PRESENTISM: WHY THE PAST DOES NOT EXIST FOR YOUNG READERS

Marking the essays on Victorian Literature by my second-year students I’m puzzled by three which read the corresponding literary texts they analyze in terms of whether they are adequate for the present. One, in particular, focuses the paper almost entirely on why a recent film adaptation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is more apt for our times than the ‘faulty’ original text. I explain in a lengthy note why this approach is biased, noting that adaptations are particular readings of texts and not intended to be their replacements. Somehow or other, I recall the word ‘presentism’ which, I’m sure, I have read in some newspaper article I now forget about the current generation of students.

To my further puzzlement, Wikipedia informs me that ‘presentism’ is not just a feature of our undergrads’ worldview but, attention, a philosophical current. According to its proponents, “events and entities that are wholly past or wholly future do not exist at all”; presentism “contrasts with eternalism and the growing block theory of time”, currents which do defend the existence of past events and entities. I’m flabbergasted. Or possibly very poorly informed, for the consequence of this aberration is the denial of History and, hence, of tragedies like the Holocaust and any dictatorship you can thinks of.

When Hayden White argued back in 1973 that History is an agreed upon fiction (or a consensual hallucination, borrowing Willian Gibson’s definition of hyperspace), he didn’t mean that certain horrific events could be denied or were not ‘true’. He meant that the way we narrate History is subjective and interested. Hence, in a second, more rational sense, in literary and historical analysis, “presentism is the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”. It seems that this word, first cited “in its historiographic sense” in 1916 according to the OED, may be dated back to the 1870s. This concept or label is behind the kind of trick by which historians with certain political interests read the past according to a supposed teleological drive that culminates in the present. You may think of Hitler’s dream of building a Third Reich as one of the most disastrous applications of this type of presentism.

In the papers that so puzzled me, however, presentism was not “the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”, not even in the historiographic version. It was, rather, a belief that the past can be discarded because it does not measure up to the present in any sense. Of course, I am exaggerating the presence of this trend among my students’ papers because I want to insist here on a point I have been struggling to make throughout the course: We all belong in a certain historical time and this is like any other time–everyone, therefore, needs to understand not only the nature of other historical periods but also that our own period will sooner or later be the past. A quaint one.

We may gaze at our navels thinking that all that came before us, Victorian Literature included, was a) important only because it led to us or b) irrelevant because we are all that matters on Earth. In this way, however, we limit very much our vision. And our empathy. I think you can only read well the Literature of the past if you do the mental exercise of imagining what life would be like for you if you lived at that time. This always reminds me of actors’ saying that they only understand characters alive in other periods when they wear the right costumes. I am always joking, hence, that I need to teach Victorian Literature wearing the appropriate corset and crinoline–actually changing fashions as I move from the 1830s to the 1890s. I have proposed to my colleagues that once a year we celebrate the periods we teach in this way. So far the proposal has met with great theoretical acceptance which has not translated into practice… Since my colleague Joan Curbet seems certainly very keen on donning Medieval cloak, tunic, trousers, and leggings I have not lost hope…

I don’t know what this is like for other people, as it not a subject I have ever discussed with anyone, but although I had excellent History teachers in secondary school, it was only when I became an undergrad that I became fully aware of my historical placement. To be honest, my young self was a bit disappointed to understand that the 1980s were not the culmination of world History, perhaps an impression enhanced by Spanish Transition and the death throes of the then still raging Cold War. Even Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of History had arrived in 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed.

So, imagine my disorientation when I finally did see that my generation is just one among many in the History of the world, perhaps only particularly gifted at complicating matters for everyone else, from the way we cannot stop the destruction of Earth to the way we have generalized the use of the digital technologies. The realisation of one’s very modest place in the universe is, however, extremely liberating because it enables you to finally open up to other times and places, as I say. I’m not thinking here of the idiotic fantasy of imagining yourself alive in other times: people always imagine being in Pharaoh’s court as a courtier but not being an abused Egyptian slave. Also, being a woman, only the future is preferable for me. I mean the kind of liberation that allows you to read the Literature of the past without being judgemental and finding fault with it all the time because it is old-fashioned.

The author of the paper worrying me is a very sweet young man now on the verge of losing the presentism which, as I’m arguing, affects anyone young of any generation. He is in this sense like anyone else, as I could see when I tried to rationalize in class what I am explaining here. The students looked at me very much at a loss about what I was talking about, or perhaps it was beginning to dawn on them that growing up entails precisely this, the process of abandoning the presentist cocoon to see yourself as just an individual among many others in the History of the world.

This humility, however, is increasingly harder to grasp in view of the narcissistic attitude encouraged by those who run the social media and to which the digital natives have taken with such gusto. The Sillicon Valley white male patriarchs growing rich at the expense of the general loss of privacy of the post 1990 generations have pounced on the natural narcissism of teenagers. They want to convince everyone young that they need to be different and special and, thus, that they must invest much effort in keeping their personal accounts lively and interesting. Encouraged to think that they are the centre of the world, at least to themselves, young people face a harder time accepting that they’re not and thus shedding their presentism. Said like the Facebook-less, Twitter-incompetent, middle-aged woman I am…

Back to Victorian Literature, I wonder whether presentism of the kind I have described here is the root of the problem in relation to how little students read. Logically, if you believe that the past is totally irrelevant or just a prelude to your own time, it’s much harder to engage with its Literature. If I think about it, perhaps I am guilty myself of an extended form of presentism by which I’m interested in anything from 1800 onwards because unconsciously I have decided that my own historical time are the last 200 odd years. I certainly find it much harder to feel attracted by pre-1800 texts, Shakespeare excluded. Yet, I felt great pleasure when reading 16th, 17th and 18th century texts at my teachers’ request (or invitation). The same pleasure that, I hope, my own students feel when reading the Victorian texts–at least, those students who do read them.

I’ll think again of the dress-in-the-costume-of-your-period teaching day… students included!

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2 thoughts on “PRESENTISM: WHY THE PAST DOES NOT EXIST FOR YOUNG READERS

  1. I just can’t get my head around this whole presentism trend. I had never heard about it, but it reminds me a lot of another popular belief based on navel-gazing: anthropocentrism. I can’t tell for certain whether these ideas are more common among younger generations, but I don’t think so. I imagine that, as usual, each case is different, and most (though unfortunately not all) end up outgrowing this self-important attitude. In fact, many members of my generation (I was born 1985) care deeply about the past and are genuinely interested in the origins of all that surrounds them, including food, clothes, household products, etc.

    It’s obvious that modern inventions such as the Internet and the social networks you mention wouldn’t have been possible without centuries of hard work. I actually decided to drop these (very random) lines because before finding your blog post I had been reading a chapter from one of my latest acquisitions: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/02/sick-rose-gruesome-art-medical-illustration-will-self. This book makes me feel very grateful to live in the 21st century—and that comes from the long-time journal and letter writer, TV-less, slip wearer old-fashioned woman that I am… If it hadn’t been for all the trailblazers (both scientists and artists) that came before us, our lives wouldn’t be so relatively easy. Indeed, we wouldn’t even be here, so if anything, we should feel indebted to all the groundbreaking individuals who shaped the future of humanity, our present, and someone else’s past.

    As a staunch atheist, I had long considered the possibility of donating my otherwise useless dead body to science. The Sick Rose was just what I needed to make up my mind. Of course, in the past no one asked the poor people whose corpses ended up on the dissecting table, but we should also feel indebted to them. Most underlings, like the abused Egyptian slaves you mention, didn’t end up in history books, but they also made contributions to humanity, many while alive and others once their little lives were rounded with a sleep. I hope that future young university students realize that we were not that irrelevant after all.

    I also find pre-1800 texts to be much harder to grasp, but many are well worth the effort. It’s also fascinating to see how, despite the obvious differences, we share many similarities with those who trod this same Earth so long ago. I guess that’s one of the points of Literature.

    I hope you are doing well, Sara. The book is brilliant: lovely edition (letterpress cover! Yes, I’m guilty of judging books by their covers), very well-written, a solid piece of research, and a fascinating mixture of art and science. I think you might like it. Today I found a reference to Frankenstein; hence the decision to tell you about it.

  2. Thank you very much, dear Azahara, for your generous, insightful comment. Yes, you validate my thesis that presentism is eventually outgrown by young people and that all generations are affected by it. Like you, I think we need to pay homage to the figures that make the best aspects of our live possible and, I’ll add, be very much aware of the ones who have caused all the main problems.
    The book you mention is very, very attractive. I was recently thinking also of the importance of scientific illustration in relation to zoology and biology…
    I hope you’re doing well, thank you once more. Sara

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