The Past is a Foreign Country: Revisited

This book was first published in 1985, and the author, Emeritus Professor of Geography, used ten years on the revision (8-9) of the Anglo-western male literate elite’s attitude to his past (3).

In addition to the introduction, inter alia containing “An authorial credo” (2-3) and “Themes and structure” (15-22) stating what the book surveys and what it does not comprise, the book is divided into 4 parts containing 12 chapters (I: Wanting the Past: Nostalgia: dreams and nightmares; Time travelling; Benefits and burdens of the past; II: Disputing the Past: Ancients vs. Moderns: tradition and innovation; The look of age: aversion; The look of age: affection; III: Knowing the Past: Memory; History; Relics; IV: Remaking the Past: Saving the past: preservation and replication; Replacing the past: restoration and re- enactment; Improving the past); an Epilogue: The past in the present; Select bibliography and Index.

The four parts or broad themes of the book: “wanting, disputing, knowing and remaking the past”, all have a short introduction outlining the subsequent content. The first part, “wanting the past”, examines how the past enriches and also impoverishes, and is simultaneously embraced or shunned. Among other things we are (again) informed about Ronald Regan’s importance within history (36), which, of course, does not reflect actual circumstances, but serves to maintain an American myth. Chapter 3 (Benefits and burdens of the past) has many interesting observations; among these are the list of valued attributes, such as antiquity and continuity, and the different views on the latter when it is “our own” vs. belongs to “those abroad” (122), as well as the competing founding myths of national identity, highly relevant in several contexts today.

The last topic continues in the second part which studies competing viewpoints about things past and present, old and new, while surveying the disputes that entangle partisans of tradition versus innovation, youth versus age. The rival repute of past and present in four epochs of Western history is first examined (Ch. 4), while the next two chapters (Ch. 5-6) deal with pastness in terms of life-cycle analogies; the first of these (The look of age: aversion) is highly relevant for especially modern Western culture.

While the previous sections discussed the range of peoples’ needs and desires, part 3 discusses how people become aware of and learn about the past, surveying the mechanisms that inform people with the past, as a precondition of meeting the actual needs. This part, which I found most interesting, explores the various routes to the past that should be traversed concurrently, memory (Ch. 7), history (Ch. 8) and relics (Ch. 9), after inquiring into how the past is generally experienced and believed in a short section called, “Reifying the chimerical past” (293-301), stating that “all knowledge of the past is [indeed] uncertain” (293). In the last of these three chapters, we are informed about a 150-years old statement claiming that “Historical training should begin not in town archives...but in the...old streets where men had lived” (390), a relevant statement concerning the importance several modern historians have realised, namely the need of employing several sources and methods (archive studies in conjunction with fieldwork) in the search of making history. I especially like the correspondence between Plato’s statement that writing will produce forgetfulness, and the modern internet search engines and data banks, removing need for personal effort (406).

The tree chapters in the last part consider how the received past is saved and changed―or remade; why its vestiges are rescued or contrived; and how these transformations affect the past and people. The author argues that simultaneously as the past became indistinguishable from the present, it also became more foreign. Chapter 10 discusses the impacts of efforts to save the past through preservation and replication. The next chapter (11) examines efforts to replace the past by restoring artefacts and institutions that do not exist any more or are incomplete, and by re-enacting past events and activities. The chapter concludes by stating that all efforts to save or study the past alter it. These alterations are dealt with in chapter 12, and may be changes that are deliberately intended to improve or change the past. Also discussed are the motives that stimulate those changes, and their consequences―whether intended or unintended.

There are many vise observations in this study, and impossible for a short review to discuss but a very few, such as his statement that time travellers are historically naïve (65 f.), and also the topic of familiarity discussed in the subsequent chapter (Ch. 3: 86-8). Familiarity and identity with the past is unavoidable in our search of mapping the world and our surroundings, but have also made many erroneous historical reconstructions of the past. On the other hand, all that is written about the past is written in the present, since we do not have any time machine: Concerning ancient society, for example, the sources give us the possibility of interpreting the actual society, not of entering it: ancient society exists only in our minds, because the sources are signs from another cultural context and not identical to it. Therefore, it is important to change one’s western approach when studying both ancient, and also other foreign societies―or countries―but this is not done in this book, since antiquity is solely seen from a western male elitist perspective.

I might, of course, be wrong, but in many ways I feel I read a book from a disillusioned person, or perhaps someone not managing to cope with today’s changes, or “the crippling of Europe or the West”, which actually started a long time ago. Concerning the Epilogue, one may therefore ask whose history are we writing and why are we writing it? Perhaps this is an unfair question, since the author is clear about what his endeavour comprises already in the introduction. Still, in the era of globalization, when more and more scholars see the importance of documenting history from a bottom-up perspective and not only the usual top-down perspective, this reviewer feels something is lacking. Moreover, many geographers write on history nowadays also anthropologists, the claim being that historians are too narrowly occupied with their own “small niche” (cf. 349: “academic history...priestly caste”; 590 on rare “broad historical expertise”) or, for the latter, that they do not concern the everyday history of the general people. Both claims are of course, incorrect, rather illustrating a lack of overview of what historians actually produce (although it should not be denied that some historians sit in their own niche).

As an historian I am puzzled by the heavy reliance of articles and book reviews from New York Times and other newspapers, seen in contrast to the rich bibliography of this volume. Knowing the level of “expertise” within modern journalism, I would rather have relied on the latter (i.e., the bibliography). That said, the author has re-written a book densely packed with information and theoretical discussions which will be of great interest to a diverse audience. Although the geographical scope is limited, both historians and other academics will find new considerations of old topics and theories relevant to their fields. The book is large, rich and well documented and will repay careful reading by various academics. 

Reviewed by Evy Johanne Håland, Dr (History), Independent scholar, Norway/former Marie Curie Intra-European Fellow, Department of Archaeology and History of Art, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. (