Things always seem fairer when we look back at them, and it is out of that inaccessible tower of the past that Longing leans and beckons.”–James Russell Lowell

The title of my post for today is basically a half-truth, and I don’t have a lot to say about it, but I wanted to call it to my readers’ attention because, quite often when we are bemoaning the fact that something is no longer as it was, we are told by well-meaning but possibly quite wrong-headed friends or family “You just see it that way now.  But don’t you remember at the time when I tried to get you to see it/them/the experience/the day in a positive light, you were full of gloom and doom, and dreaded meeting the persons involved/going to the event?”  That is, there is truth in the statement that once we have overcome a difficulty, the positive aspects of our experience are what we prefer to remember (always assuming that we are not born-again pessimists, who prefer to see things in a negative light anyway.  Or, we might be persons who prefer to remember both halves of an experience or another individual because we believe in the principle of balance).  It is questionable whether or not we can assume that things “always seem fairer” and as well we may argue that through the magic of memory and our ability to create repetition, the “tower” of memory and the past isn’t as “inaccessible” as one might assume from that fact that we look at time most often as something linear, and most often see the past as gone and done with.  In fact, James Russell Lowell’s assertion seems quite valid only from the perspective of the linear, and foregoes any association with living through one’s memories as a way of reanimating the past.  It’s as if he assumes that memory is only an old scrapbook, and our past a faded collection of photographs, which in his day was largely the way memory was thought of.

Of course, we know now (and this might at first seem to make his insistence on his point more justifiable) that memory is imprecise, and that witnesses to scenes are notoriously unreliable even when they are making their best effort to be accurate; yet this very imprecision is what is reassuring, when one thinks about it.  For it is in living through the memories we have, and reanimating them through the agency of this imprecision, that we create new things.  When we come face to face with others who lived through the same times or experiences, we may of course decide to argue as to whose analysis of the past situation is more accurate, and there may in fact be cases in which one person’s memories are wildly inaccurate, for example with those who have Alzheimers.  Yet in a situation in which both people can be assumed to have normal memories, it is part of the adventure of living and loving and part of the risk attached thereto that animates our being and keeps us vigorously discussing “what really did happen.”

Finally, why is it, in Lowell’s poetical figure, that “Longing” is the one in the “inaccessible tower of the past” beckoning?  Longing is what the beholder feels when someone or something else is beckoning–hence the poetical figure itself is askew.  For, Love or Memory or Experience or some other entity is what beckons that causes the person on the plain below–to expand the picture–to feel Longing. Thus my dissatisfaction with the entire image, and my feeling that Lowell was cheating poetically and relying on cheap sentiment at the same time.  May we all “look back” with impunity on good things, forget as far as possible negative things that cause us pain except to keep their lessons in mind in order to avoid repeating them, and not tell ourselves, as Lowell seems to be attempting to do here, that if only we were experiencing things in the present they wouldn’t “seem” as “fair”–Dammit, we know what we like and what has pleased us and displeased us, don’t we?  James Russell Lowell, let’s have no more palavering on the matter–you’re sounding more and more like a grim, dissatisfied type of customer who has nothing good to say about either the present or the past.  Time travel is only possible in our day and age with memory aiding–I say, let’s live it up, past, present, and based upon these two, future, with anticipation of more good things like others we have known fulfilling its role.  And that’s my not-very-intellectual-but-deeply-felt post for this first week of Spring 2013!


Filed under A prose flourish, Other than literary days....

4 responses to “Things always seem fairer when we look back at them, and it is out of that inaccessible tower of the past that Longing leans and beckons.”–James Russell Lowell

  1. We fondly remember comfort and control. When the push into the future denies us of these two things, we long for the days past.

    I miss my job two roles back, as it was where I did my best work and could contribute the most. The mind forgets some aspects that were bad, such as higher-level managers making decisions when they could barely understand the contract’s terms. One role back was terrible for how dumb I was made to feel whenever clarification was requested.

    Hope your days are warming up nicely =)


    • While I acknowledge that “the good old days” can be things that everyone looks back upon a bit delusively, I don’t in general care for the way Lowell has structured his comment. The very fact that you can remember bad things about the “good old days” proves that his “always” is inaccurate, and his poetical figure, as I remarked, seems askew. Yes, thank you, the days are gradually getting warmer here. I’m little by little emerging from the winter doldrums.


  2. Great analysis, Victoria. I love Lowell’s quote! And it is so relevant for memoir writers. That “fairness” to me is the ever-enlarging context and hindsight knowledge and growing knowledge of self. The longing rushes in as we, knowing now what we didn’t then, would love to be us then and also us NOW, that is with our current knowledge, but back then . . . Oh, Proust could explain this. In 1,000 pages!


  3. Dear Richard, While Proust may be able to explain Lowell’s quote, I think you took a pretty fair shot at it yourself. My difference of opinion with Lowell is because of the word “always.” I can also remember bad times, and don’t therefore “long” for everything from the past the way he seems to be suggesting. Still, I think your remarks make sense.


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