Time-travelers, or: The abjection of the past in fantasy literature

Daniel Polansky has studied the past, and he doesn’t like it one bit:

Occasionally you’ll be with a group of people and they’ll get to talking about their favorite historical epochs, nostalgic for lives they never led. One person will talk up their childhood love of the Wild West, another reveal a penchant for Victorian England. This last one just has a thing for corsets, but it’s better not to call them on it.

When my turn rolls round I take a sip of whatever we’re drinking and look at my shoes. “The mid 90’s were pretty good,” I say lamely. “Slower internet and everything, but at least we had penicillin.”

Perhaps it’s my being a history buff, but the past sucked. For about a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe just seems like a real shit place to reside. Lots of rooting in filth until you die at thirty a half mile from where you born. Nominally the nobles had it better, but still, your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches and your pretty young bride had like a one in two chance of surviving child birth.

There’s lots of words I could use to describe this, but I’m going to be generous and just say “bullocks”. The past didn’t suck for most of the people who lived there. I know this because I’ve been there, and I know people who lived most of their lives in the past.

Yes, of course, all of us have lived most of our lives in the past. The past is never really that far away. You can travel back in time up to a few decades just by visiting rural areas here in the US. (Conversely, Westerners visiting Japan often get a sense of visiting the future.) But I know time travelers from times more distant than that. My in-laws grew up and lived a significant portion of their lives in rural Romania in the mid 20th century, which was technologically and culturally at least a century behind the modern world, even the modern world of the 1950’s. My wife’s grandmother still lives on the farm where she raised her many children, and her lifestyle and attitudes are, at best, from the 19th century. Good portions of it are quite a bit older than that. Of course the past that one finds in these places is never pure, as modernity reaches its tendrils even to rural Romania in some respects. Still, it is enough to gain a sense of what our poor, pitiful, filthy, ignorant ancestors were like.

And they were neither pitiful, filthy, nor ignorant. That’s just modern condescension speaking. (It is hard to argue with poor, however.)

This is the most striking thing about visiting the past. The people who live there certainly lack many of our modern luxuries, and their lives are less pleasant than ours in some ways. But they don’t think that their lives suck. They are happy at roughly the same levels that we are happy. Many of them are distinctly uncomfortable with the modern world when it inevitably forces itself on them. Sometimes they look down on us for our laziness, loss of virtue, and alienation. To say “the past sucked” is to ignore the happiness of those who lived there, and in many cases continue to live there.

I’m also reminded of another famous group of time-travelers, the Hmong, who were caught up in a war from centuries in the future and then had to be relocated from their traditional homes into the heart of the modern world. You should not be surprised to hear that most of them found this transition to be painful, and that many of them wished to return to the filthy, disease-ridden, hard-laboring past that we had “rescued” them from. But you may be surprised that Western medicine—one of the few things that I would have mentioned as an unambiguous benefit of the modern world—was a source of special distress to many of them. Time-travelers don’t necessarily see our best points as good points at all.

One of the more interesting ideas of critical theory is the concept of abjection, which is the attitude by which the mainstream rejects and symbolically casts out its antithesis, defining itself by what it excludes. Racial whiteness is defined by the abjection of blackness. Literary fiction is defined by the abjection of genre. And modernity is defined by the abjection of the past.

This abjection is absolutely necessary for modernity to function. We have to be ashamed and disgusted by our ancestors, for how else would we justify the vandalism of our inheritance and our pollution of the natural and social environments? By making the past abject, we reassure ourselves that we have lost nothing in the transition to modernity, that our forefathers have nothing to teach us, that we were right to leave all of that behind. Daniel “The Past Sucked” Polansky is merely participating in this ongoing project of abjection.

Polansky says that he doesn’t understand fantasy, in particular its fascination with the past. But there is really an obvious alliance between the genre of fantasy, which abjected both by mainstream literary fiction and by its older sister science fiction, and the abjected past. The outcast genre and the outcast history have to make an alliance together. It is no coincidence that fantasy literature emerges as a distinct genre at the same time that the modern world starts onto its feet and begins to persecute history.

Or like my banner quote says: Realism is for those whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre.

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