Seeing Things: The Future of the Past

Discontinuity with the past has become a familiar feature of modern life. In the developed nations, popular traditions of religion, family, and community have all but evaporated as people move out of settled locales and into a highly mobile and fluid new society. What most of us have lost in this process has generally not been replaced by mass education. If anything, schools typically have finished the job of detaching us from traditional knowledge and mores. We have gained greater prosperity and more diverse “life choices” but have lost the richness of rootedness and the stability of direction. In the developing world, a similar process is under way as new farming methods change relationships with nature and migration into the cities disrupts age-old rural life. Such shifts are not new or wholly unprecedented. But their current scale and speed may mark the beginning of a new human epoch.

Alexander Stille’s new book, The Future of the Past (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), examines instances of this process all around the world. It begins in the best place to undertake such a study—Rome. Stille, a journalist whose work often appears in the New Yorker, has previously written about Italian fascism and the Mafia (in the unforgettably titled Excellent Cadavers), but he has larger aims in his latest work. Rome is for him “a living palimpsest where the many layers of 2,700 years of history exist side by side in strange juxtaposition?’ But Rome is also a reminder that our modern sense of time—past, present, and future neatly demarcated—is not the only one. Places that have a rich interweaving of different eras “change your sense of time and your place in the world, making the ups and downs of the present seem smaller, while also making you feel part of a larger continuum.”

Stille’s main point, which emerges from that different sense of time, is that except in a few oases like Rome, we are facing a fundamental rupture with much of human history. Recent technological growth and the urban sprawl and pollution it has brought are destroying monuments, art, artisanship, and the natural environment from Egypt to India, China to Madagascar and Papua New Guinea. These physical losses are paralleled by cultural losses—sometimes in unexpected places.

For instance, we believe that recent digital technologies and the Internet have made it possible to encode information and distribute it virtually without limit in America. That might be true if there had been a uniform—and unchanging—digital coding system, but even the best-equipped archives in the United States do not always have the time or resources to preserve crucial White House or Pentagon records properly. Cultural and artistic materials often fare no better. The sheer volume of the information we now generate and the continuing limits on our ability to catalog it often result not in any carefully thought-out information triage but in simple drift.

Outside the First World, things are even stranger. Ancient Egypt, for instance, has become an obsession for tourists from many parts of the world, not so much for the true achievements of that culture but because the pyramids and Sphinx have been linked with New Age movements, Atlantis theories, and UFO fantasies. Those airy speculations have had strong real-world effects. The sheer numbers of tourists visiting the sites have caused a steep degradation, not least by the moisture human breathing releases into burial chambers long preserved by desert dryness. The explosive growth of Cairo, which has already brought Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken within a few hundred yards of the Sphinx, will soon engulf what remains.

In the past few decades, China has become interested in saving its antiquities, largely for the tourist revenue it could generate. For almost all of its history, China has had a very different sense of time than that of the standard Western art historian. Just as the human body continually repairs itself, so Chinese artists have copied and replaced pieces of buildings, sculptures, and paintings. Before their interactions with Western archaeologists, this “culture of the copy” closely mirrored Chinese—and other non-Western—views of time as cyclical. The art or architecture of the past can be “renewed” without prejudice against what we, in the West, would call the “original.” Needless to say, museum curators contracting with Chinese institutions for traveling displays were not amused when copies of great works, perfectly acceptable in the Chinese context, began arriving in the West. But Communist China has allowed the apprenticeship system that passed techniques from one generation to the next to fall into virtual nonexistence. Today, China probably has no choice but to “conserve” its artistic patrimony the way we do ours.

One of Stine’s liveliest chapters is a portrait of Reginald Foster, the eccentric priest from Milwaukee who is often described as “the pope’s Latinist.” Like everyone who has come into contact with Foster, Stille is deeply impressed with the way that he makes a “dead” language come alive. Foster’s technical knowledge is astonishing, as Bernard Frischer, the chairman of the UCLA classics department learned when he taped Foster speaking in Ciceronian, medieval, and Renaissance Latin. The transcripts showed that even Foster’s most intricate constructions parsed perfectly.

Stine illustrates some of the other problems of keeping past and present together in discussions of two fabled libraries: the ancient Library of Alexandria, which has disappeared without a trace (no one quite knows how), and the Vatican Library. The Egyptian government has undertaken to “reconstruct” that ancient Alexandrian institution, which boasted 490,000 volumes at its height in the centuries just before and after Christ. Ironically, this pharaonic project is burying large swaths of the old city that, properly excavated, might tell us a great deal about the original library and the metropolis that supported it—one more example of the way that modern attempts to preserve the past may obscure it.

Stine gives high marks to the Vatican Library, particularly its former director, the Irish Dominican Leonard Boyle, who died in 2000. Boyle’s predecessor vowed that no computer would ever cross the library’s threshold and seems to have perpetuated an atmosphere in which scholars felt decidedly unwelcome—almost as if materials were to be held virginally without being seen by the world. Boyle signed agreements that will digitize and make available some of the Vatican’s astonishing collections on CD-ROM. He also revolutionized the Vatican Library’s catalogs, which have already led to remarkable discoveries and will doubtless produce more.

But all such technical links with our predecessors, however welcome, do not solve the deeper problem of the discontinuity with living traditions that seems to mark the present moment. Catholics, for example, often seem to view the pre-Vatican II Church in much the same way as Egyptians do the pyramids and Alexandria. And it may be that many of the cultural resonances of our tradition will soon be so alien that only learned experts will understand them. Stille has no answer to this problem, but he hopefully cites Faulkner’s famous bon mot: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” True enough, and a great deal of our human patrimony continues with us. But whether the essential things will survive as rich nourishment rather than museum pieces remains to be seen.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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