Friday, September 20, 2019

'The Way of Presentism Is to Whore the Past'

Some of us find abundant wisdom in the past and blanket foolishness in the present. Others reverse the emphasis. The latter sort have faith in progress. Not scientific or technological progress so much as moral progress – a very dubious assumption. In a nice irony, some of the worst failed ideas generated in the past – Communism, fascism, Freudian psychology – are periodically revived in the present, like the cancer we thought was in remission. I was surprised to learn that the noun presentism dates from as early as 1916, according to the OED, which defines it as “a bias towards the present or present-day attitudes, esp. in the interpretation of history.” In “Fin de Si├Ęcle,” a poem in his 1991 collection Between the Chains, Turner Cassity puts it like this: “The way of presentism is to whore the past / For passions of the moment. That is pestilence / Also.”

The Irish writer Robert Wilson Lynd in “Things of Interest,” an essay collected in Solomon in All His Glory (1923), traces our fondness for presentism to our love of novelty:

“[N]ovelty makes us all gossips, and there are few men so philosophic that they would not lay down the Phaedo itself and look out the window if they knew that the Lord Mayor of London was about to walk up the street on stilts and with a painted face like a clown. Even the passion for truth does not quite destroy the taste for novelty. A new dance, a new song, a new fashion, a new theory, will set the chins of the wise as well as of the foolish wagging.”

More colorfully, Lynd adds: “We welcome almost any break in the monotony of things, and a man has only to murder a series of wives in a new way to become known to millions of people who have never heard of Homer.”

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