The art of creating the past

“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” – Jorge Luis Borges

Traces of Kafka, Borges writes, can be found across previous generations and cultures. He is in the works of Zeno, Han Yu, Kierkegaard and Browning. Each of those authors can be considered Kafka’s precursors. But if Kafka had never been, nor could any of his precursors contain traces of his work. They would have been no precursors at all.

In this way, the present creates the past. We interpret and our interpretation conjures up millennia of history and art and literature. From the here and now, we dream our escape to the not-here and the not-now, the elsewhere – an escape that, in being a dream, is no less and no more fiction than any other.

Borges was not supplying a thesis of historical relativism – just a statement “de una verdad literal”, of a literal truth. The past is shaped by the present, with the corollary that the present is directed by the past. His focus was primarily on the history of poetry, with the implication that he, a Latin American author, was in someway able to influence the Western literary tradition with his work.

TS Eliot writes about tradition too, saying, “The poet…must be aware that the mind of Europe – is a mind which changes and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route”. Change happens, but change is not loss.

The Tanakh was once only the canon of the Hebrew Bible; it is now also the foundation of the Old Testament. The American Civil War was to many a battle over state rights, but the victors write the history books: now, it was fought and won over slavery. The story of artists gaining fame and recognition only years after their death is a common one. Van Gogh died penniless, having sold but one work.

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The personal is itself the historical. Take the friend you once thought to be honest, but was revealed to be otherwise. Your view of her does not only change going forward. Your past impressions are reformed as well. Sometimes the past can be rewritten dramatically: We were not placed at the centre of the cosmos by a deity. We make revolutions around the sun in one infinitesimally small corner of the universe. Humans did not appear on this earth fully formed. We evolved from apes over the course of millions of years.

These changes in the narrative are not progress. They are no more than revisions. We might think they’re good ones today; it might be realised that they were rotten ones tomorrow. But for right now, in this present, we have our story – one that allows us escape to daydreams, to reveries and fantasies.

As cultures, we embrace great illusions. Elide our faults, laud our strengths. We find comfort in these lieux de mémoire, each people sharing a collective remembrance. Tragedies are transcribed so as to make them palatable; we reinforce each other in times of doubt and of fear.

And I, how many hours must I spend at my desk thinking about the past? The time slips by. In the act of reflection, of scribbling each day’s notes and memories in that small black-bound journal, I cement an account of time passed. I analyse, forgetting for a minute, for an hour, that analysis is interpretation and interpretation, revision. And as I write, I provide myself escape: one day by allowing overindulgence in misery, the next by celebrating my smallest accomplishments. I am writing a fiction, but it is my fiction – and also my reality. I find myself free in the elsewhere of the past.

Borges is famous for how he quoted previous authors. He was loose with their words, adding phrases, modifying them, transplanting sentences from one page to another. He did this in his translations too. He did not say he was making the changes, either; he merely made them.

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What he recognised, I think, is that our history is not immutable, an intransigent obstacle with which we must grapple. He was free with other authors’ words because he saw that in being so, he could alter the narrative little by little so that it would read more like how he thought it should. There is honesty and deceit in this. Deceit, in the overt manipulation of someone else’s text and presenting it sans acknowledgement of having done so. But honesty in not disingenuously agreeing to tradition against his own interpretation. Borges pitted societal fable against his own; the latter won.

So let me conclude with Eliot’s words: “The appearance of a new work of art affects all those works of art that preceded it. The order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered. The past is altered by the present, created again in each moment imperceptibly different but after long enough, unrecognisable.”