Tuesday, August 03, 2021

'As We Ruminate on the Vestiges of the Past'

“I confess, nothing at present interests me but what has been -- the recollection of the impressions of my early life, or events long past, of which only the dim traces remain in a mouldering ruin or half-obsolete custom. That things should be that are now no more, creates in my mind the most unfeigned astonishment.” 

William Hazlitt, who fancied himself something of a revolutionary – emotionally, if not ideologically – had a fondness for the past and distrust of the future. In this passage from his essay “On a Sun-Dial” (1827) he sounds remarkably like an aging, mildly conservative soul with a weakness for nostalgia. This is a battle I fight daily. I dread the world my sons are inheriting but acknowledge that the past was no picnic. I remind myself that it makes more sense, as Michael Oakeshott put it, “to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.”


Still, the past is alluring. It’s big in proportion to the present and, of course, the future, which has zero mass. Most of the best stuff (and worst, admittedly) happened in the past, including books. Hazlitt opens another essay, “On Reading Old Books” (1819), with these words: “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all.” I claim that as a proclivity, not an ironclad fact. I can get rah-rah over Hazlitt’s prose while remaining skeptical about specifics. He invites that sort of reaction. We sense he sometimes baits the reader, intentionally provoking him. He continues in “On a Sun-Dial”:


“Those who are to come after us and push us from the stage seem like upstarts and pretenders, that may be said to exist in vacuo, we know not upon what, except as they are blown up with vanity and self-conceit by their patrons among the moderns. But the ancients are true and bona fide people, to whom we are bound by aggregate knowledge and filial ties, and in whom, seen by the mellow light of history, we feel our own existence doubled and our pride consoled, as we ruminate on the vestiges of the past.”


That sense of continuity with the ancients and their descendants sustains us. We are contemptible without them.

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