Past Perfect or down the rabbit hole


This week one of my students asked me what the Past Perfect tense is. I told her that we use it to talk about the past from the past. Since this explanation made little more sense to me than it did to her, I gave an example.

Last night I went to bed at midnight. Before that I had cleaned my teeth.

Here there are two consecutive leaps backwards in time. The first takes you back to midnight last night while the second takes you back to a time shortly before midnight. This is the past from the past. I gave another example:

Thirty years ago I went to live in Germany. I had learned a little German before leaving. I had bought some CDs and a grammar book. I also took a few German classes…

Once the ‘the past from the past’ became the main rather than the secondary point of focus, I naturally slipped from Past Perfect to the Simple Past and used ‘took’, not ‘had taken’. My actual trip to Germany slipped out of my mind and was replaced by my pre-trip preparations as my main focus.

This change of focus seems to me similar to the device of ‘framing’ in literature. When I am deep in a book, I suddenly become aware that I am not in fact out on the wild and windy moors with Katherine and Heathcliffe, but sitting before a fire in the front parlour of Wuthering Heights, being told of events that happened a quarter of a century before by the maid, Nelly. And I then become aware that I am not even in Wuthering Heights in 1801 but am sitting with my legs curled up underneath me, reading a book in Tokyo in 2013. These changes of focus in literature are mildly disorienting but pleasant, though I have never worked out why.

Both the changes of focus in literature and in language tenses remind me of what happens when I suddenly become aware that I have been daydreaming and zoom back to reality. Once I get used to reality it becomes the norm until I once again slip my moorings and drift away to La-La Land.

Some people say you shouldn’t constantly lose yourself in your thoughts. You should stay focused on the present moment and ‘be here now’. After all, you only have one life to live, despite what Nancy Sinatra might say, so be aware of the taste of coffee and the smell of baked bread (they rarely mention the taste of earwax or the smell of dog poo).

Even so, unless you are willing to chase your thoughts down the rabbit hole to wherever they may take you and emerge later, blinking in the cold light of day, what is there in all honesty to see up there on the surface of the world? Without the curiosity that tempts you to think about stuff and to descend ever lower into your thoughts and away from the bright and shiny world up there, why bother looking at anything? It is surely only thought that makes any of it interesting. Besides, there is something pleasant about those moments when you return to yourself after having been away for a while.


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