Notes to Myself: Waking up from History
[Note: I write many, many notes to myself and do little with them. These are nothing like fully-formed and defended arguments. I thought it might be interesting to share one nonetheless.]
History is a nightmare from which we seem to have collectively awoken. A bit bleary-eyed still but with only the dimmest after-image, we know the past only through fashions and a few photographs of totemic significance. Anything before photography is confusing for us. Any professor will tell you about the vague undergrad phrases used in essays like “since the beginning of time” and “throughout history” used to refer to things with a definite historical context. It seems to be increasingly universal though, this process of historical forgetting. I frequently encounter people for whom the past is not simply a foreign country, but an undiscovered one.
Even stranger is our tendency to erect defenses against historical awareness with the most common one being the black legends we repeat about the past. Listening to people talk about what they imagine the past to have been like, or watching many current films set in past eras, you start to get the feeling that prior to the industrial era, people only took time away from starving to death in order to lynch one another and afterwards broadened their lynching activities a bit due to better nutrition. It’s a bit like Benjamin’s angel of history who “sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.” It’s as if we need to reassure ourselves that this is the best of all possible worlds. The attempt is also made, I think, to apply the model of scientific progress to the much more difficult art of being human- to assume we are becoming increasingly just and enlightened people- the arc of progress pointing towards a sort of Hegelian end of history in which we are simply better than we ever were. There’s a strange complacency to this mindset and an underlying fear that we might be traitors to the present age were we to see as superior some past ideas or practices. The past is a different place and we’re the gung-ho patriots of contemporaneity. It then becomes clear how easy it must have been for totalitarian states to abolish historical knowledge given the psychological threat that the past seems to pose to our sense of self.