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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: November 2015

3 - Benefits and burdens of the past

from Part I - Wanting the past


Only a good-for-nothing is not interested in his past.

Sigmund Freud

Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye; forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.

Russian proverb

The future is dark, the present burdensome; only the past, dead and finished, bears contemplation. Those who look upon it have survived it; they are its products and its victors.

Geoffrey Elton, 1967

We want to live in history, where all our ancestors and all our brethren live and die in common … But we also desire to escape from history …We want to be chained in history but we also want to be unlinked

Alan Liu, 2008

Is the past a burden and a trap? Or an anchor and a springboard?

Penelope Green, 2010

Why do we need the past? What do we want it for? What risks does regard for it entail? Does fondness for things past match the yearnings of nostalgia and time-travel fiction? How we engage with our heritage is more consequential, yet the dilemmas that ensue have much in common with those revealed in previous chapters. Here I survey attitudes towards the past in general, the benefits it supplies, the burdens it entails, and the traits that make it desirable or reprehensible.

We live in the present and see only what currently exists. What is to come is of obvious moment; we are programmed to care about the future we’ll inhabit. But why be concerned with things over and done with? Modernity threatens to strip the past of two hallowed values: enlightenment and empowerment. Yet bygone times command attention and affection as strongly as ever. An anthropologist finds ‘perduring belief in both the importance and knowability of the past’ from the traces it has left – human remains, documents, artefacts, psychic memories, genetic mutations.

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The Past Is a Foreign Country – Revisited
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