In the final, aching line of one of the few truly lasting American novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the following words: "and so, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Artists have been warning this country for generations that there is no escaping the past; even if we could, the results would not be healthy for us.
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man discovers that history is not marked by linear development but is rather a boomerang that returns to plague the naïve believer in progress. The past comes back in different ways in different times to specifically defy and upend whatever we might believe is the best current thought.
There are powerful impulses in contemporary America that envision the past as, at best, something to be overcome and, at worst, something to be reviled. On the right, there is often a penchant for forms of capitalism that tempt us with endless consumer novelty; on the progressive left, there is often a reduction of the past to sites of social and racial ignorance and evil.
Combine these tendencies with the compulsive lure of social media and you have a recipe for the peremptory repudiation of the whole past. But is the negative judgment sound or the disposition of dismissal healthy for our souls?
Ellison notes the deleterious effects of what he calls the "tradition of forgetfulness, of moving on, of denying the past, of converting the tragic realities of ourselves but most often of others...into comedy."
As a people, we are afflicted with a kind of collective amnesia. We suffer under the tyranny of the current moment.
Take capitalism. Instead of debating it in the abstract or exclusively in its current form, we might consider the different forms corporate life has taken. For example, Rick Wartzman's The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America studies the way mid-20th century American corporations expanded the middle class and practiced loyalty to workers and their families, "shielding them against the vicissitudes of life."
We could also look further back, to the American founders, to their analysis of the dangers of political faction, and consider ways they might have anticipated one of the great threats of our time, namely, our ideological tribalism.
This is not to say that in either case we would or should approve of all that the mid-century corporation or the founders thought and did. But neither should that make it impossible for us to learn from them.
The problem of the vanishing of temporal bandwidth is the focus of a fascinating new book by Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind.
Jacobs proposes that welcoming voices from the past is a corrective to the anxiety and isolation caused by the twin pressures of "information overload — a sense that we are always receiving more sheer data than we know how to evaluate — and ... social acceleration — the perception that the world is ... changing faster and faster."
Trying to keep up leaves us distracted and anxious and depletes our interior lives. It also creates in us a resistance to allowing room or time in our lives for the past. Thus, the past becomes distant and alien, its voices increasingly unheard, strange, and marginalized in our obedience to the impulses of the moment.
For Jacobs, who describes his latest work as a kind of self-help book, the study of the past offers "a relatively nonthreatening, and yet potentially enormously rewarding, way to practice encountering difference."
We need a much deeper sense of the past's distance and difference from our time. Our hasty dismissal of past writers and leaders assumes that they are just like us, only morally inferior. How else could we so easily dismiss them for not seeing what we see or doing what we think is obviously the right thing? Our ignorance of the past protects us from confronting an important truth. While we judge the failures of the past from our comfortable ideological cul-de-sacs, we often disregard the cost that we would have had to bear to have acted differently in those very circumstances.
This is not to suggest that the study of the past will necessarily lead to greater sympathy. In some cases, it will lead to even harsher judgments. Conversely, there are cases where our predecessors have seen things we now would do well now to consider.
Encountering difference in the past might be a "balm for souls," as Jacobs promises; it might also lead us to see in the other a human complexity that we would otherwise miss, both in our ancestors and in our contemporary fellow citizens. That would be salutary for the soul of our common life.