How to live as somebody else's past

November 1, 2017

This very simple realization first hit me one evening, on my journey back from work. While standing in a tube carriage and looking absent-mindedly at the clothes of my fellow passengers, I thought of those pictures of my childhood in the 1980s. Everybody there looked as if they were attending a themed fancy-dress party – not just the people, but also the houses, the cars, the trees and the sky. Those pictures were soaked in a very specific colour filter, they all had the same atmosphere, the same rhythm. It is the particular rhythm of one’s past, whenever it is set. When events slide out of the grip of the present, to venture into the realms of the past, they all acquire a different, peculiar rhythm. That evening in the tube, while looking at the other passengers under the neon lights, I thought about my 3-years old son, Arturo, waiting for me at home. “This moment, this exact moment that is my present – this is his past.” I was living my present, and at the same time I was living Arturo’s past – but not only me, also all those people with me in the carriage, also the neon lights on the ceiling, also the trees and the sky up above ground. Those objects were the stuff of my son’s past, just like the objects of the 1980s are now the blurry stuff of my childhood memories.

 

Like all banal realisation, also this sudden awareness to be living two temporalities at once left me more affected than I could have imagined. It is like the instant when you actually realize – when you feel – your mortality: you’ve known it all along, yet this obvious fact becomes immensely powerful once we suspend our oblivion and cynicism towards it. What does it mean to live as somebody else’s past? How is this different from living merely as one’s own present? Walking out of the tube into the autumn evening, I tried to flesh out the implications.

 

For one, the difference is in the centre of gravity – or better the source – of our existence in time. As long as I consider it only as taking place in the present, my life has a certain degree of autonomy – it sets its own ontological rhythm, so to say. The same goes for the existence of anything in the world, if I consider it merely as ‘existence in the present’. This tree growing out of the pavement, the smoke of my cigarette right now, can reclaim in full their existence in the present. Things change, if we considered them as features of somebody else’s past – where the specification ‘else’ is crucial. Seen as the sky of Arturo’s childhood memories, this present sunset over South-East London acquires a different shade from the one that I can see right now. As an item existing in my son’s future memories, this sky right now has a particular tinge, which it shares with the sofa on which he likes to play with his cars, with his favourite plate, with his pyjama. The clear-cut difference between things in the present, becomes diluted if we look at their being features of somebody else’s past. Seen through that angle, there is more in common to the existent than what differentiates it.

 

Although the source of this particular dimension running through the world – that in which it’s all part of my son’s memories – is in fact the future self of one 3-years old boy, we shouldn’t consider it as internal only to that self. If I look around while focusing on the fact that everything is already the stuff of which Arturo’s memories will be made – that it already is them – I can see that this quality, while connected to my son, lies in fact in things themselves. A part of things, as they exist in the present, is already – right now – my son’s memories: this is a dimension of their being, it is internal to their being, it is constitutive of their being. A dimension within the things that surround me is already soaked in that specific colour, in that specific rhythm which is the rhythm of childhood memories. Not my own memories, but somebody else’s.

 

This shift in the centre of gravity leads to a multiplication of the layers that make up the things of the present. On the one hand, they are existing merely in the present – distinct from each other and autonomous in themselves, as they appear to me now – but on the other hand, they are already blurred within that particular filter that characterises childhood memories. They are both things at the same time: distinct and indistinct, flowing and static. The past doesn’t quite move at the same rhythm as the present, and there is a dimension to each thing existing right now, that in fact does not move at the rhythm of the present. As long as there will be children, the whole world will always-already run – in a subterranean and invisible way – along that particular rhythm, within that particular colour range, and according to that peculiar ontological structure that blurs all distinctions between objects.

 

If we look at our surroundings – and at ourselves now – as already somebody else’s childhood memories, our relationship with the world takes on a different tone. I can entertain towards the things of the present a relationship of acquisition, planning, domination, transformation, hostility, exploitation, destruction and production. However, these relational modes become meaningless if I look at things as always-already the stuff of Arturo’s future childhood memories. Considered from that angle, things are somehow ‘destined’ to be in a certain way: they are as if pre-ordained from a not-yet existing future. The dimension of their existence which is already the stuff of Arturo’s future memories, cannot be the object of any attempt at manipulation from this present, because, although it is ‘already here’, it is not quite in ‘the present’. It is at once here and not here, and thus beyond the grasp of anything that I could possibly do right now to modify it. The only relational mode that can entertain towards it, is a combination of care and contemplation: what in older times was classified simply as ‘worship’.

 

Worship is that particular relationship that I can create with something, as long as I realise that me and that thing are beyond any direct causal relationship with each other. Worship is the relationship that two things can entertain with each other, if they recognise that they are both objects, and neither of them is a subject – in this specific case, the subject being my 3-year old son Arturo. When things look at each other as both objects, worship emerges as the process expressing their ontological solidarity. It is easier to grasp this, by comparing it to the relationship of worship that is traditionally entertained by the faithful and their Lord, as it was described by the great Sufi master Ibn Arabi. According to Ibn Arabi – in line with negative theology – the divinity is in itself beyond all possible denominations: its essence is absolutely transcendent. Yet, Ibn Arabi continues, the divinity makes itself manifest through its Divine Names. Each thing existing in the world is the expression of a Divine Name, which the ineffable and utterly transcendent divinity replenishes with visible existence. Thus, I myself am the expression of a divine name, just like this chair is the expression of another, and so on. The first of these divine names is that of the ‘Lord’: through it, the divinity manifests itself to each person as their own, personal and specific God. The ‘Lord’ is what each person of any religion understands as God – and its specificity to the individual explains the proliferation of different Gods in different religions. Thus, the mystics develops their relationship with their Lord as one of ‘worship’, precisely because they are aware that both themselves and their Lord are expressions of the same ineffable, utterly transcendent divinity: neither the mystic nor their Lord are truly subjects, but they are both object, where the only true subject is the absolute divinity.

 

Likewise, when we consider the world as always-already the stuff of somebody else’s memories, we are able to perceive that both ourselves and all that surrounds us are but the expression of another subject – a subject that transcends the present, lying somewhere in the future. From the future, this subject retroactively creates us as their past memories – in this case, as Arturo’s future childhood memories, of which I am part together with the sofa, his pyjama and this autumn sky.

 

Living as somebody else’s past teaches us modesty, and the wisdom of being an object. By looking at the world and at ourselves through this lens, we can perceive a dimension of the existent in which things truly are blurred, static in their common tonality, and barely distinguishable from each other, as my childhood memories of the 1980s. It also teaches us that a dimension of our own being is always-already in a relationship of mutual worship with the other existents – whether or not we are aware of it. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it helps us to appreciate the multi-layered nature of the existent: every single thing is more than itself, and it exists on multiple planes at the same time. It is at once present and past, at once itself and something else, at once autonomous and a product, subject and object, and so on. Seeing the world as somebody else’s past doesn’t extinguish the range of layers that make up the world, but it can be a first step in the direction of a fuller explorations of the countless layers of existence of anything in the world.

 

As I reach the door of my house, I stub my cigarette and look one last time at the autumn sky. I open the door and rush upstairs, where my father is entertaining Arturo playing with toy trains and cars. As I hear him laughing, calling me from the living room, the past and the present that constitute me suddenly collapse into one. At that moment, when Arturo runs towards me and I give him a hug, I become almost entirely his memories, and little of my present remains. Me, and the stairs behind me, and the landing on which we hug – everything is as if ontologically overwhelmed by the creative power of Arturo’s future. We all become one, and our embrace spreads all around us.

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