Success was a god with a single profile, and it wasn’t directed at the past.
—Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel
Two years ago a set of portable book-shelves appeared in the foyer of my local library in small-town rural Queensland. Stacked with bright, important-looking volumes, a laminated card invited the public to ‘Help Yourself’. These unwanted children were to be given away or, failing that, discarded altogether. There were handsome monographs on Goya and Rembrandt; a History of Kosovo; an inevitably chunky biography of Tolstoy; another, equally hefty, of Australian poet John Shaw Neilson; an illustrated History of the Apocalypse; an illustrated History of Blood. ‘No-one has borrowed any of them for years,’ the head librarian explained regretfully. ‘And we simply don’t have room.’
How easily the neglected becomes the erased. ‘Librarians hate books,’ a friend recently claimed, as if passing on a secret she would rather not have learned. ‘They just get in the way. They take up too much space.’ Even more disconcerting, over a number of years she had spent researching and writing a book, source material had disappeared. What had proved a valuable reference in the early stages of writing could not later be double-checked. The physical object had gone, often without first being digitised; the book, in some reckless way, was deemed an inefficient use of space and supplementary to the requirements of knowledge. Digital evangelists had cast aside those cumbersome things, repositories for silverfish, attractive only to the socially awkward and lonely.
• • •
‘Our time does not tolerate ambiguity,’ wrote Soviet literary bureaucrat Leopold Averbakh ominously in 1932. Certainty is the enemy of historical knowledge; it denies the nuances of human behaviour, the vast complexity of motivations and desires that drive social change, progress and conflict. The integrity of historical knowledge—that slowly acquired set of understandings about the developing past, its cycles and its bearing on the present day—appears threatened by various paths to amnesia. Three are of note: the first is the reductive tribalism that infects almost all social media debates around historical phenomena, a relentless positioning that will not accept ambiguity, nor offer the gift of forgiveness. (That folly might be an essential fact of human existence and potentially present in all human behaviour is deemed unpardonable.) The second is a fundamental premise of both capital and technology that supposes, in Francis O’Gorman’s wonderful phrase from his recent book Forgetfulness, a ‘bewitchment with the next’ and which demands history be a linear and logical narrative focused exclusively on the future (and, collaborating in parallel with that mesmeric prospect, digital technology’s permanent instantaneity, its eternal now). The third, more prosaic though no less dangerous, is the slow destruction of the physical archive.
Paradoxically, at a time when historical knowledge is marshalled by an increasing number of specialists, amateurs, novelists, poets, memoirists and activists aided, it must be admitted, by digitised archives, the difficulty of historical study and analysis—the slow act of reading, accreting, synthesising and above all thinking about those long fields stretching away in time—is replaced by simpler alternatives: among them, dogmatism, the easy pleasures of certainty, and nostalgia. One might even feel, ironically, nostalgia for the so-called history wars of decades past: at least in those arguments, all parties possessed the virtue of believing history to be something of critical importance despite divergent views of how it might be written, read or understood.
Yet even that value is threatened by history being increasingly manoeuvred into position as an ideological north star where myth becomes, to use Shakespeare, an ‘ever-fixed mark’ and language decays through trite usage, cliché and lazy inaccuracy. Look no further than the impossibility of balanced discussion around our two most conflictive national dates: 26 January and 25 April. These are no longer sites inviting analysis, but are the cue for open-invitation slanging matches, marked by radicalised and entrenched positioning and the sloppy use of historical argument. Our time does not tolerate ambiguity.
• • •
The destruction of archives is an age-old phenomenon; what is new is their destruction not for political or ideological purposes—the desire to remove the inconvenient truths of how people used to view the world—but for economic reasons. We can no longer afford, apparently, to hold onto so much of the past—all the physical evidence, the clutter of awkward and forgotten lives. Gigantic volumes of documentation occupy space that could be more efficiently used—or simply sold off for profit. In 1960s and 1970s Spain, for example, whole truckloads of archives, critical for understanding the fate of political prisoners, the thousands of lost, exiled and executed, were sold by weight to recycling companies for short-term cash windfalls. Writing in the Monthly on the recent disastrous loss of archives at the ANU’s Chifley Library, Sam Vincent could not miss the terrible irony of the Humanities collection having been taken underground in order to free up space for the compact and dust-free splendour of the digital, only for those paper and analogue relics to meet their fate below, flood-ruined in their new dungeon home.
Despite its boast of infinite capacity, the digital is not infinitely flexible. In the manner of its ones and zeros base construction, it contains or it does not. There is always the risk the digital life will be ‘traceless, chilling’, in the words of Michelle de Kretser. Thousands of contemporary writers will no longer leave archives of notes and letters in which the development of their work and lives can be pursued by future scholars. ‘There is no remembrance of former things,’ warned the Book of Ecclesiastes. The digital occupies a mental space that is neither reflective nor encouraging of the long term, accretive or slow. It is the triumph of the present and the prospect of the future; the digital forms part, again in the words of Francis O’Gorman, of an ‘entrancement with tomorrow’—paradoxically, a tradition that dates back to the nineteenth century, and capitalist modernity’s ‘breathless desire to forget’. How better to signal progress than in the vanishing of the past?
As our digital world compresses time and space, it also leaves history as conventionally understood, with all its contradictions, debates and slowly evolving trends stranded far from the urgent imperatives of now. That compression so characteristic of digital forms of communication means the past ages with astonishing rapidity; how long ago was last year, what an eternity was two decades ago! The recent past is immediately a museum, a place from which objects are salvaged and repolished for the purposes of marketing to us our own nostalgia. Memory and desire immediately become products; the past loses its weight of meaning, transformed into the froth of light entertainment.
The analogue world many of us remember as so recent, with its beeps and scratches, its unselfconsciously lurid clothes, its wild manes of hair, its strange patterns of life—these are all archaic (and re-creating them does not come cheap). This rushing forward means that even as we reach middle age our own childhoods have been converted into distant relics. We were born, it seems, in dark cavernous places of want. How ancient, and almost preposterous, now, is any artefact from the years before the digital revolution. These curios from our own lives have a commercial purpose, forming the raw material powering a lucrative nostalgia industry. This stroll through a theme-park version of the past involves no examination, only surface. Nostalgia is not about questioning, but celebrating. It has its uses, but as a predominant cultural form it is redolent of the Victorians’ enthralment with classical Greece and Rome.
This compression of time is one way the digital world has a profound effect on how history is considered or conceived. As our concentration spans contract, approaching the single instant of now, endlessly foreshortened, much of contemporary popular culture has become obsessed with—and increasingly consumes knowledge via—lists, quizzes and trivia. This does not suit historical understanding, which is both restlessly and relentlessly formless, an infinite mesh of desires and actions, impossible to fit into such convenient shapes. Formulations such as ‘10 ways your dog might be Hitler’ represent not just the infantilisation of both history and knowledge, but the trivialisation of epistemology itself. This banality also infects, for example, the Guardian with its tendency to enumerate: ‘Five things we learned about …’ The number is both arbitrary and pointless; this dot point regimen, impatient and brief, invades our ways of knowing. Both past and present are reduced to listicles. Like Google’s name, colour scheme and logo, this is knowledge framing barely out of primary school.
• • •
A counter-suggestion: are we not more aware of history than ever in this time of continuous and rapid social change with its persistent, even urgent, reformulations of the past? The dead are everywhere springing back to life; statues manoeuvred into positions of attack and defence. Upon such bronze and stone cadavers, future generations state their counter-claims, chart their grievances and frame their ways of seeing. The dead are either glorious or deeply wrong. Yet history—variegated, looping, drifting, discontinuous and contradictory—refuses to conform to the imposed systems of the living.
Empire, war, dictatorship, colonialism, repression, genocide: these bleak confederates, regardless of scale, drag behind them not just indescribable misery, but also myriad and often conflicting ways of coming to terms with what has been lived, experienced and remembered. Their surface sheen simplifies triumph and conquest; underneath, countless other versions remain to be recorded. Yet history is not all darkness: there is the accomplishment of the everyday, the tiny swarming of the quotidian that builds the human social experience. ‘The past’, wrote Nicolas Rothwell, ‘can make people uncomfortable: many of those who survive from that strange place know more than us; they have seen more; their perspectives, most alarmingly, are different, and cast doubt on the universal validity of our own.’
Distressingly for those of any ideological bent who insist on orthodoxy, history keeps throwing up odd creatures that confound and challenge us. For the past cannot only be an abominable domain of intolerance and prejudice, a dark pasture of hate. How easy it becomes, if we privilege the view of history as primarily a site of trauma rather than of gain, to assume our own contemporary enlightenment. O’Gorman warns of this catastrophic view, whereby history is above all ‘that moment when things went wrong’. It is the site, for the individual and the collective, of trauma, abuse and emotional scarring. The contemporary therapeutic state, which now embraces us, constitutes a path out of history, away from the damage that resides in acts committed, in things that have been done (or thought).
The past is conceived as a wasteland of mistakes; of ill habits and unproductive relationships; a fruitless and toxic place from which, if any lesson might be gleaned, it is only this: do not go back. O’Gorman sees this as both a specific practice and a ‘habit of mind’ applied not only to national histories, replete with their layered triumphs and disasters, but also to the individual, whose commitment to a better future demands a reformational turning away from the previously traumatised, unproductive or wrong-thinking self. For many contemporary progressives the great and abiding trauma to be overcome is the history of Western imperialism, with its attendant armies: colonialism, patriarchy, racism and violence.
This is the ground zero from which modern and multiple identities need to be rescued, in a restorative process that proceeds from a fundamental belief in history as a place of damage, conflict, exploitation, injustice and ruin. As this version of history unfolds, fascinating new critical perspectives are made to jostle with rituals of self-abasement. There is little of benefit; a principal task is not to inherit the past but to disown it, denounce it, and place as much moral and intellectual distance as possible between oneself and its ignoble fields.
Yet for all the moral conviction of this view, and its utopian desire to escape the past, the past will continue to be peopled with those whose perspectives cast doubt on the universal validity of our own. ‘What have I learned?’ asks one of Svetlana Alexievich’s conversationalists in Secondhand Time. ‘[That] the heroes of one era aren’t likely to be the heroes of the next.’ As Yuri Slezkine puts it in The House of Government, his magisterial survey of Bolshevism: ‘Revolutions do not devour their children; revolutions, like all millenarian experiments, are devoured by the children of the revolutionaries.’ Or again, riffing on Tolstoy: ‘Each generation is blind in its own way, and each one despises the other’s blindness.’ This is consistent with the fundamental truth of human folly and pathos; one would think this bare fact of contingency might temper the adamantine claims of good and evil advanced in current arguments over the validity of historical figures and the way they are to be celebrated (or forgotten).
Memory is a responsibility, says Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, and it is through art and literature we can find sufficient space for the nuances required by a complex spectrum running from good to patently bad. Increasingly, however, social media–fuelled partisanship and conspicuous anger take the place of learning or patient study. Pause, consideration, contemplation and accretion of knowledge are frowned upon, for they do not meet the dictates of the instant; they do not sufficiently condemn; they are not bound in wrath and indignation; in proposing nuance, they reek of appeasement. ‘It was urgent to annihilate the adversary, leaving him with no arguments, condemning him to an inclement darkness …’ wrote Antonio Muñoz Molina in In the Night of Time, his epic fictionalisation of the first months of the Spanish Civil War. The contemporary parallels are obvious, and legion. Dichotomies are perforce reductionist and of limited use as tools of analysis, yet in many contemporary historical debates the shades of grey are banished by those zealous certainties that demarcate the boundaries of the thinkable. Nearly 400 years ago, dictating Paradise Lost to his amanuensis daughter, John Milton pictured Adam and Eve, bickering post–apple tree fall, as exemplars of the cranky swamp that is most social media discussion of history:
Thus they in mutual accusation spent
The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning;
And of their vain contest appear’d no end.
• • •
As the contemporary desire to recast national history leads to debates across the Australian media landscape, there has been much gnashing of teeth over the apparent rewriting of history. The desire to overturn settled (the pun is intended) conceptions contains elements of ritual—it is a rite of passage in the modern West for new generations to reconsider the value and motives of past figures (and to despise their blindness). This can be useful; it can also be vain and illusory, bearing within it, as Muñoz Molina might say, ‘the loss of a sense of reality induced by narcissism and resentment’.
Nevertheless, conservatives need not be so vexed: every reworking of history is written on sand, for history is always unstable, multiple, waiting to lift new names from anonymity, or cast the well known from their tired plinths. There exists only a constant writing of history—as eternal palimpsest. There is perpetual construction. To the extent it implies one definitive version replacing another, there is no such thing as rewriting history. Many recent Australian historians—among them Clare Wright, Mark McKenna and James Boyce—have not so much rewritten Australian history as added layers of complexity to it.
Throwing out the old is, after all, a deeply traditional act. Tabula rasa has always been a popular method of asserting military power and cultural authority: the razing of cities, sowing of fields with salt and wholesale destruction of monuments—to say nothing of the enslavement of subject peoples—has an eternal history. Babylonians and Persians; Greeks and Romans; Christians, Mongols, Muslims and communists (and not forgetting modern capital) all came, saw, and reshaped the world in their own image, inscribing new pages of the historical record. They smashed idols, profaned tombs and temples (and set up their own: Lenin embalmed; Wall Street).
Over recent decades a widespread purging has confronted the excesses of twentieth-century power: Germany self-examined and reunited; South Africa faced up to its horrific past; South American dictators were toppled; the new Europeans hauled down Tito, Ceauşescu, Lenin and Stalin. Other examples abound: Rwanda, the Philippines, South Korea, Cambodia. ISIS and the Taliban have blasted away ‘blasphemous’ culture; both Poland and Spain have developed Historical Memory laws. Everything is up for revision, and—no small matter—certain ‘takes’ on history are criminalised. Liberal democracies—the so-called ‘victors’ at the end of history—have also undergone this process: Confederate and explorer statues, questionable philanthropists and ‘founding fathers’ whose feats do not pass muster in the light of contemporary mores are dragged down. Yet beyond the act itself, the spectacle of metaphoric beheading, sound the words of Inga Clendinnen: history is not about the imposition of belated moral judgements, nor a balm for hurt minds. The present is not only the path to the future; just as importantly, it is the summation of everything that has been. We are the product even of those past successes and failures we find so easy to condemn.
Social media debate around these historical questions flares up, only to be dimmed again by the relentless impatience of the news cycle. ‘A decent co-existence between unlike groups’, wrote Clendinnen, referring to Indigenous Australians and the recently arrived British in the first years of European Australia, though she might as easily have been speaking of the irreconcilable sides in our contemporary culture wars, ‘must begin from the critical scrutiny of our own assumptions and values as they come under challenge.’ This, surely, is the essence of historical study. Clendinnen wrote with the optimism of the pre–social media age, an optimism that assumed in good faith that interlocutors could ‘make informed decisions as to which uncomfortable differences we are prepared to tolerate and which we are not, rather than to attempt the wholesale reformation of what we identify as the defects of the other’. These words are as true now as when they were written some 15 years ago, with one important difference: in the intervening years, that troublesome noun Other has become capitalised.
• • •
‘To live and to remember is one and the same thing. Together they make up a verb that has no name,’ wrote Russian novelist Yuri Trifonov, one of the few artists to survive the mid twentieth-century purges. Yet might we not be better off without this obsessive turning over of history? ‘A human being survives by his ability to forget,’ wrote Varlam Shalamov in ‘Dry Rations’, one of the bleakest of his already bleak Kolyma Tales. (Shalamov, though, lived an extreme calvary.) Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez, chronicling a nation emerging from decades of raw violence, describes ‘the alacrity and dedication we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering’.
It is a common argument; it falls to successive generations, those who can stand at some distance from the traumas of dispossession, war and genocide, with their multiply layered individual human tragedies, to detail their operations. Albeit, in the longer view and as David Rieff reminds us in In Praise of Forgetting, all things, no matter how traumatic, are eventually reduced to dust. One thing (of many) the contemporary flourishing of trauma studies reveals is how thickly patterned was the twentieth century with tragedy: it can take a number of generations to begin to understand events. Only now are newer and deeper perspectives on those layered griefs becoming possible. Yet even this will fade and vanish with time; already some of that century’s darkest moments are slipping away.
Notwithstanding this historical excavation, everywhere there is contemporary amnesia. For history is bloody difficult; as a subject of study, it struggles for relevance in an age that demands immediate pleasures and rewards, and valorises the simple. Replete with complexity, nuance and challenge, the reading, examining and understanding of history is, frankly, hard work. It is ill-suited to the immediacy of social media platforms; it takes effort, labour and time; it demands humility, the ready ability to admit mistakes, change course, be flexible, learn anew and keep an open mind to any possible turn of events.
It demands a dedication to mental travel down often obscure roads. It demands we meet and talk with people, both from the present and the past, with whom we fiercely disagree. History abhors simplification as much as it abhors, and has all too often paid tragic witness to, ideological fixation. Literature, as Juan Gabriel Vásquez has reminded us, must resist any monolithic reading of history; literature (in its manifold forms) is a site of resistance to all ideological orthodoxies. There are no easy answers; ‘history in the making’—a media cliché, used as if history might be made conveniently during prime time—is more akin to the growing of a limestone stalagmite.
If cultural markers such as a healthy democracy and a concern for fundamental human rights mean anything to us, a broad understanding of history is critical. Any such understanding should reject the degradation of language and meaning that characterises the careless exaggeration of historic phenomena as terms of generalised abuse, and the poverty of historical argument with which such abuse is accompanied. Terms that have a specific and terrible historic gravity are used as everyday insults. Tragedy becomes something frivolous. Thus undermined, historical knowledge, no longer deemed worthy as a good in and of itself, is easily replaced by dogmatism (the catastrophic and unforgiving), narcissism (history is as I say it is, or wish it to be), or nostalgia (the strictly commercial).
It is possible that a glut of freedom—the so-called ‘democratisation of information’ that heralded the internet and social media ages—serves only to make people irritable, unhappy with this surfeit of opportunities to express. In post-Soviet Russia, Svetlana Alexievich found people vexed by freedom: ‘I buy three newspapers and each one of them has its own version of the truth,’ complained one interviewee. How easily we can extrapolate this to our own media environments and consumption choices—nowhere breeds ‘post-truth’ like the take-no-prisoners battlefields of social media. The paradox of unlimited choice: faced with every possible take on historical events, and with historical knowledge potentially fragmented, individualised, contextualised down to the last atom of its being, what blooms if not amnesia? Without some degree of shared collective memory, either in fact or in potential, there is only the self, with its various flags of identity, seeing the world as fundamentally hostile. In the end, as Alexievich’s interviewee remarked, ‘many greeted the truth as an enemy’.
• • •
The many small rural libraries across this country contain unread and often barely catalogued stories, hidden in self- and locally published tracts, pamphlets, journals, magazines and books. Most are not digitised and could be lost at any time to fire, flood, insects or negligence. They tell of frontier violence and remarkable cruelty, but also of deep reserves of compassion and inventiveness. They burst with both historical evidence—incomplete though it may be—and human emotion. Looking back over 230 years, Australia is both a great tragedy of loss and a true miracle of surviving, creating and becoming. One can be patriotic, loving this country—not least its deep Indigenous past—and its achievements, while reserving the right to be sternly critical of its development at specific historical moments. Indeed our criticism, as can happen in human relationships, is a sign of our love. We can be both proud and sceptical.
Our stories are not found in the fatalistic sense of history as God’s ordination, nor in any sense of history as accident, unpredictability and chaos. On the other hand, neither are we served by the paranoid vision of history as conspiracy, shadow and the machinations of oppressive power. In the archives and the oral accounts, we find the rhizome of history, moving like the infinite fingers of a swollen outback river, unpredictable and everywhere. We can read and know our past without succumbing to forgetfulness. We can step outside the digital imperative of now, or the capitalist imperative of tomorrow, and embrace the huge complexities—the competing narratives as much as the taboos and silences—that have combined to build our today. Beyond the multiple complicities of amnesia, an infinite number of new questions are waiting to be asked. •
Luke Stegemann is a Hispanist and cultural historian based in south-east Queensland. He is the author of The Beautiful Obscure (2017).
Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time, Text Publishing.
Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing.
Michelle De Kretser, Questions of Travel, Allen & Unwin.
John Milton, Paradise Lost, Thomas Tegg.
Antonio Muñoz Molina, In the Night of Time, Tuskar Rock Press.
Francis O’Gorman, Forgetfulness, Bloomsbury.
David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting, Yale University Press.
Nicolas Rothwell, ‘Introduction’ in David Ireland, The Glass Canoe, Text Publishing.
Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul, Viking.
Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, W.W. Norton.
Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government, Princeton University Press.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling, Bloomsbury.