The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

Ireland. 14.5 km off the coast of Tory Island. 27 October 1914, 8.45 am. The British battleship HMS Audacious, class King George V of the British Royal Navy, hits a mine laid a few days earlier by the German auxiliary minelayer HSK Berlin. The explosion occurred 4.9 m below the bottom of the ship, approximately 3 m forward of the transverse bulkhead, aft of the port engine room. The engine room and adjacent outer compartments were immediately flooded, and the water spread more slowly to the central engine room and adjacent spaces.

News of the ship's sinking was kept secret, albeit with little success, until the end of the war. Only on 14 November 1918 did an official announcement appear in The Times:

«H.M.S. Audacious.

A Delayed Announcement

The Secretary of the Admiralty makes the following announcement:

H.M.S. Audacious sank after striking a mine off the North Irish coast on October 27, 1914.

This was kept secret at the urgent request of the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Fleet, and the Press loyally refrained from giving it any publicity».

The battleship remained for four years on all public lists of movements and activities of Royal Navy ships.


Frank Raine. British NCO, served with the 18th Durham Light Infantry Battalion in Britain, Egypt and the Western Front, 1914-1918; In 1987, in conversation with historian Peter Hart for the Imperial War Museum’s oral history project, he recounts his experience at the Battle of the Somme:

«Frank Raine: And as I walk back, which we were told of course not to do, we were supposed to up to we were killed, I didn't see a soul in any shell hole or anything.

Peter Hart: What about the officers and the NCOs? Where were they?

F. A.: Never saw a soul, never saw a soul all the time. When I went over there.

P. H.: Would you say you were in a normal mental state when you went over?

F. A.: Definitely, definitely, it was clear, we knew what we doing. I knew what a shell hole what was for when I got into that.

P. H.: Were not lots of wounded or dead or dying around in the area you were in there?

F. A.: Never saw one. Never saw a soul to speak, to tend to or anything».[1]

Between these two figures a frightening dialectic is played out between presence and absence. On the one hand, a ghost ship, a ship that lies sunk in the Atlantic and yet continues to appear for years in the reports of the Military Navy. On the other, a spectral desert, empty, but which we know to be strewn with corpses. Mutilated bodies that do not even appear, do not even manifest themselves to the eyes of non-commissioned officer Frank Raine. Reverse ghosts. They are there, they must be there, but they do not appear.

The ghostly character of the twentieth century, already foreshadowed in the first photographic prints of the streets of Paris taken by Atget, becomes the paradigm for investigating the relationship with the past. The past, like the British battleship, sinks little by little, and yet remains floating like an ectoplasm that sometimes confuses and sometimes appeases, but always amazes. The past, like the entrenched bodies conspicuous by their absence, is there, has always been there, in plain sight but invisible. Just like Poe’s purloined letter, which challenges the investigator with its invisible presence, the past is always in plain sight. But detectives of August Dupin’s caliber only exist in literature. Outside of literature, one is left trying to wear Van Gogh’s shoes: something is missing that is present and something is present that is missing.

But the past in turn has its own past. And here lies one of the most intricate knots in the investigation of tradition. The ways in which the past refluxes into the present mocks us with an infinite series of complexities. But even more complex are the ways in which the past refluxes into the past. The past in turn is populated by the ghosts of its past. And if figuring out the float routes of our ectoplasms, then unravelling the ghostly relationship that the past entertains with its past seems to be apointless undertaking. There everything gets confused, everything gets complicated, and everything changes shape. In other words, what did the past see in its past? The way in which the past relates to the past is not the way in which the present relates to the same past.

One strategy is to renounce from the outset all pretensions to objectivity. One could, like Walter Benjamin, speak of constellations: to read the past not as what it really was, but as what really happened, to take the ghosts at face value, that is to say as ghosts. Then it does not matter what the past wanted to say, but what the present, which for us is in turn the past, made it say. To use a Spanish expression, we must speak por boca de ganso. It is then a matter of assuming the past of the past with all its infinite load of errors, mystifications, entanglements, misinterpretations, deliberate or accidental, in order to build a chain that crosses time. A chain in no way linear, never built from facts but from narratives, entangled and labyrinthine, where, as in the collections of the bombardments in the trenches, everything appears in an impressionistic, fragmentary, incoherent, and flashed way. In this case it is not necessarily a question of an impoverishment of the experience of the past, but of another way of perceiving it, a way that is at once frustrating but extremely fruitful.

Indeed, frustration with the strangeness of the past sometimes leads to projecting the existence of a Joker who would have acted in the past but would no longer persist in the present. This presumed need for a wild card, which sometimes manifests itself in such variegated and glamorous forms as Gram Hancock’s aliens, who would have carried out the construction of the pyramids, is nothing more than the expression of that frustration, of that phantasmatic presence that challenges one with its absence. The past can be such a foreign land that one is sometimes called upon to introduce a deus ex machina who, having carried out his astonishing intervention, retires joyfully to paint his nails.

This reflection on the ways in which the past reflects on the past becomes even more meaningful when it is approachedfrom the perspective of the political dimension of legitimization and delegitimization. Of all the categories of the political, the sphere of legitimization is perhaps the one that appears most indebted to the past. There, in a labyrinthine way, is played the game of apology in defence of the world as it is or, vice versa, that of its incrimination. Both games, that of accusatory delegitimization and that of apologetic legitimization of the present, take place against the backdrop of a necessary historical narrative that acts as a dynamic support or as an undermining function. In this way, enmities are projected back to mythical as well as historical times, but whose romanticization automatically turns them into myths, as in the case of the Charles Martel Society and its magazine The Occidental Quarterly, an extreme right-wing and white nationalist American organization that trace their racial and political struggle against the Middle East back to that of Charles Martel and the battle of Tour in 732 against Muslim troops. At the same time, nationalisms construct identities that would deepen their roots in the mists of time, as is the case with traditional clothing parades, which are often nothing more than 19th century projections and fantasies about the aesthetics of ancient attire. As it is ironized in Britain, every British tradition is Victorian. Ultimately, in the labyrinths of legitimization, the past plays a key role.

But such devices sometimes play both sides. Not only do legitimization and delegitimization draw their political juice from the past, but also from the future. This brings us to the problem of the political meaning of the apocalypse.

End of Part 1.

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[1] “Raine, Frank (Oral History).” n.d. Imperial War Museums. Accessed July 11, 2023.