The turn of the year can be a good moment to reflect on our relationship with past and future.

The past is with us whether we are aware of it or not, and it can fructify the present, as Seamus Heaney reminded us. I liked this suggestion, by the Russian poet Mandelstam, that a deep historical perspective might enable us to see something of the future. 

The old men on Sevan had that depth of historical vision that enables the eye to make out the future.

It puzzles me that we can stretch our sense of time far further into the past than into the future, and I believe that if we are to become a sustainable species on a sustainable planet, we need to address that discrepancy, at least partially.  If you have a sense of history, you can mind-travel quite easily to 500 or 2,000 years ago, and often relate to people there – look at the continuing interest of present generations in reading Homer or Herodotus, with new translations and interpretations appearing regularly.  Now, try the same exercise stretching 500 or 2,000 years forward.  What do you see?  A blank?  OK, let’s shorten it to 100 years?  Not much better?

We did not always have such a short mental horizon.  See Martin Rees on the long termism of medieval cathedral builders. 

And do enjoy our quote-studded bestellar review of Mandelstam’s slim and thoughtful book on Armenia, paired up with a similar travelogue by Vasily Grossman.    

Source: Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011), p. 36

Image credit: Agnes Avagyan at Pixabay


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