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OUR past stretches behind us in long perspective. It slumbers in the distance like a deserted city shrouded in mist. A few peaks mark its boundary, and soar predominant into the air; a few important acts stand out like towers, some with the light still upon them, others half ruined, and slowly decaying beneath the weight of oblivion. The trees are bare, the walls crumble, and shadow slowly steals over all. Everything seems to be dead there, and rigid, save only when memory, slowly decomposing, lights it for an instant with an illusory gleam. But apart from this animation, derived only from our expiring recollections, all would appear to be definitely motionless, immutable forever; divided from present and future by a river that shall not again be crossed.
In reality it is alive; and, for many of us, endowed with a profounder, more ardent life than either present or future. In reality this dead city is often the hotbed of our existence: and in accordance with the spirit in which men return to it, shall some find all their wealth there, and others lose what they have.
Our conception of the past has much in common with our conception of love and happiness, destiny, justice, and most of the vague but therefore not less potent spiritual organisms that stand for the mighty forces we obey. Our ideas have been handed down to us ready-made by our predecessors: and even when our second consciousness wakes, and, proud in its conviction that henceforth nothing shall be accepted blindly, proceeds most carefully to investigate these ideas, it will squander its time questioning those that loudly protest their right to be heard, and pay no heed to the others close by, that as yet, perhaps, have said nothing. Nor have we, as a rule, far to go to discover these others. They are in us, and of us: they wait for us to address them. They are not idle, notwithstanding their silence. Amid the noise and babble of the crowd, they are tranquilly directing a portion of our real life; and as they are nearer to truth than their self-satisfied sisters, they will often be far more simple, and far more beautiful too.
Among the most stubborn of these ready-made ideas are those that preside over our conception of the past, and render it a force as imposing and rigid as destiny: a force that indeed becomes destiny working backwards, with its hand outstretched to the destiny that burrows ahead, to which it transmits the last link of our chains. The one thrusts us back, the other urges us forward, with a like irresistible violence. But the violence of the past is perhaps more terrible, and more alarming. One may disbelieve in destiny. It is a god whose onslaught many have never experienced. But no one would dream of denying the oppressiveness of the past. Sooner or later its effect must inevitably be felt. Those even who refuse to admit the intangible will credit the past, which their finger can touch, with all the mystery, the influence, the sovereign intervention, whereof they have stripped the powers that they have dethroned; thus rendering it the almost unique and therefore more dreadful god of their depopulated Olympus.
The force of the past is indeed one of the heaviest that weigh upon men and incline them to sadness. And yet there is none more docile, more eager to follow the direction we could so readily give did we but know how best to avail ourselves of this docility. In reality, if we think of it, the past belongs to us quite as much as the present, and is far more malleable than the future. Like the past, and to a much greater extent than the future, its existence is all in our thoughts, and our hand controls it; nor is this only true of our material past, wherein there are ruins that we perhaps can restore; it is true also of the regions that are closed to our tardy desire for atonement; it is true, above all, of our moral past, and of what we consider to be most irreparable there.
“The past is past,” we say, and it is false: the past is always present. “We have to bear the burden of our past,” we sigh, and it is false; the past bears our burden; “Nothing can wipe out the past,” and it is false; the least effort of will sends present and future travelling over the past, to efface whatever we bid them efface; “The indestructible, irreparable, immutable past,” and that is no truer than the rest. In those who speak thus it is the present that is immutable, and knows not how to repair. “My past is wicked, it is sorrowful, empty,” we say again; “as I look back I can see no moment of beauty, of happiness or love; I see nothing but wretched ruins . . .” And that is false; for you see precisely what you yourself place there at the moment your eyes rest upon it.
Our past depends entirely upon our present, and is constantly changing with it. Our past is contained in our memory: and this memory of ours, that feeds on our heart and brain, and is incessantly swayed by them, is the most variable thing in the world, the least independent, the most impressionable. Our chief concern with the past, that which truly remains and forms part of us, is not what we have done or the adventures that we have met with, but the moral reactions bygone events are producing within us at this very moment, the inward being they have helped to form; and these reactions, that give birth to our sovereign, intimate being, are wholly governed by the manner in which we regard past events, and vary as the moral substance varies that they encounter within us.
But with every step in advance that our feelings or intellect take, a change will come in this moral substance; and then, on the instant, the most immutable facts, that seemed to be graven for ever on the stone and bronze of the past, will assume an entirely different aspect, will return to life and leap into movement, bringing us vaster and more courageous counsels, dragging memory aloft with them in their ascent; and what was once a mass of ruin, mouldering in the darkness, becomes a populous city whereon the sun shines again.
We have an arbitrary fashion of establishing a certain number of events behind us. We relegate them to the horizon of our memory; and having set them there, we tell ourselves that they form part of a world in which the united efforts of all mankind could not wipe away a tear or cause a flower to lift its head. And yet, while admitting that these events have passed beyond our control, we still, with the most curious inconsistency, believe that they have full control over us. Whereas the truth is that they can only act upon us to the extent in which we have renounced our right to act upon them. The past asserts itself only in those whose moral growth has ceased; then, and not till then, does it become redoubtable. From that moment we have indeed the irreparable behind us, and the weight of what we have done lies heavy upon our shoulders. But so long as the life of our mind and character flows uninterruptedly on, so long will the past remain in suspense above us; and, as the glance may be that we send towards it, will it, complaisant as the clouds Hamlet showed to Polonius, adopt the shape of the hope or fear, the peace or disquiet, that we are perfecting within us.
No sooner has our moral activity weakened than accomplished events rush forward and assail us; and woe to him who opens the door to them and permits them to take possession of his hearth! Each one will vie with the others in overwhelming him with the gifts best calculated to shatter his courage. It matters not whether our past has been happy and noble, or lugubrious and criminal, — there shall still be great danger in allowing it to enter, not as an invited guest, but like a parasite settling upon us. The result will be either sterile regret or impotent remorse; and remorse and regrets of this kind are equally disastrous. In order to draw from the past what is precious within it — and most of our wealth is there we must go to it at the hour when we are strongest, most conscious of mastery; enter its domain and there make choice of what we require, discarding the rest, and laying our command upon it never to cross our threshold without our order. Like all things that only can live at the cost of our spiritual strength, it will soon learn to obey. At first, perhaps, it will endeavour to resist. It will have recourse to artifice and prayer. It will try to tempt us, to cajole. It will drag forward frustrated hopes, and joys that are gone for ever, broken affections, well-merited reproaches, expiring hatred, and love that is dead, squandered faith, and perished beauty: it will thrust before us all that once had been the marvellous essence of our ardour for life; it will point to the beckoning sorrows, decaying happiness, that now haunt the ruin. But we shall pass by, without turning our head; our hand shall scatter the crowd of memories, even as the sage Ulysses, in the Cimmerian night, with his sword prevented the shades — even that of his mother, whom it was not his mission to question — from approaching the black blood that would for an instant have given them life and speech. We shall go straight to the joy, the regret or remorse, whose counsel we need; or to the act of injustice it behoves us scrupulously to examine, in order either to make reparation, if such still be possible, or that the sight of the wrong we did, whose victims have ceased to be, is required to give us the indispensable force that shall lift us above the injustice it still lies in us to commit.
Yes, even though our past contain crimes that now are beyond the reach of our best endeavours, even then, if we consider the circumstances of time and place, and the vast plane of each human existence, these crimes fade out of our life the moment we feel that no temptation, no power on earth, could ever induce us to commit the like again. The world has not forgiven — there is but little that the external sphere will forget or forgive — and their material effects will continue, for the laws of cause and effect are different from those which govern our consciousness. At the tribunal of our personal justice, however, — the only tribunal which has decisive action on our inaccessible life, as it is the only one whose decrees we cannot evade, whose concrete judgments stir us to our very marrow — the evil action that we regard from a loftier plane than that at which it was committed, becomes an action that no longer exists for us save in so far as it may serve in the future to render our fall more difficult; nor has it the right to lift its head again except at the moment when we incline once more towards the abyss it guards.
Bitter, surely, must be the grief of him in whose past there are acts of injustice whereof every avenue now is closed, who is no longer able to seek out his victims, and raise them and comfort them. To have abused one’s strength in order to despoil some feeble creature who has definitely succumbed beneath the blow, to have callously thrust suffering upon a loving heart, or merely misunderstood and passed by a touching affection that offered itself — these things must of necessity weigh heavily upon our life, and induce a sorrow within us that shall not readily be forgotten. But it depends on the actual point our consciousness has attained whether our entire moral destiny shall be depressed, or lifted, beneath this burden. Our actions rarely die; and many unjust deeds of ours will therefore inevitably return to life some day to claim their due and start legitimate reprisals. They will find our external life without defence; but before they can reach the inward being at the centre of that life they must first listen to the judgment we have already passed on ourselves; and in accordance with the nature of that judgment will the attitude be of these mysterious envoys, who have come from the depths where cause and effect are established in eternal equilibrium. If it has indeed been from the heights of our newly acquired consciousness that we have questioned ourselves, and condemned, they will not be menacing justiciaries whom we shall suddenly see surging in from all sides, but benevolent visitors, friends we have almost expected; and they will draw near us in silence. They know in advance that the man before them is no longer the guilty creature they sought; and instead of pouring hatred, revolt, and despair into his heart, or punishments that degrade and kill, they come charged with ennobling, consoling, and purifying thought — a penance.
The things which differentiate the happy and strong from those who weep and will not be consoled, all derive from the one same principle of confidence and ardour; and thus it is that the manner in which we are able to recall what we have done or suffered is far more important than our actual sufferings or deeds. No past, viewed by itself, can seem happy; and the privileged of fate, who reflect on what remains of the happy years that have flown, have perhaps more reason for sorrow than the unfortunate ones who brood over the dregs of a life of wretchedness. Whatever was one day and has now ceased to be makes for sadness; above all, whatever was very happy and very beautiful. The object of our regrets — whether these revolve around what has been or might have been — is therefore more or less the same for all men, and their sorrow should be the same. It is not, however; in one case it will reign uninterruptedly, whereas in another it will only appear at very long intervals. It must therefore depend on things other than accomplished facts. It depends on the manner in which men will act on these facts. The conquerors in this world — those who waste no time setting up an imaginary irreparable and immutable athwart their horizon, those who seem to be born afresh every morning in a world that forever awakes anew to the future these know instinctively that what appears to exist no longer is still existing intact, that what appeared to be ended is only completing itself. They know that the years time has taken from them are still in travail; still, under their new master, obeying the old. They know that their past is forever in movement; that the yesterday which was despondent, decrepit and criminal will return full of joyousness, innocence, youth, in the track of tomorrow. They know that their image is not yet stamped on the days that are gone; that a decisive deed, or thought, will suffice to break down the whole edifice; that, however remote or vast the shadow may be that stretches behind them, they have only to put forth a gesture of gladness or hope for the shadow at once to copy this gesture, and, flashing it back to the remotest, tiniest ruins of early childhood even, to extract unexpected treasure from all this wreckage. They know that they have retrospective action upon all bygone deeds; and that the dead themselves will annul their verdicts in order to judge afresh a past that to-day has been transfigured and endowed with new life.
They are fortunate who find this instinct in the folds of their cradle. But may the others not imitate it who have it not; and is not human wisdom charged to teach us how we may acquire the salutary instincts that nature has withheld?
Let us not lull ourselves to sleep in our past; and if we find that it tends to spread like a vault over our life, instead of incessantly changing beneath our eye; if the present grow into the habit of visiting it, not like a good workman repairing thither to execute the labours imposed upon him by the commands of to-day, but as a too passive, too credulous pilgrim content idly to contemplate beautiful, motionless ruins — then the more glorious, the happier that our past may have been, with all the more suspicion should it be regarded by us.
Nor should we yield to the instinct that bids us accord it profound respect if this respect induce the fear in us that we may disturb its nice equilibrium. Better the ordinary past, content with its befitting place in the shadow, than the sumptuous past which claims to govern what has travelled out of its reach. Better a mediocre, but living, present, which acts as though it were alone in the world, than a present which proudly expires in the chains of a marvellous long ago. A single step that we take at this hour towards an uncertain goal is far more important to us than the thousand leagues we covered in our march towards a dazzling triumph in the days that were. Our past had no other mission than to lift us to the moment at which we are, and there equip us with the needful experience and weapons, the needful thought and gladness. If, at this precise moment, it take from us and divert to itself one particle of our energy, then, however glorious it may have been, it still was useless, and had better never have been. If we allow it to arrest a gesture that we were about to make, then is our death beginning; and the edifices of the future will suddenly take the semblance of tombs.
More dangerous still than the past of happiness and glory is the one inhabited by overpowering and too dearly cherished phantoms. Many an existence perishes in the coils of a fond recollection. And yet, were the dead to return to this earth, they would say, I fancy, with the wisdom that must be theirs who have seen what the ephemeral light still hides from us: “Dry your eyes. There comes to us no comfort from your tears; exhausting you, they exhaust us also. Detach yourself from us, banish us from your thoughts, until such time as you can think of us without strewing tears on the life we still live in you. We endure only in your recollection; but you err in believing that your regrets alone can touch us. It is the things you do that prove to us we are not forgotten, and rejoice our manes; and this without your knowing it, without any necessity that you should turn towards us. Each time that our pale image saddens your ardour, we feel ourselves die anew, and it is a more perceptible, irrevocable death than was our other; bending too often over our tombs, you rob us of the life, the courage and love, that you imagine you restore.
It is in you that we are, it is in all your life that our life resides; and as you become greater, even while forgetting us, so do we become greater too, and our shades draw the deep breath of prisoners whose prison door is flung open.
“If there be anything new we have learned in the world where we are now, it is, first of all, that the good we did to you when we were, like yourselves, on the earth, does not balance the evil wrought by a memory which saps the force and the confidence of life.”
Above all, let us envy the past of no man. Our own past was created by ourselves, and for ourselves alone. No other could have suited us, no other could have taught us the truth that it alone can teach, or given the strength that it alone can give. And whether it be good or bad, sombre or radiant, it still remains a collection of unique masterpieces the value of which is known to none but ourselves; and no foreign masterpiece could equal the action we have accomplished, the kiss we received, the thing of beauty that moved us so deeply, the suffering we underwent, the anguish that held us enchained, the love that wreathed us in smiles or in tears. Our past is ourselves, what we are and shall be; and upon this unknown sphere there moves no creature, from the happiest down to the most unfortunate, who could foretell how great a loss would be his could he substitute the trace of another for the trace which he himself must leave in life. Our past is our secret, promulgated by the voice of years; it is the most mysterious image of our being, over which Time keeps watch. The image is not dead; a mere nothing degrades or adorns it; it can still grow bright or sombre, can still smile or weep, express love or hatred: and yet it remains recognisable for ever in the midst of the myriad images that surround it. It stands for what we once were, as our aspirations and hopes stand for what we shall be; and the two faces blend, that they may teach us what we are.
Let us not envy the facts of the past, but rather the spiritual garment that the recollection of days long gone will weave around the sage. And though this garment be woven of joy or of sorrow, though it be drawn from the dearth of events or from their abundance, it shall still be equally precious; and those who may see it shining over a life shall not be able to tell whether its quickening jewels and stars were found amid the grudging cinders of a cabin or upon the steps of a palace.
No past can be empty or squalid, no events can be wretched; the wretchedness lies in our manner of welcoming them. And if it were true that nothing had happened to you, that would be the most remarkable adventure that any man ever had met with; and no less remarkable would be the light it would shed upon you. In reality the facts, the opportunities and possibilities, the passions, that await and invite the majority of men, are all more or less the same. Some may. be more dazzling than others; their attendant circumstances may differ, but they differ far less than the inward reactions that follow; and the insignificant, incomplete event that falls on a fertile heart and brain will readily attain the moral proportions and grandeur of an analogous incident which, on another plane, will convulse a whole people.
He who should see, spread out before him, the past lives of a multitude of men, could not easily decide which past he himself would wish to have lived, were he not able at the same time to witness the moral results of these dissimilar and unsymmetrical facts. He might not impossibly make a fatal blunder; he might choose an existence overflowing with incomparable happiness and victory, that sparkle like wonderful jewels; while his glance might travel indifferently over a life that appeared to be empty, whereas it was truly steeped to the brim in serene emotions and lofty, redeeming thoughts whereby, though the eye saw nothing, that life was yet rendered happy among all. For we are well aware that what destiny has given and what destiny holds in reserve can be revolutionised as utterly by thought as by great victory or great defeat. Thought is silent: it disturbs not a pebble on the illusory road we see; but at the crossway of the more actual road that our secret life follows will it tranquilly erect an indestructible pyramid; and thereupon, suddenly, every event, to the very phenomena of Earth and Heaven, will assume a new direction.
In Siegfried’s life it is not the moment when he forges the prodigious sword that is most important, or when he kills the dragon and compels the gods from his path, or even the dazzling second when he encounters love on the flaming mountain; but indeed the brief instant wrested from eternal decrees, the little childish gesture when one of his hands, red with the blood of his mysterious victim, having chanced to draw near his lips, his eyes and ears are suddenly opened: he understands the hidden language of all that surrounds him, detects the treachery of the dwarf who represents the powers of evil, and learns in a flash to do that which had to be done.