The Distant Past

Eyes from the distant past have looked perhaps with more understanding than we are able to muster on the artefacts of a still more distant past. Even so, when I consider the pottery, jewellery, images and sculpture of long ago, I am not unmoved. What I feel is a mixture of tenderness and awe. Tenderness at the fragility of what has come down to us, on some rare occasions almost intact; awe at the connection these objects give us to a past whose concerns and customs must bear some relationship to our own, if only that they are a record of human striving.
I am reminded of the feeling I have when I rescue a small creature from the claws of our cat, a feeling of being disturbed and touched at the sheer improbability of the survival of such fluttering and palpitating vulnerability. But the strangeness of a sparrow or mouse is greater by far than that of our distant ancestors as revealed by what they have left behind. We do not know but can imagine, as novelists often have, what concerns were current in an ancient society, even a pre-literate one. Unsurprisingly, and probably quite justly, the picture of daily life presented in such fictional works, the keeping of body and soul together, the furthering of self-interest through work and trade, the imperiousness of the sex drive (as Freud put it), and the enjoyment of leisure, has many points of contact with our own, but the metaphysical or religious belief systems which bind the peoples into communities and larger entities are more or less opaque. It is here that the novelist’s art is apt to founder.
It has taken a twentieth century philosopher, Heidegger, to draw attention to a fact, now obvious, that we are thrown (Geworfenheit) into a world, which is already familiar when we begin to try and understand it. But the world of human beings emerging from the stone age, establishing larger settlements, developing agriculture, domesticating animals, smelting metals, trading and fighting with other peoples, exploiting slaves, was in general vastly more precarious than our own, and though their shared mental life was to them a given, it is to us utterly strange. Their story telling and myth making, when we can decipher them, are no longer felt to illuminate the wider world, only their own particular world. And yet, as both Freud and Jung came to feel, those motifs of struggle, atrocity, guilt and propitiation still haunt our modern consciousness. And T.S.Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is in large part a response to the destruction of life and human values on an unprecedented scale by the Great War, and inspired by Eliot’s awareness of the bloody horrors implied in vegetation myths and their more sophisticated treatment in the Grail legends and the broken figure of the Fisher King. It seems to me that Eliot had a degree of bad faith about the poem in later life, because he felt his diagnosis of a wasted land, came out of a very particular personal misery, his catastrophic first marriage. But the poem’s origins were complex, and trying to trace them is as self-defeating as trying to trace the source of a great river. More than any other English language poem of the last century it marked a new beginning.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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