Monday, January 2, 2012

The Turning Year: Looking Back, Looking Forward, Finding a Place for All

A new year's reflection about the importance of remembering, as we chart our (shared human) course for the future: 

In the vast, detritus-strewn wreckage that we call history, in which everything and everyone eventually becomes lost, Daniel Mendelsohn thinks that it's still possible (it's still imperative) to remember those "little" people whose lives were monumentally important to themselves and to others, though their memory is quickly obliterated by the sheer overwhelming mass of history and all it contains: 

For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of people now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all of the Greeks and Romans and Ottomans and Malays and Goths and Bengals and Sudanese who ever lived, the peoples of Ur and Kush, the lives of the Hittites and Philistines that will never be known, the lives of people more recent than that, the African slaves and the slave traders, the Boers and the Belgians, those who were slaughtered and those who died in bed, the Polish counts and the Jewish shopkeepers, the blond hair and eyebrows and small white teeth that someone once loved or desired of this of that boy or girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to girl or man or woman who was one of the five million (or six or seven) Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin, and indeed the intangible things beyond the hair and teeth and brows, the smiles and frustrations and laughter and terror of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are now lost, or will soon be lost, because no number of books, however great, could ever document them all, even if they were to be written, which they won’t and can’t be; all that will be lost, too, their pretty legs and their deafness and the vigorous way they strode off a train with a pile of schoolbooks once, the secret family rituals and the recipes for cakes and stews and gołąbki, the goodness and wickedness, the saviors and the betrayers, their saving and their betraying: most everything will be lost, eventually, as surely as most of what made up the lives of the Egyptians and Incas and Hittites has been lost.  But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only, faced with the vastness of all that there is and all that there ever was, somebody makes the decision to look back, to have one last look, to search for a while in the debris of the past and to see not only what was lost but what is still there to be found” (The Lost [NY: HarperCollins, 2002], pp. -485-487).

And Heinrich Böll is moved by precisely the same vision of the possibility of remembering--of remembering everyone

It is not the permanent I am after but the present that has become the past.  Not what is told, not even what is true, and certainly not what is eternal.  I want the present of those who belong to the past . . . .  I want the one hair of the head that has fallen to the ground" ("Missing Persons," in Missing Persons and Other Essays, trans. Leila Vennwitz [Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1994],  pp. 7-8).

I want the one hair of the head that has fallen to the ground: to imagine a world in which each of those hairs on each of those heads has premier importance, so that not a single hair is ever unnumbered or forgotten . . . . That seems to be the impossible challenge with which the gospels present us if we dare to read them.

The graphic is a picture of thousands of shoes of those murdered at the Nazi death camp at Majdanek, Poland.

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