The now/past of the mind

The now/past of the mind

Mozart sends a letter to Mandela, Queen Anne corresponds with Olive Schreiner, Richard Nixon writes to Empress Maria Theresa? Yes, in a strange sense this is possible.

The last week has been rather over-full of good things, letter-wise. In the midst of marking student assessment work, I took it in my head to write a Schreiner article for a journal special issue, so a focused re-reading of some of her letters has started. I’m also still reading the Mozart family letters and now on number 289 out of 600+ mainly very lengthy letters. My bedtime reading remains the letters of Queen Anne and others in her circle, as I pursue the interesting question of just how in/accurate the film ‘The Favourite’ might be. The fairly recently-published prison letters of Nelson Mandela are also on my mind and I dip into them occasionally, because at some point I want to write about them in connection with Elias’s Ideas about civility. And I have been given a new anthology of letters, which I also dip into every now and then in a random way, just to see what gems or stinkers there might be.

As I was going to sleep the other night they were all jostling at the forefront of my mind, concerning what I should read in what order and then write in what order and what these different correspondences meant in their times. This is the now/past, that obliging aspect of the mind‘s functioning which enables times and places long-gone to become part of the present of how we think and read and consider.

Yes, that is a calm and useful way to think about it. But in the dark regions of the night they all became jumbled in the present of what was on my mind. Could Queen Anne actually have met the infant Mozart when he was in London, did the dates overlap (they didn’t)? If Mandela liked music, what might he have written to Mozart? How would Olive Schreiner have seen Mandela shaping up post-prison, for she most likely would not have conferred sainthood on him any more than she did Gandhi? How did one of US President Richard Nixon’s letters get mixed up in all this? What kind of sense might Mozart have made of music-loving Schreiner? And even odder, what might a meeting between Queen Anne and Schreiner have been like and how would it have differed if that particular American President was present?

I woke up hot and sweaty and with the uncomfortable feeling they were all in the room with me, all talking at once, all writing letters to each other. The now/past is a useful heuristic, a helpful academic device for thinking about the relationship between the past, and the present of research on it. But in my dream it had become a literal reality and really rather terrifying, because all that letter-writing enabled these and many other people in my mind to answer back!

Last updated:  27 April 2019