In former times people lived their lives beneath the shadow of their past. The golden age was always behind them. The olden days were the good old days.
Since the end of the Victorian era, though, the past has lost its hold on the collective imagination. Since then we have been living instead under the almost unbearable weight of the future.
Once upon a time the past used to determine the present, even though it was over. But these days it’s the future that looms over everything, even though it hasn’t happened yet.
As the conservative writer G.K. Chesterton put it:
“Instead of trembling before the spectres of the dead, we shudder abjectly under the shadow of the babe unborn."
He was writing in 1910 on ‘What’s Wrong With the World’, and pointing out that the 20th Century had switched to looking forward as its key register. He claimed this was extraordinary:
“there is something spirited, if eccentric, in the sight of so many people fighting over again the fights that have not yet happened; of people still glowing with the memory of tomorrow morning. A man in advance of the age is a familiar phrase enough. An age in advance of the age is really rather odd. “
These days we are constantly in advance of the age. Everything is about the future, or more precisely about fear of the future, future dread. The short term question is: How will the COVID pandemic find a resolution? In relation to the longer term we ask: How will the climate play out? These anxiety-freighted questions seem completely unavoidable. To ignore them seems impossible at best, and at worst deeply immoral. Our era seems to have no place for a person who doesn’t appear to care about the future. And to care about the future in the proper manner is to be weighted down with concern. If you resist, you’ll hear in the back of your mind a constant chiding voice, the voice of Greta Thunburg, the conscience of a new generation: How Dare You?
Chesterton gets it right, I think. The presence of the future is indeed ghostly. It casts shade. Its dominant mood is abjection and we shudder. The ghost of Christmas Future has a new name: Extinction.
Why? Does it have to be this way? Surely it would be possible for this mood to lose its hold, for the sensibilities of the early Twentieth Century to relax their grip a little on the Twenty-First. Is it too much to ask that we might perhaps contemplate the future without the dread?
I anticipate that after the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has done its worst, there will be a palpable sense of collective relief. The worst, after all, will not have eventuated. For many this will not be true. They will be dead or grieving. The relief will certainly not be universally felt. But for the rest, those not directly affected, and especially for younger people, there will be the slow release of a breath long held. Tensed shoulders will relax slightly. The babe unborn will become, however briefly, a promise, a creature of blessing not curse.
In his book, On Memory, Adam Roberts recalls the 1969 science fiction novel, Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert, in which the protagonist Paul Atreides is to be cast out into the desert because of his unacceptable blindness. He defends himself by demonstrating his visionary powers, which enable him to remember with absolute clarity past visions he has had of the present. In this way, he claims, he can see as well as the next person.
This capacity – to navigate the present by remembering past visions of the future – is what we need now. The present, our Twenty-first Century, wasn’t always doom-laden. In the past it was longed for as a golden age, in which people lived many healthy years, mostly at peace with their neighbours, having experienced fulfilling lives. Such a world was full of technological marvels and discoveries of wonder, that would have been almost unimaginable to previous generations. So marvellously frequent were such innovations that the people took them almost entirely for granted and came to expect life to be like this always. We are living in the golden age of the past’s future.
And so the future is precisely as dreadful as we imagine it to be. It has always been this way. Mark Lynas’s book on climate change, published in 2020, is titled ‘Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency’. Reviewing it in the New York Review of Books, climate activist Bill McKibben writes:
“Because humans have fundamentally altered the physical workings of planet Earth, this is going to be a century of crises, many of them more dangerous than what we’re living through now. The main question is whether we’ll be able to hold the rise in temperature to a point where we can, at great expense and suffering, deal with those crises coherently, or whether they will overwhelm the coping abilities of our civilization. The latter is a distinct possibility... “
– 130 Degrees
In the past, great religions agreed more or less on the future. They collectively imagined an imminent end time of existential tribulation in which famine, pestilence and war would ravage the world until a divine judge would finally appear to weigh up the moral worth of the living and the dead once and for all. These days science does what only religion used to be allowed to do. But it is the same vision. Are we morally worthy to avoid the Eschaton?
The same year G.K Chesterton was telling the English what was wrong with the world, a collection of medieval religious texts was purchased for the British Museum from Lord Amherst. It contained a Fifteenth Century transcription of the original ‘short’ manuscript of the Revelations of Divine Love, a work by the English mystic Julian of Norwich - the first book known written in English by a woman, probably composed in 1388.
Julian was born during the ‘calamitous’ Fourteenth Century, in 1343, the same year as Geoffrey Chaucer. Six years later in 1348-9 the Great Mortality reached her hometown of Norwich, killing between a third and half of its 12,000 residents. The bubonic plague continued to break out regularly throughout England. In 1361-2 it killed another fifth of the population, and in 1369 it killed yet another 10-15%.
Apart from widespread death, the plague had colossal social effects. The dissident cleric John Wycliffe wrote in 1356 of how the world wouldn’t last beyond the century. The Great Rumour protest movement of 1377 became the Great Rising of 1381. Norwich was at the centre of one of the more violent episodes of the Peasants’ Revolt. In the summer of 1381, the city was taken over and ransacked by the rebels, who were then routed at the nearby Battle of North Walsham by ‘fighting’ Bishop Henry le Despenser.
In 1373, when Julian was thirty years old, she succumbed to a serious illness and on the verge of death she was given the last rites.
Surprising everyone, she didn’t die. Instead, she survived, having experienced a series of mystical visions, in which Jesus Christ appeared to her. She went on to become an anchoress - a kind of nun, living a secluded life in her cell - a private room attached to a church. She didn’t go out, but people came to her.
Let’s just pause and recall the main events surrounding her life in Norwich up until this time.
1348-9 (age six) The Great Mortality kills up to half the city’s population.
1361-2 (age 18) The Bubonic plague strikes again, killing another one fifth of the population.
1369 (age 26) A third outbreak of the plague kills another 10-15%
1373 (age 30) Having survived three waves of the bubonic plague, she succumbs to illness and almost dies.
1377 (age 33) Increasing peasant unrest leads to the Great Rumour protests in the South of England
1381 (age 37) The Peasants Revolt leads to the sacking of Norwich followed by violent reprisals and a pitched battle outside the city.
All this was local news for Julian. But the national and international news was just as tumultuous. The death of King Edward III in 1377 led to the accession of his ten-year-old son Richard II. It was to be a very unstable reign, dominated by the aspirations of his uncle, John of Gaunt for his own son, Henry Bolingbroke, to take over. All this is to say nothing of the widespread tumult taking place at this time in Europe and spilling over into England. The Western Schism of 1378 saw two rival Popes struggling for supremacy of the Church. The ongoing Hundred Years War saw the French and the Castilian Spanish raiding and burning towns all along the South coast of England.
It was in the midst of all this personal, political, social and religious turmoil that Julian received visions of Christ’s Passion. Her ‘shewings’ took place when she was recovering from her life-threatening illness in 1373. She wrote of her experience fairly soon after, in what is known as her ‘Short Text’. She then reworked this over the following decades into a ‘Long Text’. Although her writing survived through the centuries, the earliest in English by a woman, her life and work were obscured by the Reformation, and it wasn’t until the end of the Nineteenth Century that the Long Text, republished, began to receive attention. The short text, thought to have been lost, was rediscovered in 1910 and published for the first time in 1911. Because of this loss and rediscovery, Julian of Norwich is both very medieval and yet somehow very Twentieth Century. Nor has her star faded. In the present century there have already been at least nine new editions of her work.
Given the turbulence surrounding her life and times, it’s amazing that Julian had such a clear sense that the future was not heavy, Although thoroughly medieval, her visions contradicted the gloomy spirit of the age. She’s been called a visionary and a mystic, but her visions were so out of tune with the spirit of her age that I can’t help thinking of her as a kind of science fiction writer. What was revealed to her was that in spite of all the signs of the times, her God was not winding up the world but sustaining it, like a hazelnut held carefully in the palm of the hand.
“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, it seemed, and it was as round as any ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and I thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus: ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for I thought it might suddenly fall to nothing for little cause. And I was answered in my understanding: ‘It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it; and so everything has its beginning by the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three properties; the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; and the third is that God keeps it. “
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter V “Westminster Cathedral Treasury, MS 4 “
People are rightly sceptical of religious certainties these days, and dogma is shunned. Medieval talk of sin and wrath and atonement seems beyond anachronistic. Talk of God is just distasteful. And yet the climate-fuelled certainty that we’re all doomed passes as a rational discussion-starter. It’s increasingly our consensus reality. Now I’m not challenging reality, I’m just questioning the way we choose to look at it. I’m not suggesting we can all relax, since Progress with a capital ‘P’ will fix everything. We can’t and it won’t. There is work to be done which neither the past nor the future will do for us. My suggestion is modest: perhaps our navigation of this difficult present might be aided by remembering our past visions of the future. As I read Julian of Norwich I can’t help asking myself, was her lifetime really less fraught than our own? War, pestilence, political strife, the death of collective meaning. She had it all, in spades. And yet having nearly met with her own ending, she somehow imagined a resolutely hopeful alternative: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. “
We can believe it or not, but we can’t put it down to naivety. The future is what it has always been: it is precisely as dreadful as we imagine it to be.
See: Chesterton on futurity
G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World (1910), 24-25. Quoted in Adam Roberts, Morphosis
Rolf, Veronica Mary (2013). Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich. Orbis Books. ISBN 978-1-62698-036-5.
BBC Four HD The Search for the Lost Manuscript Julian of Norwich (2016) - YouTube