Friday, November 13, 2009

Shadows of unforgotten ancestors

In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.

Yet we are not entirely impotent. It is up to us to ensure that Michelangelo and Thomas Mann, say, did not belong to a race that ended up destroying itself. They themselves, being dead, are powerless to prevent that tragic denouement, whereas we are not. We can make a difference to their stories. We cannot undo the fate of those in the past who fought for justice and were murdered for their pains. But we can rewrite their narratives by our own actions in the present, and even give them a classical happy ending.
-- from Waking the Dead by Terry Eagleton

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