The acceleration of history

January 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

As one thing breaks off from another, there is the potential for growth, expansion, an innovated path. In nature, it is called pruning. The moment the human element is raised, such ideas are not so readily taken up. The branches of our family tree are stronger — there is a psychological bond as well as the genetic memory & likeness. From the perspective of a unified people, we are often looked upon as pertaining to one linearity.* This is history, the narrative of humanity. Logic runs in the same sequential ergo; sense happens chronologically, it belongs to time.

Narrative must be understood as the means of (re)telling history, while remaining foreign to it (an exterior layer that is added superficially). Narration & history contradict one another: the devotions of narrative — as elsewhere — remain with the schisms, with the remarkable, marketable points: for it, these are history! The circularity of every-day life has no progress & therefore no place in a timeline. The “& then”s are supplanted by “suddenly”s. Chance rules, fate divines. People do not determine themselves, for which reason, as characters they are in harmony with their stories if not necessarily with life. “[T]here  is no need to make us believe he** is as real as you & I; for him to be strong & unforgettable, it is enough that he fills the whole space of the situation the novelist has created for him” (Kundera The Curtain 66). The same rules could be applied to life: to be “strong & unforgettable”, one must become necessary to that existence, by willing it in its situation at every moment.

That is to say, the fatalism of a fictional character translates into ‘the will’ in actuality.

We have come to the notion of self-novelisation (which will be a regular subject of ours). It is essentially identification & the choice of the self within history, often recorded. Even more simply: the giving of meaning. For “human life as such is a defeat. All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That — that is the raison d’être of the novel” (10), Milan Kundera states marvellously in The Curtain; & not long after: “The novel alone could reveal the immense, mysterious power of the pointless” (21).  The genre is a channel of coming to terms with absurdity, just as self-novelisation is a remedial exercise that forces meaning onto the meaningless.***

For Kundera, the history of art is not infested with this human glitch. “Because while History (mankind’s History) might have the poor taste to repeat itself, the history of an art will not stand for repetitions. Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History’s heels. It is there to create its own history” (27). From the mass of indescribable, inexplicable human events, art could be extracted with its independent history which can be understood & studied. What security! What unimaginable grounding!

This was especially important to authors of the early twentieth century when the dehumanised state made itself truly public (& still had the capacity to shock). “Then the acceleration of History took effect: whereas in the past man had lived continuously in the same setting, in a society that changed only very slowly, now the moment arrived when he suddenly began to feel History moving beneath his feet, like a rolling sidewalk” (55). While history was being made & reported daily (I’m thinking particularly of Europe & the World Wars), individuals could no longer be passive perpetuators. It will come as no surprise that this was the period of the popularisation of existential thought.

It is well-known that the beginnings of historical writing are found in the literary epic tradition where fact & myth collide to inform one another. This placed a value on the past as pertaining to the heroical & worthy — translated into “human” histories, it was the dead & elderly that came to esteem. Contemporaneity was yet to find its place, for it lacked the requisite distance of the epic. It is on account of modernist division that the self & distance could be achieved at once: the self can look into itself, a new humanism is born. [We are to pick up this thread with Sartre in two posts time.]


* Until recently, this was usually a tribal unity & then a national one. History is, in fact, the very technology that is used to establish tribal & national bonds. Contemporary attempts at globalisation fail at achieving similarly powerful unification for their lack of a shared history. Such a project remains a possibility, perhaps to be thwarted by a return to conceiving the world as “wide, wide.”

** The pronouns are gendered as the context refers to a particular character: Schweik, in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik.

*** Other genres are restricted in subject & form, levels of frivolity, lightness or weight, & belong to a world-affirming thought system. To turn to Don Quixote de la Mancha, “it is by tearing though the curtain of pre-interpretation that Cervantes set the new art going; his destructive act echoes & extends to every novel worthy of the name” (92).


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