Prophecy, Memory, Millennium:
a "pagan" Appeal for a more "secular" History
by Carl Pfluger
NOTE: The following was written as my contribution to an international essay contest organized in 1998 by the Goethe Institute of Weimar and the magazine Lettre International. The topic set for the essay was posed, oracularly enough, as a pair of questions: "Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future?" - which had been boiled down from about a hundred or so questions sent in by various academics from around the world; most particularly from a much wordier question drafted by the French philosopher Michel Surya, who had been knitting his brows in some agitation over what he called the "excessive mnemonic capacity" available to the human race. I hope this note will clarify some oddities of form and reference in this essay, which otherwise might perplex the casual reader. I enjoyed writing this piece, because it gave me the chance to uncork a whole slew of themes and arguments that had been fermenting within me for some time; and I hope at least a few people will enjoy reading it, too.
Late in the 1980s, Francis Fukuyama, an obscure functionary in the State Department of the United States of America (not irrelevantly, a country which proclaims, on the backside of all its dollars, the emblematic motto "Novus Ordo Seclorum") suddenly made a name for himself by publishing an essay - later inflated into a book - with the provocative title The End of History. His thesis was that, since the Cold War is now over, all serious conflicts have come to an end, and the whole human race now can, and will - and maybe even ought to - settle down to a placidly bourgeois life of material enrichment, stocking up on VCRs to become a race, not even of contented cows, but of contented "couch potatoes." Of course I caricature in summarizing; but really, not by all that much. All summaries are caricatures anyway; and if Mr. Fukuyama's title now seems to be matched in its presumption only by its short-sightedness - well, both of those qualities were amply displayed by his own favorite straw men, Hegel and Marx. That exercise in "conservative futurism" was, of course, celebrated with an almost indecent enthusiasm by the leading lights of what passes for intellectual conservatism in the United States - as if there were anything intrinsically "conservative" about capitalism: which, for good or ill, has been the most corrosive of social solvents in its effect on traditional ways of life. But it seems most worth mentioning here because it does, almost despite itself, reflect some of the same anxieties implied in the question proposed for this essay: about "liberating" the future from the past, or vice versa. That is to say, I think one may discern in both (and in many similar utterances which have been offered in these concluding years of this "our" century, our "Millennium") a certain fear of both "the Past" and "the Future". We might well call it a fear of history itself, taking "history" here in its broadest and most generous sense; a fear, ultimately, of life itself, in all its divergences and contingencies, in all its unpredictable exuberance: an eschatological lust to "fast-forward" all those VCRs to the End of Time and settle it once end for all. Rather reminiscent, come to think of it, of those lines from the Catholic Office of the Dead:
Solvet seclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla.
- the more so, as that most apocalyptic of medieval Latin hymns here sounds so plangently the motif of prophecy.
For of course, all such ventures into "futurology" tend to assume something of the character of that ancient and occult art - the closest to prophecy we seem to come in this our (allegedly) rational and enlightened age. And like its ancient predecessor, this modern "discipline" of Future Studies is transparently limited by its bondage to the Present; reminding one here of those science fiction stories of the 1950s in which human beings, tens of thousands of years into the future, exhibit social attitudes (about everything from sex to smoking) which now seem so quaintly, so comically, dated: futures which, without ever having arrived, have already become obsolete. Well, the Present can cast a long shadow over both "the Future" and "the Past." There is a story (circulating somewhere in the great unwritten corpus of Apocrypha Academica) that one of the Oxbridge colleges was discussing how to invest the latest windfall to their endowment. "Put it in land," said one of the more complacently donnish types, "land has always been a sound investment, for the past thousand years." The Collective Wisdom was ready to go along with that - until someone (probably a dyspeptic medievalist) piped up with: "Well, yes. But then you know, the past thousand years have been exceptional." - Oh, well said! Si non è vero, è ben trovato! At least that don had some glimmer of what might be called a decently long view. Of course the last Millennium was "exceptional." And so will be the next. And so is every period, and every moment, of human, historical, time. That is a bit of wisdom (whatever its source) which we all would do well to keep in mind - especially those who pontificate about "History" and "the Future."
No doubt prophecy, divination, futurology, or whatever one chooses to call it, might be more useful if the future did not have such a habit of surprising us all, and embarrassing our prophets. But since faith (whether in gods, or in "the wisdom of the market") is always indulgently willing to give prophecy the benefit of the doubt, it has generally been a rewarding trade; and it is always, in any case, entertaining. At least until those surprises actually arrive, the future will always be easier, and more fun, to describe than the past. Which brings to mind yet another story: about an ancient Chinese painter, renowned for his depictions of the spirit world, who candidly told his patron the King of Ch'i why ghosts and spirits are so much easier to draw than dogs or horses: because everyone has seen dogs and horses, and is therefore ready to tell the painter if he gets them wrong; but ghosts and spirits - well, they're anybody's guess. Mr. Fukuyama's guess was made when the "Asian Tigers" were graciously waving their tails at the world, and lecturing the rest of us on how to order our economies; now that those Tigers have diminished to something more on the order of the Cheshire Cat, the prospects of a Radiant Future coming in the train of at least that model of globalized "free market" triumphalism no longer seem quite so certain.
But then, all that is, dare we say, "normal" for prophets of every kind and description. Perhaps that is why so many myths represent their prophetic figures as somehow impaired in their ordinary faculties. Odin - the Nordic god of prophecy - blind in one eye. The trans-gendered Tiresias (rehabilitated for our century by T. S. Eliot) blind in both. Dionysus was endowed equally with powers of prophecy, and of intoxication; and even Apollo, that clear-headed god of "Classical" prophecy, depended at Delphi on a "medium" who, if not exactly mad herself, was required to inhale some sort of intoxicating fumes; while he himself seems to have suffered from a certain aphasia, at least if we can take the word of Heraclitus, who famously said of him that he "neither speaks, nor remains silent, but communicates by signs." Certainly in Herodotus - the first, and still perhaps the best, writer of Histories - Apollo shows a curious preference for those who are (providentially) dumb: Croesus, his favorite protegé, is saved by the action of his mute son; and at Delphi, Apollo prefaces the most momentous of his oracles, to Croesus himself, with those truly oracular words:
I count the grains of sand on the beach, and measure
I understand the speech of the dumb, and hear the voiceless.
Good enough! I too would like us to remember the voiceless; people like the Kashubes, for instance: that "small nation" of the Baltic, of whom the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (that priceless repository of late Victorian wisdom!) said, "they have no literature, and no history . . . " because they were mostly illiterate peasants and fisherman. There is an awful sense in which that casual dismissal was almost "true" - until Günther Grass brought them into "literature", and therefore into "history," with the publication of The Tin Drum.
Croesus himself (still following Herodotus) eventually had his life, if not his fortune, saved by the prophetic god on whom he had lavished so much of his gold; and so he eventually remembered the wisdom of Solon, to judge no man "fortunate" before his death. But if he himself is remembered for anything today, it is merely as a byword for the prototypical plutocrat: allegedly the inventor of coined money, and therefore as good a candidate as one could wish for the office of "patron saint," or founder-hero, of the global capitalism now so celebrated by the prophets of this generation. And remembering more of Croesus (or of anyone) is still, I think, a good thing to do; notwithstanding the worries expressed by Michel Surya about the excessive "mnemonic capacity" currently at our disposal.
I can understand those concerns. To a considerable extent, I share them. Part of the problem with our "postmodernism" is that everything is available to us - but available too indiscriminately. We adorn ourselves with stylistic scraps from every part of the world (made available to us by the European colonial penetrations of this last ["exceptional!"] demi-millennium) and from all periods of the past (made available by that far more idiosyncratic expression of European culture, archeology.) But we do it all in a riot of promiscuous eclecticism, unmediated by any experiential sense of the lives, the passions, and yes, the histories which once gave each of those styles the coherent integrity of an authentically lived tradition. . . . Yes, I am aware of all that. But still, I am even more alarmed by the impulse to suppress memory; perhaps especially when it is done in the name of "the Future." That has too often been the maneuver of repressive dictatorships: from China's "First Emperor" of the Ch'in Dynasty, with his burning of books (and massacre of their readers) to Hitler (who also burned books before "progressing" to the extermination of peoples) . . . and on through all the other regimes which, dumping bodies and ideas alike into an Orwellian memory-hole, have done so much to make the twentieth century deserve, from any future historians, the summary designation "The Age of the Dictatorships." In this at least, I would stand with the Vatican's 1998 document on the Shoah, which reminded us that "there is no future without memory."
To which, perhaps, we should add that without memory there can also be no hope of useful prophecy, either. At least that is what the Odyssey tells us. Yes, if we push further back up the stream of time in the "Classical" Western tradition, back beyond Herodotus, beyond Heraclitus, we come to Homer, who introduces us to that archetypal "blind seer" Tiresias. Paradoxically enough, at this, our earliest literary encounter with him, Tiresias is already dead; and when Odysseus visits him in the Underworld, we learn that the one special gift he retains among the dead is the power of: memory. And (jumping quickly back to our own time) what was it that W. H. Auden wrote in his tribute to Sigmund Freud, who (if anyone) attained something like an authentically prophetic status in our century?
all he did was to remember
like the old and be honest like children.
No, I can't believe that our greatest problem is too much memory. But there are problems in what people choose to remember (or to forget); and, especially, in how they remember. Just how should we remember - or construe, or imagine - this thing called "History?"
From the murky mists of my own past I remember sitting through an undergraduate lecture on "Four Metaphors for History." As nearly as I can recall, they were called something like: Cycle, Pilgrimage, War and Progress. In caricature/summary, the picture is more or less clear: "Paganism" sees events as an ever-recurring cycle, like the seasons of nature; Judaism (and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam) sees an ordered march to the Promised Land, or to the Millennial Heavenly Kingdom at the end of time; the "dualist" traditions (Zoroastrian, Manichean, Gnostic, etc. . . . ) see History as an apocalyptic war between Light and Darkness, Good and Evil; and We Moderns see it as an ever onward and upward course of (mostly human) improvement. All very neat and tidy. But of course, as soon as any of these systems are set out, they have a messy habit of infecting and interpenetrating each other. The Judeo-Christian tradition has its own all-too-robust tradition of holy War (at least as early as the Qumran War Scroll, with its Sons of Light battling the Sons of Darkness); and at least Western Christianity has been more than a little inflected by the Manicheanism that had been so much a part of Augustine's personal history; and of course even those Enlightenment theories of Progress, from Condorcet through Hegel to Marx, owe much (as Carl Becker argued long ago) to that Biblical pilgrimage to the Heavenly City; and at least the Marxist course of progress was once expected to climax in la Lutte finale - as Manichean a leitmotif as one could ask for. Clearly, the anomalous term in this schema is the one my (egregiously Christian) professor denoted "pagan" and "cyclical: - because it lacks the meaning provided by a clear direction to history.
Well then, say I, good for all such "paganisms!" The search for "meaning" where it does not exist is the great curse of our species. And "Pagan" itself is a word with its own interesting - maybe even a "meaningful?" - history. It has been a term of abuse ever since it was set down in its modern sense by the triumphalist Christians of the Fourth Century. Etymologically, its roots are clear enough. The Latin paganus meant "peasant" - countryfolk, farmers, and the like - and I grew up reading that it acquired the meaning of "non-Christian" because those "backward" countryfolk were the last to adopt the basically urban religion of Christianity. Somehow, that never seemed to me a very convincing "indictment," and I was therefore delighted to learn (from Robin Lane Fox's astonishingly luminous Pagans and Christians) that paganus, by the Late Poman Empire, had become army slang for "civilian" - presumably because most of the Army had been recruited from the peasantry, which therefore was the only alternative to military life that they knew. So the real insult intended by the early Christians (oddly disregarding the Primitive Church's alleged pacifism) may well have been that those unconverted "pagans" were the "malingerers:" those who refused to enlist in the Army of God.
I like this derivation. It gives a new dignity to "Paganism", and to pagans. Rather than mere lumpish clodhoppers, it would make them something more like what we, in our time, would recognize as "conscientious objectors." (Which I have also been, in my own time.) And, returning to our Grand Themes of History (the Past, the Future, and "liberating" the one from the other; which question implies some tyrannizing of one over the other) it also offers us another metaphor, maybe even a rallying-cry: "Pagan History" as a revolt against - or at least an alternative to - the lock-step march of all Theories of History which would represent themselves as a quasi-military campaign, a triumphal procession to some final objective: "history" as "marching orders." If that kind of History really has come to an end, one can only say: Good. And good riddance!
Well, as long as we are here deploying that treacherous rhetoric of "liberation," suppose we entertain the possibility of liberating time itself - past, present and future - from at least some of its human-imposed restrictions. And here, too, I must confess that, of all the questions suggested for this contest, my personal favorite is the one proposed by Fatima Mernissi of Morocco: "Why do those who have watches not have time?" It is a neat, witty formulation; which actually has an elegantly "easy" answer: but one which offers infinite ramifications, infinite facets for reflection. We who "have" watches do not "have" time, because time (as measured by those mechanisms) "has" us. We are (literally, more often than not) bound to our watches, and, through them, to an elaborate set of structures which we have invented in a hubristic attempt to control time: with the result, fittingly enough, that our artificial structures now control us. (Alan Watts used to make fun of the kind of people who, obsessed with verbal abstractions, would "eat the menu instead of the dinner." I don't remember if he also observed that most of us tend to live in our clocks, in our calendars, rather than in life itself.) Should this be called the tyranny of the past over the future, or of the future over the past? Perhaps it is the tyranny of both the past and the future over the present: which, therefore, is what really needs to be "liberated" . . . . In any case, we always do seem to be inventing these devices, allegedly for our convenience; and then letting ourselves, and our aspirations, be defined by them: to be bound and boundaried by them. And this happens at every scale of time-measurement, from minutes and seconds, to centuries and millennia.
At the larger end of that scale - that is, when we are talking about "centuries" and "millennia" - I must confess to another prejudice: I really don't like the "Millennium Fever" which has been sweeping so much of our world lately. Need I say why? "Millenarianism," "Chiliasm," or by whatever pretentious name one cares to dignify it, has been too much a part of all those goose-stepping "Systems" - Christian, Muslim, Manichean, Marxist . . . - which presume to give marching orders to History. If I get nothing else out of this exercise, I want to register my protest, my "conscientious objection," against all that.
Furthermore, even taken as a simple arithmetic measurement of 1,000 years, a Millennium is really too vast to be grasped as an intelligible unit - at least for any human history, any human experience. I don't mind acknowledging centuries. They at least exist on a more intimately human scale. There have always been at least a few fortunate human beings who have actually lived somewhere around a hundred years. No doubt that is why that wonderfully polyvalent Latin word saeculum - which can sometimes be translated as "century," and sometimes as "world" - had for its primordial meaning, a human generation; or, more largely, the maximum life-span of a human being.
I prefer that kind of scale for estimating history; to me it seems, somehow, the least unnatural. And so, if my suggestion of "Pagan History" be seen as too strongly provocative for some people - "pagan" still carrying too much baggage, too many negative connotations - then as a second choice I would propose "Secular History" as a nicely double-edged slogan to express my quirkily utopian hope for an alternative to all those Millennarian projects which have given us so much grief for at least . . . - well, I suppose we might as well allow them their word here! - for these last two Millennia which we have now just about (barely!) gotten through.
We might even call it, going back a stretch further, "Herodotean History." (Now there is a slogan to set against Fukuyama's: not "the end of history" as such, but the end of "Manichean History," and the resumption, after a hiatus of 2,000 years, of "Herodotean History!") Herodotus has been disparaged for his lack of "scientific" rigor; but I find that rather one of his better points, considering the historian's "material." He narrates a series of conflicts over a few generationsm roughly aligned along an East-West axis; but there is no invidious dualism in him: his interest is always centered on human particularites, and the multifarious ways they work themselves into, and out of, each others' lives. Future historians could do worse than to emulate the range of his sympathies.
And such a more modest attitude toward history could also, in a way, be even more progressive than all those "Millennial" systems; but it would be a more open-ended, open-minded, kind of progress: more open to the indeterminate contingencies of life; more like the processes of natural evolution itself. Did I not call my suggestion "utopian?" - Yes, but I have in mind something like what Oscar Wilde, toward the close of the nineteenth century, meant when he wrote (in The Soul of Man Under Socialism):
"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias."
Yes. To Oscar's wisdom we can only add the gloss that "Utopia" is not worth setting out for unless we recognize from the outset that it is a floating island, that we can not expect it to stay put where it is forever. And if we do ever recognize that, we might even achieve - but now this must sound really too utopian! - something like an intelligent, and intellectually respectable, conservatism.
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