“Even the past is no longer safe from the present, whose remembrance of it consigns it a second time to oblivion.”
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia.
We live in a time that no longer has any sense of tradition, although there is much that is called traditional. The traditional, though, is something which has to be consciously safeguarded, preserved, and it is in that way something detached from the rest of life, a set of empty repetitions whose role is to suggest a kind of continuity, although one which has no meaning for the way we live and understand our everyday lives. As it must be protected, fixed, and often invented, I suspect that the demand for the traditional usually springs from fear.
Tradition, on the other hand, is a way of passing on or inheriting experience. In tradition, the fabric of past lives is woven into present existence. The stories told give the listeners so much more than entertainment or curiosity, they echo and deepen the texture and rhythms of the listeners’ existence. A kind of repetition, yes, but a lived repetition, not an empty performance. Tradition involves a way of telling and a way of listening.
Such ways, though, can only exist or rather have only existed in unchanging, closed societies. Here the old ways and the old wisdom, shaped by the use of generations like the handle of a favourite tool or a woodland path, make up not just the texture of life but its boundaries as well. Thought of in this way, to be stripped of tradition – not just a tradition – is not wholly a bad thing, because with that loss comes the possibility, a faint and distant one perhaps, of making and inventing the shape and texture of life.
So why should I invoke the ghost of tradition? It is not as if it can be rediscovered or recreated. There is little point in calling for that, even if I wished to; nor is there any point in sinking into a nostalgia for something that I and probably few now living ever actually knew. Instead, I want to talk about tradition because it seems to me to be a way of describing what is at the heart of Elders. To me that takes the form of a question.
The question goes something like this – what does it mean now to listen to the stories and experience of others?
If there is nothing that can be passed on, no shape of life to be inherited, and if, even more drastically, we cannot tell and listen in a way that would make stories central to our lives, then it would seem that lives and experiences are only fit for the filing cabinets of history. What kinds of history can vary: social history, oral history, family history; but in each case the story is not of the present, it is recorded or remembered because it is about to disappear, because it is no longer living. Heritage, whether in the form of a culture industry or something more familial, takes the place of tradition. The past, even the recent past, is somewhere we can visit, but it does not apply to us. We are not necessarily amnesiacs; the past has not been wholly forgotten, although such a forgetting is pretty widespread. However, it does not live for us or in us.
This is not wholly a new situation. For much of the last century, this sense of disconnection between the present and the recent past, this lack of a handing on, was a preoccupation for many. Some mourned the loss as a catastrophe; others celebrated it as a liberation. More recently, though, this sense of loss has faded. It might seem that we are forgetting and forgetting that we have forgotten.
For me, Elders is aimed squarely at such a forgetting; not that it intends to, or could, create tradition anew. Its staging makes that clear – rather than the circle of listeners around the storyteller, a circle of voices is directed at a space for listening in its centre, with no guarantee that anyone will be there, nor that they will listen. Rather than a known audience whose lives already have the same textures and rhythms, the voices speak to an unknown, if anyone. For the listener, this is also difficult. To be in the centre of this circle is an anxious experience. It isn’t clear quite what is expected. How one should respond or if one should isn’t clear; above all, how one should listen? The lights demand our notice and insist that we pay attention to a source, a voice, but what is being asked of us? Clearly, something is being asked of us. Unlike the usual one-directional sounds and images that flood over us everyday, our attention is sought not just to tell us something, but to ask for something, some kind of response.
The stories – fragments of a conversation which therefore suppose someone else to listen and respond, presume a dialogue, even if it is unspoken on one side – also tell of the loss or absence of tradition. Isolation, displacement and the sudden devaluing of skills, knowledge and values are all there. This is more than confusion in the face of change; some voices here speak of being able to carry nothing with them. For some, even words have lost their shared values and meanings, as dialects and local languages fail to hold through change, effectively silencing experiences.
It might sound like a new tradition could be formed here, based on the shared experience of dislocation. In one way or another, many of us have felt our own recent past, our experience, simply cease to have any value in the present. Could we share that – pass on that sense of loss? I don’t think so, or only within limits.
On the one hand, as these stories tell us, loss is never abstract. It is always felt as something very specific, part of ourselves, and that can’t be shared, particularly not when even languages have been lost. To be clear, I should say that I think that the separation of the present from the immediate past is central to modern existence, but I don’t think that the experience of that separation can be shared from time to time in any very meaningful sense. Not only specific life worlds but the ways of telling that experience are lost, (or become the dusty, nostalgic remnants of a past way of life. How old do the artworks about disconnection from the first half of the twentieth century appear now? How odd the imagined futures of the Fifties?)
On the other hand, disconnection has become such a way of life that it looks as if for many people forgetting that they have forgotten loss is a way of life – the seduction of an eternal present which involves not just amnesia about the past but also forgetting what the present is.
We must not forget disconnection, but nor can we escape it into some fantasy of continuity, whether that is of a return to tradition or of a new tradition of dislocation. What that leaves as a possibility, though, is a difficult, anxious place. To remember disconnection is to remember a specific past, but not in its fullness, rather as something lost. The immediate past must not be forgotten, nor can it be recovered. To put it another way, these pasts might be in danger of being forgotten, but they cannot be simply laid to rest or turned into heritage, a past that is over and done with.
That is what I experienced in the centre of this circle of storytellers, each with their own tale of loss, bewilderment, survival and hope. Something was being asked of me by these voices, but it was not just that I should remember them. To simply remember or to erect memorials is to be at ease with the past – to consign it to oblivion under the cover of honouring it. Instead, what I felt was that I was being asked to acknowledge a loss that was not mine and in doing so recognise the loss that is mine. My loss is, in part, that these voices do not speak in the rhythms of my life – there is little for me to inherit. Yet the voices and stories do address me, ask for me to be the other in the conversation.
To be the other in a conversation suggests not only that one has something shared with the speaker, but one has a respect for the person addressing you, a responsibility towards them. What can such a responsibility be here? Sympathy? An easy response, but surely not enough. Sympathy alone just smoothes over the cracks. My sense is that here the recent past makes a claim on the present, but not one that can easily be fulfilled, if at all. It is not as if these experiences can be justified by the present. If that were the case then something of them would carry over and still have a place in the new. Certainly they would not be on the brink of oblivion. But if these stories, these lives, are not fulfilled by the present, what can one do about the claim they make on the now? Again, there is no easy answer.
At the least, though, it gives a sense of history not as progress but as loss, dislocation and abandonment. History not as fulfilment but as broken, incomplete, in every moment. As Walter Benjamin wrote in 1939:
“…one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings which such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Walter Benjamin in Illuminations)
I think this is important. For all that the present is cast as a gain, it must be recognised as forcing the loss of experience, knowledge, and lifeworlds. Progress has many, many victims and this must beg the question – what kind of progress is it? If the present cannot fulfil the past, or rather, if the present cannot make good the losses suffered by those who have been cast aside in the past, then the present will suffer the same fate. It will, in its turn, be cast aside, threatened with oblivion.
Perhaps, in the end, that is what is at stake in this work. One listens to these voices, without being able to respond even though a response is asked for. One hears their loss without being able to make it good or, most likely, understand the nature of the loss. What does it mean to listen to the stories of others? Maybe nothing. They can be ignored or turned into ‘history’. But if one listens, noticing how one cannot really hear, then maybe one can hear the claim the past has on the present, and maybe recognise that the present will also be discarded. In that, there is a kind of hope that it might be otherwise.