The past and future #
Cultures are formed and transmitted by varied means by our ancestors, both immediate and long past. The shared values, customs and beliefs are imbued into our national psyches. The inspiration of the known reflects upon the new, while the new resonates with the known. The lessons of the past must be learned in order to avoid repetition so that we learn to identify with our shared inheritance.
All nation’s challenges face a continuous narrative. Whether we choose a narrow view or broader one, for continuity, or to break cycles, determines our future.
“History is made up of episodes, and unless we get inside those episodes, we cannot get inside History at all”. (Inga Clendinnen) *
Tacitus demonstrated that standards of historical research and scholarship should be more than just glorified gossip; we have higher expectations - to commemorate great deeds and to bring to the attention of posterity the damage that evil deeds do and to denounce the causes rather than just the symptoms.
We all need to be cultural conservatives; we must conserve the accumulated wisdom of the past at all costs. As fairy tales tell it, the world is comprised of good and evil, and we need to ensure that the good prevails over organised evil.
Conor Cruise O’Brienwrites, “our elders talked their memories into our memories until we have come to possess some continuity exceeding and traversing our own limited being”.
A Sami protest goes: “We walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. If you take away our stories, then you wipe out our path to the future.
Or as Brené Brown writes: *“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do."
Each new generation seems to have to learn for themselves the limitations and ephemeral nature of their power. We need to learn to limit and control our appetites, and conform to the mores of our traditions and acknowledge our ancestors to envisage higher moral and spiritual horizons beyond our immediate vantage points. Some young people feel that somehow they are immune or resistant to the lessons of the past.
As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in The Age of Extremes:
The rupture between contemporary experience and the labours of earlier generations was one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the latter part of the 20^(th) century. Most young people grow up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relationship to the public past of the times they live in.
Believing that we know everything, we can now believe in nothing. Others claim we could solve our modern distress only with recovered ancient wisdom; our inherited past.
It was the publication of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1789, that resigned historians to accept the ultimate doom of Western Civilisation as all civilisations are prone to.
Oscar Spengler, author of Decline of the West, 1918 presented a worldview that resonated with post-WWI German culture. His grim view of an inexorable doom for western civilization implied acceptance of fate, but also offered a sense of freedom from the past. His historical idea influenced artists and architects, who used it as a justification for abandoning the historic styles, now no longer valid for the new era.
Spengler recognises 8 Cultures that died out: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Classical (Greek / Roman), Arabian (Magian), Western (Faustian), Mexican (Aztec / Mayan)
His worldview also took a dim view of democracy as the type of government of the declining civilization. He argued that democracy is driven by money and therefore easily corruptible. Spengler initially supported the rise of a strong-willed leader type of government as the next phase after democracy fails.
With the decline of the credibility and authority of established religion, mass media, entertainment and advertising have triumphed.
These are not interested in controlling our primal impulses, rather indulging them, reinforcing self serving consumption as a means to happiness and self fulfillment. Hedonism and materialism supplanted spiritual values.
Neither do our political leaders put much thought into their legacies. Focused on short, small time political goals, they end up as grey wraiths slipping from public consciousness and enduring regard for any significant achievements.
Gough Whitlam, demonised during his tenure, but beatified in death, is a rare exception.
In an essay entitled Political Amnesia, Laura Tingle contends that our national politics has become degraded because we know how to win elections, but have forgotten how to govern properly.
Independent old hands have been shifted, and new ones lack influence. Public institutions have been gelded or have calcified and lost our trust. Media, with its short term attention span, loses perspective and context.
Key people are shuffled around - never mind if they know nothing about the policy area as most responsibilities are outsourced to the private sector.
Tingle pleads with us to remember the past so we can shape our future.
On the other hand, are Americans constitutionally bound to believe in clean slates, to worship the promised freedoms of the future rather than think too hard about the tyrannies of the past? Some common advice is to deal with issues and move on emotionally – don’t dwell on the past.
This is a favourite politician’s argument when faced with a scandal. Its adverse effect is to make us like Phil, a weatherman from Groundhog day:
condemned to repeat each day by “moving on” –everyday is a brand new day, no one ever remembers what happened the day before or the day before that, knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate, and we repeat our mistakes without learning anything.
Most primitive societies were obsessed with the after - life. It was European Medieval Christianity that depreciated the value of our earthly life, placating the masses with promises of eternal bliss in a heaven paved with gold – the more you suffer on earth’s pilgrimage, the better your heavenly reward. An excellent ploy, by the rich and mighty, to rationalise the disparity of wealth.
Here is an interesting comment about the times taken from an essay called ‘Shakespeare’s Tragic Justice’ by C J Sisson
For the Elizabethan, and for Shakespeare, the unseen other world of eternity was not only more certain in men’s belief, but it was closer to the world of human reality, …… . A man prepared his baggage for his passage through death to that other world as he would prepare for a journey from Stratford to London, not booted and spurred, but shriven, anointed, having made his peace with God as well as his last will and testament, indeed as part of that peace. For so the Order for the Visitation of the Sick admonishes a man ‘to make his will for the better discharging of his conscience.’
Christians have anticipated the return of Christ for centuries, in fact his disciples believed it would happen in their life time. Successive generations have predicted the precise time of his second appearance or the end of the world repeatedly. Bang or whimper? Ice or fire? Divine plan or cosmic accident? Alien invaders or genetically enhanced apes? Artificial intelligence doubles every 18 months. The end of the world is painful to contemplate but also hard to resist thinking about, partly because there are so many wild and scary imaginative possibilities.
The paranoid 1950’s foresaw a radioactive nuclear holocaust in On the Beach, set in Melbourne while Melancholia predicts an unknown planet on a crash course towards earth. T.S. Eliot foretold an ending “not with a bang, but a whimper”.
Dire predictions of the:
- 1960’s told us that all the oil would be gone in 10 years,
- the 1970’s an ice age in 10 years,
- the 1980’s acid rain to destroy all crops,
- the 1990’s ice caps gone in 10 years.
We live in a time when intelligent people are silenced so as to not offend stupid people.
The end of enlightened modern liberal democracies has been foreseen by futuristic writers for many years. Dystopias (opposite of utopias) enjoyed a spell with the birth of Science Fiction and include Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (1948) and the writings of Phillip K. Dick (1960) especially as transformed into Blade Runner.
“Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last deals with themes of fictional dystopias including a social experiment enacted in a gated community (see Oryx and Crake), women compelled by the regime into various forms of sexual and emotional servitude (see The Handmaid’s Tale) and liberty lightly exchanged for coercive security (as in The Year of the Flood). Even the ghastly headless chickens — bio-engineered into living parts for ‘‘improved’’ animal welfare — make a rerun.” Rebecca Giggs, The Australian Review, Sept. 26-27, 2015.
We face a real danger of moving blindly into the future; a lab rat-like submission of the people to innovation, loss of freedoms to the assertive authority of unscrupulous rulers or media pundits ushering in a “phantom democracy”.
Our reactions to change are often affected by anxiety – not positivity, even when change is self-imposed. Fear is a natural response to the unknown; the fight or flight instinct that stymies our rational thought processes. We prefer certainty to a lack of control and as a result we may sacrifice our most prized possessions – truth, honour and individual freedom for security.
“The road to tyranny is paved with pebbles of silence, fear of others, division, lies, national myths of imaginary threats, and the coarsening of rhetoric.” Richard Flanagan.
He cites the mantras of Stalin’s use of the pejorative term “elites” to denigrate Jewish intellectuals, Hitler’s myth of “Lebensraum” and John Howard’s rallying cry of “Border Protection” to justify hysterical reactions.
Shakespeare’s later plays became quite dark:
Gloucester in King Lear
We have seen the best of our time:/ machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all/ ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.
The central message of John Gray’s Straw Dogs is as stark as it is startling. Human progress, declares Gray, was a myth.
“If we thought we were steadily becoming more civilised, then we were delusional. Instead, human beings are “weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing”.
In The Silence of Animals, John Gray broadens his focus to take in the search for happiness and the belief – again, deluded – that man is a freedom-loving animal.
Rather, he says, it’s tyranny we often seek – with rather more zeal than we like to imagine. “Tyranny offers relief from the burden of sanity and a licence to enact forbidden impulses of hatred and violence.”
And then there’s the human attitude to silence, which gives the book its title.
“Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion.”
The normal course of history is ethnic and religious conflicts, conflicts over resources, secret treaties and great power politics.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about John Gray is that he thinks all progress is a myth. In fact, he happily concedes that in lots of ways life now is a lot better than it was, say, 200 years ago.
“What I’m really saying is that a lot of people nowadays cling to the idea of a slow evolution of human history – something I believe is more fantastic than the belief that God will raise us from the dead.”
Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Gray wrote an article jokingly suggesting that if we were going to wage wars of liberation to modernise people, we should also modernise torture. This prompted a predictable chorus of infuriated shrieks. “But what happened? In the blink of an eye the world’s pre-eminent liberal democracy rehabilitated torture, reclassifying it ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.”
Any suggestion that social media will act as a brake on extremism causes Gray to look at me with weary tolerance. Technology may make some short-term difference, he believes, but history shows that political tyrannies always end up controlling key forms of communication. “In the long term, the Google generation, the liberals, will be swallowed up and erased from history.”
The collapse of the banks. The rise of al-Qaeda. The fall of communism. One man predicted them all… John Gray talks to John Preston.
Scientific innovations have always caused some disquiet. The Romantic movement rejected the callous rationalism of the Age of Reason and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein cautions against the eighteenth-century scientific rationalists' optimism about, and trust in, knowledge as a pure good. While the Philosophers believed in the perfectibility of man through reason, the Romantics put their faith in the ‘immortal spirit’ of the individual’s emotions.
Francis Bacon, a 17^(th) C. scholar commented, “It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequences of discoveries” when he discussed printing, gunpowder and the compass.
Fears of the apocalypse are founded on the metastasising catastrophes of the past and present. A series of perverse pilgrimages could include the Nevada Desert, Maralinga in Australia, Chernobyl and French nuclear testing in the Pacific. All have given further rise to what W.H. Auden already called the “Age of Anxiety” in the 1930’s.
Added to this are concerns about the increased degradation of the world’s environment.
The collapse of civilisation and the natural world is on the horizon, according to Sir David Attenborough, unless we turn pledges made in the 2015 Paris climate deal into reality. “Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change, If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
The 19^(th) century gave us the motor car, antibiotics and the splitting of the atom while today we are experiencing the “information revolution” a post –industrial era where information can be amassed, stored, retrieved, distributed and commodified at incredible volumes and speed. It began with newspapers, the telephone, radio, television, the computer, the internet and who knows where it is going and where it will end.
The question is whether these changes have enhanced our humanity.
Despite invention, innovation and cutting edge discoveries, many original modes retain their fascination and nostalgic use. The motor car may have replaced the horse and buggy, but for romantic, nostalgic and ceremonial reasons, royal occasions such as weddings and funerals use vintage modes of transport. Television, computers and the internet founded the information superhighway but have not obliterated newspapers, radio or books while other old technology has virtually disappeared such as vinyl records, floppy disks, reel to reel recording devices…… Ancient natural foods such as Spelt, Chia and Quinoa have experienced a revival, perhaps in a reaction to modern genetically modified foods -* “diets like Paleo which claim to solve our modern distress with recovered ancient wisdom”. *Helen Razer
The old or retro, will always intrigue as we tend to try to recapture an idealized past; tourists prefer the ruins of ancient Greece, Turkey and Egypt to the glamorous tinsel glitz of Vegas or Disneyland; Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens and Downton Abbey out poll most modern films or TV productions. Old wine, old paintings, old furniture and vintage cars increase their value with age. Even old philosophers are revered above contemporary ones; think of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Nietzsche…..
Quotes about the past and future:
“the past is a different country where they do things differently”. L.P. Hartley
“We tend to look to the future through a rear view mirror”. Marshall McCluhan **
Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow is a mystery,
Today is a gift;
That’s why it’s called The Present! * Bill Keane
“It is dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.”
-variously attributed to Sam Goldwyn, Yogi Berra, Niels Bohr, Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, an ancient Chinese proverb and others.
“Here comes the future and you can’t run from it / If you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it." Billy Bragg
‘The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating; the paths to it are not found, but made, and the making of these pathways changes both the maker and the destination.’ Alexander Solzhenitsyn
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Søren Kierkegaard
“Study the past if you would define the future.” Confucius
What’s past is prologue.” William Shakespeare, The Tempest
“You couldn’t erase the past. You couldn’t even change it. But sometimes life offered you the opportunity to put it right.” Ann Brashares, Girls In Pants**: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood
Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday. Was it worth it? Ghandi
*An old man on his deathbed: “I had a lot of trouble in my life, most of which never happened”. Churchill
“Eventually the past finds you. As for so many in positions of power, the moment to reckon with the consequences of past behaviour has arrived”. Junot Diaz
“We should all be concerned about the future as that’s where we will all be spending the rest of our lives.
John Gray interview: how an English academic become the world’s pre-eminent prophet of doom