The Past

Anselm Kiefer, "Varus" (1976)
Anselm Kiefer, “Varus” (1976)


This painting by German artist Anselm Kiefer, titled Varus (1976), depicts a wintry forest, seemingly splattered and smeared with blood. The trees stand aside to draw you deeper into the clearing, only to close in as you approach its end.


The words scrawled on the painting?


In black, the name of a Roman general whose legions were destroyed by Germans in the Teutoberg Forest (west of today’s Hanover, Germany) in the year 9 C.E. In white, the commander of the German army in that battle (Arminius, also known as Hermann), his wife (Thusnelda), and latter-day German intellectual and military figures (e.g., Martin, Richte, Lüisse, Schleiermacher, Blücher, Hölderlin, Fichte, Klopstock, Kleist, Grabbe, von Schlieffen) who promoted the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest as a foundation story for German nationalism and militarism. Think of the Nazis.


A bleak scene. What is disturbing about it? The blood, certainly, and the claustrophobic looming of the forest. But above all the absence of people. Names only.



In Harper Lee’s updating of the Hansel & Gretel and Red Riding Hood fairy tales, Scout and Jem of To Kill a Mockingbird are walking home through a dark wood. Scout has misplaced her clothing, so she is wearing the costume in which she was dressed to perform a play at the school’s harvest festival. We see what happens next from Scout’s perspective. An assailant attacks her brother. Someone else then attacks and kills the assailant. He then lifts and carries Jem, who in unconscious, to the Finch home.


The man is Boo Radley, of course. To Kill a Mockingbird ends with the young Scout escorting Boo back to his home, and then with the older Jean Louise Finch’s voice-over: “The summer that had begun so long ago had ended, and another summer had taken its place. And a fall. And Boo Radley had come out. I was to think of these days many times, of Jem and Dill… and Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. And Atticus. He would be in Jem’s room all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”


Finally, from William Faulker’s The Bear:


“It had been harmless then. They would hear the passing log-train sometimes from the camp; sometimes, because nobody bothered to listen for it or not. They would hear it going in, running light and fast, the exhaust of the diminutive locomotive and its shrill … whistle flung for one petty moment and absorbed by the brooding and inattentive wilderness without even an echo. They would hear it going out, loaded, not quite so fast now yet giving its frantic and toylike illusion of crawling speed … carrying to no destination or purpose sticks which left nowhere any scar or stump … But it was different now. It was the same train, engine cars and caboose, even the same enginemen brakeman and conductor … running with its same illusion of frantic rapidity between the same twin walls of of impenetrable and impervious woods, passing the old landmarks, the old game crossings … yet this time it as though the train (and not only the train but himself, not only his vision which had seen it and his memory which had remembered it but his clothes too, as garments carry back into the clean edgeless blowing of air the lingering effluvium of a sick-room or of death) had brought with it into the doomed wilderness even before the actual axe the shadow and portent of the new mill not even yet finished yet and the rails and ties which were not even laid; and he knew now what he had known as soon as he saw Hoke’s this morning but had not yet thought into words: why Major de Spain had not come back, and that after this time he himself, who had had to see it one time other, would return no more.”


All three — the painting, the film scene, the story — feature a forest or wood, and all three have something to say about our relationship to the past.


Is the past dead, a carcass to be picked over by the present? That view of the past seems to emerge from Kiefer’s Varus. Arminius, who had once been a living, breathing man, is transformed into a mere token or symbol. Ideology reduces and appropriates him. It idealizes his victory in the Teutoberg Forest as the origin of German identity and cultural superiority. Kiefer critiques that idealization.


Or is the past still with us, always a vital force, an ineradicable part of the present? So it would seem, if Harper Lee and the screenwriter Horton Foote are right. “I was to think of these days many times.” Each second of our lives is added to all the ones before it, like drops of water filling a bowl, and we are continually dipping our hands into it and bringing the water to our parched lips.


Or is the past right there, so close but just beyond our reach? So that we are never unaware of it and always tormented — with yearning or with dismay — by its proximity. Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” speaks to this. Ike McCaslin in The Bear does not ever return to the forest wilderness of his youth because that is the only way that he can preserve it whole and intact: as the shadow of a memory of a dream.


It is no accident that the forest is common to these works of art and their theme. Robert Pogue Harrison says in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), “In general, we will find that forests have the psychological effect of evoking memories of the past; indeed, that they become figures for memory itself. They are enveloped, as it were, in the aura of lost origins” (156). He’s right, of course. One need think only of the trees of life and knowledge in the Genesis account of Creation.


So I arrive at this: What shall I do with the past — with which, to be honest, I struggle — and can my deep feeling of relatedness to trees and forests help me in some way?





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