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This item is taken from PN Review 12, Volume 6 Number 4, March - April 1980.


ANYONE who casts an eye on the past, its modes and customs-even, sometimes, its literature-is likely to be accused, sooner or later, of living in it, and such is the force of rhetoric that people forget that this is impossible. There are in fact only different ways of living in the present, and more or less exact ways of viewing the past. The real question about the past is not whether one should live in it but whether one should forget it. Most of the past is of course forgotten. The overwhelming bulk of history and pre-history is forgotten, no doubt mercifully; not that it can be assumed, on that account, to have no influence on the present. But something is remembered, and to live in the memory of men is one of the most persistent, if pathetically hopeless, wishes of mankind, so that there is at least a dramatic truth in Dante when he represents people in eternity as hankering after a mention in the current gossip of Florence. There is more to this than the vanity of individuals who will inexorably be forgotten, for memory is the mother of the muses. Not only would the mind of a man not in some measure open to the traditions of the past be impoverished-such a mind is strictly inconceivable. All our forms of thought, even the discriminations of our senses, depend upon forms handed down to us, and it is utterly impossible for anyone to express "himself", or to express anything, without putting his hand into this treasury. So when someone presents himself as the apologist of the present, as if he had some special entitlement to this role because of his disregard of the past, the only question he raises is how little you need to know, in order to appear even compos mentis. As for those who claim that they do not care about the past because their eyes are on the future, that too is merely a form of rhetoric, and is strictly not to be taken as any more than that.

One of the fatuities of the twentieth century is the pretension sometimes advanced-even sometimes by people calling themselves educationists-that the study of literature should concentrate on the present and that the past should be treated as diverting attention from what people ought now to be caring about. It is worth reflecting that the present, in the proper sense of the term, has no literature, so that what is really being contended is that only the recent past should count. This is so silly that the idea could not have attained the diffusion it has if it did not serve various political purposes and flatter a great many ignorances. Of course those who care for richness and variety, and those who find pleasure in sharpening their perception of the world of their day will want to acquaint themselves with the variants and contrasts afforded by what has been thought in other times and places. They will moreover be conscious that it is only in this way that they can have a few glimmerings of what has produced the European mind of their day-the English, Scottish or Welsh minds-as far as there are such entities, and of what lies at the back of their own minds.

When it comes to political thought, all the ferocities and all the imbecilities of current controversies flow in upon the scene as if the dams had broken. Yet fundamentally, the problems are not so different. It is well to know on the end of what lines we hang as we look around the world of the moment. Yet one cannot run one's fingers along these threads without people imagining that one's secret design-or indeed public campaign-is to heave up the past and plonk it down in front of us as a future to aspire to. An eminent life peer assures the world that I intend to resuscitate the Restoration settlement, and no doubt the Act of Uniformity, while he personally-as a scientist-has observed that times have changed. Others-but commoners, I fear-assert that, not content with re-establishing the past of England I design to re-model it on the pattern of a French analyst and controversialist who cast an understandably sceptical eye on the legends surrounding the Revolution of 1789. Actually, I am merely grateful for the survival of the Church and monarchy in this country and believe that the reasons for the survival of both are worth enquiry, and throw light on the way in which we should conduct our affairs now. It is an indirect light, it may be said: so, I have observed, is any other light which may be cast on our affairs by economists, sociologists and (other) scientists of various descriptions, to say nothing of prophets and rebels of varying degrees of passion and big-headedness.

It must be admitted that to anyone who sees the social and political world solely in terms of abstract rights, or who believes that it is meaningful to talk of the "individual" without reference to the society to which he belongs, neither the Church nor the monarchy can seem very important. But the crucial word is "solely", and many who find a passionate solace in these abstractions care also, and profoundly, for the actual succession and extension of people and things which constitute our history and geography. For those who do care for such matters, for the territory itself, these institutions invite enquiry and bear reflection. Any real discovery of them involves a re-discovery of loyalties which lie, and which should lie, below the surface of our explicit political discussion and which can be declared only diffidently-even though irrevocably-when they are challenged. Of course Church and monarchy do not stand or fall together, even though there are perhaps profounder psychological affinities than even the adherents of both would like to admit or be willing to confess. Of course we are far from any society in which these affinities are likely to be widely perceived. We are, as a matter of fact, also far from a state of society in which the hypothesis of the truth of the Christian religion is likely to be seriously entertained in public. The consequences of doing so would be insufficiently flattering to opinion, which is now so loudly cried up that it cannot be set aside even for the truth. It is very awkward. Yet somehow one must allow the possibility of truth-and so of doubt-while accepting that one's own opinions may not be worth very much.

One of the more tiresome manifestations of our lack of respect for the past is the wilful distortion of language for political ends. What is particularly gay about homosexuals? How idiotic to attach to that adjective a meaning so irrelevant that the word has been more than half-killed and we are left without a substitute! A more general threat is posed by those who think it a shame on women that ordinary usage allows a masculine gender where no distinction of sex is intended. Everywhere indignant people get up and declare that one must say "his or her" whenever one is not speaking exclusively of one sex or the other; that mankind does not include womankind and that one may not decently ignore the sex of a chairman. Of the political movements involved in such aberrations from common sense it is not my purpose to speak: but surely one may object to a tourniquet being put on the language to prevent it flowing where it naturally does? The movements which seek to enforce such changes are none the less political for not aiming-at least not yet-at taking over the control of states; and one should look with profound suspicion at politicians who try to change the language to suit their views. There is a good deal of philosophical nonsense about the feminist oppression. "Man" is the name of an animal; men and women actually exist, while "person" is a metaphysical notion as likely to lead us away from reality as towards it. And surely there are forces enough destroying the texture of a language as widely used as English? Need we pile on the inelegancies? Wilful usages can never be good ones, for anyone who has any sense of the radical importance of poetry.
C. H. Sisson

This item is taken from PN Review 12, Volume 6 Number 4, March - April 1980.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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