Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, July 24, 2017

Some Musings about History

"The sources of collective memory range far beyond personal recall, but these sources too resist correction by others.  Since we alone understand the legacy that is ours, we are free, or even bound to construe it as we feel it ought to be.  Those who share a communal legacy must accept some mutual notion of its nature.  But each sharer treats that corporate bequest as his own; like personal memory, it remains barred to outsiders." (page 314)

The Past is a Foreign Country - Revisited by David Lowenthal


Americans sometimes fall into this seductive trap when they go abroad and marvel at ruins.  They exclaim with admiration: "How wonderful! We have nothing as old as this at home."   Statements that are both true and false.  True in the sense that the Parthenon is unique to a particular time and place but false because it utterly erases the history of the first inhabitants of North America who migrated from Asia anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.  To accept the argument that "civilization" on the North American continent only began with the arrival of Europeans is a lovely fable which may please Europeans and European-Americans alike but is utterly without foundation.

History as the subtraction of facts which do not fit the narrative.  Well, no nation is exempt from such attempts to shape and sanitize the past.  Not only does the past as we feel it ought to be confer legitimacy on the present day inhabitants of a territory, it makes us feel as if we own something that is beyond the reach of the tourist or migrant. History, says Clifford Geertz, is one of those "primordial loyalties"  along with "[a] sense of the "givens" of social existence -- speaking a particular language, following a particular religion, being born into a particular family..."  I do not doubt that such things are felt by millions around the world. It requires considerable effort on the part of the state, communities and individuals to sustain a common language, culture or history when one has only to talk to one's elders to learn that the taken-for-granted "primordial" is an invention of the present.

My sense is that we seek the "primordial" at times when we realize that we were born in the middle of a moving river and we would very much like for someone to close the floodgates so we can float for awhile in this moment.  Since that is entirely outside our capacities, we instead attempt to anchor ourselves in the past against the current.  We may not know where we are being taken but surely we can find something in the usable past that will slow us down.

The more I move around, the more I question the history of my home country and what is being presented to me as history by the various host countries I've wandered through.    I have learned to be skeptical of their "primordial" narratives both for what they have left out (a lot) and for what has been invented (also a lot).  To accept the US as a English-speaking country or France as a Francophone one since time immemorial requires that I ignore the distinctly un-French accents of old Breton farmers, the tales my mother-in-law tells of hearing languages other than French spoken in her village, and the stories of my German and French-Canadian ancestors in the US who happily spoke French and German across generations.

But it's not simply about debunking the facts, it is also about holding an awareness that the past is indeed a foreign country and that a 21st century French or Japanese or American is born into exactly the same place with regards to their own history and that of other peoples.  No, there is no gene for history or language or culture and the past not a personal memory.  On the contrary,  we all start from zero in terms of language, culture, and history when we are born and then what we acquire as we grow up is what people in the present think we ought to know.

Going beyond that (questioning the "givens") means grappling with more complicated and less ethnocentric narratives that call into question the "ownership" of things dear to the heart of the locals.

Is Notre Dame a symbol of French architectural genius beloved to the French of our time or is it  an edifice among many in a worldwide network of Roman Catholics and a concrete example of the universality and longevity of the faith?  A symbol of France?  Or a symbol of a multinational living faith that has existed for thousand of years and still serves the faithful in the same way as, say, St. Patrick's in New York or the Grand Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of Osaka?  To see it as one and not the other would be to leave quite a lot out.  Better, I think, to know both and to seek out other interpretations to see how it has been incorporated into many narratives over the centuries.  For is it so hard to imagine that the people who constructed it were as unlike a 21st century Frenchman or woman as we of different nations are to each other today?

As we travel and marvel at the wonders of different places my modest suggestion would be to be extremely cautious about the historical narratives being trotted out for your edification.  Consider that the locals may not know any more than you do.  They had to learn the facts and narratives just as you do, and unless they are highly inquisitive it is doubtful that they will do more than parrot what they were taught in school or on their own guided tour.

Be aware that there are other narratives foreign and domestic (and the latter is not necessarily superior to the former) and that viewed from another context their cultural ownership of something may be highly questionable.  They were not there when the event occurred or when the edifice was constructed and their relationship to it is as distant as yours. If these things are the reflection of any genius, it is limited to the people who lived and breathed and built then.  What their supposed ancestors think of them now is all about how they feel about the present and may simply be another manifestation of trying to stop the river of time.

And then go back and apply all of the above to the past of whatever country you call (or once called) "home."  I guarantee you'll find there is a lot more there there than you ever dreamt.


6 comments:

Tim said...

While this might seem a bit off topic I am curious if you have any thoughts about the proposed EU Japan trade deal. One thing that has surprised me is just how little coverage it has gotten compared to past proposal between the US/Japan and US/EU. It seems as if there is this assumption that the US is somehow the HUB of the trading order while the EU and Japan are "spokes" and thus would never do a deal between themselves despite the political agreement earlier this month in Brussels.

Second I am already hearing criticism of French President Macron on the grounds he has done "nothing" but photo opps however, the EU/Japan deal occurred after he got elected but none of Macron's critics in the US and the UK seem to know about this.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

For some odd reason it makes me think of a Kipling poem a friend here likes to recite:

"Now it is not good for the Christian’s health to hustle the Aryan brown,
For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles and he weareth the Christian down;
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: 'A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.'"

:-)

Maria said...

I know much about Spanish history, yet I know little. I do know that it is not a simple history, like the little they teach in the adulterated textbooks in school now. Franco confused everything deliberately with his "una, grande, y libre." (One, great, and free) The present political party in power would like to continue his work, for example, asserting that Catalunya has always been a part of Spain and will remain so. Yet, Catalunya at times was independent, only associated to the Crown of Aragon for a time. When it was incorporated into the unified Crown of Spain, it retained much independence, and only lost it relatively recently, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

History is certainly fluid, and its interpretation, even when left to documents, is selective. Our present will one day be even more fluid, because there are so many contrasting documents, that future historians can interpret our present to fit theirs any way they like. Even as individuals, we sometimes have difficulty in asserting that a memory happened the way we say it did. Is the memory correct or has it been adulterated by our wishful brains?

Yet, we should all become amateur historians, and search out the truth as well we can. Even if it's two contrasting arguments, at least we'll know in what people disagreed. And even if we'll never know what the stonemasons who fashioned Europe's cathedrals really thought, we can still admire their handiwork, and marvel at their efforts and intelligence. The cathedrals you mentioned are more than a national history or a monument to a faith. They're the epitome of human effort and knowledge of their time, and a sample of how much beauty can be created if we all work together.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Victoria, did you ever make it to Asuka? I find that one of the most fascinating historical sites in Japan precisely because it exists on the edge of history and myth and just plain archaeology. It was the capital when writing was imported from China, and some of the founding histories of Japan were written there. Some bits of those histories are believed to be true, and correspond to physical sites in the town. Some bits are believed to be pure fabrication, meant for the purpose of justifying the rule of those who were in power at the time. And other bits, nobody is really sure about. To me, it is a site that really brings the subjectivity of history to life somehow.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Maria, Interesting about Spain. Yes, that's a very good example of history being used in a particular way to further a political agenda. Reminds me of my daughters and their experience with the French school system and how little they were taught about Algeria and what happened during the war for independence. Here we were able to fill in some of the gaps because my father-in-law was there (as was my MIL) and their father was actually born in Medea. Was there torture? You bet there was according to my father-in-law. He did not hide these facts from his family thogh the French state seems to think its a good idea to hide them as much as possible.

Nezumi-san, No I have not gone to Asuka but you have inspired me. We are going this Sunday with friends who live in Nara. Interestingly enough they have NEVER been to Asuka thogh it i all the things you've described. So the short-timers and the natives will BOTH learn something this weekend. :-)

Inaka Nezumi said...

Hope you enjoy it!