Some family trees trace back to unspeakable tragedies. Can we still love history?
My recent trip to Europe included bunkers and barges, but not the remnants of Belzec Death Camp, where about a dozen of my forebears died.
Or did they die in Tarnopol, their hometown, where thousands of Jews were slain in 1942? I'll never know. My grandmother, who'd sailed to Brooklyn years before and whom I never met, knew only that she never heard from them again.
I went to Europe because I love history — which virtually whispers from each crevice, breathing coal-smoke and ambergris.
Somewhere near Stonehenge, I realized that many us don't merely "love" the past but share an urgent desperation for it, a perverse possessiveness — as if we want to seize each obelisk and stein while shouting This is MINE.
But that's the point of history. It is ours. All of ours. Yet — irreparably, mockingly — it's not. Creatures who resembled us churned butter and raced chariots. Blinking their eyes and flicking their hair just as we blink and flick ours, they wore chainmail and worshiped Zeus. Given one tiny shuffle of the cosmic slide-rule that is time, they all could have been us.
But weren't. Because here we are, texting in their tombs.
History is the ever-expanding bulk of our specieswide past. Spanning the planet — and beyond, if you count spaceflight — over almost half a million years, it shimmers with shared milestones bright and dark.
Now and then, shanks of it split off: migrations, say, and mass conversions. Each shank involves only certain Homo sapiens directly — others less, most just in principle.
The more our species multiplied and thrived, the more such shanks. The more industrious and literate our forebears grew, the more records they left of their grain-grinding, music-making human generality but also their intrinsic specificity and individuality.
Theobald, second son of Isabel-from-Arundel and Fabian-the-Tinsmith, left this will.
As our ancestors made themselves more traceable, the latter-born could increasingly ask: Did that crusade, that plague, that railroad, happen in my culture, my country, my clan?
This century is self-absorbed, stridently tribal. Is that because technology makes us feel at first more, then vertiginously less connected with each other and ourselves and instead unbodied, unreal, adrift? Many among us pay to mail away our DNA — because a sense of place informs a sense of self, sending us scrambling after scientific proof of our places on age-old, double-helixed molecular strands? Proof of belonging somewhere, anywhere, in space/time?
All well and good when our strands lead to royalty. Or remote Swiss chalets. But mine goes bang in 1942. Or splat or whoosh or whatever horrible sounds signify deaths which are rendered abstract by being bits of systematic slaughter yet which I can almost smell.
Maybe you share this gut-punch, time-traveling backward to an epidemic or attempted genocide, family trees hacked and spurting septic sap, alleged homelands mulched by massacre, hiding old shame behind changed borders and new names.
Granted, few spots on earth are historically horror-free. (England expelled all Jews in 1290. Mesopotamians had slaves.) Our bio-links to tragedy are a mere matter of time and degree.
So how can we love history when ours — now, or back up the bloodline — hurts? Why gaze backwards ever, at all?
Because it lets us dream. We often find ourselves enthralled by shanks of it to which we have no bio-links. What could explain my lifelong yearnings for pre-WW2 Japan and the American Wild West? Reincarnation? Believing my talents would be valued there? Attempts to fantasize away a problematic bio-family whose roots remain partially unknown? My mother never knew where her ancestors came from. My friend who loves Edwardian England "divorced" both parents decades ago.
That huge and holy heft called human history is a macro-version of our personal pasts, alight with wars and marvels and burned bridges, boring mornings and red rashes and revolts. Each version helps us understand the other, large and small, so we can name our saints and villains and not forget but lament the lost.
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