Monday 16 April 2012
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