In our last installment, I brought into question how one's method of study, namely the study of humanity's Being, requires an ability to gauge the attentive value paid to this subject by both the observer and the observed. I used cited examples of polarized opinions to give you a glimpse of how a materialistic ideology cannot alone provide for these immaterial components of our Nature. Being a child born in the 1980s, I used a subterfuge example of the Back to the Future trilogy and hypothesized that the free inquiry of science is fueled by the very breadth and depth of questioning which is the philosophic project. Finally, I asked how do we "gain a clearer perception of humanity?" in lieu of any time-travel or space travel, but to do so here, now.
High Storied WarI recently shared a poem for critique amongst the Grass Snakes, a writing group of which I am a member, based here in New York City. The poem can be heard read aloud and on your screen by the TeleGramMan himself here. "Kitchener's Attrition" was written after viewing Joe Sacco's "The Great War" monograph, an illustrated 24-foot Japanese album-style panorama, beginning with a calm General Haig the morning of July 1st, 1916, and continuing through the day's gruesome and great loss of life which exceeded 50,000 soldiers wounded or dead in a few hours. Being conscious of the centenary of the beginning of the First World War this year, I felt I needed to respond to the tragedy and madness of The Battle of the Sommes and attempt to render the helplessness we feel before all wars.
Now that you have listened to the minute-long reading, you might have similar questions being asked and simultaneously answered by either a) your distant memory of a history class b) if you have seen it , the monograph itself or c) an entry into your convenient search field for "Kitchener" and/or "attrition." The only option available for the group at the time was 'a.' After comments, some explanation and discussion, I asked, "Is history worth remembering?" and I received an emphatic "Yes, of course!" I was not wholly convinced by the end of the meeting that it did for any of us present. Had I just written a poor poem or was there nothing in it that a post-modern man could appreciate? "It sounds nice" is a common enough compliment I receive each time I share, so perhaps not all is lost if we can be left alone with simple aesthetics. Simple appreciation was not my intention alone.
I suppose neither Sacco's drawing, nor your search, nor even my poem can grapple with the reality of those events. My attempt leaves the reader at the end of the poem with the pathos of a U.S. President not notable for this afflicted decision to send boys to war, but his racism. This wasn't a conscious decision when I composed the poem, but is an unexpected effect with real bearing on a reading. Wilson was a racist, Kitchener was a warmonger, and Haig a poor tactician looking over numbers incompetently behind the front - all predominant historical opinions of these figures that relieve of us of further questions about their persons or the contexts that contain them in the annals of the Great War.
The Arc of Law
Perhaps we need to take a more Tolstoi-esque view of the Great War, as he did with the Napoleonic Wars in his monumental War and Peace: causes cannot be identified in the figures of history and the actions they take - there are laws we cannot explain with however many isolated causes, because they have a law as well - the law of coincidence of causes. So many things happening at the same time which makes objective identification of a single cause impossible. What I chose to isolate in the poem was not a weak expression by a great man and the subsequent cause of American losses in the Great War, but a mark of humanity that any human might feel - terror, in this special case, held up by an expression of grief. Perhaps Wilson knew as Antoine de Saint-Exupery succinctly expressed with his insightful statement as a pilot of wartime: "In the end, fate still walks on two feet."
The historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, has the most intelligent advice to give that one can read out of all assessments of Tolstoy's master work and on his philosophy of history. It also gives a reader some taste of what an objective opinion might be like. His long essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," makes use of Archilochus's saying that "the fox knows many things while the hedgehog knows one big thing." He asserts that Tolstoy was "a fox who thought it right to be a hedgehog," i.e. a man divided unto himself, both willing and unwilling to: appreciate the facts, compose a novel in the interest of telling a good story, or disprove of the headstrong socio-historical theorists of the 19th century.
Proving to us Tolstoy's enduring mind, we see in this essay both a fatalism and a optimism - a struggle - perhaps the only true universal, empirically sound possession humanity shares between all of its many families. Wilson shared in this too - and so does the hypothetical veteran of the first stanza of my poem "pawing a mouse" over search answers, with his own experience of cause and effect in that Great War. I am not Tolstoy, nor could I ever be the talent he was in any similar scale of degree or measure. However, I share in his methods because he too creates characters out of shared experiences to represent a common feeling that has no exact record. Great lives are written down and may slowly fade, due to distorted representation, new facts brought to light, etc. The "inner empiricism," to borrow a term of Hume's, of men and women are not recorded - it is lived - and Berlin underplays this insight in War & Peace. Perhaps there remains something of it not in history, but in the common folklore and traditional storytelling, the shared myths that aren't objectively reliable but voice the lived experiences of past lives in symbolic forms?
We haven't answered the question I posed to the Grass Snakes - "Is history worth remembering?" - or the larger one that can be traced through both parts of this article - how we might "study" - because they both lack answers that would satisfy one both intellectually and practically. What can be known in the very least (I'm appealing to a stretch of everyday thinking here) is that history as an accumulation that can be analyzed and then cited for conclusive statements is not the history that we should be concerned with or entertaining as "the truth." There is another history, a continuum that exists alongside or concomitant with our idea of history, that we speak of in a common tongue and always have and might continue to have contact with generation after generation. The figures in this history are the sorts that Tolstoy made of Kutuzov or Malory of Arthur: people historically verifiable to have lived, but who then are made to transcend their life and become the symbol of or myth for a representative "time" or "mind" or "emotion" shared by many in a certain period.
The preservation of the former idea of history has much in common with the idea of the preservation of Nature. Both are fairly modern movements that everyone can accede their support to with one side of their mouth, while they continue to benefit from its destruction by decisions made with the other side. Oddly enough, nature doesn't seem to need our aid in preserving itself - it simply needs us to keep from working against it, and it rolls along. History requires a method, records of facts, and stories (context) to pass it down from generation to generation. When this is housed by institutions and made canonical, it becomes frigid. No longer passing from our lips, it tastes nothing of the kiss of life. We pride ourselves in the "information age" on our accumulation of facts and the education based on this stockpile available for all. This information is separated so cleanly from ourselves that we no longer share in the process which gives any of our supposed "knowledge" bearing on the outer form of life. We live knowing but die forgoing the taste of that inner life that experiences our world so directly, and used to be so important that it always needed a storyteller.
Some symbolic language remains as evidence of these experiences. In America, we have our "tall tales" of John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, and so on, which are records of the proliferation of railroads, the logging of our continent's indigenous forests, and the ecological changes/perils of westward expansion, and not some fireside yarns to poke fun at. These stories may contain the seed germ of much collected experience, but perhaps there are no longer any of us who know how to tease it out, read it, nurture it. They are also all tales of struggle. What symbolic figure will emerge to exemplify the thoughts and feelings of the struggle in modern man? We're too often arguing for the abolition of humanity from its own mind and feeling, speaking of the future achievement of A.I. or some other presence that will continue on in our stead. Little can we say or do against this hypothesized material immortality - it's far too popular as a "cool" idea in popular culture, which is the only culture with enough clout to parlay being extinguished - so no doubt more time, money and energy will go into its realization.
Can we not hold up some representative man, as Emerson would have it, who, whether fictional or not, expresses the inner life of our present? Test the quality of this question for yourselves, or post a tale in response.
End of Part II