The past and future
Each new generation seems to have to learn for themselves the limitations and ephemeral nature of their power. Most feel that somehow they are immune or resistant to the lessons of the past. As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in The Age of Extremes:
The rupture between contemporary experience and the labours of earlier generations was one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the latter part of the 20th century. Most young people grow up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relationship to the public past of the times they live in.
Believing that we know everything, we can now believe in nothing. Others claim we could solve our modern distress only with recovered ancient wisdom; our inherited past.
Neither do our political leaders put much thought into their legacies. Focused on short, small time political goals, they end up as grey wraiths slipping from public consciousness and enduring regard for any significant achievements. Gough Whitlam, demonised during his tenure, but beatified in death, is a rare exception.
In an essay entitled Political Amnesia, Laura Tingle contends that our national politics has become degraded because we have forgotten how to govern properly. Independent old hands have been shifted, and new ones lack influence. Public institutions have been gelded or have calcified and lost our trust. Media, with its short term attention span, loses perspective and context. Key people are shuffled around - never mind if they know nothing about the policy area as most responsibilities are outsourced to the private sector.
Tingle pleads with us to remember the past so we can shape our future.
Most primitive societies were obsessed with the after - life. It was European Medieval Christianity that depreciated the value of our earthly life, placating the masses with promises of eternal bliss in a heaven paved with gold – the more you suffer on earth’s pilgrimage, the better your heavenly reward. An excellent ploy, by the rich and mighty, to rationalise the disparity of wealth.
Here is an interesting comment about the times taken from an essay called ‘Shakespeare’s Tragic Justice’ by C J Sisson
For the Elizabethan, and for Shakespeare, the unseen other world of eternity was not only more certain in men’s belief, but it was closer to the world of human reality, ...... . A man prepared his baggage for his passage through death to that other world as he would prepare for a journey from Stratford to London, not booted and spurred, but shriven, anointed, having made his peace with God as well as his last will and testament, indeed as part of that peace. For so the Order for the Visitation of the Sick admonishes a man ‘to make his will for the better discharging of his conscience.’
Christians have anticipated the return of Christ for centuries, in fact his disciples believed it would happen in their life time. Successive generations have predicted the precise time of his second appearance or the end of the world repeatedly. Bang or whimper? Ice or fire? Divine plan or cosmic accident? Alien invaders or genetically enhanced apes? Artificial intelligence doubles every 18 months. The end of the world is painful to contemplate but also hard to resist thinking about, partly because there are so many wild and scary imaginative possibilities.
The paranoid 1950’s foresaw a radioactive nuclear holocaust in On the Beach, set in Melbourne while Melancholia predicts an unknown planet on a crash course towards earth. T.S. Eliot foretold an ending “not with a bang, but a whimper”.
The end of enlightened modern liberal democracies has been foreseen by futuristic writers for many years. Dystopias (opposite of utopias) enjoyed a spell with the birth of Science Fiction and include Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (1948) and the writings of Phillip K. Dick (1960) especially as transformed into Blade Runner.
“Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last deals with themes of fictional dystopias including a social experiment enacted in a gated community (see Oryx and Crake), women compelled by the regime into various forms of sexual and emotional servitude (see The Handmaid’s Tale) and liberty lightly exchanged for coercive security (as in The Year of the Flood). Even the ghastly headless chickens — bio-engineered into living parts for ‘‘improved’’ animal welfare — make a rerun.” Rebecca Giggs, The Australian Review, Sept. 26-27, 2015.
We face a real danger of moving blindly into the future; a lab rat-like submission of the people to innovation, loss of freedoms to the assertive authority of unscrupulous rulers or media pundits ushering in a “phantom democracy”.
Our reactions to change are often affected by anxiety – not positivity, even when change is self-imposed. Fear is a natural response to the unknown; the fight or flight instinct that stymies our rational thought processes. We prefer certainty to a lack of control and as a result we may sacrifice our most prized possessions – truth, honour and individual freedom for security. “The road to tyranny is paved with pebbles of silence, fear of others, division, lies, national myths of imaginary threats, and the coarsening of rhetoric.” Richard Flanagan. He cites the mantras of Stalin’s use of the pejorative term “elites” to denigrate Jewish intellectuals, Hitler’s myth of “Lebensraum” and John Howard’s rallying cry of “Border Protection” to justify hysterical reactions.
Scientific innovations have always caused some disquiet. The Romantic movement rejected the callous rationalism of the Age of Reason and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein cautions against the eighteenth-century scientific rationalists' optimism about, and trust in, knowledge as a pure good. While the Philosophers believed in the perfectibility of man through reason, the Romantics put their faith in the ‘immortal spirit’ of the individual’s emotions.
Francis Bacon, a 17th C. scholar commented, “It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequences of discoveries” when he discussed printing, gunpowder and the compass.
The 19th century gave us the motor car, antibiotics and the splitting of the atom while today we are experiencing the “information revolution” a post –industrial era where information can be amassed, stored, retrieved, distributed and commodified at incredible volumes and speed. It began with newspapers, the telephone, radio, television, the computer, the internet and who knows where it is going and where it will end.
The question is whether these changes have enhanced our humanity.
Despite invention, innovation and cutting edge discoveries, many original modes retain their fascination and nostalgic use. The motor car may have replaced the horse and buggy, but for romantic, nostalgic and ceremonial reasons, royal occasions such as weddings and funerals use vintage modes of transport. Television, computers and the internet founded the information superhighway but have not obliterated newspapers, radio or books while other old technology has virtually disappeared such as vinyl records, floppy disks, reel to reel recording devices…… Ancient natural foods such as Spelt, Chia and Quinoa have experienced a revival, perhaps in a reaction to modern genetically modified foods - “diets like Paleo which claim to solve our modern distress with recovered ancient wisdom”. Helen Razer
The old or retro, will always intrigue as we tend to try to recapture an idealized past; tourists prefer the ruins of ancient Greece, Turkey and Egypt to the glamorous tinsel glitz of Vegas or Disneyland; Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens and Downton Abbey out poll most modern films or TV productions. Old wine, old paintings, old furniture and vintage cars increase their value with age. Even old philosophers are revered above contemporary ones; think of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Nietzsche…..
Quotes about the past and future:
“the past is a different country where they do things differently”. L.P. Hartley
“We tend to look to the future through a rear view mirror”. Marshall McCluhan
Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is a mystery, Today is a gift;
That's why it's called The Present! Bill Keane
“It is dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.”
-variously attributed to Sam Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr, Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, an ancient Chinese proverb and others.
"Here comes the future and you can't run from it / If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it." Billy Bragg
'The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating; the paths to it are not found, but made, and the making of these pathways changes both the maker and the destination.' Alexander Solzhenitsyn
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Søren Kierkegaard
“Study the past if you would define the future.” Confucius
What's past is prologue.” William Shakespeare, The Tempest
“You couldn't erase the past. You couldn't even change it. But sometimes life offered you the opportunity to put it right.” Ann Brashares, Girls In Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood
Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday. Was it worth it? Ghandi
An old man on his deathbed: “I had a lot of trouble in my life, most of which never happened”. Churchill
“We should all be concerned about the future as that’s where we will all be spending the rest of our lives.
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