Holding onto the Past

Here I am with a blog entitled Holding onto the Past while believing firmly that there is no past, and by that meaning there is no history, there is only the present.

Let me qualify my statement in this way. There is no history in that what has happened can never be summarized, can never be experienced once again in the present, no matter how alive the description may be, say,  of the inbound electric street-car clattering up Summer Street in Boston, crashing a barricade and plunging through an open draw-bridge into the Fort Point Channel, killing 52 riders.  Follow this link to read about the original Boston Globe account (history) of the streetcar accident.

trolley-lede-web-newRight now there is no end to what is happening, for an infinite number of things, mostly things without beginnings and ends, are happening now continuously, and these things can never be summarized in a “history” to everyone’s or probably anyone’s satisfaction.

So in that sense there is no history. In the sense that the events of the present moment are part of an infinite series for which there is no possible summation.

Yet you will say histories are being written. People are making the past come alive. So how do we do that? How do we sum up somehow the Civil War, or the American involvement in Vietnam? We don’t of course. For the reasons given we can’t. Too much happened during those times and no one individual, participant, and especially no historian who probably wasn’t even there at the time, could tell us what happened.

So what can we say about the histories that we do write? Well when we write history here’s what we do. We take usually just one point of view of what happened and to the degree that that point of view does find wide agreement among us, then that point of view or interpretation becomes as it were the history of the war.

And this “history”may remain on the open shelves until it is replaced by someone else’s version, perhaps that of another historian, or perhaps even by a friend or acquaintance, or even by the historian’s wife or children, who will probably have themselves a lot to say about this guy’s, their husband’s or father’s war.

I’m not a nihilist. I don’t believe that history is entirely without meaning or truth. Nor am I writing about Francis Fukuyama’s popular End of History. Rather I’m saying that the definitive history of anything has not yet been written, can’t be written. Yes it’s true, as the prophet says, that we see all things as through a glass darkly.

The closest we’ve ever come to shedding the dark, and to seeing things more clearly has to be in science. There it does seem that the  scientists are getting closer and closer to telling us what may be the definitive and true history of the earth, of life on the earth, of the cosmos.

But the history of peoples, of nations, of civilizations, of the United States and of Europe, those histories while being written have not yet been written to everyone’s satisfaction. These histories are mostly without truth, and forever changing as we look at them as we must through different eyes and eye glasses.

So what is it that I could possibly mean by the headline, Holding on to the Past? cropped-ruins.jpgWell it doesn’t mean writing history. In fact in that regard I wouldn’t know where to begin. For at my birth everything else was already there, and the beginning of all that, was what?

My headline means rather taking things from the present and holding on to them tightly, because they and everything else that happens in the present are immediately past, and if we would not lose them entirely we have to somehow hold onto them.

In my own case I hold onto my ideas by posting them onto my blog. With the use of thousands of words and pictures, and more and more, with their videos, the NYTimes is holding onto a small but real part of the present, and is  a kind of yes partial record of our passage through the world.

Perhaps at their very best histories are records of the present now past, and the best histories are the best of these records.

But to repeat the very best records are never more than a very tiny part of all that is happening about us all the time. And man since he began writing histories, some tens of thousands of years ago, is to that extent, more at some times than others, say in ancient Greece and Rome, say in Renaissance Europe, holding onto the past.

One thought on “Holding onto the Past”

  1. Hi Philip,
    My name is Ella Bellin and I am a junior at the Waring School.
    I am wondering how you think the role of media plays into our records of history and how we will record in the future?
    If we record history with more advanced technology like television and radio will that change our ability to view the past? Or will that just provide us the same lack of full comprehension…


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