Ben-Meir: History, then and now

What is history in the era of YouTube? With the Internet providing easy access to endless (and endlessly fragmented) information, and with self-selected social networks rapidly replacing more tangible communities, our society is losing the common ground on which histories are built.

History is more than a record of things that happened; it is a set of shared reference points that gives coherence to a people, the glue that joins individuals into communities. In a world that encourages isolation, we must reach out and construct a common story.

Herodotus begins his “History” with an explanation: “I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being.” The act of recording history is a communal act; Herodotus places himself as both member and guardian of the accomplishments of a broader humanity. He is not writing for personal glory, but to preserve for others the essence and texture of that which preceded their own lives. For the brief period of time that Herodotus’ “History” represented the entire field of study, the power of history was undeniable. Because everyone shared a common past, all people could work together toward a common future.

Of course, this unitary understanding of the past could not last long. As history progressed, progressively more histories were written, while technology and culture continued to develop in ways destructive to the preservation of shared identity. As the idea of the individual was elevated ever higher, the concept of community grew less and less important; people became increasingly consumed with exploring themselves, to the point of ignoring their neighbors. A radical selfishness developed, not only materially but ideologically as well, as man forgot that he was part of something larger than himself.

In 1978, Milan Kundera wrote in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”: “At a time when history still made its way slowly, the few events were easily remembered and woven into a backdrop, known to everyone, before which private life unfolded its gripping show of adventures. Nowadays, time moves forward at a rapid pace. Forgotten overnight, a historic event glistens the next day like the morning dew and thus is no longer the backdrop to a narrator’s tale but rather an amazing adventure enacted against the overfamiliar banality of private life.” Kundera argues that modern life has inverted the communal and the private; rather than history being the backdrop on which individual lives play out, a pastiche of isolated individuals create the backdrop for historical events. History is no longer the foundation for a shared experience, but merely a string of Christmas lights, colorful but providing little illumination, dangling in the spaces between our private lives.

My purpose, however, is not to eulogize history. Instead, I write to argue for the necessity of a constructed history, a deliberate attempt to unify our fractured experiences into a coherent narrative.

I witnessed this happen a few weeks ago at the New Haven Historical Society. A panel had been assembled to discuss President Obama’s inauguration. Each of the four speakers approached the topic from a very different vantage point: Professor David Blight talked about Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, while professor and inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander tried to capture some of the visceral energy of the day, describing the sound of millions of feet outside her bedroom window in the early hours of the morning.

The walls were hung with prints of photographs chosen after an open call for images; 25 photographers responded, many of whom sat in the audience. As the night went on, the people in the room began to share their stories. Others began to nod with common recognition or new understanding. Children heard about the legacy of Medgar Evers from their parents, and parents came to understand the way Facebook captured the collective emotional response to the inauguration from their children.

That night, the shards of isolated experiences were once again gathered together. With a little effort, a room was able to overcome the fractures of modern life, and tell a shared story. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Ilan Ben-Meir is a freshman in Trumbull College.

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