of someone I had known in school. I can't exactly call him a friend, since I was suffocatingly shy in school, too shy to make any friends. So I felt more than the usual trepidation as I made my way to the birthday party. I had felt pretty awkward around these people in school, and the passage of twelve years would surely make it that much more awkward.

I was also conscious of the mythology and folklore of class reunions (and this was a class reunion in all but name). How many movies, television programmes and books have used the class reunion as a dramatic device? Feuds and loyalties and crushes going back decades suddenly bubbling up again. Secrets lurking for years sensationally revealed. The class mouse turning out to be a glamour queen, the class nerd transformed into a bearded biker, and the golden girl a pale shadow of her former self. And, eventually-- after all the recriminations and revelations had been made, and all the ancient grievances had been raised-- there came the catharsis of old cupboards aired, skeletons brought into the light of day, and everybody realizing that everybody else was not so different, or so bad, after all.

Needless to say, none of that happened. I didn't really expect it to happen. But what actually happened was...nothing at all.

Nothing. I really mean nothing. People turned up and joked and bantered and kidded around exactly as they had twelve and fifteen and eighteen years before. Some of them were married. One was about to move abroad. They greeted each other as though they had last met a few weeks before. There were no high emotions, no surprises, no getting of anything off the chest. The sense of utter non-event was overwhelming-- at least to me.

Coming home, I felt seriously disturbed. So much so that I couldn't sleep that night. I remember walking to the river Tolka in Glasnevin, in the pale light of dawn, when nobody else was about and only an occasional car passed along the roads. I felt horrified that the passage of time could mean so little, that the journey of life could be such a breeze. I wanted more. I needed more. My whole soul cried out for more.

Six years of secondary school, with all their hormones and tensions and insanely intense crushes, the smell of wet coats in the cloisters and of chips in the kitchens and wet paint in the art room, the thump-thump-thump of the basketballs in the PE hall, the dreamy silence of study periods, the almost breathless excitement of discussing Keats and Shakespeare in English class, the chalk dust in the air...all of it utterly dispersed, all as completely vanished as the chalk letters wiped off the blackboards all those years ago.

There is a line by the poet and lyrcist Rod McKuen that has haunted me since I read it:

What does it matter what's done in the day
After the day is done?

What had it all meant? How could anything that I was doing now matter, how could anything anybody was doing matter, if it was all to be discarded like yesterday's newspaper? And why didn't this seem to bother anyone else?

That morning, I managed to quell my feelings by promising myself I would write a cycle of novels which would capture my past, present and future, which would catch it in an amber of words and would stop it all from going to waste. These would not be my literal life experiences, but my life's experiences transformed into ART. I decided on a series of fantasy novels, and I did indeed write the first-- The Bard's Apprentice, a children's fantasy still nestling on a USB key in a jar on my desk.

By the time I had finished the book, the intensity of these feelings had rather faded. (In fact, the original purpose of the novel-writing exercise had rather been laid aside, as I became absorbed in the story for its own sake.) But these feelings never entirely went away, and they still ambush me at surprising moments.

Do other people feel this-- this desire to hammer their days into a unity? Do they not feel a distressing sense of disconnection with days that have passed away, with periods in their lives that may as well never have happened? Do they not mull over moments and half-hours and afternoons that have drifted off into life's stream, into oblivion? Do they wonder if anybody else who was present at a joke or a lunch or a discussion remember it at all, and feel a strange sense of ghostliness when they recall it?

And it's not just a need to remember, to retain, that dogs me. I feel a powerful urge to find meaning in the past, and in the past's relation to the present. I want to find some more harmonious pattern than simply "and then...and then...and then...and then". I want to believe that a childhood trip to the beach and an adolescent spell of depression and a fleeting friendship in my early twenties all come together to make one story, and that every element is important, like every note in a song or every brush-stroke in a painting.

What is the past for, anyway? And does the question make any sense? And if the past isn't for anything, what do we do it? What should we do with it?

When I came to embrace the Catholic faith, this afforded some relief to these yearnings. Now, at last, my life had some trajectory, some overriding narrative. As well as this, I felt a sense of connection to an ancient tradition, to the oldest tradition (indeed) in Western society. Whatever about my personal past, I could now feel rooted in a past as far-reaching as history could boast.

On the other hand, Christianity didn't seem to have room for my solicitude towards my own life history. "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead". "Sufficient unto the day is the evil done thereof". "Put off the old man". "You must be born again".

And yet, this old preoccupation reasserts itself. I hope it is not sinful. I hope it is not anti-Christian.

The past is the strangest of ideas. Of course it is real, it happened-- old injuries, acne scars, debts and decay all attest to that. But where is it? What reality does it have? Is there somehow, in some sense, a place where the past is still happening? Of course not, the very idea is utterly ludicrous-- and yet, that seems to be how we do think of the past. We wish we could "go back", as though it were a physical place that we could visit. When we speculate about time travel, we seem to make the same assumption.

People talk about the weight of the past. It is not the weight of the past which troubles me, but (to filch a phrase from the novelist Milan Kundera) the unbearable lightness of the past.

Back to school. To secondary school, when I was about seventeen. I remember a fine early summer's day, when the Physical Education teacher decided our class could take place on the footbal fields outside, at the far end where the goal-posts were. We would play soccer. I was one of the first people changed into my sports clothes and making my way onto the fields. Having no friends to chat to, I had no motive to lag behind. One could already feel the school year winding to an end.

Another fellow-- a rather studious and nerdy fellow, who was also rather solitary, though not to the same extent as me-- was also making his way to the end of the field, from a different direction. One of us (I forget which) was carrying the soccer ball and threw it ahead of him.

The ball landed about equidistant between me and my classmate. We looked at each other, and a moment later we were both tearing towards it as fast as we could go. I beat him by an inch, kicking it clear of his foot and surging ahead towards the goal-posts. I very much doubt he remembers.

What do I do with a moment like that? And why do I feel I have to do something with it? And do other people feel like this?


  1. Maolsheachlann,

    Great post. For me the past is something I walk away from ... but then, I moved first when I was six & have moved about 30 times since ... I'm very much a 'shake the dust from my feet' kind of guy ...

    You must definitely write a novel or a least a short story on this theme. For the latter, one based around the football incident & meeting up with that person again at the reunion might work ...

  2. Thank you, Father. I am always nervous when I write a post like this!

    I have always wanted to me one of these romantic figures who have lived in many places and worked many jobs and who have, not only a past, but a Past. I have had one job in my entire life. Lived in one area my entire life (minus the occasional lodging elsewhere). First went overseas in my late twenties. I do give thanks for the stability but it comes at a price!

    I think Proust beat me to the novel on this theme, I tried to read it but didn't get very far!!