Monday, November 5, 2018

Does the Past Exist?

I have studied the works of the great Mississippi writer, William Faulkner, in depth for a long time. One statement he made has perplexed me all along. He said there is no such thing as “was.” He explained that if “was” existed, there would be no cause for grief or sorrow. He meant that we would lose nothing if the past was not past. But it is, isn’t it? What is he talking about?

St. Augustine wrote that the past is nothing but a present memory and that the future is but a present expectation. All we have, in Augustine’s view, is the “now” and once we say the word “now,” it instantly becomes part of the past. So, Augustine’s conception plays into the idea that time is fluid. The French philosopher Bergson’s conceived of time that way. To him, time is durational, not sequential. For example, when we meet someone new, we never learn about that person’s life sequentially, from birth to the present, but durationally, a little segment here and a little there. Stream-of-consciousness writing grew from that idea.

Another Frenchman, the novelist Proust, brought this durational sense to bear beautifully in his art. He coined the terms voluntary remembrance and involuntary remembrance. The voluntary kind occurs when we put forth effort to remember a name, a place, an experience or an idea. Involuntary remembrances are those seemingly forgotten moments of the past that are brought back by a sensation: a smell, a sound, a touch, a glimpse or a taste. (As an aging fellow, I find myself struggling more and more with the voluntary kind, but the involuntary ones happen easily now and more often).

For example, the smell of freshly cut watermelon brings back a specific memory of my early childhood in great detail. It happened on the porch of the old farm house in Louisiana where I lived the first part of my life. I was three years old or younger and Aunt Sarah cut open a large yellow-meat watermelon and handed me a slice. It must have been a happy experience, seeing that my joy level rises with that stimulating smell from well over a half-century later. In the same way, organ music makes me sleepy. Perhaps that is because radio soap operas came on right after noon during my childhood nap time. These programs were always introduced by organ music, full tremolo.

So, maybe Faulkner, literary giant that he was, erred in his opinion of “was.” It does exist, if only in our psyches. Shrinks make a living off the idea that nothing we ever experience is lost. We may not be able to call up any memory we want to voluntarily, but involuntary remembrances may be proof that everything is recorded. I have read books on life-after-death experiences of those who have expired and somehow revived. One constant feature of the reports is that the lives of the newly dead are reviewed—they see their entire experience on earth in a flash, non-sequentially, durationally. As suspect as many of these accounts are, they do give some credence to the fact that “was” exists. Sorry, William Faulkner, I still like you.

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