History, Confucius, Hegel, and Bettie Page
In a recent post, Jason poses good questions about Confucius and how we view history more generally. As for Confucius’s idealization of the Duke of Zhou, the little I know about Chinese history suggests that the Duke really was a great and important figure who inaugurated a long and peaceful dynasty. However, it is impossible to say if Confucius is right that statesmen, in general, were better during that era, or that they were all lousy during his time. Quite likely, what he says on the subject tells us more about Confucius than about Chinese history.
He is idealizing the past and hoping to revive its culture. Jason has shown the dangers in this view of history before. As Jason writes: “What we end up getting more often than not are summaries of personal prejudices written as though they were history.” Also, he notes that valorizing the past can blind you to the many things that are better now and it’s fairly easy to become mired. As a Jello Biafra song memorably put it, “That was then and this is now, and suckling up to sacred cows can leave you stuck in the mud with their remains.”
In terms of our history, Jason has a special perspective that likely allows him to see the failings of a conservative yen to return to the golden age. As a homosexual, he perhaps would not agree if I said, “Hey Jason, wouldn’t we be much happier living in the 1950s?” Probably not. Similarly, this line wouldn’t convince many women or blacks. This is not a blind spot, but a special insight.
At any rate, I don’t believe in narratives of decline or progressive enlightenment either because I don’t believe in teleological explanations of history. That is, while change over time can be shown, I don’t believe that history is moving in any particular direction towards any specific endpoint. The obvious example is Christian teleology. However, the 19th century saw a proliferation of historicist arguments that the human spirit was approaching a sort of self-aware perfection, an argument that could be, not entirely correctly, called Hegelian. I can find you many very positivistic reflections on history in that century which argue that, since the species is becoming progressively more rational, virtuous, scientific, and pacifistic, the 20th will be a century without war. It’s perhaps good to take these books with a grain of salt.
Similarly, narratives of decline would have us wiped out by now. The obvious example there would be Malthus, but even after the horrors of the 20th century, Spengler sounds a bit like a crank. The problem is that humans, sorry to say, aren’t very good at predicting the future. Moreover, narratives about the virtuous past or the terrible past tend to be exaggerated, inaccurate, and somewhat stifling: the virtuous because we’d rather be in the past than deal with the present; the terrible because arguing things have never been better encourages complacency.
I think, instead, we now take a creative approach to the past. Especially because the past no longer holds us in its cold grasp- our era has severed all ties with history. Many of us live in other towns (or countries) than where we grew up. Few of us work the same job our whole lives anymore. We move, change jobs, end marriages, leave churches. Mobility has increased and the power of the past and of traditions has receded. Faulkner’s oft-quoted line about the past not even being the past is, itself, a relic of a different time.
History profs are also right in bemoaning the total lack of historical awareness or sense on the part of the present generation. But, as the past no longer has any bearing on this generation, perhaps learning history would be as useless to them as learning Coptic. In the book we’re reading, Chris Hedges writes: “Those who suffer from historical amnesia, the belief that we are unique in history and have nothing to learn from the past, remain children. They live in an illusion.” And he’s absolutely right. But this historical dislocation conversely makes the past, instead of a lost golden age or a mind-forged manacle, something else: a source of creative potential.
Creative anachronisms are flourishing. For example, every city I’ve lived in has had a number of white, college-educated, feminist-leaning women for whom Bettie Page is a personal hero. They’re often into burlesque, retro pinups, and a certain 50s image of female sexuality. They’ll say those images are more “natural”, “glamorous”, and a “celebration of women”- even “empowering”; while today’s images reduce female sexuality to another consumer item, these ones seem to raise it up to the status of a magic fetish. And yet, none of those women would want to live in the 50s and deal with the gender roles of that era. They’re fully aware that women had fewer options in that time. And I think they’re also aware that what they’re responding to is the paradoxical fact that patriarchies strip women of actual power and influence, while investing them with exaggerated imaginative power and influence. I’d call this the Napoleon/Josephine syndrome: he was one of the most powerful men in human history; yet, even today, more people know that he was a cuckold than how he won the Battle of Austerlitz.
But that imaginative power is latent because none of us have to live within patriarchal gender roles. We can play dress-up and camp it up with ironic self-awareness. We can draw creatively from the past because it has no power over us; it is as indifferent a matter as eating Chinese one night and Mexican the next. We could call it historical tourism, or temporal multiculturalism, we the wandering amnesiacs. The break with the past allows us to treat it as a source of latency, instead of a burden or a golden age. We can all be magpies. Not remembering the past, we’re likely condemned to repeat it (torture, ill-conceived wars, and recessions a go-go); conversely, we have no excuse if the future is boring.