Sunday July 11, 2004
An interesting thought arising from a heavy and extremely gory British TV detective mystery this evening. The theme was that each succeeding generation in our time has become less and less interested in those who have gone before them, with a corresponding whittling away of knowledge or sense of the past. “History is dead,” pronounced one of the major characters.
That phrase, and the line of thought which lead to it, has been buzzing around in my head ever since.
There are exceptions of course, but it is observable that the mass of people in Western society do indeed seem to have lost interest in anything other than the present. It would be possible to be fooled away from this view by the proliferation of popular history programmes on TV. Surely, that’s evidence of a continuing interest in history? ‘Fraid not. Quite apart from the fact that the history shown is sanitized, twisted and constantly re-written to suit academic or political spin, the emphasis is on a past that is not demonstratably connected to our present. Or our future.
I don’t think anyone in America would argue against serious consideration of the view that American history ended with the assassinations of the Kennedy era and, possibly, with Vietnam and its aftermath. Those traumatic and totally disillusioning events seem to have made a cauterised cut between people’s lives today and the knowledge that history is a continuous development of past into present and on into the future. Contemporary Americans, in the mass, seem to have lost sight of, and connection with, the past. From an external point of view the present American president is a prime example of a man living in a disconnected present, unaware of any lessons from the past, and seeming incapable of basing present actions on a view of future consequences.
Not that we can claim anything different here in the UK, and our present prime minister is certainly an example of a man entirely of the present, disregarding the past and spinning the future out of existence. I suspect that our collective involvement with the past ended with the death of Churchill and the damp and dismal fizzling out of the New Elizabethan Era. Less dramatic than the history-ending events in the US, but no less effective. Nothing that has happened since is seen by the mass of British people as having any relevance to our present, and our present actions are made without consideration for the future. In the main. Always in the main. There are always exceptions.
Similar interruptions to the continuous sweep of history are evident in France and Germany, the one still trying to forget the fact and the realities of being conquered, occupied and corrupted by Germany in WWII, the other trying to forget the horrors perpetrated in their name by the German Nazis. You can go further and find interruptions in Italian, Spanish and Portugese recent history. There are more examples but my abilitiy to sustain an argument through dozens of references is limited. That’s what you get for being a poet, I suppose.
It’s quite clear to me however that, in the long term, this era of historical disconnectedness will pass, and will be judged by future historians as a period in which human development entered and sat sad and disconsolate in the doldrums.
You see, history is something not just of the past. It’s of the present, and of the future, too. If history is not dead then it is living, and we are living with it. If we believe it to be dead, or spin it into a semblance of death then we cannot escape from the conclusion that our existence in the stream of history is also dead. And, if we believe that the past is dead, and put it aside, there is no responsibility on us to take the future into our considerations. Care of society’s future well being and of that of the world environment is, by that argument, of very little importance.
I need to think this through a little more. A lot more, actually. I may be living in a dreary, present-obsessed society, but I don’t want to think that way. I don’t pretend to have an answer, though, nor do I have any great hope that I ever shall.
A new generation of poets is needed to protest the present and to re-connect us with our past and future. Not that there’s much evidence of that. Most modern poets seem as adrift in a historical hiatus as the rest of us, looking for problems and their answers in the depths of a mug of universal beverage substance.
Hey ho. A strange train of thought, but not too out-of-sorts with a day that’s been dark, dismal and dank for the most part, with hardly a sight of sunshine. The sky and the atmosphere seem heavy, somehow, as if they have reached saturation point, and I feel as though I have spent my day at the bottom of a cold and cloudy aquarium, or deep in an ocean where the present reality is formed of the falling dead from the world above.
Even so, it’s not truly been overly dismal here in the little house by the fens. Graham is steadily feeling better and better, and it looks very much as if his affliction is in fact a gum problem rather than a dead or dying tooth. Normally I hate it when he’s right but in this case I’m more than a little glad. So we’ve been much more cheerful and positive, doing our own things, preoccupied with ourselves and our individual interests. Harry Cat has been rendered content with two mouse-sized chunks of bloody meat, slightly warmed, and Dolly the Mega-cat is equally content with her ongoing duty of care as she looks after the rest of us.
As the light faded, the sun peeped through the clouds over to the west for a brief look at us and our doings. To the east a mass of rain cloud was rolling slowly away, filling the air under it with a fine precipitation. Some trick of the angle, the light, and the nature of the liquid droplets in the atmosphere produced a rainbow that seemed to be shining entirely in the red end of the spectrum. I can’t recall ever having seen this one before.
I wonder if it’s some kind of omen? I could do with a good omen. I’d welcome a sign that the present and the future are alive and well, and that our history is alive, too. Wouldn’t want to think that my present happy state is too exceptional.