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MONTHLY BLOG 117, AN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FOLLY-BUILDER & CAT-LOVER

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Public monuments to cats – as opposed to literary, artistic and musical celebrations1 – are rare to find, especially dating from the eighteenth century. So this majestic example deserves full appreciation. The lordly cat sits atop a giant Grecian vase, all forming the substantial Cat Monument.2 It was designed in 1749 and built c.1770 in the new weatherproof composite known as Coade Stone.3 Erected at Shugborough Park in Staffordshire, the Monument was commissioned by Thomas Anson (c.1695-1773). He was the felinophile, who owned the estate and had the wealth as well as the space to indulge his taste for architectural patronage in full.

Curiously enough, the identity of this publicly honoured cat remains uncertain. One strong possibility is that it commemorates Thomas Anton’s own favoured pet, named Khouli-Khan. This cat was the last of a line of Persian cats owned by the family. Hence, behind the luxuriant mustachios on the Monument’s lordly feline, the statue may show the round face and short muzzle that is characteristic of that particular breed.

Another possibility, however, is that the honoured cat was the adventurous moggy who circumnavigated the globe in the years 1740-44 with Admiral George Anson (1697-1762). He was the much admired younger brother of Thomas Anson. And the childless George Anson had bequeathed his great fortune, based upon Spanish treasure, to his older sibling. As a result, some of the monuments and memorabilia at Shugborough Park were devised as fraternal tributes to the circumnavigator. In that context, therefore, it is possible that the Cat Monument commemorates the circumnavigating cat.

Throughout this period (as in earlier and later eras), thousands of feline pest controllers travelled the high seas.4 They dined on the mice and rats which infested the wooden ships of the commercial fleet and the Royal Navy. (Keeping pets on board was banned by the British Navy only in 1975). Often these sailing cats were adopted by the crews as informal mascots. The feline companion (name unknown) of George Anson seems to have been a talisman of that ilk. Indeed, it is quite possible that the Cat Monument commemorates not one specific cat but human admiration for the species generically. The design is certainly eclectic. Around the Monument’s plinth are the carved heads of Corinthian goats, which were kept on the Shugborough Park estate c.1768. But the lofty cat is the king.

Accompanying the Monument, meanwhile, Anson commissioned an extraordinary array of follies and fancies.5 The Chinese House (1747) is one of the earliest examples of oriental design in Britain. A Gothic Ruin, complete with a gothic pigeon-house, followed in 1750. The Shepherd’s Monument was built in the later 1750s, taking the form of an ornamental arch around a pastoral bas-relief. (Two outer pillars and a classic pediment were added in 1763). A Doric Temple followed in c.1760. The massive Hadrian’s Arch was then erected in 1762, at a high point on the estate with extensive views. Built in a style borrowed from classical Athens, the design was adapted as a tribute to George Anson, who died in 1762, and George’s wife Elizabeth. A Tower of the Winds, based upon the Athens’ Horologium of Andronikos, was created in 1765, initially with a surrounding pool of water, which was lost in the course of flood damage on the estate in 1795. And in 1771 the Lanthorn of Demosthenes, based upon the design of an Athenian house dating from 4BCE, completed Anson’s career as an alfresco architectural patron. (He also remodelled the ancestral Shugborough Hall and amassed a collection of memorabilia).

Amongst this eclectic miscellany of edifices, the Cat Monument more than holds its own. It has a stately presence, framed by trees. It is not overawed by its Gothic, Oriental, Doric or Corinthian monumental companions, elsewhere in Shugborough Park. Whether it commemorates one adventurous globe-trotting feline, or one exotic Persian cat, or all cats generically, it makes its point finely.

Fig.2.1-3 Three Shugborough Park Monuments, Commissioned by Thomas Anson:
(L) The Shepherd’s Monument (later 1750s; expanded 1763)
(Centre) The Cat Monument (designed 1749; built c.1770)
(R) Hadrian’s Arch (1762), adapted as a tribute to Admiral George Anson and his wife Elizabeth.

Around the globe – and at home in Staffordshire – feline companionship is something to admire. A cat may look at an admiral or at a country landowner (and MP) or at a king. And humans look closely at these classic domestic companions too. At a time of global crisis, compounded of climatic, epidemiological, economic and political challenges, it is as well for humans to recollect their pan-global co-residence with all living beings. And, not least among them, those great triggers to the literary imagination in the form of the amiable, adventurous, wily, and famously enigmatic cats.6

ENDNOTES:

1 H. Loxton, Cats: 99 Lives – Cats in History, Legend and Literature (1999).

2 For the Cat Monument (designed 1749; erected c.1770) NGR: SJ9932022722, see https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate/features/parkland-buildings-monuments-and-follies

3 H. Van Lemmen, Coade Stone (Princes Risborough, 2006).

4 See V. Lewis, Ship’s Cats in War and Peace (2001); and listings in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship%27s_cat/.

5 All monuments are listed and dated in https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate/features/parkland-buildings-monuments-and-follies

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘“For I will Consider my Cat Jeoffry”: Cats and Literary Creativity in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, work-in-progress for publication 2021.

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MONTHLY BLOG 114, SELF-ISOLATION EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STYLE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1 Engraving (1808) of Lord Rokeby (1713-1800),
a famous eighteenth-century self-isolator,
who looked like a wise old wizard
but whose actual message was obscure.

It’s not original to note that humans are a highly social species. But it’s only now becoming generally appreciated just how damaging a period of prolonged and enforced isolation from others can be. Basically, it’s bad news for both physical and mental health.1 Of course, some individuals do embrace silence and seek solitude. Maybe for spiritual reasons. Yet such conscious choices, which can be revoked at any time, are very different from enforced solitude, not of an individual’s seeking.

The eighteenth century in Britain provided two quirky individuals who famously created their own isolated lifestyles, cushioned by their private incomes. So what can be learned from their stories? No great revelation of enlightenment emerges. Instead, the two men have been slotted into the history of zany English eccentricity.2 They certainly both fitted into that category plausibly enough. Yet do their lifestyles convey some further message for humanity in the early summer of today’s special virus-avoiding Lockdown?

One of these isolates was the well-connected Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby (1713-1800). He was a landowner, with legal training and literary interests. In his thirties (1747-61), he became MP for Canterbury. There was nothing to suggest his impending eccentricity. Anyhow, at a certain point, he developed a passion for daily immersion in water for hours on end. At first, he walked from his country estate near Hythe (Kent), on the edge of Romney Marsh, to swim in the sea, bathing for hours until he was exhausted and had to be rescued. Then he constructed a private pool in a glass-house attached to his country mansion, which he refused to heat. Again he stayed for hours in the water, refusing company. He got nourishment chiefly from an infusion of beef tea; refused to see doctors; and claimed that he could best worship naturally, in the water and under the stars. Occasional visitors were treated to readings of his lengthy poems.

When Rokeby (rarely) appeared in public, he was taken for a foreigner, on account of his flowing locks and massive beard. Anecdotes circulated about his lifestyle; and prints were engraved (as shown above), to illustrate his hirsute appearance. His younger sister, the highly sociable literary lady and bluestocking Mrs Montagu, wrote sardonically that her brother had become a modern Diogenes: ‘he flies the life of London, and leads a life of such privacy and seriousness as looks to the beholder like wisdom’.3 Ouch. Evidently his nearest and dearest were not impressed. His two younger sisters remained busy and productive: Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), later dubbed ‘Queen of the Blues’, and Sarah Scott (1723-95), the novelist and translator, whose Millennium Hall (1763) envisaged a harmonious community of women without men.4

For his part, Rokeby wrote and said nothing memorable, despite looking ever more like a wizard in his later years, He did not do anything to foster swimming or sea-bathing. His eccentric pastime remained a purely private matter, which ended only with his peaceful death in bed, unmarried and childless. His estate and the barony passed to a cousin.

What did all it mean? Rokeby’s lifestyle suggests a personal quest for ecological simplicity, before there was an ecological movement to join him or for him to join. He does not seem to have been personally unhappy; or, at any rate, did not announce any disquiet. Yet his story seems at very least to have been one of unrealised talents, particularly when contrasted with his siblings.

A second case of self-isolation was that of John Tallis (1675-1755). As reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he stayed in bed for the last 30 years of his life, swathed in coverings and with a peg on his nose, in a darkened, draught-proof room in a country inn at Burcot (Worcestershire).5 He saw no-one but a few occasional visitors, impelled by curiosity – and his servants, who replaced his bed annually.

Insofar as he justified his strange lifestyle choice, Tallis claimed, to general bemusement, that his morbid fear of fresh air was triggered by an old beldame’s curse. Evidently, he had sufficient funds to pay for his lodging and minimal keep. And no family intervened to try to change his mind. Throughout, Tallis declined to seek medical or even spiritual help for what seemed to be a prolonged and debilitating physical and/or psychological malady.

By the end of his life, he was becoming classed among the ranks of great British eccentrics. His sad tale probably provided the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s later ballad The True Story of Goody Blake and Harry Gill (1798). That jingling poem recounted a malediction directed at a wealthy but hard-hearted farmer, who had no compassion for a poor old woman gleaning in his hedgerow.6 His penalty for an icy heart was then to lie abed, forever chilled:

Oh!  what’s the matter?  what’s the matter?
What is’t that ails young Harry Gill?
That evermore his teeth they chatter,
Chatter, chatter, chatter still.
Of waistcoats Harry has no lack,
Good duffle grey, and flannel fine;
He has a blanket on his back,
And coats enough to smother nine.

Wordsworth’s imaginative evocation was much more vivid than anything communicated by Tallis, who gave no further explanation of his condition. The poet’s moral was that a flinty heart brought its own penalty. Property-owners should not begrudge the poor who gleaned in the fields and hedgerows, Wordsworth concluded pointedly.7

Tallis’s own inert self-isolation baffled everyone during his lifetime. Such a fatalistic belief in a personal curse already seemed like a relic of a bygone age, if that was indeed his motivation. It may simply have been an excuse for doing what he wanted, although his 30 year bed-rest did not seem very enjoyable. Certainly no witnesses to Tallis’s fate made any move to get him exorcised or the notional curse removed.

However, thanks to the transmuting power of poetry, this eccentric case of self-isolation prompted Wordsworth’s appeal for liberal warm-heartedness. ‘A-bed or up, by night or day;/ His teeth they chatter, chatter still,/ Now think, ye farmers all, I pray,/ Of Goody Blake and Harry Gill’. It’s always open to self-isolates to explain themselves to the wider world. But, if they don’t, then others will have a stab at doing so for them. After all, the moral is that isolates are not actually alone. The human community is watching, trying to detect a message.

ENDNOTES:

1 K.T. Rowe (ed.), Social Isolation, Participation and Impact upon Mental Health (New York, 2015); R. Fiorella, R. Morese and S. Palermo, Social Isolation: An Interdisciplinary View (2020).

2 J. Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (1875); E. Sitwell, The English Eccentrics (1933); D. Long, English Country House Eccentrics (Stroud, 2012); S.D. Tucker, Great British Eccentrics (Stroud, 2015).

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Robinson,_2nd_Baron_Rokeby.

4 J. Busse, Mrs Montagu, Queen of the Blues (1928); S.H. Myers, The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1990).

5 Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1753), p. 123.

6 J.A. Sharpe, A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England (2016), pp. 251-2.

7 W. Wordsworth, Poetical Works, ed. T. Hutchinson (1920), pp. 536-7.

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MONTHLY BLOG 112, ON RECONSIDERING THE (INTERRUPTED) FUTURE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1 Silhouettes of grass in fog

It is not possible to learn from the future that has not yet unfolded. The unidirectional nature of Time forbids it. So when people assert airily: ‘We don’t learn from the past’, I am incredulous. What? Of course, humans must learn from the past because they can’t learn from the future – and the unstable present, in which they learn, is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the past.

However, while humans can’t learn from the future, it is certainly pertinent to think again about future expectations, now that routine life has been so suddenly interrupted. Diaries that were full of engagements and plans have suddenly been voided. The clear future has become foggy. It’s disconcerting but educational, particularly for those, like myself, living voluntarily under something near to house-arrest for the duration of the health emergency.

In fact, humans have a lot of advance knowledge about the long-term future. One certainty, confirmed by universal past experience, is that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die. Generally, however, humans manage to live their daily lives without dwelling on that thought. But, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic – a contemporary plague – an awareness of the reality and ubiquity of death is sharpened. It’s a valuable jolt. Remember to finish projects; to express affection; to help others; to enjoy every immediate minute; to make the mental leap into long-term history which will continue whatever; and to breathe deeply.

Then there’s the immediate future. That’s much more under personal control. Coming through the fog more clearly. Living indoors and making minimal trips outside heightens appreciation of the usefulness of daily routines. It helps to have a structure to the day, without over-organising. Remember to exercise; to laugh; to contact friends; to eat healthily; to think about others; to do a daily crossword; to study history; to tend the plants; to listen to music (sometimes to sing); and (vital for me personally) to write.

Yet the most problematic area of the suddenly interrupted future is the uncertainty of the intermediate span of the soon-to-follow weeks, months and years. Very far ahead will look after itself. Close at hand can be managed. But the intermediate future is the foggiest of all. Very disconcerting. For how long will the lockdown continue? Will the containment policy work? For how long will the population consent to the current state of affairs? Will historians judge the government’s efforts kindly or unkindly? Will the laid-back Swedish approach to the health emergency prove to have been the right one? How far will life in Britain be radically changed once the crisis is over? No-one knows.

Informed guesses can be ventured, based upon past experience. One pattern suggests that the people – and particularly those at the ‘foot’ of the social hierarchy – will want major reforms, after the great upheaval and sacrifices of a collectively fought war. Yet the actual outcome is unknown.

The foggy shapelessness of the intermediate future contains threats and promises. Remember to roll with the punches; to keep a measured optimism; to avoid being disconcerted by history’s capacity to spring surprises; to recall also the staying power of history’s deep continuities; to be ready to resume life outdoors and on the move; to enjoy hugging friends and family again; to look for the wood in the trees – the big picture in the daily details – the pattern emerging from the fog; and, above all, to embrace the unknown future, which will become the past from which humans can learn. Unseen, social energies are being recharged. Through the fog,  community options are emerging. Yet only Time will reveal the precise story, as it always does.

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MONTHLY BLOG 107, Reasons for unrepentant (relative) Optimism about the coming of Green Politics

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Fig.1 Greta Thunberg (b. 2003),
Swedish environmental activist;
author of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019)

In response to my October BLOG about Greener Cities, I got many queries about how I could plausibly state that ‘I am an unrepentant optimist’? In fact, I should have said an ‘unrepentant (relative) optimist’, since it’s clear that not all is currently well with Planet Earth. Things would be better without today’s growing number of major fires, heatwaves, droughts, tempests, floods, icemelts, and rising seas. So I am far from taking the ultra-optimist’s view that all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

But, short of adopting a totally Panglossian outlook, it is possible, indeed necessary, to remain optimistic that actions can be taken in time to control the adverse effects of global warming. Humans are not only problem-creators but also problem- solvers. In this case, the challenge is undeniably great. It will require significant changes from not only big business and big politics (using that term for the networks of national and international institutions) but also from individuals. Global patterns of transport, trade, energy generation; and energy consumption will have to be fundamentally adapted. And at an individual level, people will have to think again about their food and drink; their clothing; their systems for warming houses; their transport; their sports; their holidays; and, indeed, everything. It is asking a lot. Especially as remedial actions will need to be adopted at both macro- and micro-levels simultaneously.

Nonetheless, here are four arguments for (relative) optimism. Governments and big businesses have paid attention to scientific warnings in the past, and then taken successful remedial action. In the 1970s, it was first reported that there was a widening gap in the ozone layer, which shields Planet Earth from harmful ultra-violet radiation. The culprits were chemicals known familiarly as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which were used in aerosol sprays, refrigerators, and blowing agents for foams and packaging materials. An international agreement, known as the Montreal Protocol (1987), then launched decisive change. CFCs were banned.

Over time, all nations around the world have signed up to the Protocol. And in May 2018 a new scientific survey confirmed that the ozone hole has diminished significantly.1 Humans still have to remain vigilant, since the workings of the upper atmosphere are volatile and not easy to study.2 Nonetheless, collective action has been undertaken; and is working.

A second example can be taken from individual actions to renounce a social practice, which was once seen as a great source of personal pleasure. Smoking tobacco in cigars and cigarettes is disappearing. Not at the same rate in all countries around the world. Nor at the same rate among all social classes. Yet, globally, humans are entering into what has been well described as the ‘tobacco-endgame’.3 For example, in the case of Britain, it is hoped that the entire country may become smoke-free by 2030, according to a health report in July 2019.4 Progress in curbing smoking has been triggered by many factors. Medical warnings paved the way from the 1950s onwards, at first cautiously, and then, with more definitive research, more emphatically. Supportive government policies eventually helped too. Above all, however, the slow but eventually decisive shift in individual and communal attitudes was crucial.

Up to and including most of the 1960s, it was considered ‘cool’ to smoke and rude to refuse a friend’s offer of a cigarette. Over time, those attitudes have been completely reversed. Many older people can still remember their personal struggles to quit. Younger people, if they are lucky, never get caught by the habit in the first place. They have no memories of pubs, cinemas, tube trains and other public places being clogged with tobacco fumes – or of their hair and clothes reeking unpleasantly. Again, the battle against smoking is far from won. There are still skirmishes and diversionary tactics (as from e-cigarettes) along the way.5 Yet the trend is becoming clear. As is the crucial role of individual decision-making and active participation in the process.

The story of Prohibition in the USA in 1919 offers an instructive contrast. There the legislative ban on the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol was well intentioned. Drinking as such was never made illegal; but aggregate consumption was indeed reduced. However, the policy was introduced too abruptly and without widespread public support. The outcome was evasion on an epic scale, boosting illicit stills and bootlegging gangsters. Other side-effects included a boom in hypocrisy and contempt for the law. Campaigners for a more rational system managed to repeal the ban in 1933, leaving the different US states to adopt their own policies.6 The contrast between alcohol’s survival, despite Prohibition, and nicotine’s slow demise is instructive. Government policies, health advisors and medical practitioners can and do play significant roles. But on big questions which affect people’s intimate personal behaviour on a day-by-day basis, structural policies have to work with, not against, public opinion. Hence the question of how that state-of-many-collective-minds is formed and sustained becomes crucial.

So here is a third reason for (relative) optimism on global warming. Public opinion, fuelled by young people like the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is being everywhere encouraged to turn in favour of urgent action. True, the mechanisms for channelling such attitudes into the political system are indirect and slow-working. However, what is happening now seems like part of a Zeitgeist shift of immense significance. The young are numerous, vocal, and willing to campaign. Furthermore, people of all ages know that the human species has no other domicile than Planet Earth. People of many different political persuasions are showing new interest in green policies. And people in all parts of the world are witnessing the increased incidence of freak weather. The voices of sceptics and deniers are waning.7 Getting collective action to harness this rising tide of opinion will depend upon big politics being able and willing to channel the tide successfully – and upon big business becoming aware and either adjusting its actions, or being made to do so. Big demands, which entail challenging big vested interests. Yet these demands are not impossible ones. Vigorous explorations are already being undertaken to find alternative technologies. Such game-changing innovations may alter the nature of the decisions that need to be made. Politicians need to show the same willingness to respond positively, in the face of an accumulating emergency.

And, lastly, a degree of activism (whether driven by pessimism or optimism) is needed from everyone, to add force to the changing Zeitgeist. The alternative is fatalism, which only makes a bad situation worse. True, being optimistic is easier for those with optimistic temperaments. Yet even those who feel nothing but gloom are called upon, in this climate emergency, to transmute their valid anxieties into pressure for change. Relative pessimism can be as great a goad to call for remedial action, as can relative optimism. ‘Climate change constitutes a global emergency!’ ‘Let’s take countervailing action!’ All can lend their voices to swell the tide of public opinion.

ENDNOTES:

1 S. Pereira, report on Ozone Layer dated 1/5/2018 for Newsweek 27 October 2019: https://www.newsweek.com/nasa-hole-earths-ozone-layer-finally-closing-humans-did-something-771922

2 E.A. Parson, Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy (Oxford, 2003); S.O. Andersen and K.M. Sarma, Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History (2002).

3 [British Medical Journal], India: The Endgame for Tobacco Conference (2013).

4 S. Barr, report dated 23 July 2019 in The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/smoking-ban-uk-end-cigarettes-tobacco-health-green-paper-a9016636.html

5 S. Gabb, Smoking and its Enemies: A Short History of 500 Years of the Use and Prohibition of Tobacco (1990).

6 D. Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2010); J.J. Binder, Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organised Crime in Chicago during Prohibition (Amherst, 2017);

7 G.T. Farmer, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis (Dordrecht, 2013); J. Fessmann (ed.), Strategic Climate Change Communications: Effective Approaches to Fighting Climate Change Denial (Wilmington, 2019); S. Maloney, H. Fuenfgeld and M. Gramberg, Local Action on Climate Change: Opportunities and Constraints (2017).

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MONTHLY BLOG 91, PEOPLE SOMETIMES SAY: ‘WE DON’T LEARN FROM THE PAST’ AND WHY THAT STATEMENT IS COMPLETELY ABSURD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

People sometimes say, dogmatically but absurdly: ’We don’t learn from the Past’. Oh really? So what do humans learn from, then? We don’t learn from the Future, which has yet to unfold. We do learn in and from the Present. Yet every moment of ‘Now’ constitutes an infinitesimal micro-instant an unfolding process. The Present is an unstable time-period, which is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the Past. Humans don’t have time, in that split-second of ‘Now’, to comprehend and assimilate everything. As a result, we have, unavoidably, to learn from what has gone before: our own and others’ experiences, which are summed as everything before ‘Now’: the Past.

It’s worth reprising the status of those temporal categories. The Future, which has not yet unfolded, is not known or knowable in its entirety. That’s a definitional quality which springs from the unidirectional nature of Time. It does not mean that the Future is either entirely unknown or entirely unknowable. As an impending temporal state, it may beckon, suggest, portend. Humans are enabled to have considerable information and expectations about many significant aspects of the Future. For example, it’s clear from past experience that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die in their current corporeal form. We additionally know that tomorrow will come after today, because that is how we habitually define diurnal progression within unilinear Time. We also confidently expect that in the future two plus two will continue to equal four; and that all the corroborated laws of physics will still apply.

And we undertake calculations, based upon past data, which provide the basis for Future predictions or estimates. For example, actuarial tables, showing age-related life expectancy, indicate group probabilities, though not absolute certainties. Or, to take a different example, we know, from expert observation and calculation, that Halley’s Comet is forecast to return into sight from Earth in mid-2061. Many, though not all, people alive today will be able to tell whether that astronomical prediction turns out to be correct or not. And there’s every likelihood  that it will be.

Commemorating a successful prediction,
in the light of past experience:
a special token struck in South America in 2010 to celebrate
the predicted return to view from Planet Earth
of Halley’s Comet,
whose periodicity was first calculated by Edward Halley (1656-1742)

Yet all this (and much more) useful information about the Future is, entirely unsurprisingly, drawn from past experience, observations and calculations. As a result, humans can use the Past to illuminate and to plan for the Future, without being able to foretell it with anything like total precision.

So how about learning from the Present? It’s live, immediate, encircling, inescapably ‘real’. We all learn in our own present times – and sometimes illumination may come in a flash of understanding. One example, as Biblically recounted, is the conversion of St Paul, who in his unregenerate days was named Saul: ‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”’1 His eyes were temporarily blinded; but spiritually he was enlightened. Before then, Saul was one of the Christians’ chief persecutors, ‘breathing out threatening and slaughter’.2 Perhaps a psychologist might suggest that his intense hostility concealed some unexpressed fascination with Christianity. Nonetheless, there was no apparent preparation, so the ‘Damascene conversion’ which turned Saul into St Paul remains the classic expression of an instant change of heart. But then he had to rethink and grow into his new role, working with those he had been attempting to expunge.

A secular case of sudden illumination appears in the fiction of Jane Austen. In Emma (1815), the protagonist, a socially confident would-be match-maker, has remained in ignorance of her own heart. She encourages her young and humble protégé, Harriet Smith, to fancy herself in love. They enjoy the prospect of romance. Then Emma suddenly learns precisely who is the object of Harriet’s affections. The result is wonderfully described.3 Emma sits in silence for several moments, in a fixed attitude, contemplating the unpleasant news:

Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

I remember first reading this novel, as a teenager, when I was as surprised as Emma at this development. Since then, I’ve reread the story many times; and I can now see the prior clues which Austen scatters through the story to alert more worldly-wise readers that George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are a socially and personally compatible couple, acting in concert long before they both (separately) realise their true feelings. It’s a well drawn example of people learning from the past whilst ‘wising up’ in a single moment. Emma then undertakes some mortifying retrospection as she gauges her own past errors and blindness. But she is capable of learning from experience. She does; and so, rather more artlessly, does Harriet. It’s a comedy of trial-and-error as the path to wisdom.

As those examples suggest, the relationship of learning with Time is in fact a very interesting and complex one. Humans learn in their own present moments. Yet the process of learning and education as a whole has to be a through-Time endeavour. A flash of illumination needs to be mentally consolidated and ‘owned’. Otherwise it is just one of those bright ideas which can come and as quickly go.   Effective learning thus entails making oneself familiar with a subject by repetition, cogitation, debating, and lots of practice. Such through-Time application applies whether people are learning physical or intellectual skills or both. The role of perspiration, as well as inspiration, is the stuff of many mottoes: ‘practice makes perfect’; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’; ‘stick at it’; ‘never stop learning’; ‘trudge another mile’; ‘learn from experience’.

Indeed, the entire corpus of knowledge and experience that humans have assembled over many generations is far too huge to be assimilated in an instant. (It’s actually too huge for any one individual to master. So we have to specialise and share).

So that brings the discussion back to the Past. It stretches back through Time and onwards until ‘Now’. Of course, we learn from it. Needless to say, it doesn’t follow that people always agree on messages from former times, or act wisely in the light of such information. Hence when people say: ‘We don’t learn from the Past’, they probably mean that it does not deliver one guiding message, on which everyone agrees. And that’s right. It doesn’t and there isn’t.

One further pertinent point: there are rumbling arguments around the question – is the Past alive or dead? (With a hostile implication in the sub-text that nothing can really be learned from a dead and vanished Past.) But that’s not a helpful binary. In other words, it’s a silly question. Some elements of the past have conclusively gone, while many others persist through time.4 To take just a few examples, the human genome was not invented this morning; human languages have evolved over countless generations; and the laws of physics apply throughout.

Above all, therefore, the integral meshing between Past and Present means that we, individual humans, have also come from the Past. It’s in us as well as, metaphorically speaking, behind us. Thinking of Time as running along a pathway or flowing like a river is a common human conception of temporality. Other alternatives might envisage the Past as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’, or ‘nowhere specific’. The metaphor doesn’t really matter as long as we realise that it pervades everything, including ourselves.

1 Holy Bible, Acts 9: 3-4.

2 Ibid, 9:1.

3 J. Austen, Emma: A Novel (1815), ed. R. Blythe (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 398.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Is the Past Dead or Alive? And the Snares of Such Binary Questions’, BLOG/62 (Feb.2016).

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