Every retelling of the past consists of a story, a narrator, and an audience, and it needs a time and a place. Even if the intention is to pass on an old, known story, the narrator and the audience are bound to exist amid constant transformation as we, our communities, and our surroundings co-exist in a perpetual state of flux. Given this, how unchanged can a story remain and how does a changing story impact the past?
Starting small – The body
Every three or so months your body will have made the equivalent of a new you in terms of number of cells regenerated, while the average age of all the cells in your body today could be anything between seven and ten years. Now, imagine that someone enquires about your age. But instead of replying that you are x-amount of years old, you tell them that your red blood cells are four months old, your liver is one year old, and your bones are anything up to ten years old. In how many ways could we, then, calculate our age and how old are we really? Are we to go with our younger parts, our oldest part or for the average age of the various body parts? Importantly, how would these different answers affect how we perceive ourselves?
This takes us back to the ancient Greek thought experiment of the ship of Theseus which asks a similar question. If all the parts of a ship are eventually replaced, is it still the same ship? When Athenians replaced one-by-one the old planks of the ship of the mythical king with new ones, did they end up with a new and, thus, a different ship altogether? And, would this ship be as old as the conception of its design, its oldest material part, or its newest plank?
Going conceptual – The mind
Our body cells aside, namely the metaphorical planks of our physical organism, there is also that whole other aspect of ourselves beyond the tangible matter of our existence – our thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories. Forgetting and creating new memories daily and allowing for our thoughts to change at various rates can be the equivalent of body cell regeneration. How, then, does this mental and psychological renewal impact how old we feel, we think we are and we remember ourselves for? Are we as old as our first memory or our latest desire?
Our collective body – The community
Moving beyond our bodies and minds, as groups of individuals we comprise our global community. The first modern human communities formed ca. 200-300k years ago, but I will dare suggest that few of us would date the various groups we are part of as going that far back. The modern humans might have long histories, but our shared identities have been ever-evolving. And, as our daily interactions are the vehicle for constantly reconfiguring our social ties, how far back can we date our group identities? The concept of the nation state alone, introduced in 15th century political thought and adopted widely from the 19th century, radically transformed how human communities identify and relate to each other.
Living in the material world
Everything around us is part of the recent past, be it an hour, a day or a week old; the more distant past, going back centuries; or the deep past reaching thousands of years back when Homo Sapiens told their first stories. Our surroundings, however, are as ever-transforming as our bodies, minds and communities. Nevertheless, historic durable material remains prominent in the landscape, such as Stonehenge, often create the illusion that stuff created in the past remain unchanged. From there, one might easily indulge in the idea of an unchanged, constant past; a past that was and will always be traced in visible material remains and known stories. Nonetheless, we are surrounded by countless cases of contemporary Theseus’ Ship challenges that could make one wonder how old is the past.
One such case is the Parthenon, the trademark temple of Athens, which is being restored for the past four decades, having its marble blocks removed one by one, treated by conservators and carefully put back each in their place; though, modern interventions on the hill of Acropolis begun already from the 19th c. Given the makeover, how old is, then, the Parthenon? Is it as old as its conception, its oldest material part, or its latest restored stone block? Similarly, the Duomo in Milan, whose construction started in 1386 and was concluded only in 1965, is simultaneously six centuries and 60 years old. And what about the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona which, strictly speaking, it is still under construction? How old is the past?
Dynamic transformation – The story
Asking how old the past is, inevitably brings us to the transformative power of the story. The stories we tell are dynamic in the moment and in recreating things that have come to pass. My favourite example showcasing the capacity of storytelling to impact the past is the short story The Dinosaurs by Italo Calvino, in which a community converted the perception of extinct dinosaurs from terrifying to almost pitiful simply by changing its storytelling over time:
Now the stories of Dinosaurs became jokes, in which the terrible monsters played ridiculous roles
The Dinosaurs, Italo Calvino (1965)
Let us take the example of the Parthenon once more, which over the years has been transformed to symbolise different ideas. In the 5th century BC, the temple told the story of Athens’ religious and cultural superiority over competitive city-states in Greece. With the coming of Christianity, the Parthenon signified the cultural decadence associated with paganism at the time. Following the European Enlightenment and the French revolution, the same temple became a symbol of democracy and citizenship participation in a re-imagined Europe. In that sense, the Parthenon as a symbol of democracy is a few centuries old, but as a symbol of the victory of logic and humans (and of Athens) over chaos and the supernatural is 2.5 millennia old. Meanwhile, interventions on the monument from the formation of the modern Greek state in the 19th century onwards, make it a profoundly contemporary one. So then, how old is the Parthenon? One answer could be that it is as old as the most recent story told about it.
Every time we (re)tell a story, the narrator, the audience, and the surroundings synchronise to create a unique circumstance adding new (metaphorical) planks and cells of meaning. These add-on meanings inevitably change the story and, eventually, make for a new story altogether. No matter how old or recent the events recalled, every story lives in the moment, and every retelling holds the capacity to transform and recreate the past. The past is as old as the last story (re)told.