Thinking the Past

In her wonderful introduction to Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden (2001), Catherine Belsey reflects on the methodologies of cultural history. She makes a case for a practice of reading that foregrounds dissent, instead of a method of interpretation that seeks to connect meanings to form an internally consistent totality. Objecting, for example, to a reading of Shakespeare’s comedies that would seek to ‘explain’ a play by relating it to a medical text, she argues that one should not seek to connect two texts if this leads to an effacement of their differences in genre, occasion, and audience. She comments that:

Our world, we allow, is divided, full of debate, culturally diverse and intellectually stratified, but nostalgia still tempts us to imagine a previous culture as a consensual realm, in which the important meanings and values could be taken for granted as shared, despite distinctions of language, class or gender. This seductive account of the past seems to me fundamentally misguided, and nowhere more so than as an interpretation of the early modern period, where virtually every topic was matter for dispute, much of it passionate, some of it violent. [1]

This perhaps sounds like another new-historicist attack on Lovejoy’s and Tillyard’s idea of the Elizabethan World Picture and their all-too monolithic view of Elizabethan culture. But for Belsey, her emphasis on reading difference and dissidence also makes for a crucial difference with new historicist practice itself. One of the three points in which her practice of “reading at the level of the signifier” differs from the new historicism, is its attention to struggle and dissent. Stephen Greenblatt and his colleagues in Belsey’s view see cultural moments as more unified and homogeneous than she does in her reading. Belsey looks to the new historicism’s reliance on anthropological models (such as Clifford Geertz’s “thick description”) as an explanation for this tendency to homogenize the cultural moment of the past. Although one could argue that Greenblatt’s work, after “Invisible Bullets” and the critical discussion it elicited, has a keener eye for the possibilities of dissent, it is this attention to difference, to faultlines within a text as well as dissidence within culture, that I find very attractive in Belsey’s and other cultural materialists’ work. Whenever I hear people speak of “the dominant ideology” in the early modern period, I think of Belsey’s wise words on our perceptions of the past.

Belsey’s introduction also sprang to mind when I came across this snippet of Deleuze in Mark Currie’s Difference. In the quotation, I think Deleuze differentiates between the past and the former present, where the ‘past’ is only those elements of the past that we now focus on in our present, whereas the term ‘former present’ recognizes that the past was once a present in all its complexity:

It is futile to try to reconstitute the past from the presents between which it is trapped, either the present which it was or the one in relation to which it is now past. In effect, we are unable to believe that the past is constituted after it has been present, or because a new present appears. If a new present is required for the past to be constituted as past, then the former present would never pass and the new one would never arrive. No present would ever pass were it not past ‘at the same time’ as it is present; no past would ever be constituted unless it were first constituted ‘at the same time’ as it was present. This is the first paradox: the contemporaneity of the past with the present that is was. [2]

Although Deleuze thinks the past from a completely different angle, he is also concerned in this passage with the complexity of the ‘former present’, and our rendering of it in our concept of the ‘past’. Deleuze takes the argument one step further, however, and argues that we cannot even think the present in all its complexity, but need to think of the present as ‘past’ in order to grasp the concept.

[1] Catherine Belsey, Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 16.

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (translated into English by P. Paton in 1994), cited in Mark Curry, Difference (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).


One thought on “Thinking the Past

  1. I think about the men who tried to advance the new science in the second half of the 17th century. They worked to write in a new language, — direct, concrete, free of ambiguity. They largely succeeded, but consider who else was working in the same mother tongue at that time.

    For the period of the Restoration, a Wikipedia author nails the tumultuous situation pretty well: “It is a literature that includes extremes, for it encloses both Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester’s Sodom, the high-spirited sexual comedy of The Country Wife and the moral wisdom of Pilgrim’s Progress. It saw Locke’s Treatises on Government, the founding of the Royal Society, the experiments and holy meditations of Robert Boyle, the hysterical attacks on theaters from Jeremy Collier, and the pioneering of literary criticism from John Dryden and John Dennis. It saw news become a commodity, the essay develop into a periodical artform, the beginnings of textual criticism, and the emergence of the stock market.”
    {source: Wikipedia, Restoration literature,}

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