It’s not so much that people forget the past as that they’ve never known about it in the first place.
Of course, the past can never demand that we remember it, since it’s no longer there. Only from the vantage of the present can anyone insist on the value of the past.
Still, social institutions, and the common social attitudes and behaviors related to those institutions, form the ground from which most activity and thinking in the present takes place, and because those institutions come from the past, the past greatly shapes not only what we think but even what we can imagine. The past is the only point of comparison we have for anything taking place in the present. In some cases the past remains literally active, in the way for instance outdated laws remain enforceable or landmines can remain deadly in a field long after a war has ended. Anything that we experience or believe we know will always be connected to what others we have encountered have experienced or believe they know, which is to say, connected to the past.
But there is very little in the past that requires us to recognize this connection. It’s easy to know little or nothing about anything that has happened to anybody else at any time. The insistence of many people on the moral significance of the past (from whatever perspective) hardly means that the significance they insist upon will be recognized by others.
There’s also nothing about the past that requires we remember it in the way people in the past remembered the past. There’s nothing that automatically determines what our connection to the past must mean in the present. In the present, one can choose to think about the past or not, and one can choose to think about it in the way one chooses. And although even the possible range of choices is greatly shaped by the past, it’s not controlled by it.
Still, there are certain features of the past more likely to impress themselves upon the present, simply because more people in the present feel a connection to that feature of the past, or because a few people feel that connection very strongly and make it known. Connections of this kind can also include a powerful need to reject some particular idea or moment from the past, although such rejection often calls simultaneously for remembering. The most obvious examples are genocides, which we are often called to remember so that they never happen again.
Two common social tendencies now are for people to believe in the values they claim the past represents or to judge the past’s limitations. Both use the past as a ground for assertions about the present. It’s only a truism to say that we can tell a lot about a given society from how people in it think about the past. Nonetheless, mainly, at this time, the past is treated as something to believe in or to critique. As, that is, progress, which can only be positive or negative, something to be for or against, in various ways and degrees.
What seems easiest to neglect about the past is therefore not the dominant paradigms of how people understood themselves in some particular place in time, or how the past looks from the vantage of the most commonly shared paradigms in the present for judging the failures of the past. The first is true because many people still understand themselves in a way close to those past dominant paradigms, and the second because people’s desire to imagine a future different from the past leads them to highlight what seems the past’s greatest shortcomings.
Instead, it is the subtle shifts in how the past becomes the present, or how a part of the past fails to survive into the present, thus making the present irretrievably different from the past, that today are easiest to know nothing about, since such instances may not constitute either a support of past values or a critique of them.
What often gets lost therefore is the strangeness of the past and the strangeness of the present and how the strangeness of the past changes into the strangeness of the present. Believing in the past, or critiquing it, often become ways of normalizing the strangeness of past and present. Often there is a particularity and oddity about the past that resists human paradigms for understanding it. Our concepts of history can never fully reclaim the past, but instead shape what we choose to think of as significant about it. The rest vanishes, until a time when someone thinks of it as significant again.
I’ve been considering the strangeness of the past, and how it becomes the strangeness of the present, and how easy it is not to know about any of that, while reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory(thanks to Clint Burnham for suggesting it to me). The book explores changes in behavior and thinking caused by World War I, mainly but not exclusively those changes that occurred in British life. Here are some of the strange elements of the past that Fussell mentions that I had not forgotten but never known, although now that I do know them they seem telling more than surprising. All of them have in them something of the strangeness of the past, although none are too strange to be understood.
“Now volunteers were no longer sufficient to fill the ranks. In October Lord Derby’s ‘scheme’—a genteel form of conscription—was promulgated, and at the beginning of 1916, with the passing of the Military Service Act, England began to train her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world.” (11)
“Another index of the prevailing innocence” [before WWI] “is a curious prophylaxis of language. One could use with security words which a few years later, after the war, would constitute obvious double entendres. One could say intercourse, or erection, or ejaculation without any risk of evoking a smile or a leer. Henry James’ innocent employment of the word tool is as well known as Browning’s artless misapprehension about the word twat. Even the official order transmitted from British headquarters to the armies at 6:50 on the morning of November 11 1918, warned that ‘there will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.’” (23)
“As these examples suggest, there were ‘national styles’ in trenches as in other things. The French trenches were nasty, cynical, efficient, and temporary. Kipling remembered the smell of delicious cooking emanating from some in Alsace. The English were amateur, vague, ad hoc, and temporary. The German were efficient, clean, pedantic, and permanent.” (45)
“The 1916 image of never-ending war has about it, to be sure, a trace of the consciously whimsical and the witty hyperbolic. But there is nothing but the literal in this headline from the New York Times for September 1, 1972: U.S. AIDES IN VIETNAM/SEE AN UNENDING WAR. Thus the drift of modern history domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the unspeakable. And the catastrophe that begins it is the Grear War.” (74)