Tourists in the past

Thomas Cromwell

I’m thinking a lot about the past. Specifically, about how we write about it. Claire Trévien wrote a blog post for the Poetry School about ‘poetry tourism’, talking about the dreaded Holiday Poem and other forms of unthinking cultural appropriation. Your idyll is the maid’s poverty, etc. The article exhorts poets to question themselves before writing:

… does this mean we can never write about cultures that are not our own or include them in our poetry? No, that would make for an insular experience that does not reflect the blurred boundaries of the modern world, but some questions need to be asked:

  • Are you unknowingly feeding into tired stereotypes?

  • Are you ventriloquising an entire culture that you are only vaguely acquainted with?

  • Would you be better served promoting or translating current writers from that culture who are not well known enough?

As I read this I thought of the past; after all, it’s the place I go to most often. I thought of all the twaddle people talk about it.

Look at what Hilary Mantel achieved with Tudor London in Wolf Hall. A strange, miraculously familiar world. People’s motivations are like ours. You understand them even though most of their ideas are radically different. Their relationship to emotion is different. The parameters of action are different: what sex and marriage are for, what people can expect of other people (more than we can, seemingly) and what they can’t (some things we would take for granted now). An over-the-top outfit. A planned career path. A basket. A good mea and how to cook it. What is revealed by these shifting boundary lines is common ground.

Many people have airily dismissed the books, saying that Mantel has ‘the hots for’ or ‘a crush on’ Cromwell, that it’s ‘fangirl’ stuff, that he’s her ‘pinup’. They don’t think she can simply be interested in complicated people, in pain, in the difference between our internal and external selves, and humanise a Machiavellian man. She’s not in love with him; she is him.

I’ve talked to someone who thinks Mantel ‘can’t write men’. Why not? Because the men in the book ‘sound effeminate’ – because they express emotion, and they are superstitious and believe in astrology! (Of course, it’s 200 years before the Enlightenment, and even Jefferson, that über-radical, had slaves and believed in God.) Others have said they didn’t like the book because it failed their expectations of it to be like a ‘proper historical novel’ – i.e., a romance. It’s too political. So, not really like ‘the past’, then…

There’s an apocryphal thing on the internet about ‘where common sayings came from‘, talking about the primitive brutality of ‘life in the 1500s’. The first one I saw was illustrated with a famous photograph of a dustbowl sharecropper’s family by Walker Evans. All down the comments, people were swallowing it: hook, line, sinker. You have to ask what kind of idiot can’t tell ‘the 1500s’ apart from a photograph of the Depression. I spent an afternoon apoplectically typing – if that’s a thing – as if you could hold back that tide.

The word ‘weird’ gets used a lot in these kinds of conversations about the past. Freaky traditions form the past, weird habits of the past, creepy Halloween costumes from the past, crazy ideas of the past, anti-semites, child abusers, male chauvinist pigs, racists , alcoholics, co-dependents, smokers of the past. There was a picture of a store in 1860s Atlanta, Georgia, that held slave auctions. People were saying it shouldn’t even be shown. Too weird. Too taboo. We can’t even look at it or it might rub off.

A friend of my brother’s was arguing the toss vociferously the other day, saying he doesn’t have to get his kids immunised because measles is so rare that they’re unlikely to get it. The argument went round until he said, ‘Arguments about “for the good of society” take a back seat to “what is best for my kid”.’ Even Thomas Cromwell understood society as a commonality. The deaths of my brother’s friend’s ancestors from diseases he can now afford to be smug about aren’t very important to him, because they were just ‘people from the (weird, stupid) past’, and they bought him his consumerist apathy. 

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who lost both her brother and her quite considerable looks to smallpox. She later returned from her husband’s diplomatic posting to the Ottoman Empire in 1717 so excited and convinced about the wonders of inoculation (or ‘variolation’, as they called it) that she publicly had her own small daughter’s vein opened and injected with the (at that stage, quite rudimentary and weird) vaccine. But that’s just me.

Mary Wortley Montagu is a good case in point, actually; not only is she in that distant and exotic land, the Past, she also is chiefly known for her letters from distant and exotic lands. She was the ambassadress, so what she saw in Istanbul may have been carefully presented; but she described vividly, never patronised, and was quick to point out the failings of British life in her hostess’ eyes. In short, she had a lively curiosity and a clear mind.

Chekhov said: ‘The artist must be an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge.’Watching ‘Mad Men’ when it first started (I long ago gave up) was a model lesson on how utterly remote the recent past is. It only takes one generation to lose something that everyone just ‘knew’, and from there it’s a puddle jump to making stuff up. Either you think they were ‘like us’, or you assume the worst. There was an egregious littering scene that made me sputter for days. Nobody did that! Okay, look at my dad. He smoked up to three packs a day, and when they banned smoking in the staff room he started a smoking club. He was a political smoker. And it was the smoking that killed him, though not till 79 (and arguably the drinking was what preserved him till that age). The thing is, he wasn’t smoking from Now – he was smoking from the days of ‘Our Gang’.  It was just normal. Everything was fine. 

As Michael Donaghy wrote in ‘The Present’: ‘this very moment, as you read this line, is literally gone before you know it’. If you wait around until you understand the moment, whoosh – it’s gone. And by the way, Donaghy put the length of ‘the present’ – the moment you can be in without being aware of time passing – as three seconds. We’re almost as far away from 1960 now as 1960 was from Queen Victoria. We don’t realise the extent to which our own cultural assumptions – the things we know we know – are just flares. We’re sitting on top of an iceberg.

Every generation sits on the iceberg. Nothing was ever inevitable. Nothing was ever anything but a surprise while it was happening. People muddle along and do their best, based on what their parents taught them, what they see around them, and what their friends and the papers say. On the weather, the state of their health,  what’s for dinner. It’s as precarious as it sounds.

Ultimately, I take Claire’s reminder about ‘checking your privilege’ simply to mean being willing to go outside your own space. And this the difference between good writing and writing that’s intrinsically empty. (I apologise for using the hierarchical word ‘good’. It’s a signifier. I think there are culturally established parameters for what kind of thing we mean.) Good writing is about looking around you and seeing what you see – really looking, with curiosity and personal investment. Good writing goes deep – even the light stuff. Good writing calls on both information and intuition. It relies on the precariousness.

Personally, I find the current moment as strange as anything else I’ve ever encountered. Why shy away from the others? At least we’ve had a chance to think about them. Good writing about the past – even more than reading it, and even if it’s your own past (as Rick Moody, for example, shows in The Ice Storm) is time travel. You can’t do it unless you’re willing to slip quietly out for a bit, hoping that when you return you won’t have missed dinner…

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