The past is a foreign country 
by David Lowenthal.
Cambridge, 489 pp., £27.50, November 1985, 0 521 22415 2
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‘The owner of Melton Constable, one of the finest Charles II houses in England and listed grade one, is to be served with a repairs notice and compulsory purchase order ... if ...’ The handsome façade illustrated above this caption from the Times of 31 December 1985 might have been an appropriate frontispiece to The past is a foreign country had the order been issued somewhat earlier, because Melton Constable was the location for the film of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and it is from the opening words of the novel that the title of this unusual book derives. The preservation and restoration of the past has become a growth industry as those who support Save Britain’s Heritage know only too well. We live in a retrospective age and David Lowenthal’s discursive study is a product of it. One of the attractions of this book is that it enables the Melton Constables of the world to be seen in the context of the future as well as the past.

David Lowenthal is a geographer by upbringing, and although geographers are principally concerned with space they have traditionally taken time by the forelock – time as a dimension of space. Sidereal time moved some of the earliest practitioners of geography. A whole school of geographers has developed around the concept of time as a resource, a resource made coherent by the formal division of time by markers, be they seconds or centuries. Academically, geography spans a borderland. It is among those disciplines that operate between the sciences and the humanities, between the mathematicians and the word-spinners. Its practitioners appreciate the implications of George Steiner’s thesis that for the scientist ‘time and light lie before,’ while the humanist, working essentially with words, is ‘drawn backwards’ because language carries the past within it. David Lowenthal’s book places him among the humanists, but, as someone who is concerned with the observed truths of the present, he has to adopt, at least in part, the approach of the scientist. If the humanist within him concentrates on outer form, the scientist looks to the processes whereby we recognise, appraise and utilise the ever-expanding legacy from the past. It is necessary to understand why we want the past and how we know it, why we change the past and how we do it.

The past is wanted for many reasons. It gives familiarity to the present, it confirms continuity, it offers precedent, it strengthens the sense of identity. It also helps to ‘keep the wolf of insignificance from the door’. The past opens escape routes from the uncertainty and anxiety, the fragility and evanescence, of the present. Not surprisingly, for an author who has for long been afflicted with what Walt Whitman called ‘the disease of historic nostalgia’, the first part of this book – wanting the past – claims the most space. Nostalgia provides the opening theme. But nostalgia is rarely memory without pain. Dreams can be transformed into nightmares, benefits into burdens, attractions into aversions.

Not for these reasons alone, a minority has always spurned the past. The past intimidates, threatens and diminishes us. For Robert Browning’s ‘Paracelsus’, it was written on a ‘sullen page’. The past is regarded as a brake on progress, paralysing creative energy. It is invested with determinative force. It undermines self-confidence – for George Gilbert Scott it doomed architects to ‘capricious eclecticism’. It is the hump on the back of the cripple rather than the pack carried by the pilgrim.

From wanting the past, the argument proceeds to knowing the past, and since knowledge of the past is principally the business of the historian, it is he who is confronted and confounded by its problems. Transformation in the structure and syntax of historical understanding provides each generation with a new view of the past. Moreover, since, in the words of Lévi-Strauss, it only exists as ‘retrospective reconstruction’, the past may turn out to be a fictional as well as a foreign country. Thus history is both less than the past and, because it is translated into modern terms, more than the past. At the personal level, all our pasts are ‘history synthesised by the imagination and fixed into a picture by something that amounts to fiction’, in the view of Herbert Butterfield. Fiction, through which most readers experience the past, derives much of its appeal, as history does, from its arrangement in causal narrative. For David Lowenthal, ‘history has grown more like fiction, fiction more like history,’ while the past constructed by historians (and by some novelists) is more coherent than the past was when it happened.

History has its predicaments. In the opinion of Edward Shils, it is being undone by ‘technology, rationality and government policy’. More importantly, it suffers from the disappearance of a broad ‘consensually-shared past’. The removal of Classical history from most teaching syllabuses, the decline in the concern for precedent, and the pursuit of a narrowly academic approach, also tend to reduce general interest in knowledge about the past. Yet Lowenthal is optimistic that Clio is still very much among the muses on Helicon and that the power of the past is no less than when J.H. Plumb began to toll its knell.

Why and how we change the past – the third part of the book – is an individual as well as a collective matter, a conscious as well as an unconscious process. At the individual level, autobiographical confession provides generous evidence. The Swedish author Eyvind Johnson confessed to inexact, falsified, poeticised ‘memories of memories’ when he wrote about his youth. A generation later, Harold Pinter, strolling down Memory Lane, identified a past ‘you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend to remember’. At the collective level, the past is continuously altered – indeed manipulated and mutilated – to suit the present. The motives are manifold – to improve, to sanitise, to dissipate, to denigrate, perhaps to destroy the past as a rival to the present. No wonder history has been declared the most dangerous product conceived by the chemistry of the intellect.

In many respects, The past is a foreign country is an extended meditation upon a personal hobby-horse. Its ruminations are pleasantly free from polemics and ideologies. Its successive sections follow a general pattern. Most begin with a series of pronouncements which are then subjected to an analysis prodigal in supporting quotations. Familiar references jostle with obscure, felicitous with facetious, disturbing with diverting. They suggest a remarkable range of reading, the fruits of which have been gathered sometimes purposefully, sometimes at random. If there is an occasional suggestion of repetition, it is rapidly dispatched by some entertaining aphorism; if the substance threatens to become too solid, it is relieved by some scrap of what H.G. Wells described as ‘forgotten gossamer’; if a topic inclines to the remote, it is jolted back to reality.

And the reality is twofold. First of all, the concern for artifacts and visible remains from the past was never so widespread as today. Secondly, the sheer cost of maintaining the fabric of the past challenges the sovereignty of the present. Moreover, as if originals in themselves were not enough, facsimiles and duplicates call for care in their own right, aged with techniques to produce the patina that time alone once invested. The inheritance from the past can be so oppressive that it can generate revolt. Long before Roland Barthes opposed ‘the bourgeois sacrifice of men to monuments’ (and possibly muniments as well), Thoreau favoured ‘purifying destruction’. Well might sceptics say that if rot, rust and moth did not exist they would have to be created.

The breadth of David Lowenthal’s subject necessarily restricts the illustrative examples both geographically and temporally. As he admits, whole areas with their associated literatures, philosophies and policies for preservation are disregarded. The foreign country of the book is post-Renaissance; the examples derive principally from Europe and North America. It would be a fascinating but demanding task to repeat parts of the exercise in the context of the Soviet Union, India or China (where pleasure in the patina of age was already expressed a millennium ago).

Unless one is an Alfred Austin rejoicing over ‘antiqueness in abundance’, this is a book to be read in small doses. It will bewitch some, bother others and bewilder a few. It is rather for disciplined morning reading than for the leisure of Margaret Drabble’s ‘honeysuckle-filtered sunny conversational afternoon’. Nor, for all its entertainingly juxtaposed illustrations, can it be declared a cosy chimney-corner book. Nevertheless, its subject-matter is of universal interest and there are lessons in it for everyone. Ridicule the past, but that only exposes one’s dependence upon it. Attempt to preserve it, but that only serves to reveal the illusion of its permanence. Perhaps it is only by putting one’s own stamp on it that one can begin to come to terms with the past. But that, in a way, means yielding to it.

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