Rudiments of Historical Consciousness

I knew I wanted to be a writer in the second grade, mainly because writers, pretty clearly, had so much fun in conjuring the worlds they had created, just for me.  They also had power.  They were able to convince me that these new worlds were real, palpable, inhabitable.  To be a writer was, then, to be a storyteller—an artist, a conjurer, not a reporter of facts.  If you were a writer, you made shit up.

And I did.  I went to France, I went to college, I went to war, I became a great athlete, I even had a nervous breakdown modeled after my mother’s.  When I finally went off to college for real, mainly to play football (Division III), I still knew I wanted to be a writer.  My dissolution over the next three years was part of the plan.  I knew writers were drunks and drug addicts, men who excavated the deepest layers of their selves and their times by abusing their bodies, losing their minds.  Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Burroughs . . .  I followed their lead.

I wrote stories all the while, every one of them lousy, except, I noticed even then, the “non-fictional,” observational kind, which sounded true even though I made shit up to pad them out.  I was expelled after three years on the plausible grounds that I was only pretending to be a student, and a part-time one at that (after three years, I had 60 credits and a 1.75 grade point average).  So, protected from the draft by a high lottery number, I went to work, first as a janitor in the hospital where my father would die 35 years later, then as a construction laborer on the recommendation of a high school friend.  Unlike me, he was still in college; in the summers, he worked as a mason contractor’s bookkeeper.

Four days after my 21st birthday, I fell through a rectangular hole in a concrete floor I had laid two days before, in an office tower being built off the Tri-State Tollway.  To this day I remember exactly what happened, probably because I still dream of falling: there’s nothing like dreams to remind you of the past.  I picked up one end of a huge plywood square to push it out of my way, and then I was horizontal in the air, where I saw my boots out in front of me, slowly turning sideways as if I were the acrobat who had planned this trick, and then every ounce of air had been expelled from my body by landing on another concrete floor twenty-seven feet below.

After impact, I turned from my right side to my left, knowing I had crushed every bone over there, and my first thought was, I guess this means I won’t be going to work tomorrow.  The second was, I’m dying.  I couldn’t tell the difference between these thoughts until the ambulance arrived.

As I lay dying, so I thought at the time, I wasn’t thinking of the future, all that promise of life now seeping out of my broken body.  I was thinking instead about what I hadn’t done, the choices I hadn’t made in the twenty-one years allotted me.  You wanted to be a writer!  What are you writing?  And yet the future was already present in the past, because I realized that what I hadn’t done was something waiting to be accomplished.

For some reason, my father, who, unlike my mother, had a job, showed up in the emergency room.  As always, he was calm, cool, curious, like the doctor he wanted to be when he mustered out of the military in 1945.  He asked me what happened.  Having been flooded with Demerol and banked with ice, now a levee against myself, I spoke of plywood, I described what it felt like to fall that far—how time had dilated up in the air—and I asked him if we were in a dream.  “You are,” he said, “You saw your whole life this morning, I bet.”  This was reassuring: you can’t dream if you’re dead.  Or maybe that’s all you can do.

It turned out that the extent of my injuries was a broken right elbow.  The surgeons had to piece it back together with metal screws, but otherwise I was merely bruised.  That was June 1, 1970.  Thereafter, I told myself, you’ve already run out of time, so it doesn’t matter what you do.  The clock is not ticking: there is no clock.  It’s not that time waits for no man.  Nothing waits for you except death, so you might as well get on with something, anything.

Still, when my workmen’s compensation ran out, I did almost nothing.  I pumped gas for a month, which let me read Eldrige Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and Noam Chomsky’s New Mandarins; between reading stints, I looked up the skirts of women as I filled their tanks and cleaned their windshields.  Meanwhile I applied for admission to Northern Illinois University because friends of mine went there, Jimmy Palumbo and Greg Wilhite (the bookkeeper).  Jimmy and I had played (briefly) on the Division III team, Greg and I had played four years together in high school.

I figured I had nothing to lose by going back to college, and I could pay for tuition, an off-campus apartment, and then some because the mason contractor had offered me a $1300 settlement—so that I wouldn’t sue him for negligence and safety violations on the job.  I paid nine months’ rent up front and vowed to attend class.  If the courses were as boring and stupid as those I hadn’t attended at my former alma mater, I’d just drop out, hole up, and write a novel.

I was an English major.  I signed up for The American Novel, Chaucer, and Milton, plus two History courses, one on Asia 1500 to the present (!), the other on Modern Britain, 1750 to the present (!!).  I had never taken a course in History, and had resisted the very idea—but, having been forced into the past by English department major requirements (Modern Britain), I decided I might as well learn something more about the part of the world we were still bombing, more, that is, than Chomsky had taught me.

Those two courses changed my attitude toward History, and changed my life.  I could begin to understand what a usable past felt like, personally and politically.

But the other three courses were no less significant, and for the same reason—the professors, all newly minted PhDs from obscure places, knew everything and cared deeply about their fields, to the point of fanaticism.  They weren’t doing their time in the classroom; they were doing what they loved.  We learned to pronounce and happily recited Middle English in the Chaucer class.  We read stanzas of Paradise Lost aloud in the Milton class, and then we savored—we didn’t just ponder—their meanings.  We listened intently in the American Novel class because the Belgian ex-pat who taught the course didn’t care what we thought of The House of the Seven Gables or The Sun Also Rises; it didn’t occur to me that the total absence of class discussion in an English course was unusual.


I started reading Marx and Freud because the professor in the Modern Britain course, Marvin Rosen, was so crazy and charismatic—and intellectually compelling—that I wanted to understand the attraction, by which I mean my attraction to this ugly, unruly, eloquent man.  He kept citing Marx as the reliable source of all things important, as if this were self-evident, and he kept depicting Freud as the ultimate disappointment, as if a shrink had just broken up with him.  What else could I do?  For the first time, I went in search of someone’s intellectual origins.  And not for the last time, the search itself refurbished the foundations of my own thinking.  I wasn’t tuckpointing, though, when I went looking for Marvin’s origins, I was building from the ground up.

Marx taught me that the past was a foreign country, even if I was rummaging in the history of what we unthinkingly call “America.”  These men and women, all of them, were strangers who acted on assumptions I didn’t share but might understand in context.  Meanwhile Freud taught me that I too was unmapped territory—a stranger to myself.  There was no amount of intuition or imagination that would put me in touch with these people, including the person I called “me.”  I had no immediate access to my own identity, let alone the thoughts, motives, intentions, and actions of these Others.  I would have to work my way back to them.

The common goal, however, as I began to understand it with the assistance of Hegel, Kojeve, Hippolyte, Brown, and Marcuse, was not to “overcome” the Otherness of these Others, or to inhabit the worlds they had made, or to identify with their struggles, but to understand what, if anything, was to be learned from our differences (including the difference between “I” and “me,” now and then, mind and body).  I couldn’t assume that time was a linear order made of homogeneous units, so that the differences between the past and the present were self-evident: I had begun to realize that there’s no such thing as the past as such.

No, my function as an historian was analogous to that of a psychoanalyst, whose task is to tell a story that gives meaning to irretrievable memory traces, mere fragments from the past—to create rather than discover a usable past, to arrange past events in an intelligible sequence, and to insert the narrative’s subjects (including the narrator) in a temporal and moral order (notice: not either/or).  This species of narrative, a “deferred action” or a “primal scene,” doesn’t merely situate, it constitutes its dramatis personae in the present by orienting them toward a specific past and an impending future; it does so by providing the cast of characters with provisional subject positions from which every identification, including those derived from the Oedipus complex, can be tested.

This species of narrative is the genre that comes of modern historical consciousness.  It’s a hedge against what Freud called repetition compulsion (what Santayana’s famous aphorism about repeating the past captures in the vernacular).  This species of narrative acknowledges, indeed measures, the weight of the past, but it won’t let us stay in the past, as if the gravitational field produced by past events is inescapable or irresistible.  So conceived, modern historical consciousness urges us to learn as much as we can from the past, rather than be satisfied with learning about it.  To put that proposition in the Nietzschean terms favored by the participants in the USIH debate on the usable past, modern historical consciousness refuses both the antiquarian and the monumental modes; but it’s never merely critical, as if irony serves every purpose.

Such consciousness emerges in the 17th century because in the great “transition period,” as John Dewey called it, ca. 1400-1800, the repetition of the past became practically impossible.  Nothing—not popular custom, not political prudence, not the received intellectual tradition—could make sense of the deep social and cultural changes (especially the scientific revolution and the Reformation) that marked this moment, except to say that they were unwelcome deviations from what had come before, and so were subject to ridicule, inquisition, and denunciation.

As Hayden White, John Pocock, Quentin Skinner, Alasadair MacIntyre—and yes, Hannah Arendt and C.B. Macpherson—demonstrated in the 1960s and 70s, the new historical consciousness of the Machiavellian Moment was predicated on a new (bourgeois) subjectivity that both presupposed and produced a legal agency vis a vis a state whose sovereignty was also newly constituted.  This consciousness could begin to imagine fundamental discontinuities between the past and the present without relinquishing a claim on the continuum of human nature, and could therefore contain the possibility of learning from the past.  But an inexorable movement away from traditional practices in every sphere of life didn’t obliterate tradition; instead, it inspired most people, including illiterate peasants, to understand, preserve, and sometimes to reinvent their traditions.


So William Faulkner’s famous phrase—“the past is not even past”—couldn’t have been coined before the 19h century, and couldn’t have been treated as a truism until the 20th, because the scope of social and cultural change hadn’t yet made the past different enough from the present, that is, different enough either to require measurement of the gap between them, or to pretend that the difference was an illusion.

Faulkner also said “happen is never once,” and persuaded readers, without resorting to any overt argument, that for Southerners, the past was never time out of mind.  It was always present as a waking dream, a recurring nightmare, as if time’s arrow had curved back on itself, creating a circle that would keep revolving rather than unfold as a vector with no predictable endpoint.  John Jeremiah Sullivan gracefully captures this crucial dimension of Faulkner’s project in his introduction to the new Modern Library edition of Absalom, Absalom!

“This is what Quentin is, we start to see, and what Southerners are or used to be: walking concatenations of stories, drawn or more often inherited from the chaos of the past, and invested here with a special doom-laden meaning, the nostalgia that borders on nausea—the quality that truly sets the South apart from other regions, its sheer investment in the meaning of itself.”

The oblique invocation of Sartre’s novel fleshes out the point without any fuss: it reminds us that when the commemoration of the moment organizes any given experience, life itself gives way to remembrance of things past; and it prepares us for the relentless, ponderous thudding of the prose that follows.  Sullivan notwithstanding, though, when conceived as a walking concatenation of stories, Quentin Compson is hardly the most Southern of Faulkner’s characters.  Aunt Rosa Coldfield outdoes him as the ur-narrator of this novel:

“’Once there was—Do you mark [how] the wisteria, sun-impacted on this wall here, distills and penetrates this room as though (light-unimpeded) by secret and appetitive progress from mote to mote on obscurity’s myriad components?  That is the substance of remembering—sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel—not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for: no more, no less: and its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false and worthy only of the name of dream.’”

Sudden oracular exclamations like this are scattered throughout the dense thrumming of words that is Absalom, where the weight of the past registers as a genetic trait, a natural fact, a physical burden as well as a psychic wound, as if Faulkner knew that from time to time he had to find a verbal clearing, for himself and his readers, where they could rest.  So it’s hard for me to disagree with Sullivan’s characterization of Faulkner’s attitude toward History as nostalgia bordering on nausea: it’s a bodily condition, an incurable disease.  But that is why Sullivan’s summary judgment of the novel strikes me as simply wrong:

“The book attempts something that had never been tried before in the art of fiction, and as far as I know has never been since—to dramatize historical consciousness itself, not just human lives but the forest of time in which the notion of human life must find its only meaning.  Not to have failed completely at such a task is indistinguishable from triumph.  The South escaped itself in this book and became universal.”

In other words, if I may translate Sullivan’s magnificent hyperbole, the South’s “sheer investment in the meaning of itself” finally pays off in Absalom, Absalom!  The return on that massive investment, by this calculation, is the universalization of the South’s morbid, nostalgic, nauseating attitude toward History.  It has finally become the “only meaning” of human life itself: in this dark wood, where redemption is inconceivable, we all know that we’re prisoners of the past.

I can’t help myself, I admire the audacity of Sullivan’s essay, but I think his summary judgment is simply wrong, and not just because Faulkner’s fixation on the sins of the South is still a literary trope rather than a cultural commonplace (unless Oprah’s endorsement of Toni Morrison makes it so).  Historical consciousness takes many narrative and monumental forms, but it’s never the raw data of sensory experience, nor unmediated words and thoughts from the past: it’s not the fabled stream of human consciousness as such, it’s the belated attempt to map it, to give durable, intelligible form to what is fluid, shapeless, watery, and aimless.

Does that happen in Absalom, as it does in what Sullivan calls the template, Joyce’s Ulysses?  Are Faulkner’s narrators—it’s difficult to call them characters because, like Hamlet, they exist not as embodied intentions but rather as the tellers of others’ tales—are they able to get any distance on the pasts they represent?  Are they able to do anything more than repeat the stories told by their own doomed ancestors?  In short: Are they something more than symptoms of a repetition compulsion?

In a word, no.  People equipped with historical consciousness do not, generally speaking, seek to reproduce the past, as Quentin and Aunt Rosa do, because they know that lost time is uninhabitable.  Nor do they try to escape it, as Sutpen does, because they know they can’t.  In telling their stories, then, Faulkner isn’t dramatizing historical consciousness; he’s denying the very possibility of it.




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2 responses to “Rudiments of Historical Consciousness

  1. Reblogged this on Gutek and commented:
    This is the kind of writing – though not necessarily the physical trauma – I aspire to. It’s elegant and intellectually cogent and while I can’t speak to the subject matter with any expertise, functions as a valuable historical inquiry as well as a great personal essay.

  2. This is a really beautiful essay

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