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Robert Penn Warren's Fall and Redemption:
The Self, Time, and the Past
"For the sense of guilt and the pangs of conscience are an index of Time, and in the beckoning, golden distances of the great new westward continent, the dimension of space redeemed man from the dimension of time. [. . .] The culture of the 'impulse quest' is one that denies both the sense of community and the social obligation.  And, as it denies such relations, this culture denies, too, a relation to time; we live in a 'society without fathers'" (32).

"Are we ready even to consider the possibility that we are moral narcissists of great talent and are, as a consequence, somewhat unlovely and sometimes unlovable?  Are we ready to learn from our past that moral definition is difficult and that there is such a thing as what Niebuhr calls the 'irony of history'?" (35-36)

The American denial of the past, as well as its glorification of the past, are mistaken ideals; they deny us a true sense of our identity.   The past, and its sins, are far more complicated.

"A short look at the past reminds us of how great is the distance, and how short, over which we have come.  The past makes us ask what we have done with our dazzling achievements -- or what they have done with us.  It makes us ask whether our very achievements are not ironical counterpoint and contrast to our fundamental failures.  It asks us whether we are not the victims of our comforting dream of automatic and automatically benign progress." (45).

"[W]e confront our fate and we confront ourselves in the act of confronting our fate.  Literature, as Henri Bergson suggests, returns us to ourselves" (46).

"The self [. . .] can be discovered only in the attempt to assert it against a powerful opponent from the past.  Tradition, in the sense of formula, bars the future.  In the sense of a dynamic, it unbars the future" (47).

"If literature -- and in another mode, history, -- does anything for us, it stirs up in us a sense of existential yearning.  The truths it presents come in the images of experience.  The truth we want to come to is the truth of ourselves, of our common humanity, available in the projected self of art.  We discover a numinous consciousness and for the first time may see both ourselves in the world and the world in us.  This drama of the discovery of the self is timeless" (48).

We discover who we are by engaging the past, especially the tragic, failed past.  The self can only be uncovered/created by a process of engaging and resisting what has come before us.

"In other words, in a primal way, in a gut way, the study of the past gives one a feeling for the structure of experience, for continuity, for establishing location on the chart of being.  And it might be argued that without this gut-feel for overarching time, as contrasted with fractured time, there can be no true sense of identity. [. . .] By the same token, man, seeing himself in time as time-perceived-as-experience, was aware of himself in the context of nature, of nature-as-the-matrix-of-experience, and was aware of his brotherhood with other men in nature" (50).

"The past must be studied, worked at -- in short, created.   For the past, like the present, is fluid.  History, the articulated past -- all kinds, even personal histories -- is forever being rethought, refelt, rewritten, not merely as rigor or luck turns up new facts but as new patterns emerge, as new understandings develop, and as we, experience new needs and new questions. [. . .] In creating the image of the past, we create ourselves, and without that task of creating the past, we might be said scarcely to exist" (51).

The past is created by our engagement with it; it, in turn, creates who we are by giving us a sense of being part of time and existence.  We are time and nature aware.

"There is one more thing that the past is: the sovereign tonic for self-pity; and self-pity as the obverse of our arrogance, is the endemic disease of our time and place. [. . .] But if the past tells us anything, it is that gains against the powers of darkness are made in detail, one by one -- inch by inch [. . .] and not by massive, absolute, apocalyptic bangs. [. . .] The past is the tonic for self-pity, first by putting us in relation to the community of those who have conquered it, but also in another way, in a fundamental way, one by which it mobilizes our deepest energies: it tells us that we, too, shall soon be part of the past. [. . .] We, too, even in our flicker of time, can earn a place in the story" (51-53).

Because we gain our identity with a sense of time and the past, we become deeply aware of our place in the struggle against evil and how we are part of the larger story that the past offers us.

Warren, Robert Penn. "The Use of the Past" New and Selected Essays. NY: Random House, 1989. 29-53.

Warren's vision of the past is a secular soteriology, one in which the knowledge of the past brings a sense of sin and in which an acceptance of our place in time brings a kind of redemption.  In this sense Warren is an heir to Romanticism, for in his vision, consciousness is the center of the human struggle. 

If he accepts the sinfulness of the world and distrusts the Enlightenment doctrine of progress, he nonetheless does not look for a particular redemption in Christ.  Instead, he offers literature as a model of the organized self, one which is not static, but is nonetheless responsible.  Scientific rationalism in not enough in his vision; we need a mythic sense of the world that recognizes human freedom, morality, and intuitive consciousness.

Inwardness provides value, yet it is a costly value.   We are involved in contradictions.  We are made aware of our limits even as we struggle against them.  We are involved in moral experiences, even as we have moral contempt.  Art, as is human identity, is about resistance.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding