The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Thematic: The Use and Abuse of History


The stuff of history is not outside us.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Mosaic from Herculaneum showing Neptune and Amphitrite (detail); archimago/Alamy Stock Photo.

The only complete library still with us from antiquity is the one at Herculaneum, near Pompeii, preserved when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried it and its holdings in lava and pumice. One of the more exquisite feats of human patience and perseverance began in the eighteenth century with the first excavations of the library, and efforts to read and preserve its trove of texts continue to this day, and will continue, we can hope, long after we are gone.

Those fortunate enough to have seen the scrolls of the ancient philosophical works say they resemble nothing so much as lumps of coal. After earlier mishaps in which some scrolls, before being recognized as such, were burned or thrown out, lost forever to neglect, others were lost to overattention. Early methods and machines that were devised to unroll the scrolls usually caused their destruction, leaving only snippets that were recorded or salvaged. Thanks to breakthroughs in technology, a process of virtual unrolling promises accurate renderings of the words without destroying the carbonized pages. It is still a daunting task. So apparently is the process of navigating the politics of the papyri—local, international, institutional—which at times are treated with more security than many state secrets.11xJo Marchant, “Buried by the Ash of Vesuvius, These Scrolls Are Being Read for the First Time in Millennia,” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2018, It is awe inspiring to think of those who are taking such pains to bring the texts back into view. Theirs is a feat of daring and service. This kind of painstaking work over the course of entire lifetimes allows us to hear voices from the past, the voices of philosophers who have, in turn, put their minds to the painstaking, lifelong task of putting their thoughts into words for posterity. They tried to reach out to us, and in all of our efforts to read what they wrote, we are trying to reach back to them.

In contrast with this heroic labor of recovery and preservation, the destruction in Ukraine taking place before our eyes is all the more horrifying. In one case, we take every care not to destroy even a millimeter of evidence of people who lived long ago, while in the other, bombs, missiles, and artillery take out huge structures like bridges and buildings, and even whole towns. In the former, people hold their breath so as not to sneeze and disperse fragile evidence, while in the latter, humans (though it is tempting not to use the word) demolish heritage sites, burn paintings, and end people’s lives with technologies of mass destruction. If some of us are so determined to hold on to every shred and shard we have of another time and place and people, why are others at the same time heedlessly destroying lives and priceless historical works?

It is only reasonable to make a rigid distinction between the destruction of historical sites and the loss of human life. In one sense, of course we must make that distinction. Who with a heart would not give all of our museums to save the small boy lost to the grief-stricken mother, the middle-aged woman returning home with her bike, the ninety-six-year-old man who survived the Holocaust, or any other person killed in this war, civilian or soldier? Yet in another sense, the stuff of history is not outside us—and cannot be cordoned off from our day-to-day lives. We are surrounded by the creations of people we never knew; we live amid their expressions, their constructions, their communications. And with the loss of each living person comes a loss of history, because each of us is history. We are a walking, living, breathing, unfolding history, inseparable from the history around us. History is not only external but internal.

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