A meditation on the past.

There are those that walk amongst us who yearn for the past. But they do not experience nostalgia like most of us do. Theirs is fused with a passion laid upon the anvil of the fear of the future and hammered ceaselessly by loathing of the present in the hope of reaching into the past and transporting it to the present. They think the past like a fire long burnt out that can be rekindled and revived by returning to that former way of life, of dressing, of diet, of thinking, of societal relations, of economy. By practising this they think that they can return to that glorious wonderful past when everything was simpler, sweeter and superior. These people are past fetishists and represent a species of extremism.

They are obsessed with the past because firstly, the past is obvious. Everything has happened already. So you know what happens. Consequentially, and secondly, there is nothing to be afraid of. So the past is also safe. But because the past is made up of many different views and experiences, despite its ocean of certainty, there remain vast continents of ambiguity. The film, Rushomon, by Akira Kurosawa exploits this truth. Thirdly, the past can be in conflict and is therefore still fluid. And because of that, and fourthly, the past is malleable. It can be shaped, sculpted, pruned, emphasised, softened or interpreted to support or suit a particular purpose. This was seen just recently in the University Putra Malaysia’s Ethnic Relations textbook that was defended by our Ministry of Higher Education. Finally, the past usually appears benign with a bias towards sentimentalism as compared to the present and future. In sum, these fetishists long for the past because it is known, safe, and malleable with a strong tendency to sentimentalise or glorify the past.

Past fetishists think that by perpetuating the past in the present they can use the past like a lantern, sword and shield all at once to conquer the unknown future. This thinking is as misguided as it is impossible. Mere mimicry never resulted in time travel. Once something is said and done, it remains said and done. Nothing in the universe can undo it. It recedes into the past, distant and remote. The past can never be brought to the present or into the future simply because its time has passed. To truly return to a past it is not enough for you to merely observe its externalities or way of thinking, the entire fabric of existence has to return to that time with you. And that will never happen.

The inherent danger with this attitude should be obvious. Past fetishists are so concerned with reconstructing the past that their every effort is directed towards mimicking that they tend to ignore or are unable to meet the present demands of reality. They are like the person who walks forward with his head turned back the whole time. Naturally, they would not be able to see where they are going or avoid the danger approaching them.

Further, the concept of progress is an anathema to past fetishists. There is no need for development or discovery since the past was perfect, complete and known. All that is required for a better future is a return to the past. Regression and stagnation is the order of the day. Progression is irrelevant.

The irony with past fetishists though lies in the tools they use. They inevitably use modern equipment and knowledge to achieve their aims – for example: bombs, computers, chat rooms, modern vehicles, the internet and modern banking facilities. This is because they have no choice. The other irony is that the tools that they rely on to accomplish their goal are created by or created in a (possibly) different intellectual and moral cultural environment based on the notion of progress that would be subjugated if not annihilated if these fetishists had their way.

Once these ironies and the sheer impossibility of their goals permeate into their subconscious their passion putrefies into frustration. They turn to the present day scapegoats to vent their rage, believing that the eradication of their perceived object of hatred would bring them closer to their goal. The more their scapegoats resist, the angrier the fetishists become, the more severe and uncompromising their methodology becomes. This is ultimately manifested in violence and increase of it. Asimov once wrote that violence is the first refuge of the incompetent. It would not be out of place to include the frustrated as well.

We can only ever experience the past (in the sense of living it again after the moment has happened) through our own memories, nobody else’s. Anything other than ours is at best a simulation, an approximation. Discussion of times gone by, recorded material and artefacts may link us to the past but it is only through a looking glass because we were never there. Only our personal past can be truly experienced. Memories therefore are the only means of ‘time travel’ that we have. And it’s cheap. All one needs is the triggering of the relevant senses – the faint smell of roses, or a shimmering arpeggio on a guitar, or the smooth feel of velvet beneath the fingers – and the feelings, the mood rushes in pervading us.

One of the most important (and cliched) aspect of the past is that there are lessons to be learnt from it. But the lessons are not obvious and the issues subtle and sophisticated because of the multitude of variables involved. And the past is neutral which means one doesn’t necessarily draws the right lesson simply by staring into the past. There is therefore merit in spending time to meaningfully contemplate not just our personal past but our shared heritage and our history as it was, and not as we would like it to be. Only when we clearly see what came before us can truly better it now for the future. The past is a mere guide, not the law. It is a mere record of what happened before not of what will happen. History does not dispense justice, it only tells of lives lived and lost.

Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it...