I don’t like the present very much. So I live in the past.
Just about everything about this day and age depresses and angers me. The ignorance, the lies, the vulgarity, the hypocrisy, the bad manners. The witless movies aimed at those with IQs of 85 and under. “Diversity.” Feminism. Having to press “1” to hear the menu in English. Having to hear a menu at all. TSA (the last time I flew they removed the cheese from my backpack and X-rayed it separately). The relentless focus on money and “practicality.” The inescapable ugliness of this concrete, advertisement bedecked wasteland (which most ordinary people don’t even notice anymore). The brass, shrill, F-word besprinkled speech of today’s slatternly young women. The use of “disrespect” as a verb. And I could go on.
One way I deal with all of this is by means of a kind of dark, detached, withering humor – which I direct at things from my throne high atop Mount Olympus. When I get together with like-minded friends we spend most of our time observing others and rubbishing them. The other way I deal with the rot of the day is by entering into the past. For me, the past is like another world I can escape to. There are many doorways back into the past. Reading history is one of them, of course.
Another – perhaps my favorite way – is old movies. I like watching films from the ’40s, ’50s, and even the ’60s — just because everyone dresses so much better in those films than they do today. (This is a large part of the secret to the success of Mad Men.) Everything I know about how to dress I learned from watching Hitchcock films (and James Bond). I like corny old movies, and I like them on principle. This is because I feel that the ability to enjoy them and be moved by them is a mark of purity and simple virtue. That most of us are unable to watch such films today without laughing is a mark of our corruption. Yes, I even watch silent films. To me they are to the cinema what Greek drama is to theater.
People seem more real in old movies. Men are men and women are women. They have real emotions and let them out, without having to go through an ideological screening process. They seem closer to nature – even when they are shown living in urban environments. I get the same feeling when I look at very old photographs – such as the family photos we still have from the 19th century. As everybody always notices in these old pictures, the people aren’t smiling. They have a harder, tougher quality. But what always fascinates me is the eyes. They have a faraway look, like every single one of them is a bit touched (as they say in the South). You feel like you can see history on those eyes. And a connection to something that we’ve lost. It’s like they were all hooked up to the great pitiless, primal life-generator, whereas we are mere bloodless simulacra.
I like films from the past and films about the past – especially the distant past. Films set in the ’40s or ’50s do display a nice contrast to today, and make me feel wistful. But if you’re clever you can perceive the rot beginning to set in, even back then. You can recognize the patterns of decay; the things that just kept on getting worse until we got saddled with today. (And, of course, these things will keep on getting worse.) Which is why I love films that take me back a few centuries – so long as there’s some credibility to them. And so long as they don’t fall into the “When things were rotten” mold. Reading a history of Rome is a way to enter into the past. But a film like Quo Vadis?, for all its flaws, makes that past come alive.
I also like films that are preoccupied with the past. A good example would be the very appropriately-named Out of the Past (1947) with Robert Mitchum. This is one of my favorite films, and it is the best film noir of them all.
But let’s not forget television shows. A few months ago I reviewed the misguided Tim Burton Dark Shadows film, and it became an excuse for me to reminisce about the original TV series. And my own review then prompted me to start watching Dark Shadows on Netflix – and getting hooked on it all over again. Dark Shadows starts off as the story of Victoria Winters, a young woman who grew up in an orphanage with no knowledge of her parents at all. She goes to work as governess for the aristocratic Collins family in Maine, a clan with a rich past. A woman without a past goes to work for a family that things about almost nothing other than the past.
Inevitably, Victoria becomes obsessed by the Collins family history and fantasizes about being one of them. Late in the show’s first year the main character then becomes a figure literally of the past: Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire obsessed with his own past and with reliving his great romance with long-dead Josette. At a certain point, Victoria is transported back in time to the 1790s, where the ancestors of the present-day Collins family are played by the same set of actors. (This storyline lasted for many weeks, and these are considered Dark Shadows’ “classic” episodes.)
This series was very accurately described as a “Gothic romance,” and preoccupation with the past – old mansions and abbeys, family curses, hauntings, etc. – is a staple of Gothic fiction. Why? And why is Gothic fiction “Gothic”? What is it about the northern European soul that causes it to be so moved by dark and stormy nights, secret passages, and old family secrets? Other peoples value the past, and preserve tradition, but somehow with us it’s different. The past is an uncanny thing for us. It really is like a different world, that sometimes has the capacity to cross over into this one.
In a sense, the past is more real than the present. It is more real because it is complete. My life is ongoing. I have no idea where it will lead, or what it will be defined by. In this sense, it is indefinite. A single act, a single spoken or written sentence can define an entire life and give it meaning. Think of any historical figure. Always in their story there is some major deed or event that defines the whole life. Reading their story – knowing where their life is headed – we understand everything before the event as leading up to it, as preparing the way. If the historical figure survives this event, we understand everything after it as its result – or as anticlimax.
Historical lives are therefore like works of fiction. We only recognize that there’s a plot once the life is over. Then we see it in terms of acts and story arcs. Fictional characters are “larger than life.” They seem more real to us. Sherlock Holmes is far more real to me than my UPS man, and I know far more about him. But the same is true of historical figures. (I’m almost tempted to ask, given how fascinating the past is, who needs fiction when we have history?) Our lives, as we are living them, are like stories that keep going and going, making us wonder if there really is a point to it all. What’s the plot? Or is there a plot at all? This is the same thing as wondering if there’s any meaning or purpose to our lives.
But it is only once a life is over that we can truly know what its meaning and purpose was. Every completed life is like a completed story, and, like fiction, has much to teach us. This is true even of seemingly insignificant lives. The lives of great men are like classic, sprawling novels (or epic poems). The lives of little men are like short stories (or, in the case of very little men, limericks).
This perspective has taught me a great deal about how life should be led. Essentially, you really have to choose whether you want to be the author of your own story – your own life – or let circumstances (or fate) do the authoring for you. I have learned to adopt the perspective of a third party looking over my life and assessing it, discerning the patterns in it, seeing where it seems to be headed. I have learned that I must keep squarely in mind that every choice, every action on my part is irrevocable. All form part of my past – instantly, as soon as the choice is made or the action undertaken. All form part of the story that is my life. At every step, I must ask of my decisions and my actions whether I want this to be part of that story. I am, in a sense, actively seeking to create the past – at least where I am concerned.
Certainly, part of my concern is with what will be said about me after I am gone – with how I will be remembered. This will be dismissed as narcissism. However, as my readers know I owned (and defended) the narcissist label some time ago. In fact, I don’t think that my concern with my pastness is any different from that of my barbarian ancestors, who lived lives they hoped might be set down in sagas and sung about. Perhaps it is this that sets us apart from other people, where history and the past is concerned. We are the people who do not just remember the past, but seek to create a past for ourselves.
Or, at least, that’s how we used to be. But Americans and (increasingly) Europeans are shockingly ignorant of history. It is to the future that we moderns now consistently orient ourselves. But the future is indefinite. It offers us no guidance. Only the past is definite; only in the past do we find lessons (really, myths) to live by. The result for our people today is that they are as indefinite as their future: devoid of a center, wishy-washy, changeable, malleable.
Fundamentally, the conflict between Left and Right is the conflict between the future focus and the past focus. Conservatives (real conservatives) are not seeking to go back, which is impossible. They are seeking to go forward, looking to the past for guidance. Finding in the past some evidence for unchangeable human truths. But the Left (and the phony “neo-cons”) go forward blindly, sure in the belief that the past has nothing to reveal because there are no unchangeable human truths.
As a movement, the New Right seeks to move forward by looking to the past and learning from it. This is the essence of what some of us call Traditionalism. But some of us are haunted by the thought that our efforts are in vain; that the forces arrayed against us are too strong. Perhaps all the reading, writing, activism, poverty, and self-denial are for naught.
To such people, I recommend living in the past as I do. And I ask them to imagine that, after death, they could look upon their completed life and take in the whole story. Or to imagine that their life belongs to another, whose biography they happen to be perusing. At a certain point in the story, the life of the New Rightist comes to a crucial juncture: to give in to the doubts and give up; to “get a real job,” and join the mainstream. Or to continue the fight and have faith – even if, in fact, it leads to naught. Which is the story that is more admirable? Which sort of man would you be more proud to be? Which is the sort of man that makes history? Only one answer is possible here. The detached focus one needs to see one’s life this way is difficult to maintain. Still more difficult, however, is to exercise the will and compel yourself to take those actions that you know will make your life the proud story of a great man.
To save the future, we must look to the past – and act. In doing so, we create a glorious past for ourselves. A past that will, I promise you, be the stuff of new sagas. Think about this, when the doubt begins to nag.