Living in the past: advice to a time traveller

When you become a time traveller it is important to remember that living in the past is not the same as reading about it. For one thing, you have to live every second of every day.

How easy it is in a novel or a history to skip a whole year simply by starting a fresh paragraph or turning the page. Even when you read every word in the book you are merely tiptoeing across the Heraclitan flood on selected stepping stones

But life in the past is living every heart beat in every minute, waiting patiently for the next day to dawn, the next season to turn; enduring each long, dull interlude between each fleeting sparkling moment.

There are consequences to this.

The time traveller needs to adjust their sense of perspective. It is often said that History is the collective memory of a society, but the great art of the historian is the art of forgetting – forgetting what comes next. Living in the past you have no idea of what is going to happen next except a general sense that next year will be much the same as this one. Fine details may be noticed from one generation to the next, but a peasant today will be a peasant tomorrow.

Living in the past is living in the present. To live in the past the time traveller must avoid foreboding based on historical hindsight, what might be called “hindboding”. The shadow of war in 1913 is not a shadow cast by 1914 but the accumulated fears built on 1912.

Living in the past is a long slow walk into the unknown; billions of steps taken by billions of people and the historical spotlight might pick out the faltering tread of one foot placed in front of another. To live in the past the time traveller must learn to walk again.

This is how the historian privileges one event over another. Living in the past is to appreciate the longue duree of a single day. No matter how complete, the historical past will always be the twinkle of sunlight on the surface of a very deep dark lake.

As a nerdy teenager I invented a game for myself and my nerdy friends. Using a pack of cards to generate dates randomly we would challenge each other on our historical knowledge. A dictionary of dates and events would help us check our answers. Turn the cards. What happened in 1162? 798? 1736? (We liked inventing games that were almost impossible to play!)

How we longed for an easy date, a 1066 or 1832 or 1945. These were dates which, for very good reasons, had been priviliged by historians. These were dates plucked from that dark lake and held up to the light; but living in the past those privileged dates were still filled with the slow, steady tick of the clock; and lives filled with the inexorable grind of the unprivileged years in between.

As 2015 becomes 2016 think of which (if either) will become priviliged in the future – and remember to turn the page slowly.

 

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