Roger Cohen: The Presence of the Past

As we grow older, the past looms larger.

There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility.

It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.

The future may seem wan by comparison and, for each of us, we know more or less where it ends. With a bang or a whimper, Henry James’s “distinguished thing” awaits us.

Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89.

Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option.

So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.

Yet as Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, “The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.”

The past is potent, subject to manipulation. Wars nearly always involve memory trafficked into inflammatory myth.

I am a newspaperman. I try to understand, evoke and make vivid the present. That is not possible without understanding the past. We are the sum of our lived moments. It is worth turning time’s arrow backward.

I had always wanted to tell stories, the inner within the outer, the intimate secreting the universal. I liked to be the outsider looking in.

Often the stories were about lives swept away in the gale of history: the children of Beirut in 1983 who could not sleep without the familiar and so reassuring sound of gunfire; a Polish priest who discovered in middle age that he was a Jew entrusted by his Nazi-murdered parents to a Catholic family; Argentine twins stolen at birth from their murdered student mother by a childless junta army officer; mixed Bosnian families broken asunder by the boozy Serb killers who injected the virus of sectarian hatred into Sarajevo; a German woman loath to contemplate her beautiful blue eyes because they reminded her of a former Nazi concentration camp commander — her father.

Mirages, shadows, specters: the stuff of memory. How we remember, as nations and as individuals, is critical.

I first began to think seriously about the ferocious force of the past as a war correspondent covering Yugoslavia’s destruction. The Serbs who threw hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of their homes had been whipped into a nationalist frenzy. They had been convinced by a cynical leader that these secular Bosnian Muslims, so recently part of the same country called Yugoslavia, indistinguishable in fact, were a reincarnation of the Turks of old, latter-day Ottomans determined to affix the crescent moon of Islam to the church spires of Christian Europe.

When the past is suppressed, memory becomes explosive. Bosnians, Serbs and Croats re-enacted, in the 1990’s, the civil-war horrors of the 1940’s whose mention had become taboo under the clamp of Tito’s postwar Communist dictatorship.

When the past is cultivated at the expense of the present, memory becomes a blind alley. Those keys to long-lost Palestinian olive groves are now open-sesames only to further violence.

When the past overwhelms, it can turn victim into oppressor behind a shield called “Never Again.”

History illuminates. It can also blind.

The world may broadly be divided into areas that are captive of their pasts — the Balkans, the Middle East for example — and areas that are hard-wired to their futures — the United States and most of Asia. Europe, I think, lies somewhere in between.

One of my sons lives in Vietnam. Whenever I am there I marvel at the graves among the rice paddies. It is a powerful symbol of the living and the dead mingling, present and past. It is an image of acceptance. Nobody wants to talk about the war in Vietnam that ended 40 years ago.

How different from the dead of the Middle East, venerated as martyrs, martyrs of Islam demanding further sacrifice of life. Those celestial virgins have a lot to answer for.

I love the lines of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai about peace only coming to the Holy Land when a Jerusalem guide tells his tour group: “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Fruit and vegetables, unlike that ancient arch, nourish a future.

The past is there. We must understand it, our own, our community’s and our nation’s. Suppressing it will only be achieved at a price. That price is often bloodshed. But nor can we be consumed by the past, re-fight its battles or succumb to the sterility of vengeance.

Not to remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous.

Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.

[From the NYTimes of May 18, 2015]

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