Monday, July 24, 2017
Some Musings about History
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.