The Past is a Place

“True nostalgia is a desire less for a time than a place”   ∼ John Lukacs

“The oldest things ought to be taught to the youngest people.”   ∼ G.K. Chesterton

Professor Jeffrey Hart, who retired in 1993 following three distinguished decades teaching English Literature to the best and the brightest at Dartmouth College, was always a bit ambivalent about his students, notwithstanding their elite status as members of the Ivy League. How so? Because, he said, while they clearly understood where they were in space, they hadn’t a clue about their place in time. “They live in Hanover, New Hampshire,” he explained,

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but they do not know where they came from. They are not aware that they also inhabit Western Civilization. They do not know that this civilization had a beginning and went through a series of momentous developments. An old Dartmouth professor of mine memorably defined the ‘citizen’ as the person who, if necessary, could re-found his civilization. In no sense at Dartmouth are we even attempting to nurture citizens in that sense.

One could scarcely imagine an indictment more withering. Having skewered them like so many strips of sirloin, he has left them only the emptiness of their pretensions to being America’s favored few. Who, despite every advantage of address—after all, not everyone manages to matriculate at a place like Hanover—neither know who they are, nor where they came from. Thus, at one stroke, they are prevented from knowing where they are going. For without a sense of the past, which then determines the present, we remain blindsided by the future. How often must we be reminded of Santayana’s dictum that those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat them? Or that ancient chestnut Cicero cracks open, that those who know nothing of the world before they were born, are consigned forever to remaining a child?

And how, to put a precise theological face on the matter, is that any different from going to hell? Which is the condition of the culpably amnesiac, who, having forgotten everything of final importance, can no longer answer to their own name. What other word have we got to designate a state in which all sense of identify is lost?

Jean Paul Sartre falsely believed that hell was other people. Rather, hell is instead the condition of being shorn forever of the company of any people, least of all those whom we once knew but now no longer remember. And because it is the fate of those who end up in hell to have lost even themselves, it is scarcely credible that they should in any way be equal to the job of re-founding the civilization of which they were once members.

“We are born with the dead,” writes T.S. Eliot, in his moving evocation of the mystery of time and memory, which forms the heart of “Little Gidding,” the last of his famous Four Quartets:  “See, they return and bring us with them.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

The passage describes a tiny village in Huntingdonshire, to which a devout Anglican by the name of Nicholas Ferrar and his family came in the year 1625 in search of a common life of prayer and worship. Not an altogether placid time in which to locate a setting for the cultivation of the soul. Charles Stuart—“a broken king,” Eliot calls him—came to visit under cover of darkness, staying only a very brief period while Cromwell and his Roundhead army remained in hot pursuit. King Charles I knew the place, of course, the Ferrar family having remained faithful and steadfast subjects to their king, whose life would soon enough end on a scaffold, along with the Royalist cause he had come to embody. It was the end of the line for the male Stuarts, their hopes blasted by the vicissitudes of history. But without a sense of the past, of the place it occupies in the mind, in the memory, how would we know this?

Hilaire Belloc, in a lovely little essay written in 1911 called “The Absence of the Past”—appearing three years before the outbreak of the Great War that caused so much of that fabled past to go smash—tells us that it is not possible “to put into human language that emotion which rises when a man stands upon some plot of European soil and can say with certitude to himself: ‘Such and such great, or wonderful, or beautiful things happened here.’”

But then Belloc, exercising his peculiar magic, goes on to do exactly that, to crystallize an event in language so revelatory as to awaken the mind to those very details as they unfold on the page. He has actually placed the reader in the very scene as he describes it. “Time does not remain,” he reminds us, “but space does, and though we cannot seize the past physically,” nevertheless, it is possible in re-visiting that place to effect a real if vicarious communion with those who would otherwise disappear altogether into the realm of the unremembered dead.

“It was but the other day,” he goes on, illustrating the point, “that I stood looking at the little brass plate which says that here Charles Stuart faced the authority of his judges.” And then, all at once, the magic takes hold as he directs his imaginative gaze onto the scene before his eyes. “I suddenly felt,” he tells us excitedly, “the presence of the thing itself. Here all the business was done: they were alive; they were in the present as we are. Here sat that tender-faced, courageous man, with his pointed beard and his luminous eyes…”

Belloc’s point, as eloquent as it is instructive, presses upon the reader the following recognition—that the soul, “When seized with such sudden and positive conviction of the substantial past … is overwhelmed.” And, of course, as Belloc goes on to insist, “Europe is full of such ghosts.” Indeed, he adds, the apparent absence of that past, seemingly as scattered as the snows of yesteryear, yet whose very presence had once most vividly laid hold of us, “becomes almost a sensible thing,” as palpable as the present on which it intrudes. So much so, he says, that in point of fact it validates the claims of those “who pretend, imagine, or perhaps have experienced under such conditions the return of the dead.”

This shadowy sense, concludes Belloc, and the silence that envelops it, “is a mood crammed with something that does not remain, as space remains, that is limited by time, and is a creature of time, and yet something that has an immortal right to remain.” And isn’t this really the whole point of the study of the past, to try and resurrect it? To bring imaginatively to light the sense that, as Eliot tells us in lines of purest bewitchment:

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere.
Never and always.

What an enrichment, a profound liberation even, knowledge of the past brings to those who are privileged to learn something of its life, so evident amid the shadows cast upon the present.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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