‘Presentism’ – a syndrome of our time, and of all times

‘Presentism’ – a syndrome of our time, and of all times

When I spoke at the Ennis Book Club Festival earlier this year – an enjoyable and rewarding event – discussion turned to the changes seen in Ireland over the past fifty years or so. An older woman – a retired schoolteacher much esteemed in the community – stood up to say: “I do think we are a much kinder people today than we were back in the 1960s and 70s.”

This was her considered point of view and I didn’t, and wouldn’t, disagree with it:  it was her conclusion based on her own knowledge and experience.

And perhaps it is true. Or perhaps it’s true in some ways, and not in others. Every day we can meet with acts of kindness. But every day we can also open a newspaper and read reports of cruelty, wanton killings, rape, neglect, marginalisation and suffering wrought through all the old sins of pride, covetousness, lust and anger.

Most social change brings about both good things and bad things. The car brought amazing personal mobility: it also brought loss of life and limb, pollution and an increase in obesity world-wide.

The latest warnings from the health boffins is that those who live near a modern motorway have a 10% increased risk of developing lung cancer.

But there is also a frame of mind known as ‘presentism’. This isn’t linked with gift-giving, but with a distorted view of the present time. ‘Presentism’, as the dictionary defines it, is an ‘uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts’.

Almost all contemporary commentary is framed by ‘presentism’, with the continuing narrative that we are much better and far more enlightened than those who preceded us.

That’s why reading old newspapers, and perusing old books, can be such fun.  Because, guess what? Fifty years ago, 80 years ago, 100 years ago, they too were afflicted by ‘presentism’! They too thought they were so much better than their predecessors.

The car brought amazing personal mobility: it also brought loss of life and limb, pollution”

I have on my shelves a travel book about Dublin, written by Olivia Robertson and published in 1957, Dublin Phoenix. The Anglo-Irish author, surveying Dublin in the mid-50s, concludes her reflections with these very words: “We are now much kinder” (than 40 years previously). “Human nature is rapidly changing, conditioned by fantastically new circumstances that have never been before in our known history,” she wrote.

The acclaimed author Virginia Woolf made a similar remark 45 years previous to that  when she stated that “human nature changed in or about December 1910”.

‘Presentism’ is a type of delusion: the opposite delusion is ‘golden ageism’, when everything in the past is seen through a rosy hue of nostalgia, and the present is a disappointing decline.

It’s nice when people believe that we have become kinder as a society. But I’d suggest people have always believed this, and perhaps always will – even the future will dwell in its own ‘presentism’.


Memories of pantomime can be the perfect fillip!

There is an engaging Pantomime exhibition currently showing at Pearse Street Library in Dublin (an excellent reference library, by the way, with very helpful staff).

Panto is essentially a British genre of Christmas show which has flourished in Ireland. Yet it can also trace its roots back to the wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages, and the Italian Commedia del Arte, in which travestie (men dressed as exaggerated versions of women) was a playful part of the performance.

One particular pantomime had a profound influence on me. I was about 10 when I saw Dick Whittington at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. The sequence when the children shouted at the Principal Boy (a girl, of course!) to continue his journey, despite setbacks, greatly impressed me as a lesson in persistence.

When flagging, I still occasionally mutter to myself “turn again, Whittington!”

Keep on keeping on!


Corbyn’sdisjointedthinkingfor all to see

One of the elements of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour election manifesto – for the British General Election on December 12 – is a promise to change the law to enable abortion up to birth, without any restrictions whatsoever.

Another element of his political programme is to introduce a law which will ban the boiling of lobsters on grounds of cruelty against crustaceans.

I am not a fan of lobster cooking methods – the cuisine tradition is that they should be alive when plunged into hot water. But the disjointed thinking as between the ethics over a lobster’s sensibilities – about which we know very little – and the developing life of a human infant seems staggering.