Sunday, July 15, 2012

No remembrance of former things

Beginning his review of a worthy example of the historian's art, Jay Green expresses his pessimism about the success of the calling:
Historians devote themselves to a hopeless project. They are in the business of memory reclamation, dredging up long-forgotten events, places, and people buried deep within the muddy waters of the human past. The "dredging up" part has gone exceedingly well; all things considered, I would even call it a rousing success. The problem lies with the "memory reclamation" part. Although all of us go about with the noblest of intentions—"Never Forget!"—the human species shows almost no sign of being able to sustain an ongoing memory of its shared past. Memories are no sooner "reclaimed" than they slip from our trembling fingers, sinking back into the murky ooze of cultural oblivion.

.... I like to imagine that the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes was pleading with future historians to change their college majors (subtext: "It really wouldn't hurt to take an accounting class"), or was at least offering them a little straight talk, when he wrote, "There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow" (Ecc. 1:11). Like everything else "under the sun," he seemed to know that this project was doomed to failure.

But, as with so many lost causes, the task of historical study remains worthy of our support. ....
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, ESV

Destiny of the Republic | Books and Culture