Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Past is the Past?

"The past is never dead," William Faulkner famously wrote. "It's not even past."

You don't have to know anything about Faulkner's fiction, steeped in the history of the American South, or about T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," to appreciate the presence of the past in and around us.* What is true of writing and language, where our most innovative fiction is determined by literary precedents going back many centuries, is more concretely evident from the perspective of science.

Some of this was brought home in a memorable documentary from Chile, "Nostalgia for the Light," by Patricio Guzman, who is concerned with two discrete but related activities in the Atacama Desert: archeologists and concerned relatives searching for human remains while astronomers using this unique, humid-free lunar-like landscape to study distant stars.

The result is not always as coherent or clear as it might be, but this film about remembering is totally original and provocative. I recommend it--despite subtitles that should be yellow instead of white for greater legibility.

Not only are people looking for pre-Columbian artifacts in the Chilean desert, but women, whose men disappeared during the 1973 regime of Pinochet search--seemingly in vain--for shards of their bones. They gain some comfort from the presence of astronomers, who are able to put the pain of loss in the cosmic context of the life cycle: the calcium in our bones was there from the beginning, from the Big Bang; and we learn, too, that the same calcium the stars are made of is in us--and of course in the bones being dug up by the grieving women.

The astronomers are searching for the ultimate past, the origin of the universe. And their search finds a perfect home in this desert, where the women and others are searching for the more immediate past, whose energy in terms of light years affects all life on earth.

(If only Shakespeare knew this he could have written: "we are such stuff as stars are made on.")

What emerges in this film is a meditation on time and the unity of creation. The present, we are reminded,is only a construct of the mind; the mind gives us the only absolute present we know. Even the image we see now before us is delayed by the speed of light reaching the earth and so we live "behind the times."

If all this sounds confusing, it can be, but I am grateful that Guzman has made this important film. It reminds me of the impossibility of separating the past from the present, or from the future, which is just the past getting younger (as my wife, Lynn, likes to say).

*I cited Eliot's essay because I remembered him making a memorable remark about culture in the "bones," and this is now, thanks to Guzman's film, apparent to me on the genetic level: The poet must live in the "present moment of the past" and write "not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe" is present, in a historical sense, whereby the "timeless and the temporal" together make a writer traditional. (I never thought I could capture the main idea that essay in one sentence, if I have.)

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