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The Middle Distance

Between the present and the past is more of the past. This submerged past is the difference between history and hindsight. History raises it; hindsight floats over it. History, plodding, myopic, keeps its eyes on the ground, watches every step. Hindsight, presbyopic, stumbles over a fuzzy path to a past in clear focus. History is a discipline, attained by few; hindsight is a faculty, born with all.

It is easier to sympathize with the young dead than the old living. Death is a return to youth. The stories of the dead are the stories of what they did with their strength; the rest is epilogue and aftermath. But we cannot help seeing the living, not for what they have done, but for what they have become.

The dead cannot refuse our sympathy and admiration. We can bestow it freely, without fear of rejection. But the living can still refuse us, still embarrass us. This makes for a strange blind spot. Not seeing the immediate supports of history – not seeing the wires that hold us up – we see history as if we floated free from it, as if may choose whatever antecedent we like, whichever lessons we want to hear; part of hindsight’s audience, not history’s procession.

The past we can quote, the past we can restore, the past we may yet repeat – these are the pasts of hindsight. The past, like wood, must dry out to be useful. Green, wet history is easiest to shape – consider how many shapes the legacy of, say, a living former President can be carved into, and how fast the changes can be made – but as it dries it warps, cracks, and splits. Memoir and journalism are hothouse arts, coercing early and transient blooms. Lasting work can only be done in dry wood, once the life has left it.

Remember with Bacon that it is we (we much more than he) who are the ancients, not those who lived innocently in the youth of the world. We have had a long time to learn. It is not enough to quote Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad without being able to say how present evils came to be despite the Sage Emperors and the Apostles and the Best Generations.

We are nearsighted when we look forward, farsighted when we look backward. Renovators and restorers always favor one past over another. The fans of old music and old movies are fans of the music and movies of their grandfathers’ day, not their fathers’. Anglospherically, to the Victorians the Regency was more remote than the Elizabethans; to the Gilded Age the Civil War was more remote than the Revolution; to the Elizabethans and Founders alike, the true past was Roman. William Shakespeare is less remote to me than Samuel Johnson; but to see Shakespeare quoted in Johnson’s dictionary opens a chasm under my feet.

The past is easier for us to understand than the present, not because the past was simpler than the present, but because we do not have to convince ourselves that it is worth living in. We can face nakedly what was unbearable in it. Only one uncommonly cruel can judge a life wasted before it is over; and so true historical judgment is reserved until what it studies is over, not just in its events, but in its needful illusions.

Hindsight and history both connect the present and the past; only history connects the past with the past. The past held the seeds of the present; but it also held the seeds of what was yet the future, having become our past. The Germany of the Bundesrepublik was implicit in the Germany of Goethe; but it was there beside the Germany of the last Kaiser, and the Germany of Weimar, and the Germany of the last Reichskanzler. All the doors were open, and no one knew which ones opened on dead ends. We have shut these doors with such great effort that it seems almost sacrilegious to imagine them open. But there is the difference between history and hindsight.