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This article is taken from PN Review 125, Volume 25 Number 3, January - February 1999.

On the Past and its Present Moment Clive Wilmer

Independence you had better cease to talk of, for you are dependent not only on every act of people whom you never heard of, who are living round you, but on every past act of what has been dust for a thousand years. So also, does the course of a thousand years to come, depend upon the little perishing strength that is in you.
Ruskin, Fors Clavigera

I wonder if any age in history has prided itself as ours does on being modern. Most previous eras have invoked some ancient time as the source of taste and wisdom - it is from this habit, after all, that we derive the notion of the Classic - yet the modern age, as its very adoption of the word 'modern' suggests, regards itself as final, unprecedented, a point of arrival. There is something paradoxical in this. It could be argued that no other period has ever been more conscious of historical process. Yet in practice we think of the past as a single lump and of our world as the culmination of history: there is no further to go - we are not very hopeful, but we do not look back on anyone with reverence. As a result, the contemporary world is left with the oxymoron 'post-modern' as the only available category for itself. It is almost like living a posthumous existence.

I am not going to pretend that our predicament is one we can ...

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