Saturday, October 18, 2014

History, memory and the interpretation of relics

Recently one of the big web magazines ran a by-now stock piece questioning whether Jesus of Nazareth existed.  This sort of thing pops up regularly, resting on such shocking facts as discrepancies between the gospels, their conventional dating, the latest best-selling proof that Jesus was a Zealot or a magician or a mushroom, or the failure of Plutarch or Suetonius to write about religious controversies in the province of Judea.  They also garner astronomical numbers of impassioned comments.

For myself I try to stay away from such things and keep in mind the opening sentence of the Appendix (“Sources for the Reign of Alexander”) to Simon Hornblower’s The Greek World, 479-323 BC:  “The surviving accounts of Alexander’s reign were all written down centuries after the events they describe.”  In a sense all history rests on rather slender reeds.

It seems to me axiomatic that history is not a science in the sense that, say, physics is a science.  Natural laws (so far as we know) are constant over time, so that, if I have doubts about the accuracy of a law of physics, I can try to verify it this afternoon, or tomorrow, or next year, and it should come out the same.

Now there is a science of history in the sense that there are conventional methods used by professional historians to evaluate evidence:  canons of interpretation, standards of verification, sub-disciplines like graphology, and sister disciplines like archaeology.  But a proposition like "Jesus lived in first century Judea," or "Alexander conquered the Persian empire" can't be tested like the gravitational constant.  Sometimes new evidence is unearthed.  Sometimes old evidence is re-interpreted.  And I would be very surprised if sometimes the standards for evaluation didn't change.  But these differences are normal because the subject matter of the disciplines is different in one very important respect:  The force of gravity is always out there to measure; the Persian empire fell in the distant past.  We can't reach it to verify it directly.

So, in that sense, it's quite possible that Jesus didn't exist.  It's possible that Alexander was simply a founding myth to explain the appearance of the Hellenistic dynasties that sprang up in the territory once ruled from Persia.  It could even be that Plato and Xenophon were so taken with a fictional character in Aristophanes' Clouds that they adopted him as their spokesman for various ideas.  All of these things are possible only because scenarios can by imagined which might leave behind the same remains from which we have inferred the real existence of Jesus, Alexander and Socrates.

Now most of us don't care two straws about such possibilities.  We know that such things as lies, forgeries, and conspiracies exist.  But we are content to let the professionals weigh the evidence and publish their conclusions.  Otherwise the past, about whose entirely-conventional course we are mostly ignorant, would become an incomprehensible and almost infinite morass of exploding possibilities.

So we require some consensus-based narrative, certain enough to ground our ordinary human understandings, but open enough to allow the normal correction, revision and re-assessment that regularly accompanies historical reflection.  But it can be tenuous.  Consider memory, and the basis for our understanding of the past.  I am thinking, at first, of the long discussion of memory in Augustine's Confessions.  It's well worth a look.  He considers how insubstantial the present is, how vanishingly small, each duration, of lesser and lesser extent, itself divisible into a past, present and future.  The now that is our eternity is an infinitely small slice of time, and consider how little of what we know and who we are is comprised of the present sense impression of this very now.

Rahner uses an expression I didn't get at first:  "suchenden memoria," "seeking memory."  I'm not entirely convinced even now that what I think of it is what he meant by it.  But it's a good phrase for the continuing present,a "now" not separate from past and future, a "now not passive," but "now" as a meeting, a present memory, all that I am and have been, all that can be called to mind, actual and potential, recent and long past, but oriented toward a future, seeking, willing, intending, pushing into that next ever-changing indivisible succession of moments.

What I know, all that I know, all that I can know, of the past, is what exists, and continues to exist, in my present.  I have memory, personal memory, of all that I have experienced and not forgotten.  I have second-hand memory, what others have remembered and told me or written down for my reading--what we attorneys call "hearsay."

The one other way we learn of the past is inference from what I call relics.  We know and remember that some things vanish with time, that some other things continue, much altered, and that some things continue, little altered.  These I call "relics," the things that remain, altered or unaltered, the things to which, like gravity, we can still have recourse.  "Relics" does indeed have a religious sense that I am trying to expand on.  Religiously they are links to the past, but tenuous links.  We picture them as knuckle bones and scraps, a material connection to a much larger material and spiritual reality, just as the remains in the Roman forum, which anyone today can still see and walk through, are in a sense the knuckle bones of the ancient Roman city.  The image is also apt, I think, because of the obvious difficulty of working back to historic reality from the bones alone.  The madeleine sent Proust back, a relic of the past, but you can't reproduce the recovered narrative from the madeleine.

So, in addition to now, I have personal memories that seem mostly accurate.  My first visit to New York City when I was eight years old, for example.  I remember historic events that happened in my lifetime, but mediated.  John Kennedy was assassinated about a hundred miles from where I lived on that terrible day in 1963.  I saw the funeral on television, in black and white.  I made a scrapbook, since lost, of the Dallas Morning News stories.  The historical events were experienced second-hand.

Moving out from these, I have been educated, have read, over a lifetime, hundreds of histories, biographies, novels, epics, letters, and have seen paintings, sculpture and films, depicting their own time, or times other than that of their creation.  So out of this I have a very vivid, detailed, and concrete sense of the past.  That I have literally forgotten more than I know only reinforces that sense of historical knowledge.  I am reminded of things I once forgot, such as how Prussia gained ascendancy over the Austrian Empire.  This past is very real to me, but my knowledge of it is a construction from many sources, and contains a hefty portion of interpretation and judgment.

And it occurs to me that, apart from my own judgments, my own sense of the history of the world (or any smaller history within that larger field), is necessarily going to be different from that of others, not only because of the idiosyncratic content of my own judgments, but because every single person's set of memories, experiences, classes, books, sights and sounds, direct and indirect, is individual to himself.  It is no wonder that we see the world so differently from each other.  The wonder, in fact, may be, that even with those disparate sources of input, we come to so much in common.

We have to assume, I think, that the past is common to all.  Memory is individual, and the relics are so numerous that none of us can have direct experience of all or even most of them.  Nevertheless, we remarkably have a rough consensus.  It cannot be proven.  But I don't know how we can have a common life without that unproven common past we all seem to come out of.     

No comments: