David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country

Lowenthal observes that our concept of the past is one that evolved in the late 18th century. “During most of history men scarcely differentiated past from present, referring even to remote events, if at all, as though they were then occurring.” The continuity and relevance of the past as a source of knowledge, models and “comparative lessons” gave way to a past valued for its “emblems of communal identity.” I recall my shock at learning, in an architectural history course, how marble, statuary and other precious fragments of ancient Rome were regularly salvaged and reused by artists and architects of the Renaissance. “Preservation has deepened our knowledge of the past but dampened creative use of it. . . Our own more numerous and exotic pasts, prized as vestiges, are divested of the iconographic meanings they once embodied. It is no longer the presence of the past that speaks to us, but its pastness. Now a foreign county with a booming tourist trade, the past has undergone the usual consequences of popularity. The more appreciated for its own sake, the less real or relevant it becomes.”

What is the use of the past?


25 responses to “David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country

  1. The past is a subject of merit. First, how much do we really know about the past? We cling to the relics and findings that represent “something” of the past and yet, we weren’t there (unless you believe in….) and so we attempt to reconstruct a knowledge based on the invisible. We kid ourselves about what it was like until we learn that somewhere it is still culturally alive, similar to how it always was, and find that those who still live it are understandably annoyed by our naivety, but this is another subject. The past is a crystal ball, no, the past is our crystal ball in every sense possible (my thoughts). As people we search and imagine and try to bring back what happened, but why? For me, it is the meaningfulness that the event represented. Culturally, we are going to have trouble with the duplication of how it really took place, we live in a different world, yet, the search for meaning remains the same. Lowenthal makes reference to a time when man/woman referred to the past as if it wasn’t really the past at all, but rather a “remote event”. I wonder, however, if maybe further, further back it wasn’t perhaps referred to in the same context we do today (long before Lowenthal was born). To answer the question, “What is the use of the past?”, I would once again reiterate, “to have a crystal ball for the future”.

    • The past is subject to merit, for to be a slave to the past is to loose the future. The contemporary historical dilectic seems to have swung heavily towards to present and future. However, more recently, individuals have began to appreciate the value of the past, its mores, traditions and place in modern society.

  2. The past teaches people who they were and what they can be. It also teaches who they are in the moment. Lowenthal states, the “past is alive…we remake it and it remakes us” (xxv). It helps us cope with problems by giving stories of hope and courage. We hopefully learn from mistakes. But in looking to the past for answers, sometimes we skew the truth of it because of our hopes and needs for answers. I agree with lmjjones; the past is a “crystal ball for the future” because, especially in America, nostalgia leads to retro trends in everything from politics to fashion. (for more: http://wp.me/pU81y-E ).

    Lowenthal points out that while 19th Century preservation evolved from antiquarian quirks, the 20th C preservation aims to save heritage. Pride in our past does sometimes come from, again, skewed, slightly changing retelling of history, but that history helps us go foward.

    This part of the piece reminded me of the PBS special about our National Parks and Roosevelt’s demands for preserving America’s natural wonders. The parks represent American ideals and characteristics. They show how America developed, the kinds of hardships trailblazers faced, and the place to which we can return for solitude and peace. That idea applies to really any kind of landmark. Landmarks and historical districts remind us that we should not take for granted what we have.

    Finally, the types of sources Lowenthal uses for his book are interesting. He uses sources that range from fiction to autobiographies. That offers the most cohesive, encompassign view of history, but also reminds us, as “Stranger Than Fiction” indicates, that the truth comes in many forms and the ultimate truth is an amalgam of all beliefs.

    • Hey Christina,
      Thanks for acknowledging the crystal ball concept I had. I really wish at times I had one handy to make good decisions, maybe because I have made so many mistakes in my life (like everyone does). The longer I live the more I want to look into the future and yet, there sits the past, with all the similar experiences and lessons. Now, just to contradict the whole notion, have you ever heard how many experts in physics (when asked) say that a time machine would only be possible for going into the future, but not for going into the past? (ok, I digress something terrible) Now back to your comments on Lowenthal, the one that caught my attention was the comment on National Parks. “Landmarks and historical districts remind us that we should not take for granted what we have”. Did you come up with that or did Roosevelt say it, ha? Either way, I like it, it is a really strong and yet humble comment. Now, we share at least two things in common, one, my mind flies to other situations (or movies) when I am thinking of something. For instance, right now as I think about National Parks and their meaning for us all I think of the song by Neil Young, “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” where he has a verse that sings, “don’t let it bring you down, it is only castles burning, find someone whose turning and you will come around.” What are the castles burning he refers to? Is someone out there thinking, “they are only National Parks, give me a break lmjjones”. For me, the castles are something important and yet, what does Simon really think? Oh…..and the second commonality we have, it is the 20th for me as well. It is going to be fun, there will be you, me, and a whole bunch of other crazy son of a guns being students instead of teachers, go Richard Hanley! Later, Lee

      • The landmarks comment is mind. Roosevelt said a whole lot of good stuff, too, though. Neil Young seems to be obsessed with things burning. As for a bunch of teachers as students, wow, all the instructors for this program are very brave souls.

  3. jeanarrington

    I haven’t gotten the book yet. It’s on hold at the library. I know I could read the ten pages online, but so much prefer hard copy.

  4. Without the past there would be no present, no now, no you or me or society. The past has become more present and more important than ever because we can use digitized information and tap into knowledge in the present to an extent that was impossible with print resources. The past is more useful and more real everyday. Look at how people study the markets as a continuous lesson in the flows of capital. An architect or even a librarian today finds too much information from the past rather than too little. The problem becomes curating what is needed or inspiring or wanted from the oceanic archival structures emerging in the new electronic world. On a more soulful note, the past can help us see everyday life, the worm’s eye view is also valuable to humankind. The past can also remain our reference for our own identity in the face of rapid change. The lyracist for the Grateful Dead said we are all immigrants in our children’s world.

    Ira Sachs made a movie called Last Address that documents the last NYC addresses of artists who died of AIDS. It is simple and beautiful. Artists ‘memorialize’ culture in the present, appropriating and fusing symbolic codes in art or simply evoking memory as a strategy.
    See Last Address on YouTube accessed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKKeWsMyDXQ

  5. Did you all see the story about the toxic legacy of the past and its continued presence in Redhook, Brooklyn? The park by the chemical plant has unacceptable pollution levels, PCBs, and people picnic and play there all the time.

  6. One of the reasons our concept of the past didn’t evolve until so late was because our ancestors didn’t have our ability to conceptualize time. Our notion of time and the past began with the introduction of the printing press. As the availability of printed material expanded, the discovery of the past as a remote place distant from us grew. Before then, a medieval monk could look at a Roman looking statue and not able to know if he was looking at something ancient or something made in his lifetime. He wouldn’t have had the elaborate systems we do to categorize, inventory, date and sort all that was around him.

    In that context, what Lowenthal saw in the last couple of hundred years isn’t really unique. Our desire to know the past isn’t much different from the one that existed 500 years ago, or 10000 years ago. In all of them, looking backward is an attempt to preserve ourselves. If we remember our ancestors, then their memories live on through us. If we do it, it implies our descendants will do it as well, and we will live on through them. I think the tension between preservation and innovation that Lowenthal described is less due to some Freudian struggle and more do to the dynamic between living and being remembered. Do we want to spend our time living our lives or planning our memorials.

    • Babu, I loved your comment, powerful. We have many systems for organizing information and labeling it so that people can find it and participate in knowlede. The responsibility for the construction of knowledge still resides with the user, who has already consented to the title, author, time, date, place, notes schema. We seek to preserve ourselves. Yes. I hope we can continue this discussion in person.

  7. The past may indeed be a foreign country, as Lowenthal suggests. But I also think that the past is a window. Within that window, we can see a reflection of ourselves, however hazy that image might be. If we take keen observation of what lies beyond the window, we can deepen our understandings of what exists beyond it.

    Lowenthal mentions that the “pasts we alter or invent are as prevalent and consequential as those we try to preserve”. In coming back to the analogy of the window, we may try to beautify or improve upon the original as it ages. This is significant because what we decide to do with the window as it ages reveals as much about us as it does about the window itself. Similarly, what we decide to do with the past reveals as much ourselves as it does about the past itself, and regardless of how this is approached, it does have relevance and usefulness.

  8. I’m jumping in a bit late here, but fascinating readings and discussion. The use of the past? They are as multiples as the abuses of the past. The crystal ball and window images that have been used here are good, but unfortunately limited because there are so many other variables. Other variables might include the vision of the one looking in as well as the attitude/mindset of each of those persons.

  9. Diane Whitney

    I was compelled to read more of Lowenthal, as he dealt in his book with why we love the past, are drawn to it, must study it, must own tokens of the past. I enjoyed his discussion of why nostalgia has, at one point, been a cause for serious illness, and how nostalgia is what draws people to historic sites and landmarks. Is this also why people collect and eventually even hoard?
    In SWANN’S WAY, Marcel Proust describes how the taste of a madeleine and hot tea take him clearly and distinctly back to his childhood. At first he is confused as to why he is overwhelmed with a wonderful, soothing emotion when he tastes the cake and tea. Then, through free association (thanks, Sigmund!) he “remembers”. The memory is from his childhood, when, as a boy of about seven, he would visit his aunt, and she would serve the tasty treat to him. He is then vividly able to recall the room, the house, the street, her face and all of the relevant positive feelings. Ah, the power of sensory memory!

    • Ah, Diane, but was the memory real, or was it reconstructed out of bits of other memories to make a cohesive whole and explain his current state?

  10. Christina mentions that she finds the sources Lowenthal uses ranging from fiction to autobiography very interesting. I, too found his interdisciplinary approach a wonderful way to broach this topic. But I found myself looking for Faulkner here – “Memory believes before know remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”

    In his introduction, Lowenthal catalogs a list of what he calls “painful dilemmas” in the use of history: it is at once supportive & burdensome; enriching & impoverishing; salvaged & contrived; beneficial & baneful; revered & rejected, etc. Yes, these are “dilemmas”, but they are also simple dichotomies, and I wondered if we moved beyond and toward something less either/or we might be able to find a richer use for incompatible, varied histories. This brought my thinking back to what we will actually be standing on and studying soon, and I thought that studying the Brooklyn Bridge- an actual, physical bridge- is so metaphorical and rich when considering these “dilemmas.”

  11. I appreciate Lowenthal’s recognition of the present in our efforts to preserve the past. It reminds me of Barber’s recognition of the global that resides in assertions of the local. When studying the preservation of formerly industrial sites, both readings seem so relevant … and related.

  12. So maybe there is no such thing as “history” because of all the distortions, inaccuracies, Roshomon views. We can probably all cite evidence of that in our own lives and experience, but I’ve never really thought about whether ANY history can be trusted. All the new studies of memory, false memory, selective memory, etc. lend credence to this view.

    Certainly I’ve cringed as I’ve seen the political upheaval of my college days, which brought about huge social and legal changes in our society, reduced to “tie-dyed tee shirt day” at daycamp. Perhaps it’s our all-too-human need for closure that pushes us to categorize, compartmentalize, modify, and sanitize the past so that we can accept it (however we understand it) and move on, which seems to be what life is about. Do we move on wiser? Hard to see the evidence sometimes.

  13. Why do I keep thinking about the Antique Road Show when I read this material? Mid-century vintage modern, anyone?

    I don’t see the past as a foreign country, any more than our childhoods are foreign countries. They are places that have shaped us, infused us with ideas/myths/stories, and continually interject themselves into the present. Since someone already played the Faulkner card, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    A foreign country is somewhere that we can visit but that is different than where we are now. The past is somewhen that we cannot visit that affected how we got to now. Only by understanding it can we grapple with where we should go from here.

  14. Dale T. Adams

    While I have no profundities about the use of the past, I have generally held that Shakespeare said it as profoundly and succcinctly as need be: “The past is prologue.” Nevertheless, I was indeed profoundly enlightened by Lowenthal’s “Introduction.” And “The Past Is a Foreign Country” is indeed an enlightening metaphor. We don’t really know the true past–our best historians notwithstanding. We merely view the past with rose-colored glasses of the present, if I read Lowenthal correctly, and we are prisoners of nostalgia. And I readily admit that I have been one of those devotees to “fictional returns to previous times” beginning for me with “You Are There,” the need to know the accuracy of each episode sending me to the history books that I–would Lowenthal claim naively–thought held the truth of the past. I may be an accidental but reluctant tourist in that “past as foreign country,” but I want my experiences with the past to be more authentic than that. And for me, experiencing historic preservation is about as authentic as it’s going to get.

  15. Lowenthal’s guiding question for his 1979 symposium, “Why, after all, do people want to save things?” seemed disarmingly simple. We are, perhaps, prone to say that we preserve the past to learn from it, to avoid previous mistakes. I liked the turn his research took, toward the notion of the “yearned-for past,” the past as imaginative journey. Then, of course, there is also the political issue of the patrimony; digging up relics from the past can provide evidence to substantiate arguments in support of claims of rightful ownership. All of these impulses are at play: the practical, the imaginative, and the strategic.

    Mostly, Lowenthal’s analogy between “efforts to recall and refashion a praiseworthy if not glorious past” to that of the individual who tries to “construct a viable and believable life history” struck me as a valid one. It is only human to grapple with issues of cognitive dissonance, to attempt to reconcile the past with the perceived present and lay a foundation for a desired future.

  16. I wanted to share something relevant that I found reading the May 9, 2010 New York Times Art and Leisure section story entitled “Who Draws the Borders of Culture?”

    Regarding the concept of “past” I thought this quote was very relevant:
    ” Mostly, though, the issue comes down to the fact that culture, while it can have deeply rooted, special meanings to specific people, doesn’t belong to anyone in the grand scheme of things. When Walter Benjamin wrote in the last century about the original or authentic work of art losing its aura, he was in part suggesting that the past is not something we can just return to whenever we like–it’s not something fixed and always available. It’s something forever beyond our grasp, which we must reinvent to make present. William C. (urban888).

  17. I’m joining in late on this one. I was buried in end-of-the-semester duties. I’ve enjoyed the previous posts, though, and have pondering this on two levels–one very micro and the other macro. I divorced last summer and got when I left all the family antiques that I brought to the marriage (of almost 29 years)–and not much else. I have found so much comfort this last year in these objects from my childhood that connect me to my personal past, and they created such an immediate sense of home in my new place. Everywhere I look, I see things that were my great-great-aunt Elise’s, my Grandma Esther’s, my Grandma Wangsness’s, my great-aunt Ruth’s, my mom and dad’s, etc. I have several things that were in the bedroom that my sister and I shared growing up, so I have memories of her surrounding me. So I guess preserving such personal artifacts has kept me tied to my family and the childhood that created who I am. (I recognize, however, that my memory of my childhood is seen through a rose-colored lens that only slightly resembles the reality–reconstructed by the person I am today looking back at it.))

    Now on a much more macro level, I read a great book by Chris Bojhoulian (I think I massacred the spelling of that) called Skeletons at the Feast that threads together three or four storylines of people who lived through (and actually in some cases didn’t) the Holocaust. It’s historical fiction and brought that past so to life in its human dimensions. It reminded me of how we need to understand the past so that we’re not doomed to repeat it but also of how more broadly it illuminates the human experience.

    By the way, I appreciated the reference to the Ken Burns documentary on the national parks, too. It really is true that the older you get, the more you appreciate history, especially when brought to life so vividly. I loved that series this winter.

  18. As a history teacher, I frequently ask students questions such as, What is history? or Why study history? The question “What is the use of the past?” can be part of the ensuing discussion. The Lowenthal reading helps us think about how the past is created (and then re-created) and for what larger purpose or purposes. I particularly appreciated the connections made between the historical conception of the past as a “different realm” alongside the growth/development of nation-states. How do we begin thinking about the “use of the past” and the relationship between this past and particular political goals that are part of the process of nation building? What is included and excluded from the broad narrative of a “national” past?

    Earlier this afternoon I was listening to an NPR broadcast addressing the issue of whether or not “ethnic studies” programs should be part of elementary and secondary education. Some people argued that ethnic studies could be divisive and did not encourage all people to see themselves first as “Americans” and second as members of particular ethnic groups. Others argued that, indeed, ethnic studies made visible to ethnic minorities the role their ancestors played in the building of the nation and instilled pride to be an American. At times, the debate was rather heated. At any rate, it was an interesting discussion/debate and one that brought current relevance to Lowenthal’s writing.

    I also couldn’t help thinking about Lowenthal’s arguments in light of the current debates in Texas concerning what should and should not be part of the history textbooks used in Texas. These two issues are issues that could be vigorously discussed within the context of one of the themes of Lowenthal’s book, “How the past alike enriches and impoverishes us, and the reasons we embrace or shun it.”

  19. I’ve been offline for days nursing a sinus infection and trying to cover a million things I fell behind in.

    We discussed this article in my class – I’m teaching Sociology of Popular Culture and we’re focusing on the way in which politics makes use of popular culture as a soft power, further honing in on patterns of globalization.

    I’m sharing some of the readings with students because we’ll continue to be in session through the 15th of June and I’ve built this event into the course. This is one of the readings I’ve asked them to check out.

    One can observe the past as a malleable force that has been and continues to be manipulated to serve how we choose to remember it. Obviously, it’s remembered loosely and in many different ways. Pleasantly defining atrocities, for example, or something as innocent as a scent bringing back a feeling of safety.

    I think of the use of nostalgia as a tool for remembering the past in particular ways. I also wondered about ways in which the past shapes artifacts themselves as representative of particular sorts of pasts and historical contexts.

    What is our role with the past? It’s a tool for our memory, but for what?

    I appreciated the author’s comments about the process of writing the book as a journey of sorts. He, like every writer, has contributed to shaping the past through his own experience and memory. I enjoyed reading this and continue to consider our “rage to preserve.”

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