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The changing past

Kafka’s vision of the world not only impregnates much of what was written after his time, but also much of what had gone before

As far as I am aware, the first to formulate the idea was T. S. Eliot in 1919, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, where he argued that every new work was not only a break with the past, but also altered that past. Later Borges, in Kafka and his Precursors, maintained that every writer creates his precursors, because his work modifies our conception of the past.

Putting forward a variety of examples from Zeno to Browning, Borges states that "each one of these texts contains the idiosyncrasy of Kafka [...] but, if Kafka had never written, we would not perceive them; that is, they would not exist." Kafka, for example, forces us to read in a different way the story of the ship's captain who, in Moby Dick , tries in vain to kill a white whale, or the tale of the two Napoleonic officers who, in The Duel, challenge each other for decades without our ever finding out how they came to be deadly enemies.

Just to stick with Melville and Conrad, we can no longer read Bartleby, the Scrivener or Heart of Darkness without feeling that both of them are Kafka stories. Kafka is who he is not only because his vision of the world impregnates much of what was written after his time, but also much of what was written beforehand.

All of this, as Eliot said, serves not only for literature; it also serves for art in general. Picasso changes the painting of Velázquez, and in turn Bacon alters that of Picasso. Bergman changes the cinema of John Ford, and Woody Allen that of Bergman. Does this also apply to history? Do great events also change the past? My impression is that they do.

Not that it changes the past in itself -- nothing alters the facts of the life of Julius Caesar, or the fact that the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 and the Spanish Civil War in 1936, just as nothing will essentially alter the text of Moby Dick or the brush strokes of Las Meninas.

What does change is our perception of the past: that is, to use Tzvetan Todorov's terms, not "truth of adequation" -- the exact correspondence between what we say and the facts "Caesar died on March 15, 44 BC" -- but the "truth of unveiling," that which enables us to capture the meaning of the facts. My impression is that it does, but I never worked up the nerve to write it in so many words.

Crossing the Rubicon

Now, thanks to my friend Javier Santana, I learn that Slavoj Zizek has done just that. In an essay titled Is It Still Possible to Be a Hegelian Today?Zizek asserts that the present is never just the present, but oversees a wide projection of the past; the latter is modified by every great historical event. Thus, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, for the triumphant majority the Russian Revolution is no longer the beginning of a new era of progress, but a catastrophic sideshow in history that came to an end in 1991.

Likewise, the crossing of the Rubicon caused Caesar's previous campaigns to look like mere preparation for his role in world history. And does not the Civil War give a different meaning to the Carlist wars, or to our whole modern history? Does not the Transition to democracy after Franco give a new meaning to the Civil War?

So, what applies to literature and to art in general also applies to history. And how about our mere biographies? If this were so, an unworthy deed might spoil a righteous life, and a righteous deed might save a despicable life. If this were so, then redemption would exist, or something very much like it. It would be nice, to say the least. We may add that it is very likely that Kafka -- who wrote that there is an infinite quantity of hope, but not for us -- did not believe in it.

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