The present is full of references to the past. They form a context. We use the past to project a future.
In some people's minds, the past gets in the way of the future. They want to eliminate it, cancel it, remove it. If only, if only, they suggest, we were not born children before we were adults. If only we were origins of ourselves.
Others wish only to prolong the past into the future. Resistant to change, they think we are what we have been and, in a fascist way, define us by our origins.
There is a middle position, though. The past influences us, and gives us a context within which our future can make sense, but we can appropriate the past in ways those who produced it might never have imagined. We can contextualize old ideas in new ways without simply erasing them.
Here is the Joanne de Longchamps House, a Queen Anne Style house just south of the University of Nevada, Reno, campus.
The University wants to create a gateway area between the current southern end of campus and the I-80 freeway. To do so, the plan is to move the de Longchamps House, and other historic houses on its block.
What a history would be taken away! De Longchamps was an important poet and collage artist. In a poem, "Talking about Animals," she says:
My six-foot son, fifteen and far
into his fierce and dreamy privacies,
drops his mask to talk of animals.
The childhood circle opens,
round as lamplight on those pages
read aloud; litanies of bedtime beasts.
Reuben C. Thompson also lived in the house for a time. He was a classicist and the first chair of the Department of Philosophy. This year, as it happens, the Philosophy Department will begin to be housed in a building designed by Joanne de Longchamps' father-in law, Frederic DeLongchamps. The Jones building, located on the historic university quadrangle and just a short walk from the de Longchamps House, will be Philosophy's new home. These buildings together--"Jones Philosophy" and a revitalized and recontextualized de Longchamps House--would provide a context for students. Here's Reuben Thompson:
A context for what? For dreaming of a life--a life of intellect, of imagination, of contributing an idea or an image to the world. That's what poets, philosophers and classicists do. Wouldn't the house, suitably described, be a spur to imagining oneself a poet? A philosopher? Or even a historian? Jim Hulse, an important UNR historian, lived in the de Longchamps House for a time.
In another chapter of its history, not too long ago the de Longchamps House served as the university's Women's Center. The Center was a place where women went who needed a context in which to make the transition from a past life, in which intellect was not imagined as part of their future, to a future one, in which it would be demanded. Perhaps knowing about the Women's Center, if its history were publicly noted, would help a woman on campus today imagine herself as a philosopher, a poet, a classicist.
For a while, SPECTRUM Northern Nevada utilized the Women's Center/de Longchamps House a few hours each month to hold a Lesbian Discussion Group. Maybe knowing about this important group (still in existence) would facilitate lgbt students imagining their future intellectual or activist lives as well. That would be an unexpected recontextualization of the past!
The university is expanding. And, change brings loss. Still, couldn't we find a middle way? There could still be a gateway area, so that we have a new future and don't let the past hem us in. But couldn't we integrate these historic houses--most historic if they stay in their own context near the historic part of campus--into the gateway area? Then we'd have history and the future.
Who knows what beautiful and intriguing new forms such a historicized future might take?