The ExPerienced Past
Recovery of the experienced past in a literal sense is, as we have seen, not possible. One reason for this is that in any historical situation only a small fragment of the totality of people's experiences is ever recorded for posterity. "The trawling net fills," Geoffrey Braithwaite says of the process of writing a biography, "then the biographer hauls it in, sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells. Yet consider what he doesn't catch: there is always far more of that."1 Modestly but accurately, Robert Capa called his photos of the D- Day landing "a cut into the whole event," rather than the full reality. 2 Of the tens of thousands of Chinese who took part in the Boxer movement, we have recorded traces of the behavior of only a tiny faceless (and mostly nameless) fraction. Even in the case of the hundreds of foreigners besieged in the legation quarters in Beijing in the summer of 1900, the letters, diaries, and books that many of them wrote detailing their experiences represented, at best, summaries, distillations, artful reconstructions, not full and exact replications.
This suggests a second reason for the impossibility of truly resurrecting the experienced past. Even if full replication of past experience were feasible, it would remain just that: replication, either in words or visual images or both, not the experience itself. In the foreign accounts of the siege of the legations, we are treated again and again to graphic descriptions of the experiential world of the besieged. But, unlike the inhabitants of this world, we cannot ourselves directly experience, minute by minute, day after day, the sweltering heat and drenching rains, the multiple sounds of gunfire in the night, the fear of being wounded or killed, the crying of "babies, tortured by heat-rash, mosquitoes and the thousands of flies," the stench of rotting pony carcasses. 3 The best that a participant account can do is provide a vivid and compelling sense of what the past was like. It cannot give us the past.
If literal retrieval of the experienced past is not a possibility, we can nonetheless form a picture of this past, or at least bits and pieces of it, in