In search of the lost past

According to Zachary Schiffman, ‘the past’ as we understand it is an invention of the Renaissance.1  This may seem a somewhat surprising assertion, and it may also beg the question regarding its relevance to psychoanalysis, and especially to the work of the psychoanalytic clinic.  After all, isn’t psychoanalysis all about ‘the past’, about tracing the origins of a person’s psychopathology ‘back’ to their early childhood?   The short answer is ‘yes and no’, but in order to understand why, we need to take a conceptual detour and look at how the idea of ‘the past’ emerged in the first place.  In what follows I essentially give a summary of what I consider to be the salient points of Schiffman’s argument, before coming back to the question of how this might relate to psychoanalysis.

Schiffman begins his exploration of ‘the past’ by considering how it was conceptualised in the time of Antiquity, and especially in the time of the ancient Greeks.  As he is at pains to point out, it is not that the Greeks had no conception of ‘the past’; or, more specifically, of pasts (plural)Furthermore, they also had a sense of history – but not, according to Schiffman, as we ‘moderns’ would understand it.  Consider, for example, how the great Athenian historian and general Thucydides thought about the past in his History of the Peloponnesian Wars. According to Schiffman, for Thucydides the past was essentially  ‘flat’:

His (Thucydides’) mental landscape was thus structured in such a way that he could not subordinate what we regard as the secondary (and tertiary) to the primary levels of his argument.2

Essentially, everything in the narrative is given the same ‘weight’, which makes it much harder to gain a sense of ‘historical development’ (at least as a ‘modern’ reader would understand it).  There is also no sense in Thucydides’ text of an interpretation of events, even though the events themselves are described in great detail.  In other words no sense of ‘this happened because of ….’

….even though he perceived the connection between these elements, he (Thucydides) did not grant that connection explanatory power; thus, we may reasonably question whether he recognized it as constituting a historical force, a vector abstracted from events. His account has exactly the opposite thrust, toward the concrete rather than the abstract, toward the visible rather than the invisible, toward the surface of events rather than whatever may underlie them. For Thucydides, historical explanation resides in the account of the events themselves, whose meaning is manifestly clear (given all that detail how could it not be?) and requires no interpretation. There are no ineffable forces at work here shaping events, at least not of the kind we would recognize. 3

It is also important to note that the notion of an ‘event’ is radically different in the texts of Antiquity than it is for us ‘moderns’:

….Virginia Hunter, has shown convincingly that neither Herodotus nor Thucydides shares our notion of “event”; rather, they see history as constituted by universal and ineluctable “processes,” recurrent patterns that unfold inexorably when catalyzed by occurrences. Thus the Archaeology discloses a “process” of growth via sea power to empire— obviously a mid-fifth-century pattern—which Thucydides reads back in time to encompass the rise of the Minoans, Achaeans, and, ultimately, the Athenians. This emphasis on historical patterns tends to rob “events” of their distinctiveness, transforming them into “occurrences.”4

Schiffman contrasts Thucydides’ approach with how a modern historian might explain the origins of the Second World War.  This would involve, amongst other things subordinating the immediate causes (in this case Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939) to more underlying causes, including Germany’s late development as a nation state, its humiliation at Versailles, and so on. Depending on the historian’s perspective, all these features would take their appropriate place—in the foreground, middle ground, or background—providing the reader with an orientation amid events.

Another important aspect of the texts of Antiquity is what scholars of this period call ‘ring compositions’, which are essentially a ‘looping back’ in the middle of a narrative to a previous time (although ‘previous’ in this context is perhaps a misnomer).  Examples of such ring compositions can be found in Homer’s Odyssey and in Thucydides’ writings.  The key point here is that the narrative is not following a (linear) chronology of events.  In modern literature and film such ring compositions would be described as ‘flashbacks’.

Interestingly, Alan Kirby in his book Digimodernism argues that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy has the same structure as The Odyssey  in terms of what he describes as ‘endless narrative’, and also in terms of its ‘transparency’ regarding (the lack of a need for) interpretation, and the lack of psychological ‘depth’ regarding the characters.5 With regards to the idea of ‘endless narrative’, which Kirby sees as characteristic of narrative in the age of social media, the key point here is that such texts can literally just keep going, and can be full of endless ‘digressions’, which equate with the idea of the ring composition.

The important point about this form of narrative, this form of writing history, is that there is no real sense of temporal direction, of going from ‘past’ to ‘future’.  ‘The past’ in Antiquity can be seen more as a series of episodes which do not necessarily follow any kind of linear succession, or, rather, does not follow the idea of causality, i.e. one thing happened, which caused this to happen….etc.

Schiffman then goes on to explore how ‘the past’ was viewed in early Christianity, and focuses particularly on the ideas of St Augustine.   Schiffman’s key idea here is that there is an ‘unbridgeable divide’ between the way ‘the past’ was conceived in Antiquity, and the way it is conceived today, and that the ideas of early Christian thinkers such as Augustine helped ‘bridge’ this divide:

….this category (of ‘the past’) didn’t exist on the other side of the divide, so the  ancient mind could conceive neither the leap nor the need for it-which brings us back to the question of how this category of thought originated in the first place. If it did not spring forth fully formed, it must have begun as something else, something unrelated to those concerns we regard as “historical.” Indeed, the first signs of a new way of thinking lie in the conscious rejection of classical sensibilities, which had to be cleared away before the past as a category of thought could even begin to emerge.6

One of Augustine’s chief concerns was how could he, as a fallen being, ‘reconnect’ with God.  This was not possible in a ‘direct’ sense because, as a fallen being, he resided in the Earthly City rather than in the City of God.  However, all was not lost: he might not be able to reach God in the external, fallen world, but he could through the depths of his soul, through the process of recollection.   ‘The past’, for Augustine, was essentially memory, and the future anticipation (though of a very special kind as we shall see in a moment).  So ‘history’ becomes, with Augustine, a function of consciousness:

Our consciousness is an attending in, and to, the moment, an ineffable point “distended” between memory of what has gone before and expectation of what is to come, between a past and a future that have no intrinsic reality outside the attentive mind. By reducing all time to the now, Augustine seeks to overturn our mundane sense of time’s passage, which obscures the presence of time’s Creator. 7

Schiffman describes Augustine as a ‘being caught in time’, as an ‘inescapable temporal entity’.  However, this time is the now, which means Augustine has no temporal sense of ‘past’, ‘present’ or ‘future’:

We are here at a critical juncture, for Augustine’s  insistent orientation in the present might have enabled him to distinguish past from present in a systematic and sustained fashion, engendering the idea of anachronism characteristic of “the” past as an autonomous intellectual entity. Yet precisely the opposite happens: past, present, and future all coalesce for him in the now; qualitative distinctions between them vanish, precluding any possibility of the past as we know it.8

The ‘past’ is essentially a recollection in the now, which renders it as a function of memory rather than having any status as an ‘external’ referent.   And in many ways this highlights the crux of the problem when looking at ‘the past’ (or even ‘pasts’): does this term refer to an actual ‘place’ or ‘space’ or is it simply a function of memory and language?

What’s also crucial about St Augustine’s approach is that he effectively psychologises God; not that Augustine viewed God in terms of some notion of ‘the self’, but rather that there was no ‘direct access’ to God, to eternal life. Instead it was a question of how to ‘communicate’ with eternity from a ‘fallen’ world trapped in space and time. And Augustine’s answer to this question was through recollection:

He explored the mysterious integration of past sinfulness and future blessedness – of human will and divine grace-operating in a dynamic present, in the very diachronic nature of his actual being. He searched for the presence of God in the act of recollecting his past.9

For Augustine the past and future only exist in the soul (psyche); and one of the things that strikes me is how modern his view of time is, in the sense that subjectivity plays a major part in our constitution of time – and of history itself. This links closely to the role of human consciousness in the constitution of our sense of ‘past’ and ‘future’:

Consciousness, attentio, lies “distended” between the expectation of the future and the memory of the past, creating the appearance of time’s passage, whose duration conforms to our assumptions about the subject at hand….. Regardless of the time scale, future and past are functions of our consciousness in an ineffable, ongoing present.10

Another key concept regarding Augustine’s concept of history relates to the idea of retroactivity, which in Augustine’s case was expressed as a typological or figural interpretation of scripture. The idea is that an earlier event ‘prefigures’ a later one, and that the later event ‘fulfils’ the earlier one. Thus, in Christianity, Adam ‘prefigures’ Christ, and Christ ‘fulfils’ Adam. Augustine was in no doubt that the ‘past’ event, e.g. the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, actually happened. At the same time we could argue that the Fall of Man represents a trauma, which can only be constructed, made sense of, in the present.  And finally, for Augustine, the real meaning of history is eschatological; in other words, ‘history’ is simply the unfolding, the realisation, of an end (in this case the Last Judgement) which was always already present.

The conception of ‘the past’ starts to change dramatically in the Renaissance.  Chronologically, there is roughly a millennium between the time of Augustine and the time of the Renaissance. However, according to Schiffman, it was only in this latter period, and particularly with the rise of the humanist scholars (who were very different from the secular humanists we are familiar with today), that something approaching our ‘modern’ sense of history emerged; although it was not until the Enlightenment, some two hundred or so years later, that a fully functioning concept of History finally appeared.

As is well documented, the humanists had their sights set not on the last thousand years, but rather the thousand years or so that preceded them. In other words, they wanted to go back to the Greek and Roman civilisations. One of the reasons they were so keen to do so was that the Renaissance was also the time of growing tensions within Christianity and Christendom itself; it was during this period that the Reformation exploded all across Europe. And one of the key aspects of the Reformation was a growing interest in the Bible and on being able to read the Bible in its original Greek form, rather than relying on the Latin versions and on the authority of the Catholic Church, which had taken upon itself the interpretation of Scripture. Therefore there was a growing interest in the Greek language, and by extension, Greek culture.

More generally, there was a growing sense amongst the humanist intellectuals that the ‘ancients’ had something important to tell them about their own age, which was becoming increasingly unstable and conflict ridden. And, of course, during this period these ‘lost’ civilisations were literally being ‘found’, in the form of the excavation of Greek and Roman ruins

And yet one of the great ironies of the Renaissance humanists’ project was that it was their very attempts to ‘recapture’ the ‘lost’ past of Antiquity that effectively rendered it ‘lost’ and ‘past’ in the first place. According to Schiffman, the more they studied the ancient texts, the more they tried to ‘get inside the heads’ of the Greek and Roman thinkers, writers and artists, the more they confronted their subjects’ ‘otherness’.

It was during this process of ‘recapturing’ the ‘past’ that the importance of anachronism emerged. By this, Schiffman is referring to the idea that ‘the past’ can be defined in terms of what doesn’t fit into the present, which is essentially the definition of anachronism. And it became increasingly clear to the Renaissance scholars that however interesting and rich the Greeks and Roman civilisations were, they did not ‘fit’ into the present; in other words they were anachronisms.

And one of the key aspects of the process of constructing ‘the past’ as anachronism came about through the diligent and extensive reading and note taking of the Renaissance humanists as part of their attempt to ‘recapture’ the world of Antiquity. This process of reading and note taking focused around a distillation of the texts in order to ‘bring them alive’. The irony, however, according to Schiffman, was that this process of distillation effectively created even more of a ‘distance’ between ‘the past’ (in terms of the age when the texts were written) and ‘the present’ (in terms of when such texts were being studied). In other words, the very attempt to recapture ‘the past’ and ‘bring it alive’ ensured that it became dead and buried:

Whereas the medieval, typological habit of reading emphasized a divine purpose transecting time, the humanist habit ultimately drew attention to the otherness (what critics like Hampton call the “alterity”) of a past that appeared increasingly different from the present. Ultimately, the awareness of these differences would undermine the exemplarity of classical culture, calling into question the whole program of imitatio and, along with it, the very possibility of a living past.11

‘The past’ finally emerged in terms that we would now understand it, i.e. as ‘somewhere else back then’, in the eighteenth century. According to Schiffman the final nail in the coffin with regards to a ‘living past’ was the idea that historical events could be systematised and related to one another, and from this the idea of a ‘unified past’ (and history) emerged. A key aspect of this systematisation was the use mathematical thinking, and especially what Schiffman describes as ‘number thinking’. Schiffman traces the origins of this idea back to Descartes, and is based on the idea that relationships between entities (including human activities and events) can be quantified and expressed mathematically. And Schiffman cites Montesquieu as one of the key writers and thinkers who established a relational view of history:

By establishing the relations between human entities, Montesquieu effectively fixed them in their contexts. In other words, he established them in their appropriate settings, from which henceforth they could not be removed without essentially dislocating them. In sum, he laid the foundation for a sustained idea of anachronism that distinguished systematically between past and present. What a great irony it is that the past as an intellectual object was midwifed by number thinking!12

By the end of the eighteenth century what one might call the ‘historicised past’ finally emerges.13 This is the idea that ‘history’ refers to a temporal flow of events, stretching back into ‘the past’. One of the key aspects of this historical approach to ‘the past’ was the idea that events had to be understood in their (cultural) context. When things are taken out of their context they appear anachronistic and don’t ‘fit’ into what we would understand as ‘the present’:

Fourteenth-and fifteenth-century Italian humanists had developed a local sense of anachronism-an awareness of the differences between ancient Rome and modern Italy-with which they attempted to reinvigorate classical ideals for application to the modern world…….By transposing the sense of anachronism from the narrow temporal realm of the Italian humanists to a much broader cultural realm, Montesquieu transformed it into a sustained and systematic feature of understanding. The past emerged from this intellectual shift, after which things taken out of context began to appear, in every sense of the word, “funny.”14

What, what one may reasonably ask at this point, has any of this to do with psychoanalysis? A great deal, I would argue. And this goes back to the idea that in psychoanalysis ‘the past’ occupies a rather peculiar position. On the one hand, at least in the popular view of psychoanalysis, ‘the past’ is its main focus – too much so many would argue. Psychoanalysis appears to be obsessed with the past, with origins, with childhood experiences, and so on. On the other hand, this ‘past’ is not all that it seems, and this is where I think Schiffman’s arguments can offer a way of recognising the problematic nature of this ‘past’; both in terms of history in general, and psychoanalytic history in particular.

If we go back to St Augustine for a moment, we recall that he viewed ‘the past’ in terms of human memory rather than something ‘out there’. It was through recollection, through going into the depths of his soul, that Augustine thought he could (re) discover God. I would argue that in psychoanalysis aims at something similar, although perhaps in a more secular form. ‘The past’ in psychoanalysis is recollection, remembering. And to be absolutely clear here: I am not arguing that ‘the past’ is what is recollected, remembered; rather, ‘the past’ is the recollection, the remembering itself. Furthermore, this emphasis on recollection also highlights the subjective nature of history, and the role that consciousness plays in constructing history.

The other interesting aspect of Augustine’s thought is his eschatological view of history. In other words, for Augustine, and for many earlier Christians their real concern was not this life but the life to come, and particularly about encountering the Last Judgement, the end of history. Both ‘the past’ and ‘the present’ were framed in these terms. In many ways, such an eschatological position was an extreme version of the ring compositions encountered in texts of Antiquity; a ‘looping back’ from the present (or in the case of Augustine from the future) to the past.

And this concept of a ‘looping back’ in time, so to speak, resonates closely with what tends to be a rather understated, but in my view fundamental, Freudian concept: that of ‘afterwardness’ or ‘deferred action’. (Nachträglichkeit). I will be exploring this rather peculiar concept in more detail in a later writing but for the time being the key point to bear in mind is that in psychoanalysis, as with Augustine, the future determines the past, not the other way round……

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  1. Schiffman, Z.S. 2007. The Birth of the Past (digital edition). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. []
  2. ibid p.35 []
  3. ibid p.37 []
  4. ibid p.38 []
  5. Alan Kirby 2009. Digimodernism: how new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture. New York: Continuum Publishing Group. []
  6. Schiffman, op cit. p.97 []
  7. ibid p.103 []
  8. ibid, p.104, italics in original []
  9. ibid, pp.117-8 []
  10. ibid, p.119 []
  11. ibid, p.171 []
  12. ibid, p.252 []
  13. My term.  Reinhart Koselleck uses the term ‘history itself’, which is essentially the area in which events transpire. Koselleck, R. 2004. Futures past: on the semantics of historical time. New York: Columbia University Press. []
  14. ibid p.289 []

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