by Aidan Chivers
In the latter part of the 1st C BC, the Emperor Augustus’ obsession with Roman sexual morality was based largely on drawing contrasts between the behaviour of his day and the perceived standards of former times.
Seeing moral decline as being in parallel with wider national failings, he linked the greater chastity of the past with Rome’s glorious military history, an attitude which culminated in his introduction of the Julian Laws to punish adultery and promote the institution of marriage.
By harking back to a (perhaps misconstrued) conception of Rome’s glorious past, and linking it explicitly with notions of sexual self-restraint, Augustus created a vision of a chaste, successful Roman utopia which would then shape not only his attitudes to contemporary society, but also the laws he was to introduce.
This sentimental view of historical events and people was by no means uncommon in Ancient Rome. For Cicero, the past was full of glorious figures, which could be drawn on for favourable comparisons with his clients, or for unflattering contrasts with his opponents. A glamorised view of history, which he invited his audience to share, provided him with a wealth of exempla to be used for his own polemical purposes.
From the 14th century, in a wave of nostalgia for ancient history, the Renaissance developed across Europe , with artists and writers choosing classical antiquity as the era they wished to imitate and idealise; in the 19th century, Romanticism, perhaps more surprisingly, often focussed on medieval times in the search for a subject of veneration and longing.
To look back and romanticise is perhaps one of the most universal human tendencies. On a grand, national level it can influence cultural attitudes and literary movements. Yet on a more personal, private scale, it can encourage a flattering re-evaluation of the past, and an indulgent reconstruction of childhood and past times.
Once at a safe, comfortable distance from past actions, they can be melted down, recast, and remoulded into more gratifying shapes. Although this is perhaps more often an activity for those with a history of generally positive experiences, the process can be a comforting one, which sees the more uncomfortable truths of the past gradually eroded into a gentler, more forgiving sequence of events.
In some sense, this natural progression can help soften the harshness of the reality that was actually lived at the time, and blur the sharper edges into more pleasing forms, which can fit more readily into our hand-picked selection of memories.
Yet to indulge in sentimental nostalgia – on a personal or a political level – is to abandon a rigorous and potentially helpful historical perspective in favour of an emotion-based, pseudo-utopian viewpoint. Clarity can be lost, leaving inevitably some form of self-delusion in its wake.
It is in this way that the 20th century novel became so interested in the concept of the unreliable narrator, whose personal involvement in the story they tell threatens to undermine its legitimacy. The Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, for example, envelops himself in a conception of the past which cannot withstand the changing demands of his relationship with Daisy. Weighed down by memories of former times which are as much his own fantasy as they are real, Gatsby’s obsessive recreation of the past ultimately proves fatal.
The conclusion of The Great Gatsby generalises the eponymous character’s tendency for clinging to a romanticised view of the past. For Nick, the narrator, our attempts to preserve our own counterfeit memories as they come troublingly into conflict with reality make us ‘boats against the current’. Through our struggles to reconcile real life with our own reconstructed narratives, we are ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’.
This very human proclivity for idealising the past can threaten the integrity of our individual views of the world. It can also, more cynically, be twisted and used with deliberate and more devastating effect by skilled rhetoricians.
The creation of a false but powerful illusion of a glorious British past was fundamental to the most successful aspects of the Brexit campaign. A similar rhetoric has also triumphed recently across the Atlantic, with Trump striving to draw on a nationalistic identity based on a misconceived and romanticised conception of America’s proud history.
A sentimental, utopian reconstruction of the past can be a pleasant relief from the bleakness of personal or national history. With its gentle imprecisions, it can soothe our more painful memories and iron out irregularities through the creation of a more pleasing narrative.
Yet, when it replaces a more truthful and candid recollection of events, this romanticised perspective can threaten to supplant reasoned, rational analysis. If believed unquestioningly, our own retrospective fictions can have an improper effect on our future attitudes, behaviour and even our democratic choices.
Without the necessary critical evaluation, the utopian past that we construct for ourselves can wander hazardously from the world of personal fantasy into the realm of beliefs, discussion, and real-life decision making.