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Against History-as-Nightmare

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

The idea of the past as nothing but a nightmare, specifically one of injustice, is probably the prevailing historiographical trope of our time. Certainly no one could reasonably claim that nightmares have been lacking in human history. And yet, at the same time, it is undeniable that there has been progress: very few of us would care to take our chances in the kind of conditions, either political or material, that prevailed in, say, the 16th century.

The fact remains, however, that for more than one reason, history-as-nightmare is nowadays an infinitely more powerful organising narrative principle than history-as-progress.

In the first place, nightmares present themselves much more vividly to the imagination than the slow accretion of progress, just as hell is much more easily envisaged than heaven—and more enjoyable to imagine, too.

In the second place, when progress occurs, it is immediately taken for granted, as if it were a merely natural process that had never really required human effort to take place. Who now is grateful for the elimination of the suffering caused by peptic ulceration, for example? There is simply no cultural recollection of peptic ulceration at all, though well within living memory books were written about how to live with, or despite, your ulcer, what diet to take to assuage your ulcer, and so forth. Once they are cured, it is simply taken for granted that people do not have such maladies—progress magically did away with them.

In the third place, and most importantly, the fact of progress is much less useful to political entrepreneurs than is the narrative of history as nothing but a nightmare that continues to the present day and, as Marx put it, weighs upon the brain of the living. Only by keeping the memory of the nightmare ever-present in the minds of their sheep, thereby stoking resentment, may the political shepherds herd, and then fleece, the flock.

A fourth great advantage of history-as-nightmare is that it explains the failures and failings of everybody who is dissatisfied or disappointed with his life. To misquote Shakespeare: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves, but in our stars, that we are underlings. We do not fail the world, the world fails us. How comforting a thought!

This is not to say that resentment is never justified in the abstract. People have been mistreated abominably, both as groups and individuals, throughout history. They can inherit the effects of the mistreatment of their ancestors, the iniquity done to the fathers being visited upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation.    

Because resentment has certain sour satisfactions, it is one of the few emotions that can persist unabated for years.

Nevertheless, such inherited effects attenuate with time and can even disappear very quickly, as they did in the case of my own family. Moreover, resentment, even where justified or at least understandable, is never a constructive emotion: for in any given situation, it suggests to the one who feels it all that he cannot do to improve his situation rather than all that he can, thus inhibiting effort. And even when, despite his resentment, he makes successful efforts at improvement, his resentment often sours his success. Many are the successful men and women who carry their resentment with them to their grave.

Because resentment has certain sour satisfactions, it is one of the few emotions that can persist unabated for years: indeed, it tends to increase, because it exists in a mental echo-chamber. One such sour satisfaction is that it allows the one who feels it to think himself morally superior to the world as it is at present constituted, even if he has done nothing to improve it, or done something to make it a little worse. And where resentment leads to action rather than to passivity, it is almost always action that is destructive rather than constructive. It leads also to a considerable quantity of humbug, insofar as it primes people to look for new justifications for their dissatisfactions, and to claim that they cannot be happy until there is no more unhappiness caused by injustice in the world.

The historiography that a person is taught and grows up with has, in my view, an underestimated effect on his psychology. The danger of too optimistic an historiography is that a person will become complacent, self-satisfied and indifferent to the remediable sufferings around him; but too pessimistic an historiography will embitter him and stimulate the resentment that is never very far from the human heart (is there anyone who has never resented?). Of the two deformations, I prefer the former, which at least is likely to encourage a desire to contribute something constructive rather than destructive: but need we have a deformation at all?

Preferable to either deformation is an historiography that is capable of recognising defects and even horrors in a tradition, but also strengths and glories, such that the tradition can survive without remaining obdurately stuck in its worst grooves. This requires a certain sophistication, that is to say, an ability to hold in the mind more than one thought at a time. It also requires the recognition that, man being a fallen creature, perfection is not of this world and cannot be demanded of the past, however glorious aspects of it might be. Suffice it to say that the encouragement of such sophistication hardly seems to be the order of the day in our educational institutions.

There is a cultural equivalent of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Once entropy has gone far enough, there is little left to save. To change the analogy slightly, the baby will have gone down the plughole well before the bathwater. That will soon follow, of course, and an empty bath is an uninviting place.   

Reader Discussion

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on August 11, 2020 at 13:32:33 pm

In re "History as Nightmare" and the past as a self-organizing, negative emotional force, at least three psychological explanations might be made, all of which apply to the Left: from Freud for the neurotic Leftie, sexual repression (which to Becker was the repressed fear of death and transference induced by the denial of mortality,) from Shakespeare for the deranged Leftie, Banquo's ghost as the present manifestation of one's evil past harming the mind and rendering one mentally unstable; and, for the healthy-minded, progressive Leftie, from William James' admonition that, despite attempts at repressing the evil of one's past (let's say, by demolishing monuments or burning Bibles,) "Still the evil background is really there to be thought of all the time, and the skull will grin in at the banquet."

Perhaps our psychiatrist author has an opinion.

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paladin
on August 12, 2020 at 06:25:41 am

The sad thing is that those who feel compelled to always portray history as negative have no interest in proper historical research, a quick glance at Wikipedia seems to suffice for them. A good example of this is the boarding-up of the statue of Thomas Guy in the forecourt of Guy's Hospital on the grounds that he was a slave-trader. In fact he was a great philanthropist who had nothing to do with the slave trade, but this seems to be of no interest to the administrators who initiated the masking of the statue in response to ill-informed protests. As of today the statue remains boarded -up. An application to Southwark Council to remove the statue has received 122 objections (many of them extremely erudite) and no supporters. I presume the managers (Hospital and University) are more afraid of an ignorant mob than intellectuals who have taken the trouble to research the true history of Guy and his hospital which has done enormous good for nearly 300 years. The fact that the buildings and the statue are beautiful Georgian structures which have listed status is of course also of no interest to vandals and iconoclasts.

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Richard Spicer
on August 11, 2020 at 14:53:51 pm

Love your skillful use of the sheep metaphor!

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ray ward
on August 11, 2020 at 20:51:06 pm

History, conceived in this vein, is such a puerile and stupid conceptual indulgence that it can only be explained in psychological cum moral terms. Then and thus, as a second order explanation, in terms of its politically manipulative usefulness. Which is what has been done. With the exception of comedy and satire and parody and the like there is no other way to approach this subject, this phenomena.

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Michael Bond
on August 12, 2020 at 19:03:54 pm

Sir, for many communities, history has been a nightmare. These communities exist in many countries that pride themselves in democracy and liberalism. In reality, it has always been freedom and rights for some. Unless the national narratives are re written and the marginalized included, there will be attacks on the official narrative and its symbols.

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Jack Kalpakian
on August 12, 2020 at 21:51:22 pm

Year-zero rewrites are not an option most would like to entertain, for example in the manner of the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks of various stripes, etc. Besides, histories are forever being written, rewritten and updated, edited, amended, etc. Such has always been the case within the classical liberal tradition. There is no "official" history. The ones who want to impose an official history are the ones your gloss seeks to mask and defend, precisely the year-zero types alluded to, the BLM and antifa types and likeminded.

Rather than a mere gloss provide some specifics, what official history? Which symbols? Specifics. Details. Probity. A probative and cogent line of argumentation.

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Michael Bond
on August 12, 2020 at 22:18:52 pm

This typically thoughtful essay by Dr. Dalrymple addresses a subset of a larger topic, and that is information as a cultural entity.

The way that information influences and is manipulated in culture has been in abundant evidence recently. Animus toward historical figures and suppression of information about them is of a piece with cancel culture aimed at more modern targets, "fake news," censorship by social media platforms, and suppression of information that is thought to be unhelpful to a preferred narrative. The reluctance of news media to include racial traits in descriptions of crime suspects, or obscuring information about them by use of anodyne terms such as "Houston man," or "youths" are part of the same phenomenon. Ignorance is considered a political asset, and is actively cultivated.

Only the most naive would believe that any person who accomplished great things did not have some skeletons in the closet. This, however is a far cry from attempts to suppress the historical facts about those who accomplished the things that produced the modern world. At the end of Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, he provides biographical sketches of great physicists. His entry on Isaac Newton begins "Isaac Newton was not a pleasant man," and ends with "[h]ere he used his talents for deviousness and vitriol..." Professor Hawking was, of course well within his rights to point out what he saw as flaws in man who undoubtedly accomplished great things, but this criticism is far different from claiming that Newton should not be honored for his contributions to mathematics and physics, or should be banished from the scientific canon.

The modern notion of thinking that one perfects the future by erasing the past is not novel, and is neither intelligent nor effective. It is in fact an emotional indulgence that attempts to elevate the unaccomplished and narcissistic critic over those that created the world in which the critic has the luxury of doing so. Pretending that things that we do not like do not exist, or that events of which we disapprove did not did not happen, regardless of the justifications given for them, are extensions of a childish way of looking at the world that could not survive in less frivolous times.

Attempting to shape culture by selective suppression of information; information about the past, current events, "dangerous ideas," and so on, is misguided, destructive, and ultimately futile. It is a paradox that we have never had such ready access to information and so little idea of what to do with it.

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z9z99
on August 13, 2020 at 10:42:58 am

The Chinese communist revolution started with the destruction of Chinese culture. They destroyed the symbols, stories, heroes, etc. to make the advancement of a new culture much easier. Today's Left has learned their lessons well. They are applying themselves wholehearted to the same device in America.

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Scott Amorian
Trackbacks
on August 15, 2020 at 21:01:48 pm

[…] Centre éducatif fermé. Another prison psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple, has perceived it as well, writing in Law & Liberty that “there is a cultural equivalent of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. […]

on September 01, 2020 at 17:00:55 pm

[…] . . . the fact of progress is much less useful to political entrepreneurs than is the narrative of history as nothing but a nightmare that continues to the present day and, as Marx put it, weighs upon the brain of the living. Only by keeping the memory of the nightmare ever-present in the minds of their sheep, thereby stoking resentment, may the political shepherds herd, and then fleece, the flock. – Theodore Dalrymple […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

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