Writing: What is History?

The past is often perceived much like the strata of a rock-face, wherein successive layers of geological time can be seen. We see the past as being built from the ‘ground up’ day upon day, year upon year, century upon century, like bricks in a wall. The problem with this ‘model’ however is that it makes the past difficult to access, the lines dividing each and every moment become like barriers inhibiting our movement between one and the other, particularly where one part is stacked so far below our own in what we perceive as being the present day. Another problem with this way of perceiving the past is that the layers necessarily contain objects, buildings and landscape features which, because of their age, appear in several different layers almost as if they were different things. For example, an object made a 100 years ago, would appear in each of the layers in the diagram below (see Figure 1). It’s rather like someone creating an animation, who draws the same scene a thousand times because it appears in a thousand frames, rather than using the same picture throughout them all.

Figure 1

Whilst thinking about this and while considering the fact that any extant object, building or landscape feature, no matter what its age is always present, I realised that a better model for perceiving the past is one which turns the model above on its side – if not quite its head.

Subsequently (see Figure 2), what we have is not a series of horizontal strata representing stacked moments in time (days, months, years, centuries etc.), but concurrent vertical lines, or what I have called ‘durations’ where each duration is an object, building or landscape feature and where the present is our simultaneous perception of those that are extant (of course, in the case of buildings, individual objects can also contain many separate durations).

It was Bill Viola who said that ‘we have been living this same moment ever since we were conceived. It is memory, and to some extent sleep, that gives the impression of a life of discrete parts, periods or sections, of certain times or highlights’. Similarly we can say that every object, building or landscape feature has existed in one continuous moment and that it is to some extent the passing generations which gives the impression of the past as being a series of ‘discrete parts, periods or sections, i.e., the perceived layers or strata of our previous – first - model.


Figure 2

Access to the past therefore comes not via a kind of mental gymnastics where we straddle the horizontal strata of different moments in time, accessing a part (our object made in 1900) via the whole (the entire epoch of that particular layer e.g. 1900), but through the careful observation of a part in which the whole can be observed. As Henri Bortoft writes in The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Seeing; ‘…thus the whole emerges simultaneously with the accumulation of the parts, not because it is the sum of the parts, but because it is immanent within them’. In other words, from an object (our ‘object made in 1900’) we can extrapolate its wider context (the ‘epoch of 1900’).Instead of drilling down through many periods in time in order to get from one time to another some distance below (or behind), we simply have to observe an object we know that links the two. In this second model (Figure 2), there are no horizontal barriers, just vertical, navigable channels.

So what about history itself? As I’ve written previously, history is not what happened yesterday, a hundred years ago or more. It isn’t one-way traffic from what was to what is now. It’s an encounter; a dialogue between the past and the present, between an individual and all that went before. If we look again at our first model, we see the past and present as being static – much like a brick wall – with one layer stacked on top of another. There is very little room for movement except in the top-most layer, where, in what is the present, we live our everyday lives. If history is a dialogue between the past and the present, then we can see, in this first model, how difficult that dialogue would be; something akin to shouting into the ground and waiting for a response, rather like a dumb sort of ground-penetrating radar. With the second, vertical model however there is a much greater sense of movement. It’s fluid. The simultaneousness of durations (the present) ticks down the page like the seconds of a clock. In Paul Ricoeur’s History, Memory, Forgetting, the author writes ‘...we read in Spinoza a magnificent definition of time, or rather duration, as a continuation of existence’ [my italics]. Looking at the second model we can see this illustrated perfectly, where existence is indeed the continued simultaneousness of durations.

As individuals, we too, as Bill Viola states have been ‘living this same moment ever since we were conceived.’ We too have our own duration. But what makes us different to the many other durations existing around us is that we move through the world. Of course objects move in the sense that they are transported, but we are unique in that we are aware of our movement and our past, and that awareness to some extent comes from our progress through life. Even when we sit down we are still moving, or at least we’re in progression.

For example, if we look at our second model and imagine that we are going to walk somewhere, we can place our pen at the left side of the diagram on the level of the current line of our simultaneous perception of durations (i.e. what is the present) and, if we then start walking, bearing in mind that this line will necessarily move down the page as we walk, we will see, that by the time we reach our destination on the right hand side of the diagram (see Figure 3), we will have traced a curve across the individual durations experienced as we walked. That line is history; a dialogue or encounter between the past and the present.

Figure 3

Paul Klee famously said that to draw was to take a line for a walk. In ‘The Poetics of Space’ Gaston Bachelard wrote that ‘we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.’ And anthropologist Tim Ingold writes in ‘Lines – a Brief History’, that ‘Human beings also leave reductive traces in the landscape, through frequent movement along the same route… The word writing originally referred to incisive trace-making of this kind.’ By walking and leaving our reductive traces on the ground therefore, whilst tracing a curve through simultaneous durations as described above, we could be said to be writing or drawing ourselves upon the landscape – writing or drawing our own history.

In a way, the simultaneousness of durations becomes a duration in itself and through it we experience and understand the dynamic quality of history, that which is happening around us all the time. We begin to understand how we interact with the world, how we perceive things with our bodies, our (embodied) imaginations rather than just our senses. We see the ongoing present as a ‘space’ in which exists amongst other things the mundane; our ordinary, everyday existence, fear as well as hope - neither of which exist in the past. It is a space filled with uncertainty. Indeed, a definition of the present might just be that: uncertainty, or the uncertainty of being present in the world.

Of course, this line of history can only be written within our own lifetimes (we can only know or perceive history because we are alive), but what if we want to understand an object hundreds of years old, to perceive its duration in its entirety or  see a point within its duration - a part of the past which history cannot reach? It is worth considering at this point the fact that in our second model there are no divides between the past and the present – quite unlike that in the first. In fact, the only divide is that made by the duration of the individual moving through the world. In other words, the past and present seem to exist entirely within the individual.

One of the problems people face when encountering the past in the form of an extant object is not so much the ability (or inability) to imaginatively reconstruct the object as it might have been (although for many this is an issue) but the fact that the past from which the object came seems to them, in the present, as if was always that: the past; as if, in considering our first horizontal model of the present and the past, the past from which the object came was always buried beneath us. In many respects this is one of the difficulties in confronting the horrors and traumas of the past; for example of the Holocaust. Where the victims are so numerous (quite beyond the scope of our imagination) and where the appalling process of their dehumanisation was so thorough, it’s almost as if they were always victims and not people who lived their lives as we do today. But by better understanding the present we can begin to identify in some small way with the anonymous individual lost behind the line of history.

The truth is of course that nothing happened in the past. What happened always happened in the present. Understanding the nature and quiddity of the present therefore is essential in understanding the nature and quiddity of the past, because they are in fact one and the same thing.

I said above that the curved line we traced from one side of our diagram to the other is history in that it’s an encounter between the past (extant durations) and the present (our simultaneous perception of those durations). Understanding this line, or rather what it means to be in the present, means that we can learn to ‘see’ an object as it was before we were born - before we began to trace our own continuous line in the world.

If I was to explain to someone therefore how to observe or study – for example - a piece of mediaeval pottery I would ask them to start (stage 1) by recording not only detailed information about the object from a phenomenological perspective, but also everything around them too. I would ask them to map or list all the different ‘durations’ existing around them and then, with their imaginations (stage 2) to start winding those durations back including that of the object and indeed themselves.

These first two stages are similar to a ‘Goethean’ method of observation. Goethe called the first stage exact sense perception and the second stage exact sensorial fantasy where in the first stage the observer would collect bare facts about the object and in the second would see the object within its own imagined time-life.

Of course, returning to the second stage, one doesn’t need to wind those durations back second by second (observation would take rather a long time!), but what the observer would begin to see was that the object has always existed within a dynamic landscape, that it was never just a static thing sitting in a case in a museum.

What is also important about this process is the fact that observers also begin to think themselves out of the picture. In a famous definition of the Metaphysical poets (a group of 17th century British poets including John Donne), Georg Lukács, a Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic, described their common trait of ‘looking beyond the palpable’ whilst ‘attempting to erase one's own image from the mirror in front so that it should reflect the not-now and not-here.’

The not-now and the not-here of this quote could easily be applied to that part of the past which history cannot reach; the ordinary, mundane, everyday existence of the object being observed – not the object itself but what went on around it, its context – one pregnant with the uncertainty of now, where what we know happened hadn’t happened yet. This quality of the past is normally beyond the reach of history, but by using the analogy of  Lukács’ mirror we can begin to see how, through a careful observation of the quiddity of the present, it, with the help of our imagination, can still be reached.

Before I talk again about the piece of mediaeval pottery, I want to examine the quiddity of the present a little more. In his book ‘The Materiality of Stone,  Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology,’ Christopher Tilley writes: ‘The painter sees the tree and the trees see the painter, not because the trees have eyes, but because the trees affect, move the painter, become part of the painting that would be impossible without their presence. In this sense the trees have agency and are not merely passive objects. Dillon comments: “The trees 'see' the painter in a manner comparable to that in which the mirror 'sees' the painter: that is, the trees, like the mirror, let him become visible: they define a point of view on him which renders visible for him something that otherwise would remain invisible - his outside, his physiognomy, his carnal presence... The trees and mirror function as Other.”’ Just as the trees function as Other therefore, so must the sun, the stars, the clouds, hills, mountains, the sea, rivers and so on. Where we are in the world, where we stand or walk, which direction we are facing are all significant features in this respect. We are what we are because of where we are at a given moment. We exist in relation to other durations and are at any given moment defined by them.

Last year I visited Hafodyrynys in Wales, the village where my grandmother grew up. Whilst standing on top of the hill where she played as a child and across which her father walked on his way to work in the mines at Llanhilleth, I looked and saw a view I knew he would have seen. I found it strange to think that a hundred years ago he would have stood there, just where I was, at a time when I did not exist. A hundred years on and I was there when he did not exist. And yet we shared something in that view. We had both for a time been defined by it. It was as if the view could still recall him and even though it was new to me, that I was nonetheless familiar.

Let’s again consider the piece of mediaeval pottery. This piece of pottery has existed in one continuous moment ever since it was made and its origins could be said to lie well beyond its creation as an object; in is material, in its archetypes (i.e. pottery which came before it) and in the intention and skill of the potter (his mind and the gestures of his body). If we imagine (as an illustration of stage 2 in our observation)  standing before Lukács’ mirror whilst holding the piece of pottery in our hand, and erasing our own image from the mirror so it reflects the not-here and the not-now, we will see reflected (through our now disembodied imagination) the piece of pottery in a present that is not-here and not-now.

The third stage of the observation involves what we might describe as the re-embodying of the imagination, not in ourselves but in the object being observed; in other words, we give the object the human capacity to ‘express itself’. This doesn’t mean of course writing things like ‘I’m a pot standing on a table,’ but rather seeing the pot as the centre of a dynamic and uncertain present. We give our imagination a free-rein in building a picture of the world around our object whilst as the same time anchoring the imagination it in terms of our own present-day experiences. In other words we don’t allow for absurd flights of fancy.

In some respects I am reminded here of another passage from Henri Bortoft’s book – ‘The Wholeness of Nature, Goethe’s Way of Science,’ in which he writes that ‘Goethe’s view [of knowledge] could be called “organic” because it sees knowledge as a further development of the phenomenon itself.’ In other words, knowledge of the object (in our case a piece of mediaeval pottery_, is a further development of the object itself, a ‘mode of participation in the phenomenon’ as Bortoft puts it. He continues; ‘…the philosophers of these earlier periods [classical and mediaeval] conceived “knowledge as an element of being itself and not primarily as an attitude of the subject.”’

By lending the object this human ability to ‘think’, to see itself at the centre of its world (just as we see ourselves as being at the centre of our own) so we can experience those parts of the past which lay beyond history. Furthermore we can take the object’s duration back further still by contemplating its material (what it’s made from, how the material came to exist), how it was made (the craft of the potter, the method and process), the reasons for its being made (the potter’s intention, the will of a customer) and so on. Eventually, where we end up, is in the mind of the potter himself (or indeed herself). We are not so much the pot as the thought which led to the pot in the first place.

Which leads nicely back to the present, where the pot is also a thought in our own minds, a thought we have now shared with someone who lived hundreds of years before we were even born.

This is why for me, my family tree research has been so important in understanding the past. As we have seen with the piece of mediaeval pottery, it isn’t just in the physicality of the pot in which the pot’s existence lies, but the agency which caused it to be made in the first place; in particular the will of the potter and the skills the potter acquired to make the pot at all. And before even this, we can take the pot’s existence back still further, tracing a line which is not only physical in terms of the gestures of the potter’s body (i.e. what he does to make the pot) but in those of the people who passed knowledge down; gestures and techniques passed down from one body to another.

Similarly, our own existence lies well beyond our birth, even beyond our conception. It lies in the paths our parents took throughout their lives before we were conceived, from when they were born to when they met. And behind every path, every journey, however large or small, from one side of the world to the other, or one side of the room to the other, there is always the agency of thought, whether consciously or unconsciously made. Anything different in what our parents did, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant and we would not exist.

In his book Camera Lucida, the philosopher Roland Barthes writes: ‘I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake... Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.’ This is precisely how I feel when considering the time before I was born. A photograph is the capturing on light-sensitive film (or nowadays censors) of the photographer’s simultaneous perception of durations. It is the present, in all its everydayness, its banality. It is pregnant with uncertainty, and every thought I have regarding my parents’ progression through life before I was conceived is like a snapshot – a photograph, a certain uncertainty. I know what happened, happened; but when looking around me at my own present day, I understand how incredibly likely it was for things to have been different. And whereas for Barthes’ catastrophe is death, for me it’s non-existence, my never-being-born.

Viola’s ‘continuous moment’ seems to me therefore to lie well beyond our own physical being. Just like the pot it lies in the lives of our parents, in their being in the world, in their movement through it, in the line of their own individual histories. And of course it doesn’t stop there. Grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, all had to do what they did exactly as they did, in order for me to be born. And the more I trace my family back, the more my mind buckles beneath the unlikelihood of my being here at all. Now, when I look through the window, and see the trees as I do every day, see things I take for granted, I understand how incredible it is that I am seeing them at all. And in reference to my earlier analogy, instead of seeing the world as a background to my life, spread across a thousand frames of my life’s ‘movie’; perhaps it is worth on occasion drawing those frames anew. The same picture, but seen (in the words of Proust) with a different set of eyes.

Looking out through the window at an everyday scene, or walking down the street without a second thought for the world, comes only through the fact that our forebears did the same; exactly as they did so, millions upon millions of times, and all in the exactly the right order. Of course our movements are not only dependent on our own will and volition; we are guided by the world in which we live. Our pathways are in many respects laid out before us, and even when we walk through fields or in the country, our paths are still determined by the landscape we walk through. The landscape in effect co-writes our history (as do our ancestors and those who made the paths in the first place).

When we stand in a place that has a particular provenance, especially a tragic one, what it is that happens to us? To read about a trauma and to be in the place where that trauma occurred are very different things. But why? What happens when we experience something in situ? What is the essential difference?

Let’s take as an example, a piece of text I discovered in the Tower of London. In the Beauchamp Tower, where prisoners carved their names and slogans into the walls, there is the following phrase which was inscribed in 1541:

‘Since Fortune has chosen that my hope should go to the wind to complain,
I wish the time were destroyed; my planet being ever sad and ungracious.’

It is I think a spectacularly beautiful and poignant piece of text and reading it in a book (or on a computer screen) certainly conveys the sense of despair felt by its author. But seeing the words in situ makes for a very different experience. But why is this? What is it that amplifies the emotions of the observer when standing in the cell?

Earlier, in discussing the observation of a mediaeval piece of pottery, I wrote how it’s important in the first instance to note everything one sees  –  not just the object but its context (that also being the context of the observer). When face to face with the words cut into the wall, the reasons for this are clear. Subconsciously, when looking at this piece of writing (and I refer back to Ingold – ‘…the word writing originally referred to incisive trace-making of this kind…’) we perceive not only the text and the meaning of the text, but the walls and the outside world. We experience at once a sense of in here and out there which of course augments the feeling of being imprisoned as imparted by the words themselves. There is an obvious sense of confinement which we are experiencing with our bodies. In other words, this writing isn’t just the translation into words of how a man is feeling (such as we might read in a poem in a book) but the wrought distillation of his entire being at that moment in time. The words tell us how he was feeling, but through the writing we see the agency which caused them to be scratched there. We can observe a temporal dimension to the text, acknowledging how long it must have taken to scratch them into the stone which again augments the sense of his confinement. The physicality of the words therefore accentuate their own meaning, where his hope has gone to the wind to complain, we see (rather than read) his sense of hopelessness. And we see in the stone that’s scratched away a man ‘trying to get to the other side’, to cut his way to freedom, not literally perhaps, but at least in his mind. And if he can’t be free, then maybe his words can, transcending as they do the time in which they were made.

With these and further words carved by other prisoners, we might have to stoop or stretch to read what it is they say, and therefore the experience of looking at these words becomes a kinaesthetic one. We experience the words rather than just read them. We might turn to look out the window and for a second glimpse the sky - for a second the sky as it was over 450 years ago. We are therefore not only reading lines of text on the walls, but following lines of sight. And as we pace the room, we follow yet more lines laid down by people over 450 years ago.

The text, like the piece of pottery, like everything else, has its own duration. It has ‘lived’ the same moment ever since it was conceived, ever since William Tyrell carved it into the walls. That same moment – that duration – is available to us now because its context is almost identical to what it was when it was made. If the piece of wall on which is was carved was in a museum then it would be a different matter. It would still be compelling, but as I’ve hopefully illustrated above, our kinaesthetic response, from which so much meaning can be derived, would not at all be the same.

Imagine a prisoner has finished carving his words, he’s carved them on his knees on a piece of wall near the floor. He looks up through the window. He doesn’t know what his future will bring. We on the other hand might know what his future brought him, but in kneeling to read his words, in looking up through the window and experiencing ourselves the uncertainty of being in the present, we can get a little closer to the prisoner from almost five centuries behind us. But we wouldn’t know any of this, if we just read the words in a book.

One side of my family came from Wales and many of my ancestors on this side were miners. Like many  people in those days they couldn’t read or write and yet I like to think that somehow, collectively, like the prisoner carving his name in the Tower, the tunnels they dug deep below ground are a collective expression of identity. Not only were they leaving – through their being - reductive traces upon, or deep below the ground, but like the prisoner, they were looking, it might be said, for freedom from poverty. They were themselves prisoners of their time and of circumstance, and though they could not read or write they were nonetheless carving a name; evidence of their existence.

The example I gave in the Tower of London is quite a rare one - as regards extant durations - in that the words, the walls and so on are as they were when they were first made. But what of places where so many original traces have been lost? How is it that we can still get a sense of the past? In Auschwitz-Birkenau, there are many parts of the original structure remaining and many parts that are no longer extant. Of all those extant parts it is the gate-tower which is the most recognizable. Just looking at this terrifying edifice, with its windows like searching eyes is enough to convey a small part of the horror of the camp; a small part which in our contemporary world is still quite enough to overwhelm us.

But the place where the past is most palpable is on what is called The Ramp; that part of the camp which runs beside the railway tracks, onto which people were offloaded from the trains, and a place where for many hundreds of thousands, loved ones were seen for the last time. Knowing this is enough to make this strip of ground the tragic place it is. To see photographs is chilling, but to be there is again a very different experience. But why?

To understand why, we need to think back to our individual line of history, that line of movement which we trace throughout our lives; our own duration - what Bill Viola describes as the continuous moment we have lived ever since we were conceived. These lines are ‘written’ upon the landscape, they are drawings – in the words of Gaston Bachelard -  we have lived and when our contemporary lines coincide with those of people in the past, we experience in some small way a piece of their history. It’s always worth me stating that we can never know what it was like to be there at Auschwitz and to stand there on The Ramp; the point of my work is not to suggest we can. What I am trying to do is show that what happened in the past happened in what was then the present, that the past was a lived experience.

If we think of our own line of history traced along The Ramp we can take that line back and see our ‘continuous moment’ all the way back to our childhoods. What’s more, we perceive the uncertainty of the present, something which is essential in studying the past, particularly in relation to historic traumas such as the Holocaust. To understand why people acted the way they did, we have to understand that what came after (what we know happened) hadn’t yet happened, we have to rid ourselves of hindsight. The following quote from Tadeusz Borowski is a perfect illustration:

‘It is… hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity… It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day maybe the day of liberation… We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.’

So when we walk down The Ramp, we follow the lines of individual histories, thousands upon thousands of them. We look around us, see the gate-tower, the sky and the fences and using our own lives and the everydayness of the present as a lens we move a little closer to those anonymous people in the past; we move, to borrow from Elie Wiesel, closer to the gate, but not inside, but that, as he says, is close enough.

When considering our individual lines of history, those continuous moments which as we have seen extend back long before even our conceptions, we can see that in some respects we have been contemporary with events that occurred long before our births; not as regards our consciously being aware of them, but insofar as our existences depended upon those who lived at the time. Researching my family tree therefore has been another means of locating myself in past events, of identifying with long-lost and anonymous people.

One of the most difficult parts of my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was leaving, doing something that so many hundreds of thousands of people couldn’t do. Using what I have described above to understand this experience, I can say I was aware of the sheer number of lines that had ended in the camp, something of which I was very aware at the site of the Belzec Death Camp when recording a walk around the memorial with a GPS device. Perhaps this is why the extant train-lines are such a menacing sight, they are an appalling illustration of what the end of the line really means. They, the train-lines, come from somewhere, hundreds of places from all over Europe, places in which the victims of the camps had lived their normal, everyday lives. And all the lines of those individual histories which ended between the barbed wire fences, went back further still, long before the victims were even born.

History, as we have seen, is an individual’s progression through life, an interaction between the present and the past. It follows, having seen how the material or psychical existence of things extends much further back than their creation that history spanning a period of time greater than an individual’s lifetime is like a knotted string comprising individual fragments; fragments within which - in the words of Henri Bortoft - the whole is immanent.  The whole history of all that’s gone before is imminent in every one of its parts; those parts being the individual.