Volume 5, Number 4, Summer 1974


"THE PAST IS NOT PAST"

By Hardy A. Kemp, M.D.


To those of us who trace the tunnels that lead back into the past, a wise and tolerant physician philosopher, Dr. Eugen Kahn, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, at Baylor University College of Medicine, very kindly offers the warning that, "One can always find what one wants to find" in interpreting the behavior of persons in past situations.

Plainly, this holds for both the biographer and the autobiographer as well. Each of us in re-experiencing former experiences builds up a fully subjective past even though careful reliance is placed on the use of time-facts, place-facts and even space-relationships. We may, however, overlook the fact that we are "re-experiencing"

situations quite different from the ones in which the original situations took place.

This need not be so very mysterious. Take the re-experiences derived from re-reading a book. The book has remained and will remain the same. "But," Dr. Kahn exclaims, "what a difference in its relation and meaning to the re-reader!"

He then reminds us that our subjective attitudes toward any original experience can not help but change the picture with each re-experiencing, and thus, "Any past experiences can be given quite another meaning when re-experienced. An originally pleasant experience may be given an unpleasant meaning. The relation in which the experience occured may thus be modified or changed (in order that) the original

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content of the original experience may be adapted to one’s own experiential needs." Dr. Kahn then lays it on the line, "We are thus capable of a considerable number of tricks in changing the experiences of the past when we dauntlessly change our subjective past to bring it up to the level of some present need. (Consequently,) we have to realize that in re-experiencing an experience we are having an experience in the present since we can not experience but in the present."

All right. Let’s face it. Past experiences are inescapable. They are a part of any present experiencing, and thus before this sort of rationalizing becomes ‘rationalizing for an eternity about eternity’ it would be better to accept Dr. Kahn’s thesis and agree with him that "The Past is not Past", and that is not so difficult as it might seem. He offers this assurance, "We quite naturally take from our past experiences what fits our experiential present in order to back-up, fill in and help our understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves." Before we can catch our breath to reply, our philosopher interposes, "‘Fining’ does not always signify affirming. It may be signify reneging."

What Dr. Kahn is saying is, simply, that the historian-experiencer must guard carefully against "dauntlessly appropriating" the "past" to fit into his present needs in experiencing. Dr. Kahn is warning us that the pit-fall is always there, quietly awaiting the unwary, and, if further proof is needed, he offers the observation that opinions and descriptions vary from person to person and from one historical period to another. Dr. Kahn thus avers that this is witnessed by the most competent of experts in this field, the professional historians, themselves. Yet, as Dr. Kahn also points out, "The picture-total can only be drawn by the historian’s interpretation, and this by means of "historical sense". Here he offers Sir Lewis Namier’s working-definition of historiography, "The intuitive understanding of how things did not happen." To which he adds Momsen’s ponderous, "The interpretative certainty of the validy of sources", then he puts them together by saying, "The one thought is complementary to the other." And as if this were not enough, he then quotes George Macaulay Trevelyan’s somewhat acerb conviction, "History has no properly scientific value; its only purpose is educative. Thus the historian’s task is that of narration and construction."

Finally, and this is addressed to all of us— professional historian, lay-historian and the Interested Reader alike—Dr. Kahn writes, "The historians who create descriptions of times past are most intensely "re-experiencing" the pertinent epochs or eras of periods including people and peoples then and there experiencing. Historians are bound to do so as experiencers experiencing in their own situations, that is, in their own Now-Here, not in the Then-There of people and peoples long dead. The lives and experiences of those dead and their situations in life can never be reconstructed as it really was nor in complete objectivity. Thus the historian, to say it briefly, is an experiencer who experiences multum et multa in addition to his professional experiences."

Multa et multa?

Just another way of saying, "Much in finely divided pieces."

REFERENCE
Kahn, Eugene: "The Past is not Past, " A Monograph in American Lectures in Clinical Psychiatry, American Lecture Series. (Edited by Howard P. Rome, M.D., Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., 66 pp.) Charles C Thomas, Springfield, Illinois, 1962.

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