What do you care what happened in the past?
I'm standing in a grocery store with a cardboard quart of milk, listening to a book. Only the self-checkout lanes are open. I think about how many people have touched the credit card keypads today. The book is about the past – I'm only partly paying attention. I have read a lot of history and enjoy thinking about the past, and although this specific book isn't doing anything for me, I know I'll find another book that will really interest me soon enough. I used to love novels.
The line moves, and the shuffling of feet dislodges the thought:
What do you care what happened in the past?
My favorite period of history to read about keeps changing.
As a teenager I was obsessed with the middle ages, because that was the time of Dante, and Thomas Aquinas, and the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare's histories. And the Middle Ages, in my mind, wasn't that far removed from the even earlier era of legendary figures like King Arthur and Cúchulainn and Beowulf, whom I dearly loved. I mentally compressed a thousand years of weird, hilarious, bloody history into a single "post-Roman, pre-modern" landscape of swords and churches and war and horses and ruins and castles and kings.
In my twenties, I was more into the ancient world. The Romans, obviously. But I found the Early Church era, the era of the Patriarchs, fascinating. I loved a lot about the ancient Greeks, and their wars and their philosophy. The excitement of watching some of the earliest people in the world to Figure Things Out (tm) in the process of discovery. All bunk, of course. After a while you realize that every thought that ever got written down was stolen from someone else who'd figured it out like a thousand years before.
But, what do you care what happened in the past?
I think every adult man goes through a war phase – especially in the United States, given the extent to which American culture fetishizes war, and the American project exists to fight and support warfare. But I suspect this masculine fascination with warfare is true right around the world. I can't prove it, but I know I've found myself thinking about tactics and ambushes. Wonder what I would've done differently. Think about standing in the front ranks of a Macedonian phalanx. Think about what 20,000 dead men looks like the day after a battle. I don't know what that means. What is it that draws me to read about horrors that I will never experience, and wonder how I would have held up under them?
Why do you care what happened in the past?
The past isn't just something in books, though. Each of us has our own history, our personal piece of the past that we carry around with and add to us day by day. We think about things we did in fourth grade and wince – or wish to have those bygone days in hand again. In my thirties, I don't torture myself much anymore about what I did as a child. I know a lot of people do that. I use to. The further in the past the event, the less likely I am to feel that gripping it-just-happened horror and anxiety in my chest. I'll mull over and regret things I said a week ago, the things I did and said when I was fourteen or gone for me.
So why do you care what happened in the past?
That was the way I got over it actually. I asked myself: do I really care what my now probably long dead third grade teacher thinks of my behavior? Do I give a fuck about the opinion of a bunch of twelve-year-olds who exist now only in my memories? Are these people here, now? No? Then what's the problem? Hell, if you were to embarrass yourself in front of a teenager now, would you feel bad? What if a sixteen-year-old made fun of you to your face, right now? What if a twenty-two-year-old did? You would roll your eyes, and you know it. So why ruminate on mistakes you made when you actually were a teenager? Teenagers don't know anything. Never did. I'm a full-grown man I don't know anything now. I don't think I'll ever know anything, really. And that realization banished those moments from my life. For the most part. Forgetting the past is great therapy.
So, why do you care what happened in the past?
What do I get out of reading about the Mycenaean Greeks? The Minoans? Late Bronze Age Collapse? Goebekli Tepe? That's my current obsession: the Greek Dark Ages and before. The era of the Trojan War – if the Trojan War existed in any sense. The wide-scale transition to settled life and cities. The first empires. The development of writing in China, and the desertification of Africa and Turkey. Pre-literate monolithic cultures. Peoples just on the cusp of entirely new ways of thinking, and existing.
But why do you care what happened in that past?
When I read a long article talking about the attempts to decipher Linear A, or studies tracing the development of certain God-images from pre-literate, late Neolithic cultures into the more familiar pantheons of Europe and the near East – who cares? Does that materially benefit my life? Does knowing that Cybele may have ultimately derived from a truly ancient mother-goddess who may or may not be the one depicted in the various Venus Figurines scattered around cave sites throughout Europe benefit me in some way? Make me a better person? Improve my job prospects, or teach me to be more empathetic, charitable, patient, or honest? Of course not.
What about the Romans? Does knowing about the Sullan proscriptions matter? Does knowing how the Roman Republic became an Empire matter? Does knowing the funeral rites or mysteries of various cults matter? No. And yet, my desktop background is, right now, a depiction of history: the "Nero's Torches" by Henryk Siemiradzki. Heightened, and dramatized – but all these historical images hypnotize me. The togas, the captives to be burned, the gladiator helm and the fountain, the wreaths and the columns. But none of this image is real – it's 19th century schmaltz.
If all this is true, why do you think about the past at all?
I think history is fun to project yourself into because you already know how the game was played – or think you do. You already know, if you studied it, how daily life worked for the idle rich of Victorian England. If you found yourself in the England of Jane Austen, you probably have an idea of how you would act, and how things might turn out for you. Some might think of breaking all the rules, others might wish you could go back and live within their constraints – but that's the lie. We think of history ias familiar to us. We know now how it all turned out, after all: we know what worked, and what didn't. We know why "those people" made certain choices and didn't make others. That familiarity, that comforting clarity, easily becomes the longing for childhood while drowning in adult responsibility – the pleasure of spending hours walking in your mind through that proverbial "simpler time". Or so you think.
You start reading real history, and you discover that the past was basically just like the present, in different clothes. I know that cuts against the grain of the "history is a foreign country" idea. But what I see when I look at the past is people just like me making decisions that I would make for reasons that I understand.
Although, that should be a warning to me.
Reading just s little history gives the illusion that events have clear, easily-delineated causes and effects. That what is happening now is a product of the past, and will become a discrete future. Often there is even a sense of fate about history and this inexorable knocking of cause upon effect upon cause. When you think you understand why people made the decisions they made, remember this: all the reasons you've come up with say more about you than about the people you're purporting to understand.
History is not a hall of moments cast in immutable marble for all time, describing a logical arc from beginning to now to the end in the future. Real history, like the present, is chaos.
More than that. History is imaginary. Someone makes it up. Just like everything else: someone sat down and invents it. Everything is interpretive. Nothing is objective. There are no facts, only what we've agreed upon for now.
So what do you care what happened in the past?
If the past is imaginary, then whatever story we think history tells is about us, now. Yes, history is a mirror but not the way you think. It is the I Ching on a cosmic scale – a tool for reading your own mind. If you care to pay attention to it.
I care what happened in the past for reasons that are probably mistaken. I take pleasure in it, is a puzzle and a fantasy. It allows me to indulge the illusions of continuity and telos. The pure-ego part of me enjoys knowing things about the past, because I can deploy those facts in conversation and gather up the social cachet of being "smart" and "well read" – the only thing the ego likes more than to feel superior to others is for those others to acknowledge your superiority.
But most of all, history lets me think I have control, because I know the true names of the events that I see around me. This isn't 2020, it's 1918. America is not America, it is Rome in the time of Sulla. "Hey wait, I've seen this one before – it's 1859." This is how magic works: to know a thing's true name is to control that thing. Why do you think name-calling and slurs are, and always have been, so popular? Why do you think God made Adam name of the animals of Eden?
So, because I've read history, I think I know the names of events and can tell you how things will be. He gives me clairvoyance into a future that I no longer have to fear, because this is all a rerun. I know how this all turns out.
That's all very interesting – but what you care what happened in the past?
[It's crazymaking that writing 1700 words of blather is vastly easier than the ten lines I need to finish this poem…]