Howard Anglin: The past is not so very long ago

When measured in the span of lifetimes, distant history is not so distant
People walk up the stairs at the renovated Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. Peter Dejong/AP Photo.

It takes a lot to stop me in my tracks when I’m reading, but it happened last week in the middle of Terry Glavin’s Substack newsletter (go, subscribe). The occasion was an article about the Peel District School Board’s culling of classic literature following a review ordered by Ontario’s progressive government in the wake of “concerns about equity” back in 2019. Through a series of predictable follies, including a “diversity audit” of school libraries and the “weeding” of “dated” books, this order seems to have resulted in the removal of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl from at least one school library.

The particular line that jolted me out of my passive reading mode was this: “If she were alive today Anne Frank would be 93.” Only 93? I mean, I know that the Second World War ended in 1945 and I can do the math but…only ninety-three? I probably see someone almost that old every day. There is a not unreasonable chance that, had she survived Bergen-Belsen, Anne Frank would still be alive today. The girl who filled her diary with romantic crushes, petty jealousies, and existential fears could easily be a sweet old lady in an Amsterdam nursing home right now.

It is always good to be reminded of how close the past is. Faulkner’s line that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is usually read as a statement specific to the American South, but it’s both more personal and more universal than that. The novel in which the line appears, Requiem for a Nun, is a tough read about race, rape, and suffering, and in context the line refers ambiguously to both a person and a place, one person’s life and the life of a people, memory, and history. It says that we can’t escape the past any more than we can escape our own past. Even when we forget it, it re-emerges like an atavistic gene.

Anne Frank’s age reminds us that the Holocaust happened within a single lifetime, within living memory, as the saying goes. That is, it exists within the memory of the living, though just barely. Very soon it will live only through new lives’ experiences of old memories, which is why initiatives like the World Memory Project are so important. And it’s not just the Holocaust. The older I get, the more recent so much of what I used to think of as distant history seems, especially when measured in human lifetimes. Translated this way, the foreshortening effect can be unnerving.

Think of an 85-year-old man, long-lived but not especially so. Someone you can still talk to. No doubt you know a few. That man you know lived through all of the Second World War, and he’s still here in the flesh. Go back just one more of his lifetime and you are already well before 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation. Go back three such lifetimes, and you are before the French and American Revolutions. Four lifetimes ago, you are before the Glorious Revolution. In only five lifetimes, you are back in the age of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Six, and you are before the Reformation. 

Stephen Fry has an anecdote about meeting the venerable British journalist Alistair Cooke that nicely captures this idea:

When the evening was over Alistair Cooke shook my hand goodbye and held it firmly, saying, ‘This hand you are shaking once shook the hand of Bertrand Russell.’

‘Wow!’ I said, duly impressed.

‘No, No,’ said Cooke, ‘It goes further than that. Bertrand Russell knew Robert Browning. Bertrand Russell’s aunt danced with Napoleon. That’s how close we all are to history. Just a few handshakes away. Never forget that.

The effect works with shorter timespans too. For someone my age, the attacks of 9/11 are so recent they feel, as we say, like yesterday. If I close my eyes, I can put myself right back there on the day (and not just because I was there). The twenty-two years dissolve in an instant. But at the time of 9/11, we were just three such instants from 1935: the year Hitler ordered the rebuilding of the Luftwaffe; the dust bowl year of the Great Depression; the year Alfred Dreyfus died. Just six such instants ago, six blinks of the eye, and we were fighting the Boer War.

Wars, in particular, echo down the generations. They have what economists call a long tail. As of 2019, the United States was still paying a pension to a dependent of a Civil War veteran—and pensions to more than 4,000 from the Spanish-American (1898) and Philippine-American (1899-1902) wars. When I was a boy, our neighbour, the spinster Miss Jones, was a Victorian who could remember the beginning of World War I. It’s likely that, as a boy, her father had a neighbour who similarly remembered the Battle of Waterloo. 

The advent of audio and film recording changed historical memory forever by making the past something we can experience not just vicariously but viscerally. YouTube is full of such time capsules: Civil War veterans performing the Rebel Yell; Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade; Brahms playing one of his Hungarian Dances. The sound quality is poor and distorted by crude technology, but it’s unmistakably the sound of living people. And if you close your eyes and widen your imagination, you can be there with them.

We have photographs of Anne Frank, of course, but unfortunately no recordings. Yet I still can’t get past the idea that she could still be alive today, or banish thoughts of all the unborn children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were snuffed out with her, but who otherwise would be walking our streets and bringing flowers to brighten her room at the nursing home. Nor should we banish such thoughts; it is good to remember. Or as Alistair Cooke reminded Stephen Fry, “Never forget.”

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