[This article is by my friend Eric Gandy, a long-time resident of Stockholm, born in England].
Some of these messages may be sent unintentionally, such as the information embodied in artifacts or documents that have survived over the centuries, when discovered and interpreted by archaeologists or genealogists. What picture of the past do these unintentional messages send to present and future generations? The senders have no ulterior motive behind these unintentional messages, but despite this they often paint a picture which is not “true” in an objective sense. Just think about the messages sent in photo albums handed on to the next generation, often by grandparents. Photo albums usually portray happy families celebrating holidays, birthdays, weddings, parties and the like. The family photographer does not deliberately set out to influence the memories of grandchildren, but seldom gives a true picture of the ups and downs, the tears and frustrations of everyday family life.
Other messages to the future are sent deliberately with an intention of manipulating the thinking and ideas of future generations. The winners write the history books. In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell wrote, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Or as Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”. The many official histories commissioned from embedded journalists or paid-off academics bear witness to how widespread is what Michel Foucault called “historical revisionism” in a series of lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, entitled Society Must be Defended. This is often described as “setting the picture straight”, giving biased views of past events to justify past or current policies. In this perspective, unintentional messages from the past seem more reliable, if not wholly objective.
Each year produces volume after volume of historical books purporting to explain things in the past, books which often top the bestseller lists and are made into popular films and TV series. The authors of these history books contribute to our collective memory. But this approach to history is like trying to look back thousands of years using a gigantic telescope, looking at the past from today’s perspective and values. It is all the more interesting, then, to study the messages, unintentional and intentional, sent to us from the past.
When did all this sending messages to the future start? Who were the first historians? Where does the idea of writing down what you see, that is, eye-witness accounts, come from? And why did they do it?
Herodotus is regarded as the great pioneer of historical writing based on first-hand experience, with his account of the war between the Persians and the Greeks in A.D. 490-479, The Histories. Little is known about the person Herodotus or his background. He was a traveler and observer, who saw history-telling as a way of understanding the universe, as it was then known. But he also used this knowledge to analyse moral and philosophical questions. At that time, most stories and messages were passed on orally.
Herodotus explains why he set out to write about what he saw:
Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks, among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between the Greeks and non-Greeks.
Kapuscinski worked in the same way as Herodotus did, describing his approach as “crossing the border”. “I could only move forward” was how Kapuscinski expressed it, and he did this in the spirit of Herodotus:
In the world of Herodotus, the only real repository of memory is the individual. In order to find out that which has been remembered, one must reach this person. If he lives far away, one has to go to him, to set out on a journey. And after finally encountering him, one must sit down and listen to what he has to say–to listen, remember, perhaps write it down…So Herodotus wanders the world, meets people, listens to what they tell him.
Just like Edward Weston and Herodotus, Kapuscinski saw it as his mission to send messages to the future to help us understand the past.
What messages are you and I sending to future generations?
Eric, I reread this marvelous article today. It deserves more attention than it has been getting, and will ever get, in my blog. I suggest ‘sending’ it to a real journal.
Best pandemic wishes,