Saturday, 14 March 2009

227 Lears

Perhaps it's a generational thing, or perhaps it's a personal foible, but I struggle with history. Or rather I struggle to acquire it: to horde it obsessively, to assemble it within a linear chronology to be reeled off like a stretch of Pi, or to gather up a cache of names, dates, places and other capitalised chunks of data that demonstrate the knowledge of a subject. I think it's just because I've always had a terrible memory, especially for facts. I'd really make a poor historian.

I have, however, always been fascinated by the process itself. I think the human obsession with story-boarding the past is astonishing. Where does it come from? Although history is associated with documenting the past, it could just as easily find its origins in more selfish motives. Ancient Egyptian pharoahs insisting upon stone-carved biographies of their lives were presumably not thinking of the past, but of projecting their own egos into an imagined future, where generations to come would know of their legacies long after their physical death. And it worked. History, from the ancients through to David Irving, seems to be 'done' for a number of reasons, but always with one more or less constant desire: to put the present in some kind of logical context. Rather than leaning too heavily on absolute relativism or absolute imperialism, history has always seemed to me to represent a dialectic between the two: a compromise between recorded events and personal attempts to colour the world with one's own beliefs. Certainly both exist and inform the process of telling the past.

It's in this spirit that I find myself thinking about what is a simultanously tedious and interesting idea: namely that things were better in the past. Of course one could point to the simplest explanation, that it is a belief fostered and propagated by older folk, who need (or choose) to see the generation following their own as deficient in order to bolster their own collective egos. Douglas Adams called it 'clique maintenance'. That's true and real enough.

But it seems to be an increasingly popular attitude among younger people, in Britain at least. For these people the fabled 'golden generation', be it of music, art, cinema, national cricket, or anything else, is always tantalisingly out of reach. It is immaculate because it arrives to us fully formed, a coherent narrative that cannot be tampered with. It is a morbid fascination for sure, and one that finds its apogee in death. Much has been written about the immaculate figure of the youthful corpse. River Phoenix, Jeff Buckley, Ian Curtis, Rimbaud, Aaliyah, James Dean, so on. Even the messiest of lives, such as Kurt Cobain's, prove attractive by way of fossilising so compactly. Morrissey, himself idolised and written about extensively, put it rather bluntly in 'Munich Air Disaster 1958': 'They can't hurt you / And their style will never desert you / Why? Because they're all safely dead.'

Why do even the young now feel the need to reject their own present for a past they weren't alive to experience? It seems as though the teenagers of the 1950s and 60s, those who rejected their parents values and formed their own, are now idolised by a generation reluctant to think for themselves. And yet that isn't quite the case. The truth, I think, is that a great deal of people felt the same way then. History does not remember the dull and the reticent. It is an ironic facet of the historicising process that those who reject the past are destined to become part of it. Marx's dialectical materialism in action.

The history of modern history, then, seems to tell a story in which the hero rejects received opinion and forges a new philosophy. It seems a shame to use it in order to knock current social, cultural and political endeavours in this light, but the appeal of doing so will presumably endure. If history is about making sense of the past, we will surely be drawn to its book-ending qualities ever more feverishly as the present splays into a frayed knot of potential endings. We do not know where we may go from here. The 1958 Manchester United side eulogised in Morrissey's song never won the European Cup they were competing in that season. Their potential was unknown then, though much feted. Death, however, now renders that potential infinite. It is the blessing of the dead that their portfolio will forever remain unsullied. Who knows? Joy Division's third album could have been crap.

It is important to remember the past, just as it is important to remember that it was once the present, with uncertainties and a weight of history upon its own back, as we carry the weight of theirs now. It is always difficult to love something in the present, perhaps because we are increasingly too insecure to develop an emotional attachment to something which might fail, or die, or, worst of all, disappoint. The best we can do is to take a chance on what seems right, and maybe carve a little history of our own.