Some Images of the Past
heaven as cleanliness, hell as debris, and the historian as a fundamentally doomed person
put together a bunch of notes from the past six months and thought, hm, this looks a bit like an essay. then i remembered that i have a substack
At the end of A Scanner Darkly, one of the main characters describes a friend who saw the door to heaven during a drug trip. Heaven looked like Ancient Greece. It looked like Crete, still and empty, at night, with a palm tree.
There is a strong association now, I think, between beauty and the past. I would venture to say that the amount of people who see beauty in the current landscape (real or cultural) is smaller than the number of people who see more beauty in some past ‘aesthetic’ of their choice. This holds across spectrums of politics and taste. There are the right wing guys who post photos of insane 19th century German castles, themselves elaborate anachronistic fakes, and tell us that we must ‘return to tradition’. There are the left wing guys who post pictures of Soviet subway stations. There are sweet girls who post pictures of their trips to Versailles on Instagram, and who just adore the French impressionists. There is the entire American notion of Europe, which is rooted in the idealization of the past, and which is reinforced by selective tourism.
The past is utopia. Utopia literally means no-place. The past, as a reconstituted world often used as a comfort or a fantasy, has little relation to any place that has ever actually existed.
I am going to describe two experiences that I had recently. The first was at Paestum, an archaeological site on the coast of Italy. Paestum is remarkable because it was originally a Greek settlement, and thus has three extraordinary Greek temples. I stood under the colossal temple of Hera and felt a sense of overwhelming awe. It really did feel religious. The site was silent, the rubble of what had once been the surrounding buildings overgrown with grass and daisies. The temple, once brightly painted and decorated, was the color of bone against the cloudless sky. I felt an illogical but fundamental sense of Greece – my Greece! – that mostly consisted of an incredible aesthetic pleasure. This pleasure consisted, I think, of a combination of silence and beautiful forms.
The second experience had been earlier that day, when we had visited Herculaneum. Herculaneum was characterized by an entirely different kind of debris, a debris that resisted romanticisation. In general, there was a visual busyness to the place. We saw skeletons, multicolored marble floors, innumerable brightly colored wall paintings, stacks and stacks of amphorae – it was easy to imagine people in this place. While Paestum felt otherworldly, Herculaneum felt mundane. It was not a no-place. People had lived here, and one could feel it.
I imagine that there is a nonzero amount of people who profess to love the classical world and yet are disturbed by a site such as Herculaneum, because it utterly shatters the constitution of history as utopia. The detritus and indignity of daily life is here, too. There is no door to a quiet Crete that one can slip through, no moon-touched pool filled with still water.
I think that, for many people, aesthetic experience subtracts. It takes out all of the undesired stimuli that characterize the quotidian and forces the viewer to focus on the narrative, without the background noise. It is a refinement and representation back to ourselves of the kind of narrative processing we do every day. ‘I went to work’ is a clean, limited sentence, without all of the sensory data, much of it unpleasant, that comes with the experience of going to work. This is why aesthetic experience is a reliable way to access the sublime.
Heaven, the final heaven which comes after the lifting of the veil, is presented as a city by Christians. In the popular mind, it’s a city where the indignity of being a human body in a city of other human bodies is stripped away, because the human bodies there are new, and perfect, and do not grow old, and they are all brethren and they are all nice to each other. The soul has fled the indignities of the quotidian (death, pain, little annoyances, dirt on the metro, the passage of time) and has been reconstituted in a place where the quotidian does not exist as we know it, that is, there is no unsparing cycle of growth and decay that demands we maintain ourselves, the places around us, the waste we create. Eternity is the no-place. It is aesthetically pleasing and harmonious: the streets are paved with gold, everyone is beautiful, and to use something doesn’t mean to soil it.
Hell is a place where the opposite happens. The day to day realities of living as flesh overtake the image of eternity. Joyce and the Flemish primitives present similar images of hell, characterized by piles of people in pain. In hell one is trapped within decay, which is a function of the body. He is also trapped in pain, another function of the body. Also, he is not in a very nice place, aesthetically – there is a guy writhing on top of him, and another one below him, and depending on who you ask it’s too hot or too cold. There is no transcendence, the pain calls out to no one. The functions of the mundane body continue to work in a vacuum, cut off from the possibility of both the sublime and narrative or artmaking, the pathways to the sublime (iirc Joyce writes something about imagining a better world being impossible in hell, l must check).
I think the aestheticization of the past is an imagining of heaven, whether secular or religious. I think that typically, when people do this kind of imagining, they don’t imagine lots of people with them. There are certainly no large, annoying crowds, like there are in modern cities. There’s space to breathe. No one is yelling, no cars are honking, there is no trash can overflowing on the side of the cobbled street. In the lovely German castle, there’s no maintenance to be done (ignore the fact that, in real life, its upkeep has been impossible since the moment it was built). Nobody visits if you don’t want them to. Even the socialist utopias, which are at least accommodating to large groups of people, avoid the discord of daily existence, because, naturally, everyone fills his role and the system works like clockwork.
I’m curious about whether this has always been the case, or whether it’s mostly a contemporary phenomenon. Something that we have lost which has haunted our ancestors is fear of the past. I am thinking now about late 19th and early 20th century horror writers, for whom the pursuit of historical truth typically had some grotesque outcome. To be sure, though, people have always idealized and aestheticized the past – think of the grail romances. However, I think most idealizations of the past pre-20th century took the form of a sort of orientation of oneself in relation to a mythic or religious past characterized by a moment of fall. It’s different to look back upon a mythical golden age of man, where no one ever died or felt pain, and to look back upon classical Athens, or the city of Paris at any point. I think this is because a popular notion of history which relies on academic history creates different outcomes than one which relies on myth and storytelling. I talked above about the relationship of the average person to history, and how he might internalize the past in order to create his image of heaven. However, now I’m going to talk about the historian.
Recently I read some Arthur Machen and some Clark Ashton Smith. Something that interests me about their work is the way that they depict historians and archaeologists. There are two recurring types of character – the diabolical historian who has become so enamored with his pagan subject of study that he is entirely consumed by it, to his detriment and that of everyone around him, and the ill-advised archaeologist who insists on excavating some prehistoric city and then meets a bizarre and terrible fate.
These characters fascinate me because I think they're expressions of an historiographical shift which took place around that time, or possibly a bit earlier, which involved the designation of 'history' as a sort of epistemic clearing, a space of objective inquiry motivated by little else but the desire to know the past and its inhabitants. In one of the first history courses I took, our professor told us that history as a concept had originated with Herodotus in this spirit of pure inquiry. He then went on to give us examples of bias in history-writing, including in Herodotus himself, always keeping this idealized notion of inquiry alive, as if a history that displays civic or religious bias, or that utilizes rhetorical conventions, is tainted, less pure. Of course history writing is always political myth making no matter what anyone might say, but the fact remains that the contemporary historian keeps this ideal of objectivity always, striving toward it in a vacuum – history for the sake of history. Even when his work comes to serve political ends, this is rarely intentional ; if so, he would say, that is bad history writing. The framing of this pure desire to know as virtuous stands in contrast to the grotesque characters created by the horror writers, characters whose curiosity and fascination with the past makes them doomed and sometimes deeply immoral.
Because what is history, from a historical standpoint? A history of history tells us that the historian's ideal of objectivity is not really a part of it, but to call pre 19th-century history propaganda is reductive and teleological. I'm thinking about Christian world chronicle. Typically, a chronicle would begin with God's creation of the world, and then move forward, slowly refining its scope until it came to focus on a specific locality. This was a way for towns and cities to inscribe themselves within the story of Christianity, an impulse which, though not necessarily historical in our sense, added more harmony to the world. Compare this to now, when we are often reminded that we should not impose ourselves onto the people of the past and their mores, and when I, at least, feel an impassable gulf between myself and the men of ages past. There is no harmonizing impulse in history today, and, in fact, any explanation of motivation from a historian often feels trite or canned. I think in reality historians and classicists and archaeologists are motivated by fascination, by an interplay between repulsion and desire, the thrill of strangeness mingled with the clumsy warmth of trying to articulate the thoughts, feelings and actions of people who lived so long ago. All of this seems rather unprofessional and, again, there are any number of justifications that historians will give for their work that all pale in the face of this terrible, gnawing need to know.
Something that I think is true about history is that it served a definable civic purpose for a long time, but now it doesn't. A lot of people will disagree with this statement, but I think history as it stands now is directly at odds with the flow of life in a city. Many archaeologists have to work around the people who live on or around their sites (or desired sites) now, and even the preservation of historic buildings can present massive civic problems.Think of Paris, a city so well preserved, and then think of the miles and miles of suburbs that fan out around it. And there has been a rather decisive severing of the connection between history writing and national pride, politically but also on the level of good practice in history, because the focus now is on specificity instead of continuity, and there is a wariness (this is all very good, in my opinion) to superimpose the norms of the present on the past. So, although many countries definitely have a core historical narrative that contributes to national identity and bolsters tourism and all of that, it tends to be rather simplified and folkloric, and has little to do with what actual historians are doing. Talk to any historian and he will inevitably veer off in the direction of specificity, telling you little things that the Romans or the medieval French did that are charming or strange to him, but that have nothing at all to do with civic identity.
I think history for its own sake represents a real historical rupture, and the authors I mentioned above picked up on this intuitively. The history that they are engaging with is decidedly non-religious, non-civic, obsessive, and personal. The rupture is this : we are no longer following received tradition, but instead attempting to return to the source, to figure out who ancient people actually were. This is, or was, frightening. To invite something so alien into one's life – even to acknowledge the past as alien – what are the consequences of this ? To feel oneself a person not supported by the tide of human history, but instead unmoored in it and searching through it – I think this is a very difficult psychological position to be in. One can even, indeed, be overwhelmed by it, as the protagonists of these short horror stories often are.
Because of all this I think that there is something strange and contradictory about classicists and historians, while the non-historians who simply use history to create an ideal are far more in line with what people have been doing with the past for centuries. The difference, of course, is that people now create their personal mythologies and paradises, instead of participating in civic storytelling. I don’t think that anything I’ve talked about above is at all bad, or good, for that matter. It’s just how things are, and I’m curious to see how people develop new relationships with the past throughout my lifetime.