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The Past of the Future: From the Foreign to the Undiscovered Country

David Lowenthal argues that in recent years there has been a retreat from engagement with many aspects of the past. He suggests that, in turn, this points to an unwillingness to contend with the future.

'The past is a foreign country’, begins L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953); ‘they do things differently there’. The dawning awareness of that difference some two centuries ago and its subsequent import have engrossed many historians.  Less explored than shifting views on the past are foci on the future. What seems to lie ahead stems from, mirrors, or transmutes reactions to previous times. Both past and future have notably expanded in Western consciousness since about 1750. Over the next two centuries, the collective annals of memory and anticipation lengthened exponentially, grew more copious and capacious, and resembled the present ever less.

 

Scholarly pasts and futures continue to extend in time, accrue content and complexity, and seem ever more foreign. But for the lay public the past half century has reversed many of these trends. In the popular mind, both what was and what will be have shrunk, not in actual length and volume but in how these are grasped and felt. People know and care about ever briefer time spans: immediacy junks the past and starves the future. Disowning our Enlightenment legacy, we cease revering ancestors or welcoming descendants. The past, formerly guide and mentor, degenerates to domesticated pet. The future, once embraced as a friend, becomes a fearsome foe.

 

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