Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, May 04, 2007

Time Travel

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine
Notebook (April 2007)

"Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child".
-- Cicero

Two months before he died, in Manhattan on February 28 at the age of eighty-nine, Arthur M Schlesinger Jr published what proved to be his last word on the reading and writing of history, an enterprise he classified as "doomed" but one to which he had given the whole of his long and prolific life.

The op-ed essay appeared in the New York Times on January 1 under the heading "Folly's Antidote", and as was his custom, the author began with the bringing of the past to bear on the present:

Many signs point to a growing historical consciousness among the American people. I trust that this is so. It is useful to remember that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.

Arthur consulted libraries in the way that sailors consult a compass or a chart, and to read his books or to listen to him talk was not to be astonished or bemused by what had sunk below the horizon three or three hundred years ago but to become aware of what was likely to show up with the lifting of tomorrow morning's fog. I first met him at a New York dinner party in 1962, among the company then traveling in the entourage of President John Kennedy, and over the next half century I probably ran across him at least once or twice a year - in a Broadway theater, on a lawn at Newport, Rhode Island, in the Century Club dining room, on the stage of a university auditorium. Occasionally he wrote an article or a review for Harper's Magazine, but our conversation seldom touched upon the manuscript that in any event he was intending to improve or correct and therefore not yet worth the trouble of tiresome discussion. What in interested him was the news he had just that day received from a dead letter or an old book - something Teddy Roosevelt had said to William Howard Taft at the Republican Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1912, a heretofore unknown message that Franklin Roosevelt had sent to Winston Churchill in the winter of 1942 - and with the missing piece of the puzzle unexpectedly come to hand, he was caught up in the excitement of wondering where and how it might be made to fit the character of a president or the portrait of an age.

His enthusiasms were communicable, in part because he knew, as does the financier Sir John Templeton, that the four most expensive words in the English language are "This time it's different", but also, and more to his purpose, because he believed, as did Oscar Wilde, that "the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it". For Arthur the study of history was akin to playing with a kaleidoscope, a perpetual work in progress carried forward under the headings of the provisional and therefore doomed never to reach a final verdict or discover the lost gold mines of imperishable truth. "Problems will always torment us", he once wrote, "because all important problems are insoluble: that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution."

Over the course of the last sixty years Arthur published twenty-odd books, among them The Age of Jackson (1945), The Vital Center (1949), The Age of Roosevelt (three volumes 1957-60), A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House (1965), The Disuniting of America (1991), War and the American Presidency (2004), and always he was at pains to construe history as a means rather than an end, the constant making and remaking of the past intended to revise the present in order to better imagine the future. Some things change, others don't, but absent a knowledge of which is which, where then do we find our bearings in the drift of time, and how do we not become orphans, marooned on the islands of the dream-ridden self?

For proofs of what can happen to a nation that loses touch with its history - "deprived of memory", "disoriented and lost" - Arthur could look to any morning's news reports from Baghdad. The Bush Administration's repetition of the mistake made thirty years ago in Vietnam he thought "unforgivable", but as an historian he knew it to be in keeping with the sensibility shaped by the film and electronic media and matched to the comprehension of children - an attitude of mind formed in the floating world of timeless fantasy, impatient and easily bored, less at ease with a stable story line than with the flow of brand name images in which nothing necessarily follows from anything else. Just as the fifteenth-century printing press made possible the overthrow of a settled aesthetic and political order, so also in the twenty-first century the revolutionary forms of high speed communication - television, computers, the Internet, cell phones - give rise to new structures of feeling and thought.

Narrative becomes montage, and our ministers of state forget why and how men go to war. Our news broadcasts bring us the world in twenty-two minutes. Hollywood markets its product to audiences assigned an average age of sixteen and believed to be happily at play in the bathtubs of the Everlasting Now. Celebrities come and go like fireflies, their life spans measured out at the length of a gossip-column item. The candidates campaigning for next year's presidential nominations present themselves as contestants on American Idol. In the House of Representatives the politicians stage a "debate" about the "war" in Iraq deserving the continued "support for the troops", which might be welcome news for all concerned (the American soldiers in Anbar province as well as the mullahs of Najaf) if the operative words referred to anything other than the same sort of virtual reality sold under the labels of the "war on terror". More often than not the "debate" takes the form of prerecorded public service announcements, similar in design to a beer commercial, delivered by each member in turn to an empty chamber and a C-Span television camera. Like the Israeli containment of the Palestinians, the "war" in Iraq is the suppression by force of restive civilians, police work as opposed to a maneuvering of armies. The notion of continuing "support for the troops" implies a level of prior or current support that didn't and doesn't exist.

"When I am particularly depressed", Arthur wrote in the Times, "I ascribe our behavior to stupidity - the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture". The explanation he knew to be insufficient, and when he wasn't depressed (which, at least on my own recognizance, was more often than not) he attributed the failures to get the words straight to a way of thinking oblivious to the connections between cause and effect. The separations of the then from the now produce "delusions of omnipotence and omniscience", which Arthur diagnosed as the illness afflicting the Bush Administration and one likely to lead to the death of the American idea unless treated with the "antidote" of history. Children unfamiliar with the world in time become easy marks for the dealers in fascist politics and quack religions. The blessed states of amnesia cannot support either the hope of individual liberty or the practice of democratic self-government.

Although Arthur was careful to say that "many signs" point to reviving interest in history among the American people, I'm not sure his reading of those signs was as hopeful as he might have wished. Certainly it's true that the country is rich in its stores of first-rate historians and that many of their books reach the bestseller lists; it's also true that thousands of people in Union and Confederate uniforms travel to Pennsylvania every summer to reenact the Battle of Gettysburg, that the cable channels abound with programs advertising the joys of the British Empire and the sorrows of Nazi Germany. But soap opera dressed up in a Roman toga or Marie Antoinette's wig is still soap opera. The Department of Education estimates the number of American illiterates at thirty million, and at last report the teaching of history in grades K-8 has been sharply reduced in two thirds of the nation's public schools because the federal No Child Left Behind Act allocates the bulk of its money and oversight to instruction in reading and math. History tests can't be made to fit standardized guidelines deemed politically correct by all the interested parties - parents, administrators, school board, town council, local newspaper, state legislature, Department of Homeland Security.

Assume that we have nothing else with which to build the future except the lumber of the past, and the loss of historical consciousness cheats us of our inheritance. "He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth", said Goethe, and so suggested a restructuring of the deal that Satan offered Faust. It isn't with magic that men make their immortality; they do so with what on the long journey across the frontiers of three millennia they can salvage from the death of cities and the wreck of empires, reconfiguring the record left to them in the form of casualty reports and quadratic equations, on ships' logs and bronze coins, as epic poems and totem poles and painted ceilings, in confessions voluntary and coerced, as proclamations, prophecies, and prayers, in five-act plays and three part songs.

My acquaintance with the past is by no means as extensive as was Arthur's, but I notice that the reading of history instills a sense of humor and makes possible the revolt against what G K Chesterton once called the "small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about". When I see Rudy Giuliani being bundled around the United States in a flutter of media consultants fitting words into his mouth, I think of the makeup artists adjusting the ribbons in the Emperor Nero's hair before sending him into a Roman amphitheater to sing with a chorus of prostitutes, and I'm given a scale of measurement with which to assess the weight of the mayor's self-infatuation. About the methods of pacifying cities bloodied by civil war, I learn more from Machiavelli's Discourses or the memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman than from the editorials in the Wall Street Journal or the commentary on Fox News.

Not being a scholar, I escape the obligation to accept the boundaries between the late Renaissance and the early Baroque, or to spin and rewind the insults ("old, bald, blind, querulous, toothless, crippled") brought against President John Adams in the anti-Federalist newspapers prior to the election of 1800. If it so happens that I come across correspondents reporting from different centuries at more or less the same map coordinates (Herodotus saying of the Scythians of Central Asia that it is the custom "for every soldier to drink the blood of the first man he kills", T E Lawrence observing that among the desert Arabs "war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife", Edward Luttwak describing three months ago in this magazine the ferocity of the Iraqi resistance to foreign occupation), I begin to understand what the physicists have in mind when they talk about the continuum of space and time.

Because I look for traits of character apt to walk on stage under circumstances roughly equivalent, I don't much care if the mise en scene is seventeenth-century China or last week in Washington. I see President George W Bush suffering the "delusions of omnipotence and omniscience" that invariably accompany the concentration of great power in too small a space (Arthur tactfully didn't footnote the remark with specific reference to the president's mind), and I think of the last Ming emperor, enfolded in the cocoon of his concubinate, believing that he was the Son of Heaven, informed by his corps of eunuchs that he could command the oceans with a gentle scratching of his vermilion pencil or by subtle movements of his yellow parasol.

My understanding of politics I borrow from informed sources both ancient and modern, but it is from the authors who have survived the misfortunes of clumsy translation as well as the passage from one century to another that I learn why telling observations of the human condition don't become obsolete. Cicero in the first century BC forges the strength of Roman history into a weapon with which to defend the Republic against Sulla's rage, Pompey's vanity, Antony's lust, and Caesar's legions. "Life is not merely a matter of breathing", said the great orator in one of his last philippics against tyranny. "The slave has no true life. All other nations are capable of enduring servitude - but our city is not." Cicero's eloquence failed in its assaults on the enemies of what was left of the Roman constitution - his severed head displayed in the Forum, his right hand nailed to the Speaker's Platform, his tongue torn out and pierced with hairpins - but in the essays and speeches that compose his doomed enterprise, he formulates a prose style bequeathed to Montaigne and Edward Gibbon, gives voice to the ideals that nearly two thousand years later breathed life into the American Declaration of Independence.

For Cicero as for Arthur Schlesinger, history was not a nursery rhyme. Actions have consequences, one thing leads to the next, and sooner or later somebody's head shows up on a scaffold or a coin. Children don't see why they should be bothered to work out either the logic or the mechanics of the problem. Why take the trouble to remember what happened yesterday on channels 5 through 9 when tomorrow is available on channels 12 through 24? The national shortage of adult minds suits the purposes of a government that defines its task as a form of child-rearing and guarantees the profits of the consumer markets selling promises of instant relief from the pain of thought, loneliness, doubt, experience, envy, and old age. A country so favored by fortune is one in which no childhood gets left behind. A self-regarding electorate asks of its rulers what the rich ask of their servants: "Comfort us". "Tell us what to do". The wish to be cared for replaces the will to act, and in the event of bankruptcy or rain, travelers stranded on the roads from here to there can send an owl with a message to Harry Potter.


Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper's Magazine and the editor of the forthcoming Lapham's Quarterly.

Bill Totten


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