Monday 13 January 2003

The pleasures of the past

AKMA picked up on my entry The “idealization of historical ignorance”, mentioning it in the context of Tom Matrullo’s post, the blogging subject:

The press can take any amount of media criticism; what it cannot bear is being ignored, even as it practices a most potent, directed form of ignorance in weaving its tales.

In retrospect, I realize I assembled that entry—three long quotations from essays cited in Arts & Letters Daily in the past week—not just because I admired the quality of the thought and the writing (Joan Didion remains one of my favorite writers) but also because historical ignorance has been much on my mind. A couple of weeks ago I watched a documentary about Mark Rothko, in which the critic Brian O’Doherty said:

He was a unique person, who made a unique art and who suffered for it in many ways. I fear it was a very painful business for him. What was particularly painful to him was the insensitivity, ignorance, stupidity, and superficiality of the world at large. And there is no shortage of that, as we know.

A few days later, reading W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, I came upon the following passage:

When I came back from France I bought this house for what today is the positively ridiculous sum of nine hundred and fifty pounds, and then I taught for almost thirty years until I took early retirement in 1991, partly, said Austerlitz, because of the inexorable spread of ignorance even to the universities, and partly because I hoped to set out on paper my investigations into the history of architecture and civilization, as had long been my intention.

Onko-chishin, visit the past to know the newOn the weekend, looking for a text with which I could test some newly-arrived Japanese TrueType fonts, I consulted a dictionary of Japanese idioms. Amongst examples such as “If a dog walks around enough, it is likely to get hit with a stick” and “a bee sting on a crying face” I found onko-chishin, “visit the past to know the new”. The example sentence read:

It is precisely because we find ourselves living in an age deluged with information that we must not forget the importance of a thorough grounding in the classics.

The “troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance” of which Joan Didion writes has a multiplicity of causes. Some spring immediately to mind:

  • a naive trust in what Tom Matrullo calls the “motivated simplification” of the media-constructed narrative;
  • a confusion of the difference in worth between knowledge and information;
  • an inflated sense of self (based upon an inability to recognize one’s own incompetence); and
  • an overweening belief in the inexorable march of progress.

Tom Matrullo writes:

Blogs at best bear fewer traces of media ignorance and more marks of the mind offering uncommon attention to the world we imagine we share.

True, but is it not also possible that we are writing ourselves into an existence of which only we are aware? That the “inexorable spread of ignorance” continues unabated while we entertain each other within Blogaria’s borders.

What to do? In immersing oneself in the past do you not run the risk of disengaging from the present? What happens when the old turns out to be infinitely more fascinating than the new?

In Antonioni’s Blow Up, Verushka tells the photographer she won’t be available for a shoot because she’s going to Paris. She runs into him at a party later and he says, “You’re supposed to be in Paris.”

“I am in Paris,” she replies. I know just how she felt.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour