Friday, March 30, 2012

What use is history? (Books - In Europe by Geert Mak)

There is no use fixating on past mistakes, some advise. Stay in the present, say the gurus. But these approaches are anathema to the human nervous system. Even basic nervous systems use sensory equipment - eyes, ears, antennae, pressure sensors - connected to a few dozen nerves to adequately serves an organism which wishes to avoid danger, find food, or reproduce. But one advantage of having a brain is that we can accumulate information about common patterns of stimuli existing in our environment, using it to anticipate what we encounter in the future. Our brain's visual system makes

nearly instantaneous calculations of the likelihood that a particular pattern signifies an object in our path even before the brain has had enough time to identify what the object is. This efficiency allows us to reserve the rest of our limited cognitive resources to either tend to surprises or to fashion complex behavioral responses. In other words, our brain is a prediction-making device which uses the past to anticipate the future. It can combine sensory data with the movement of our muscles to predict the arc of a ball so we may catch it as we run. We even indulge in predicting the intentions and behavior of other people. But the contents of other people's brains are not directly accessible to our own and, more importantly, the future is not the past, so the brain's predictions are not 100% accurate.

I was struck recently in seeing two Steven Sondheim musicals in one Broadway season, that regret is what happens when we are less than happy with the results of our brain's predictions. What a poet of regret Sondheim is. His Follies occurs during the reunion of retired performers as they reminisce on past glories and shattered dreams. Merrily We Roll Along recounts its story of three friends backwards from their contemporary bitter success to their first days of starry-eyed hopefulness. Sweeny Todd is the story of a barber who avenges the wrongs done to him in his youth. Send in the Clowns, probably Sonheim's most familiar song, is about two lovers who have a history of missing opportunities to be together. Although I will not write the Jonah Lehrer companion volume Sondheim was a Neuroscientist, Sondheim's work speaks amply to the fact that the human brain may continually reference the past in our experience of the present, but we are not always content with the outcome of its predictions.

But I would argue that Sondheim is less a neuroscientist than he is is a historian. Looking back allows us to reflect on whether we have been using the past wisely in our apprehension of the future. Distance affords us clarity by allowing us to see the initial evidence, the analysis, and the results as a unit and ask: given past evidence and subsequent behavior, how are we doing?

In 1999, Dutch journalist Geert Mak was asked by his newspaper NRC Handelsblad to travel around contemporary East and West Europe and write about how the continent was doing at the conclusion of the twentieth century. Starting a year-long journey from his home city of Amsterdam on a route that began with London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna and concluded with Novi Sad, Srebrenica, and Sarajevo, Mak traced the course of history of the last century through the evidence left behind in cafes and monuments, witness's stories, bullet-scarred walls - the detritus of the past century - the result was a masterful example of the uses of history: In Europe.
Europe, as I saw in the course of that year, is a continent in which one can easily travel back and forth through time. All the different stages of the twentieth century are being lived, or relived, somewhere. Aboard Istanbul's ferries it is always 1948. In Lisbon it is forever 1956. At the Gare de Lyon in Paris, the year is 2020. In Budapest, the young en wear our fathers' faces.
In Europe is a history-travel journal that can only be described as sweeping in its scope, yet it is not the breadth that envelops the reader enroute, but rather the focused and deeply personal level of the detail through which Mak, like Sondheim, allows his reader to be touched by history rather than merely informed about it: the "sloppy pea jackets, bent spectacles, velour caps and backpacks" of a French student demonstration. A train journey Mak takes through Germany, Sweden and Finland that follows the route of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, now known to us as Lenin, returning to St. Petersburg in 1917 to create a Bolshevik government in the wake of the demise of Czar Nicholas II. A conversation with a Basque sociologist on the patio of a cafe in Guernica in which the history of the brutal German bombing of 1937 overlaps with the history of the separatist movement led by the radical group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country and Freedom, better known as ETA), which are both thrown into relief by the pictures on the wall of the cafe opposite on the street, sporting pictures of Cuban, Irish and Palestinian ultra-nationalist movements.
We talk about the 'society of silence,' the way Spain tries to deal with its past. 'All my father ever talked about later was the hunger,' Monica says. 'Never about the war. Almost all the good books about Franco and the civil war have been written by foreigners. It's still taboo.

'Here you have two kinds of silence within a marriage,' the writer says. 'Partners who refuse to speak their own language, and those who refuse to talk about the war. My parents belonged to both categories. My father was a leftist political prisoner, a worker from the south who was sent here as an exile. My mother was a real Basque, a staunch Catholic. One time they had a huge fight about it, on Christmas Eve. "You communists and anarchists, you came here and murdered our priests and raped our nuns!" my mother screamed. "Not enough of them!" my father screamed back. "Not nearly enough!" That was the only time.'
Along his journey, Mak pursues the personal account or artifact that will make an experience of history, but after relating it, he has the craft to frame that experience within the present moment in which it occurs and to capture the meaning of that confluence and communicate how it resonates in the greater context of history. He asks his Basque friend:
'Why is independence so important that everything else has to take second place?' I was given no answer.

Their nationalism was an amalgam of the old and new, of resistance, but also of nostalgia... Nostalgia was - and is - and important signal: in essence it is an indictment of a modern age filled only with materialism and blind faith in all that is new. But nostalgia can also produce monsters. From Kosovo and Ruthenia to the Basque Country, everywhere Europeans have been driven mad by the longing for a fatherland that no one ever knew, that in many ways never even existed.
With more than 800 pages to choose from, there are countless examples of personal anecdotes that link history and human experience. The length of In Europe may make it sound like reading it is an enormous undertaking, but I found the writing captivating and the reading swift. I love Mak's description the memory of one seven-year-old girl who, upon the death of Stalin, tried to cry as she was supposed to, but was afraid for having produced only a single tear which dropped upon the fried egg that she ate. Or Mak's wonderful analysis of the difficult transformation Russians were expected to undergo in the 1980s and 90s in their shift away from life under the Soviet government to a society run by market forces.
Young Russian people took the lowliest, worst-paid jobs in order to remain independent of the state system, and to spend as much time as possible on what really mattered to them: tusovka, which may be freely translated as 'the mood' or 'the big mess.'
Understanding this larger motivating force was a real 'aha' in helping me understand the difficulty of the huge shift the culture underwent.

On a more meta-level, I was struck how irrevocably the people and the nations whose lives encompassed most of the 20th century were shaped by World War II. I have envisioned World War I in some ways as the watershed event of the last century. It ushered out chivalry and the regimes of kings, its uncontrolled violence symbolized the abandonment of form that characterized modernism, but if World War I shaped the zeitgeist of the new era, World War II was a more literal in its impact. The global reach of the killing and destruction of property, the taking of sides in a moral struggle, and the human and economic costs touched nearly everyone living on the planet. The war was the single deciding factor for two entire generations - 2% of the global population is estimated to have been killed - tens of millions of people. So either you were a person who died in World War II or you were one who survived it. Subsequently, your nation's geography, economics, form of government, and sense of justice was a product of this war. Though I was aware of the events of the war and of its unconscionable and immoral bloodshed, the formative impact of it upon two successive generations has never been communicated to me in so real a fashion as it was in Mak's book.

The success of this book is Mak's combining of scope (both in space and time), impact upon individual human lives, and the observation of tangible evidence of our past that exists all around us. The consequence of the past exists right now and if we look around us we can see it. And while we cannot rely on our brains to be a perfect predictors of everything that will occur in the future, we can remember the uses of looking back. Regret may not feel good, but it might be considered a reminder that our predictions of the future are not infallible and it is useful every now and then to look back and ask: given past evidence, subsequent behavior, and outcome -  how are we doing?

1 comment:

C.B. James said...

I think I may dip my toes in this one. 800 pages sounds like a bit much, but your review has me interested.