Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The creative act of Remembrance

MOST of us have family dead in Flanders. Like many I attended a Remembrance Sunday service at one of the thousands of monuments across the country. One by one the names were read out and we were moved to tears at the loss of a generation so monstrously wiped out. For me the purpose of the ceremony was to celebrate the lives of the dead by hearing their names spoken rather than them remaining silently etched in stone. As a trembling human voice sounds each name, the fact of their existence, their death and all the unrealised potential of their lives is made tangible. Somehow the humanity of the speaker brings something of the humanity of the dead back to life.

Humans seem to need stories

Humans seem to need stories – stories which provide us some kind of rationale for the brutal insanity of human conflict. We invent mythologies that carve sense from nonsense and justify past actions to suit current sensibilities. Provided with a story, however arbitrary and ridiculous that story might at times be, our deepest longings are calmed. Some historical episodes, perhaps the war against Hitler is the most obvious case, can be rendered rational in the sense that the cause of freedom was real, tangible and shared – the allied effort makes sense. But such rational explanation is not an option for many historical events despite humanity’s yearn for reasons. The travesty of Flanders is one such episode.

The dead were people just like us

It may seem obvious but the dead were people just like us. They hoped and loved and were fearful just like me and you. For me, it is only luck that I was born when and where I was and that it wasn’t me facing what they faced. Most of us have asked ourselves how we would have coped in those trenches – would I have gone over the top with a gulp of whiskey, an officer’s pistol behind me and a machine gun in front of me? I think that if I could have managed to fight through the sheer terror to move my limbs at all, I would have done whatever I could to survive. I am pretty sure that the language of ‘sacrifice’, ‘gallantry’ and ‘duty’, if it was used, would have seemed as meaningless then, as it seems to me now. Such language, so embedded in our services, rituals and common discourse needs to be carefully examined against the criterion of both sense and reality.

Many may disagree with me but the critical study of history and more importantly, the critical study of our readings of history, brings us to face the madness of human strife. Studying history is vital not just because we might forget the lives of our forebears but because we constantly need to find our own humanity. We need to hear the voices of the past and we need to tussle and struggle with readings of the past in order to find ourselves. In that sense remembrance is one of the most creative things we can do.

Article originally posted on The Backbencher


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  3. The dead were people just like us - one of the most powerful phrases in this post. I love the way your words flow, the way you write, the language you use is enchanting. On daily basis, people don't give enough thought to the world around us, past and present. If everyone had these types of thoughts, than this world would be a better place. If fear of writing assignments strikes, visit us today and stop worrying about them.

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