Saturday, September 29, 2012

The past is not past.

"The past is not past," James Joyce wrote. It is present here and now." The truth of this often comes home to me in unexpected ways, as when a St. Louis classmate yesterday forwarded a picture of me and a few fellow high school students from 50 years ago. . . .At once, I was there, in that place and time, remembering their faces and personalities as if time had stopped; in fact, to realize that one of these men is now gone and the others are grandfathers is so startling as to be unreal. The past events seem more real. . . . I found myself thinking excessively about the photo and what it evoked and decided that the best thing to do was not save it and spend the weekend in the vividness of my memories but to return to the present. . . . I felt the immediacy of what is past as a timeless moment, frozen in my memory. I have often associated my longing for the past with the fact that my mother told me stories of her family early on and so I became connected to her earlier life. Then came my Catholic education, with its traditions and reverence for the past, and then my love of history. . . .Joyce, I gather, had similar experiences. But from what I have read in the excellent new biography of Joyce by Gordon Bowker, there was a powerful socioeconomic factor: young Jim's father was a spendthrift who plunged the once-prosperous family into poverty; they moved frequently from one Dublin house to another, the dreary streets finding their way into the elegiac stories of "Dubliners." . . . .Young Joyce turned to his ancestral roots and to family lore about a more dignified past; he escaped from the grim reality of the present by imagination, which, says Bowker, was haunted by ghosts. For the young Joyce, the past was more immediate than the present. . . .This can certainly be helpful for a poet and writer, but most of us are content--and better off--with momentary epiphanies, glimpses of the past that live on into the present. . . .I remember William Faulkner's statement, based on his connection to the American South: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." What is the past but our remembering/imagining of earlier events in the present?

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