Gerard Van der Leun has written a rumination on the return of history, post-9/11.
I offer a few excerpts here, although they don’t really capture the full flavor of the thing (to do that, it needs to be read as a whole):
The History of Me was huge in the 90s and rolled right through the millennium. It even had a Customized President to preside over those years; the Most Me President ever…It was better when we lived in The History of Me…The meaning of this history was not deep but was to be found in the world “fun.”…
Now we find ourselves back in history as it has always been and it is not fun. Not fun at all. The history of history has little to do with fun, almost nothing at all.
Should the nation choose to continue in the elections of this year to move forward, to stay the course and continue the offensive, our encounter with history will move forward at much the same pace as it has these past four years, perhaps a bit accelerated. Should the nation choose to step back, to retreat, it will simply retard the process that grips it a bit more than otherwise might be the case. Neither result wil place us back in the History of Me no matter how many yearn for it.
History, having returned, will continue to happen, not to Me, but to Us.
We will have war whether we wish it or not…
Personally, I wasn’t too much a part of the 90’s “Me” movement, although I remember noticing it. I was too busy raising a child and going to graduate school, and listening to the personal histories of my clients.
But during that decade I definitely relaxed my grip on the notion of being part of a larger history that was frightening; with the end of the Cold War I thought history had turned out to be a paper tiger, a pussycat compared to what we had expected during the 50s and 60s. This perception was a big relief to me (which I’ve written about here).
Call me naive–and you would be correct to do so–but those were the years in which pears loomed much larger than tanks, in Milan Kundera’s image, and I was happy to see those pears. Who wouldn’t have been? Yes, there were rumblings that not all was well–many rumblings, if I look back and see with different eyes–but somehow the haze of optimism continued to obscure where this was all heading.
I think a good analogy to those years was the era shortly before WWI, when people thought mankind was progressing almost inevitably to a better and better future. There had been a long time of relative peace, and then “poof!”, it all blew up in their faces in a way they hadn’t ever imagined, barbaric and bloody and seemingly endless. As the British poet Philip Larkin, quoted in Paul Fussell’s wonderful book The Great War and Modern Memory, wrote: “never such innocence again.”
Well, I guess one should never say “never”–since it turns out that many (although not all) of us were so innocent once again. And many still remain so, despite 9/11.
That is, almost so innocent; the innocence of those pre-WWI Europeans seems to have been even more profound, as Fussell describes it:
Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted even the benignity of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.
As Henry James, spokesman for the disillusionment of the era, wrote to a friend on the day afer the British entered the war:
The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness…is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.
I’ve written at some length here about my own 90s version of the glorious prewar summer of 1914, in which I’d imagined that we’d somehow escaped the horrific apocalypse envisioned in the ’50s–in other words, that we’d escaped history. I, much like James, had lacked a sense of what those years were “making for and meaning.”
But on 9/11 I had an almost instantaneous perception that this threat was more serious than anything that had come before, at least in my lifetime, because this opponent had revealed itself to be unusually implacable, determined, and vicious; and was quite unconcerned with such mundane affairs as living. The latter represented the unique thing about this particular enemy; the Dark Ages had somehow merged with the Quantum Age, and it was not a good combination.
But one thing I never envisioned on 9/11 was the fact that, despite my sense that we could be successful in beating back these destructive forces if we ourselves had some unity of purpose and resolve, many people would be only too eager to go right back to their sweet dreamy repose (what Gerard Van der Leun calls “fun”) and to think that it was Bush who was the real bogeyman–that he’s the one spoiling all the fun, for his own nefarious purposes.
So history is indeed–to paraphrase another writer, James Joyce–a nightmare from which many of us try to awake. But try as we may, it reasserts itself into our lives, not with a whimper but with a bang.
This page of history quotations contains quite a few gems, such as one from the much-maligned Machiavelli:
Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
And one of my favorites, from Mark Twain:
The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
And how about this, by Anonymous (not the same “anonymous” who posts here, I’m afraid):
We cannot escape history and neither can we escape a desire to understand it.
And I didn’t realize Harry Truman was this much of a philosopher:
The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.
And then there’s an observation by Cicero that seems apropos:
To be ignorant of the past is to remain a child.
I will close with a simple statement by Lincoln, from his message to Congress of Dec. 1, 1862,
We cannot escape history.
But that sure doesn’t stop us from trying, does it?