The Past, The Present, The Future.

I've been thinking alot recently about how, when we are ill, we are often told by counsellors to concentrate on living in the present- not to get bogged down ruminating about the past or the future. The thing is, one of my passions is reading literature, and literature seems to take a very different view of this. Indeed, it seems to tell us of the need to remember, both in historical and personal terms. The starkest statement about this I found in Jed Rubenfeld's book "The Interpretation of Murder" where, in the very first chapter it states:
" There is no mystery to happiness.
Unhappy men are all alike. Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn- or even worse, indifference- cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays. The happy man does not look back. He doesn't look ahead. He lives in the present.
But there's the rub. The present can never deliver one thing: meaning. The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same. To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning- the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life- a man must reinhabit the past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting only that we choose between them."
So, is it that we have this seemingly simple, but somehow brutal, choice- happiness or meaning? Either way, it seems, we lose something.
Indeed, in Jean-Paul Satre's "Nausea", even living in the present does not seem to guaruntee happiness. The book follows the life of an author, Antoine Roquentin, who, at one point in the novel, is attempting to write a history book. But, he complains, how can he write a history book when he cannot even seem to remember or construct his own past? Indeed, Roquentin seems to live in a perpetual present where each moment is obliterated by the next in a rollercoaster of meaninglessness. He comes to realise that he is alone in a random, Godless universe, and thereby is simply and irrevocably responsible for all the choices he makes in his life. At such moments of realisation Roquentin seems propelled into a world where reality becomes a bludgeoning experience, he seems to be hit over the head with it; with the terrible permanence of things and his own existence. In this way Satre gets across the sheer anxiety of everyday living, and it is only at the end of the novel, when Roquentin resolves to "write a great book", that his life seems to resolve itself into some form of peacefulness. For Satre, at least, therefore, some meaningful activity is needed to combat the meaninglessness of living in a perpetual present.
Moreover, for another author, Milan Kundera, who lived through Communist rule in the then Czechoslovakia, remembering becomes a problem of history, an almost political project.
As he states in "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting":
" The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
In a world where even leaders disappear and are erased from history by propogandists, the ability to remember indeed takes on this significance. And, when Kundera's characters begin to forget their pasts or abrogate responsibility for their futures, they aquire what he calls a "lightness of being". The weight of the world and history is lifted from them, but, he seems to ask, at what cost? The cost may be their own freedom.
So, with their relevance to history, power and philosophy, the past and the future seem to become massively important. Can we really afford to live in the happy bubble of the present alone?
Perhaps the wisest answer to this question I found in Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved". The novel is set during the time of slavery in the American deep South and centres around the harrowing story of Sethe , who murders her own child, the eponymous Beloved, rather than see her sold into slavery.
However, Beloved returns in the form of a beautiful ghost some years later and Sethe takes her into her home. In some ways, then, Beloved is a representation of the past and, Morrison seems to make it clear, not only Sethe's past, but also in a metaphorical way that of the African-American people. And, if stories like Beloved and Sethe's are not "passed on" their true history will be lost in the depths of time.
However, when Sethe takes in Beloved she begins to descend into a sort of depression, losing her job and becoming dispirited and demoralised. It is as if Sethe is cherishing the past in the form of Beloved and her new-found flesh. But the past, when removed from immediate life, Morrison seems to suggest, is extremely dangerous, and Sethe's friends urge her to live in the present.
At the end of the novel, Beloved is finally put to rest by the whole community and Sethe can finally move on. But Morrison also gives a stark warning that this is "not a story to pass on" and that "remembering seems unwise". So the final message seems to be that when the past is too horrible to mention, it is sometimes best forgotten.
So, is it really such a stark choice between meaning and happiness? Somehow, I don't think so. I think we can all take what we want from our pasts and mould our futures accordingly. As someone once said, you can't change the past,but you can change the way you think about it. In this way, perhaps, we can all find a little meaning and at least some happiness.
Until next time folks, that's all from your normal, average paranoid and delusional man.


klahanie said…
Hello David
Firstly, I wish to thank you so much for your supportive comments on my blogs. It means an awful lot, I am most grateful.
You have done two blogs in quick succession. My apologies for not responding to your previous blog. However, I would just like to echo the sentiments of those other fine folks who did comment on it.
Now then, let's get back to this blog. Once again David, I marvel at your writing prowess. You are a truly great writer. The quotes you use are thought-provoking.
Past, present and future are all intertwined. I firmly believe that we can find a positve focus from past inspirational events. Sometimes we do not realise just how positive such events were until a later time. That positive past memory can be indicated by a positive 'now'. It can make us look towards the future with an air of positive but realistic anticipation. We can choose happiness.
I look forward and backward and straight in front of me with a positive glow. Thanks for the blog David.
Domenica said…
Dear David,

First of all thank you for commenting on my most recent post, and indeed on all my posts, it is much appreciated.
Now then, your latest post, it certainly contains a great deal of 'food for thought' which is a good thing.
I will select just one for now, (I would love to discuss the other points you raised, i.e. The past-present-future at another time may be? because that is a huge topic, which would make for some extremely interesting discussion)
When you talk of 'meaning' for me that 'means' 'purpose'(I'm not sure whether purpose and meaning are the same) But for me they appear to be. (i.e. The meaning of my life? or The purpose of my life?) Which is what I have been searching for, 'for all of my life' I do believe I have now found that purpose, which became all-important, because a life without meaning/purpose does not make for true happiness or contentment, I think that happiness is a natural progression from having some meaning or purpose in one's life.
I agree with a lot of what you have written David, and find it both challenging and stimulating.

Please do continue to share your thoughts with us in such an eloquent way....My very best wishes to you....D X
Domenica said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
klahanie said…
Greetings, my good chap.
David, I just want to thank you for your contributions to my blogs. The comments can actually be an integral part of the blog.
That's what makes the Mind Bloggling, MAGMH, community spirit so condusive to our ongoing support of each other.
May you have a wonderful Boxin..whoops a wonderful Christmas. (I guess I must of found a way out of my 'Real Surreal?' comment section).
Warm wishes to you David.
dcrelief said…
Forgive my lateness in commenting, as I am just now finding your site.
You are certainly a "well read" writer and those writers write circles around me. I did recognize and have read a couple of books you mentioned.
You offer much I need time to think through. Thank you for a most intriguing post.
Sincerely, dcrelief

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