Posted by Ginny on November 26th, 2006 (All posts by Ginny)
Knowing history is an important part of being educated, not only because it’s good to honor the people who came before us, and who built the world that we take for granted, but also because if we don’t know what people did in the past we will needlessly repeat many of their mistakes. This is as true on an individual level as it is in geopolitics. We forget it at our peril, and too many people have forgotten it. Jonathan
Honoring is thanking, respecting, learning from. This is something that takes us a while to understand. Some find it hard to see Hamlet as a tragic hero – he’s too self-absorbed, too cynical, too indecisive, too – well, too non-heroic. He doesn’t do great deeds, he is more worried about his father’s ghost than he is about the kingdom his father ruled. That diminishes heroism. He’s the adolescent tragic hero. Well, we’ve got plenty of them.
Some day, people may look back on our time as that of “The Adolescent.” (I hope it ended with a new period so harshly entered on 9/11 but I fear it may not.) David Foster’s “temporal bigotry” comes from a lack of sympathy & imagination as well as history. Most of all, it comes from hubris. But it is not an Olympian hubris; rather it is that of a teen-ager in the throes of first love, unsure of his own dignity and self, angered by the demands of classes and work he finds demeaning. He complains the world is not sufficiently accommodating, voices the petty doubts of the village atheist and classroom cynic.
Adolescents always think they are outside history – no one ever loved as they did, understood the world as they do, saw through the pretensions of their elders as they do. (Think The Graduate which moved many of my generation.) Their elders, who know history from tradition & books but also from the experience in their bones, smile indulgently. Yes, you think the world began again with you, they sigh. So did I, once, they say.
But something happened to my generation – perhaps it was its size. But far too many still believe they stand outside history. They comment on the world as if from a vantage point that owed nothing to those who came before. The Marxists thought they could define the world anew – human nature could be hammered into a hero of a new Utopia. All was social construct. Ignoring the tens of millions that died for that peculiar delusion, its assumptions can still be heard over dinners on the academic circuit where graying & soft-bodied professors posit it as if it were new, revolutionary, daring (those same people who would fight for tenure and little else).
At some point, the pretensions of post-modernism would seem to have failed. It is spun from air and hangs in the air. It has no sense of the universality of human nature, the heroism of history, the beauty of literature. But in academic circles the same inane observations remain standard.
And under all is hubris:
1) In the unwillingness to learn history – to master the dates, the events, the worlds of other times that led to ours. The sense of great figures who did great deeds – and the pattern of those great deeds that might well help us model our own lives, understand & sympathize more broadly – is gone. The motives of all (save the interpreter) suspect. (A particular example of which was Michael A. Bellesiles’ Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.)
2) In the unwillingness to read literature as infinitely great works of art telling us much about human nature, life, reality but rather as cultural artifacts to be condescended to and treated with irony.
3) In the unwillingness to assume that human nature is more robust and more interesting (and sometimes more transcendent) than that of a culturally determined being.
4) In the unwillingness to understand that those who take responsibility in this world merit more sympathy and understanding than those who don’t, even if consequences may well be laid at their feet. (Monday morning quarterbacking may be useful analytically but should be done with modesty.)
5) In the unwillingness to accept that anything – God, history, the baby in a womb – is more important than the unfettered self.
The point I was trying to make in two earlier posts – on Zoch & on Lemon – were that hubris gets in the way of learning; of course, it also denies the infinite pleasure of leaving one’s self and entering a work of art or a great discipline, like Latin. Such immersion leaves us wiser about other periods and our selves as well. Lemon aggregated the great critics before him, thus signaling perhaps the end of that era of the great, close readings. But in that era the critic began with respect for and humility before a work of art; this dedication arose not from a desire to enlarge the critic but the work itself. (Lemon describes his task as making intelligible a poem’s beauty & power.)