A time for holding out
Each generation has known a world that is more pure than that of the next
The newly born grow in a world that has just been created for them, a paradise without a serpent. As they grow, they discover things and persons that are just as new as they are, reflections on walls, drops of water, day and night. The world is always a première for those who have just arrived.
When they discover that there is such a thing as a past, it is already too late. Soon the present ceases to be fresh, bearing the marks of what has a past: bags under the eyes, scars, wrinkles. This process is fated, incontrovertible. To live is to go on producing a past. Anything else would be impossible: we would go mad. Indeed, only the mad can live in the pure here-and-now. Thanks to the invention of the past, the decadence of the present is more bearable. This process begins earlier than we think.
Children today see their parents talking alone into a gadget, or sitting in front of a TV. They hear bodiless voices coming from boxes. The streets are rivers of iron. Food comes in packages. A considerable part of life is turned on and off at a touch. When, some day in the future, they discover that all these gadgets are things of the past, then a veil of poetry will cover them, as for us the telegraph.
We are fated to love the past, because it no longer is. What no longer is, has the inalterable and disturbing character of works of art. Works of art, fixed or living, are pure crystallized past. I have seen the fishing boats arrive in the evening on the beach of Vilasar, loaded to the gunwales. The men pushed them up the sand on greased beams. I shall never forget the twilight on the sea, the fishes jumping on the crates, the barefoot men pushing and chanting so as to heave all at the same time. This scene is the arrested image of a world that then was new, and now is as far away as if it had never existed, like a landscape of Poussin.
But my father never came down to meet the boats, because for him there was no novelty in them. On the contrary, he remembered when as a child he swam in those waters, and the fish that now had to be sought on the high seas could be caught in your hand. Crystalline waters inhabited by thousands of silver creatures. We (he said), today's children, had never known the pristine, savage sea of his childhood. Every generation has known a world more pure than that known to the next. Yet the world is always equally pure for the newborn, for the purity of the world is memory.
And you needn't be a child. I have walked the halls of the Louvre completely alone, hearing the floorboards creak as ghostly music, like an archaeologist in a tomb newly opened in Mesopotamia. The air of those places has a cold all its own, an aroma of liquid enclosed in a bottle which, opened, brings back to you what the ancients breathed, their resuscitated breath.
In A Moveable Feast, the young Hemingway shows his ability to remember a place in which only the past has the beauty of the inalterable. It was in Schio, in the First War, "one of the most beautiful places on the Earth. [...] a wonderful place to go and live when the war ended." He went back there later, and found everything rebuilt, or rebuilding: "A reconstructed city is far more sad than a devastated city. [...] A town wrecked in war always has dignity, as if it had died in a good cause [...] there now remains only a new and ugly futility." The injustice of this cruel judgment proves that, to keep alive the desire for the past, it is necessary to dump ashes on the present. Memory's creative power is entirely amoral and selfish.
The construction of the past is the construction of desire. Everything that seems meaningful about our childhood is but the projection of desires that can no longer be fulfilled in maturity and old age.
I wonder what the youngsters of the May 15 protest movement will think of the present time of crisis, once it has become the past, in 20 years or so. For us, the crisis is a time for holding out, hanging on, until the leaden present can at last be displayed on a pedestal, gilded with memory.