“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
Warning: I’m currently re-reading W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. This post may cause melancholy, circuitous thinking, excessive thinking, and/or general confusion. Or, perhaps, it will make you think. Read at your own risk.
I’ve been thinking about history, more specifically the importance of knowing history–one’s own and also our species’ collective history. There seems, at least to me, to be a miasma of apathy surrounding us these days when it comes to history. Are we in danger of reviving practices that are better left in the past? Or have they truthfully been left in the past? Have we forgotten some of our nation’s less-appealing history? Are we getting precariously close to repeating some of our biggest and most embarrassing failures of justice and morality? Does this affect me? What can I do about it? It can be overwhelming.
Enter W.G. Sebald.
The problem of what to do with the knowledge of the past is an important quandary in Sebald’s masterpiece, The Rings of Saturn. We have to remember the past, while knowing there will never be perfect atonement for history’s vilest crimes against humanity. However, forgetting, ignoring, or being complacent is never the answer. We should never feel comfortable with history’s most horrific moments regardless of how much time has passed. This presents a challenge involving the oft-asked question—How must we then live, with this knowledge? The Rings of Saturn is certain to persuade the most aware minds to at least ponder this question for themselves. To remember and retain the knowledge of what occurred in the past, but to know we can do nothing at all to change it, creates an uncomfortable dilemma.
Sebald discusses this dilemma further in On the Natural History of Destruction. The German citizens’ strange, seemingly unaffected actions after the bombing of Halbertstadt prompted author Hans Erich Nossack to write, “It was so far beyond comprehension…People were sitting out on their balconies drinking coffee. It was like watching a film. It was downright impossible.” Sebald theorizes that Nossack’s “Sense of alienation arose from seeing himself confronted…by a lack of moral sensitivity bordering on inhumanity. You do assume a certain degree of empathy in human nature, and to that extent there is indeed something alarmingly absurd and shocking about continuing to drink coffee in the normal way on Hamburg balconies at the end of July 1943.” Sebald covertly addresses this and similar acts of moral insensitivity by analogizing them in The Rings of Saturn. He writes:
After the late news, the BBC broadcast a documentary about Roger Casement, who was executed in a London prison in 1916 for high treason. The images in this film, many of which were taken from rare archive footage, immediately captivated me; but nonetheless, I fell asleep in the green velvet armchair I had pulled up to the television. As my waking consciousness ebbed away, I could still hear every word…but was unable to grasp their meaning. [emphasis mine]
This is an apt metaphor for modern society; we are asleep, barely conscious, and unable to grasp the meaning of the relevance of the past. It is also no surprise that Sebald chose to have the narrator fall asleep in a soft, silky, green velvet armchair while watching an historical program on Roger Casement’s unjust execution and consequently the brutal colonization and rape of the Congo, slavery of an entire population, and death of innocents, all in the name of man’s hunger for wealth, power, and greed. Sebald was a genius in the art of allusion.
The cruelty of the past is a huge burden to bear, but to repress it only allows it to grow heavier. In On The Natural History of Destruction, Sebald writes that although he remained relatively untouched by the catastrophe of the German Reich, it left its mark on his mind. But those who were affected did not speak about it. He marveled at “People’s ability to forget what they don’t want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes…to carry on as if nothing had happened.” Sebald knows that time is cyclical, and history does repeat itself.
In his classic work, Ways of Seeing, John Berger advises, “A people or class that is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history.” It is the act of recollection and documentation of history’s catastrophes, natural and manmade, that allows our present civilization to continue to exist. We must remember. Must.
What, I wonder, is today’s green velvet armchair? What aids in our silence, forgetfulness, and detachment? Personally, for me, it’s social media: I open and close apps when I’m bored, stressed, or need to be distracted from life’s seriousness. I suspect I’m not alone. I also suspect that future generations will look back on our culture’s fascination with social media in amazement, perhaps bewilderment. Indeed, social media, as wonderful a tool for connecting globally as it may be, may also prove to be the ultimate green velvet armchair of our time. We are becoming desensitized to the genuine suffering of our brothers and sisters at home and around the world. Tragedy is a part of “our” everyday lives; we watch it unfold on a 3.5″ screen while drinking our lattes. Scroll, sip, scroll, sip, scroll, sip.
How must we then live, with this knowledge? I believe the lesson here is to pay attention, live in the present while remembering the past, and view the future with a certain amount of pessimistic optimism. And never, ever, never-ever fall prey to the beast of apathy. Hate is not the opposite of love. The opposite of love is apathy. And apathy begins with silence and forgetfulness. We must speak up. We must not settle in too comfortably.
Let us never forget.
Green Velvet Armchair: Please, don’t have a seat. (Photo source: unknown)
Featured Image Credit: Author, November 2015: ‘Storm Passing/Approaching/Passing’