Monday 16 April 2012

Future Past

Dedicated to Marty

I was once asked why I loved history so much; after all, what practical purpose did it serve? A question of this nature, it seems to me, is largely self-referential, already containing, in an age-old rhetorical fashion, its own answer. What practical use is history?

Think about it: what value or 'practical use' is there in anything; why think, why act, why believe, why write? If all of our intellectual life is to be reduced to a material and utilitarian calculus, then we might as well forget about poetry, literature, music, painting and philosophy, none of which have any practical value, as well as history. Why do I study history, why do I think it is important? Because I love the subject: I have as long as I can remember, and I offer no better excuse than that.

Maybe it serves no purpose, and maybe it really is all 'bunk', in the words of Our Ford, the great material God. I could, of course, trade history quotes for history quotes, some hostile and some favourable. My own 'leitmotiv', my guide and my recurrent theme, are the words of Gustav Flaubert, who said that "Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times."

The whole question came up again recently on Blog Catalogue, in a discussion thread touching on the various things people enjoy learning. As part of my response I said that, while I'm interested in lots of subjects, history has a special place in my heart. I was then asked what it was specifically that I found so engaging.

It's a good question but like all good questions it's not that easy to answer. It comes down, in the end, to one thing: each and every one of us is born with a special talent or aptitude. We are fortunate to discover it early in life, if we discover it at all; so many people go through life blind and unfulfilled.

Very early, even before I went to school, I discovered that I had a particular love and reverence for the past, a fascination that grew with the years. My grandfather, an old soldier, did much to stimulate my interest with his tales of the British Raj. But, as I said, I feel a connection with all past times, with vanished lives and vanished glories. As long as I can remember I’ve loved visiting historical sites, ruined castles, old churches and abbeys, thinking of far off things and battles long ago. History has a poignancy that moves me, lessons that we would do well to heed. There are a few lines in Rudyard Kipling’s poem Recessional which sums it up best;

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

We learned that at school, and it passed through my mind when I visited Rome for the first time, standing in the ruins of the Forum, near the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March all those centuries ago. What was once great is now fragments and ruins. Noon, ever so high, will always sink into dusk. Poem was traded for poem. My attention was drawn to some wonderful lines by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky;

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

I cannot address all creation but I can at least address the ages and I can address history. I can think of no better fate, that my future is all in the past


  1. Beautiful writing, Ana, and may I add another line of verse, this from Robert Frost, which I feel supports your basic premise:

    "We love the things we love for what they are."

    I think Clio is ecststic to have you on her side.

    1. Thanks again, Marty, for the inspiration. I certainly hope so. :-)

  2. I think people who question what use the knowledge of history is have an existential arrogance. Such arrogance is entirely lacking in you Ana. If we do not understand history and our place in it we are consigned to repeat its mistakes and our own. I am sure your future works will earn their deserved place in the history of history.

  3. A song for you Ana:

    1. Hey, I thought Jethro Tull was an agricultural reformer! That was very good, Nobby. Thanks.

  4. Ana, my thoughts on the subject are closely aligned w/the truism, "those who do not learn the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them".

    One of the things that makes civilization possible is accumulated knowledge. The whole concept of education is to allow each person to learn from the experiences of others without suffering the negative consequences of gathering that knowledge (recognizing that while "a burnt hand teaches twice as well", students READING about the dangers of flying aircraft blindfolded are much likely to survive their education). Having 100 people absorbing the things that 1 has experienced is much more efficient and effective, much less having a million or a billion people doing the learning!

    And what is absorbing other people's experiences, but "learning their history"?

  5. To learn from the mistakes of others in past history supposedly, but people seem to forget and keep repeating mistakes? I have always wondered why the ancient monuments are not restored to their former glory? it would create jobs and perhaps modern man could learn to use the ancient knowledge that they contain. I certainly would like to see Stonehenge fully restored and overseen by Druids. There is a fully functional replica of Stonehenge in Maryhill, Washington State USA overlooking the Columbia river where pagans gather to celebrate the summer solstice. The Columbia river gorge between Washington and Oregon States USA is truly enchanted, it seems that nature must purge humanity and start over.

  6. That sounds wonderful, Anthony. I must go sometime, for the setting and for the ceremony. Some things, though, are too hallowed to be touched or restored.

  7. There is only Now, Ana . . . in the prism of your consciousness Now is a particularly rich moment, saturated in human hope and striving, passion and surrender . . . and form is emptiness, and emptiness is form . . .

    1. Ah, Chris. :-)

      Time present and time past
      Are both perhaps present in time future,
      And time future contained in time past.
      If all time is eternally present
      All time is unredeemable.
      What might have been is an abstraction
      Remaining a perpetual possibility
      Only in a world of speculation.
      What might have been and what has been
      Point to one end, which is always present.
      Footfalls echo in the memory
      Down the passage which we did not take
      Towards the door we never opened
      Into the rose-garden.

    2. Tom Eliot had a way with words that exceeds, perhaps, even yours, Ana . . . he certainly expressed this truth beautifully and poetically . . . and I would add, not in jest, that after all the decades of reading physics and metaphysics, I've found few statements of this truth which are as succinct, poetic, and as useful as the one I first heard as a little boy, long before I could read:

      Row, row, row your boat
      Gently down the stream
      Merrily, merrily, merrily
      Life is but a dream

  8. Lives of great men all remind us
    We can make our lives sublime,
    And, departing, leave behind us
    Footprints on the sands of time.

    Yesterday I fought a heroic struggle against the IRS. Today I stand bloodied (and poorer) but unbowed.

    1. Calvin, I simply can't picture you bowed. :-)

  9. @ Calvin: To advert crucifixion, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's"