The TV screen went black. My mom, remote in right hand, left hand on hip, had just turned off Thundercats and was thrusting a book into my arms, telling me to go to my room to study.
It was an odd dÃ©jÃ vu when one of my English professors said in a lecture last week, “There is not a moment of the day when any of you should be watching television rather than reading Milton.” He was not talking about Saturday morning cartoons. He was talking about CNN.
At first I agreed, because I am usually unable to recall the last time my dusty 13-inch was turned on. But with tanks and air force drones and real live fireballs shooting through the sky and the fascination of the abomination of real war that will be history soon, I couldn’t just huff and go up to my room. Instead, I went home and turned on the television.
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Stephen Dedalus’ most famous line from Ulysses is so well quoted that it is becoming clichÃ©. James Joyce’s modernist epic might be opaque, but really, it’s all about history, memory, cultural domination and colonialism. Subjects authors have taken up since Sumerians chiseled cuneiform on Flinstone-esque tablets.
Though at some point, the nightly news, regardless of the subject’s potency, becomes staticky background noise. The words of epics never blur or fade. Yet, a blur of talking heads and shiny images fade too quickly to penetrate the memory. They seem more relevant as time passes and history compounds itself.
With this type of literature being created year after year, and art and even popular culture mimicking it to some extent, how is it so easy for us to collectively disregard history? At times, I am baffled by the way historic proximity and our collective awareness of it seem inversely proportional. In a society eager to shrug off the ashes left from the Vietnam War [effectiveness of protesters, futility of military intervention, brutality], propaganda tactics from World Wars I and II are still successfully being used by the government. And didn’t we just get out of another Gulf War? Was it for oil? Ah, yes, now I remember.
But I have no idea how memory works. Is it bold images, like still frames or video shoots? Does it work like realism, holding up a mirror to society? Mine feels more modernist, like Stephen Dedalus,’ a cracked mirror. Milton had a photographic memory, but then again, so does Brooke Shields.
Different forms of individual memory simply shoot out threads and weave themselves together into what we know as our collective history. And history is a residence, not for us to live in, but to find, pore over and take wisdom away from.
The house of history is not so much a haunted house as an invitingly spooky, happily dusty mansion twinkling with cobwebs. It needs exploring. The once-scarlet cushions on the high-back ottoman need to feel human weight as memory gently depresses their filling.
Will we remember places, people, the cultural awareness or disillusion that accompanied the second Gulf War? What will we call it? Anti-Arabization? Will Bush’s foreign policy look like a dollhouse undergoing an extended exercise in empire building? In an age when politicians hire their own biographers, maybe it is pointless to ask who will be the villains and who will be the heroes. Textbooks will embrace Tommy Franks, but what about Michael Kelly? What about civil liberties? Can those be quantified?
It’s true: Now that troops are through the gates of Baghdad, there’s no turning back.
For protesters, pacifists and even those who looked for alternatives to war, there is no choice left: the option of doubting war is gone. Of course, history cannot be erased, but the worlds’ superpowers have proven they can deadbolt its door, board up its windows and whisper to all the kids in the neighborhood that it is haunted.