The phoenix in the attic

The May Harper’s has another good essay by Lewis H. Lapham. “Ignorance of things past: Who wins and who loses when we forget American history” is a compendium of great quotes about history, spiced with his own novel insights.

It seems surprisingly easy to slip into dichotomies about the past. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Our idealized construction of the past then leads us to simplistic views of the present and even more cartoonish views of the future and what to do next. The US Presidential campaign is filled with examples of this, few of which bear repeating.

Cambridge Public Library

Cambridge Public Library, Past, Present, Future

Lapham shows some ways around dichotomous thinking about the past. One of those dichotomies is between the view of history as a detailed, and verifiable account of past events with little room for interpretation and of history as a consensual hallucination. He shows that history requires both careful attention to detail and continual reconstruction.

Most importantly, Lapham makes an effective case for the idea that history is necessary for a critical, socially engaged intelligence in the time in which we live. This means history that grows out of meticulous study of the details, openness to counter-intuitive or disturbing ideas, and investigation of the gremlins that don’t fit our preconceptions. He cites Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun), on the way to showing how making sense of the past is part and parcel of making sense of the present.

We use the present to construct our past, just as we use our past to construct our present. For Lapham, then, the past is the phoenix in the attic. No matter how we engage with it, our uses of history shape what is to come. As he puts it,

History is work in progress, a constant writing, and rewriting as opposed to museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble.

This doesn’t mean anything-goes relativism. Instead, it is a call to realize that who we are and who we may become are inseparable from who we have been. Unfortunately, that realization seems lacking, and the desire to learn is all too meagre for the needs of today.

6 thoughts on “The phoenix in the attic

  1. Lapham’s original sentence: “To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more* reason to look to the past — history as the phoenix in the attic — for the hope of the future.”

    * – and I think he forgot to complete this comparison. More reason to look to the past for the hope of the future than what or than whom?

    >What I think he’s trying to convey […]

    Yeah, that’s basically the point of my parenthetical second post. He’s got some ideas to convey (or at least he *should*), but his choice of register consistently prevents him from conveying those ideas except in a muddled, I-guess-he-means sort of way.

    “The Phoenix in the Attic” WOULD make a great chapter title for an E. Nesbit/Charlotte Brontë crossover fanfic, though. 🙂


  2. Thanks for your comments. Obviously, the phrase, “the past is the phoenix in the attic,” doesn’t work for everyone. I don’t know the origin of it, other than Lapham himself. What I think he’s trying to convey is that history is more than its popular conception as being akin to the boxes of stuff many people have in their attic. That stuff typically has little relevance to current life.

    Treating history that way not only does a disservice to its own richness, it also leads to simplistic understandings of the present. Thus, Lapham is calling for helping that stuff to rise like a phoenix from its place of discard.

    By the way, the ideas in Lapham’s essay are nothing new to historians. In fact, one thing I liked was just that it pulled together a diverse set of thoughts all generally supporting the idea of history’s importance.


  3. (For the record, I was unimpressed with Lapham’s essay. Harper’s has a tendency to publish essays that use a bunch of big words in a nice cadence, without really considering whether they’re saying anything coherent, consistent, or insightful. The other term from that month’s Harper’s I jotted down for later lookup was the Palinesque mash-up “pervailent”, used for “pervasive-prevalent” in Rafil Kroll-Zaidi’s similar unsourced-anecdote-dump-passing-for-scholarship on the subject of the fall of Byzantium.)


  4. You write: “For Lapham, then, the past is the phoenix in the attic.” (And you’re quoting Lapham.) When I read the article I jotted down this curious turn of phrase to look up later… and Google is totally nonplussed.

    What does the idiom “phoenix in the attic” mean to you and Lapham, and how does it apply as a metaphor for “history”?

    Also, if you have any guesses as to its etymology, I’d love to hear them.


  5. Lapham didn’t talk about economic history much in a direct way. My guess is that he’d agree with you: Much of the current economic policy debate is not well-informed by history.

    What’s sometimes worse is that debaters claim to draw from history, but their version of it is limited and distorted. On the issue of economic stimulus versus austerity, Europe now seems to have historical blinders as much as the US.


  6. I don’t have subscription to this magazine so I couldn’t read the article. I wonder whether the author touches on the point that the lack of economic history and history of economic thought education for the current and past 30 years of graduate Economics teaching has undermined many current economic policy debates, particularly on need and means of fiscal and monetary stimulas.


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