As is probably evident by now, I am fascinated by History and by Heritage, which are two different things, the former being a narration of a series of events regarded as significant by a person, a community or a nation, and taking place within a specific timeline; and the latter being a collection, or at least an acknowledgement, of traces of the past, whether tangible or intangible, that remain in the present.
If that seems like a mouthful to regurgitate, it’s because both History and Heritage are complex things. They pertain to the “essence” or the “soul” of a person, a community, or a nation; and “essences” or “souls” are not things that may be explained, or captured, in a single sentence.
But to return to the question I posed implicitly: why the fascination with History and Heritage? Or to keep it as simple as I can…why the fascination with the Past?
The first reason is that the contemplation of History and Heritage provides for an opportunity to revel in a sense of loss and melancholy. In today’s upbeat, Victoria’s Secret world, everything is perfect, everyone is happy, the average human being is a dynamic, aspirational creature, and humankind in general is constantly bettering itself. At least, that’s what we are fed, relentlessly, by the media.
Loss and melancholy are grossly under-rated. We don’t know how to express grief and sadness; we are embarrassed, in fact, by situations that require it. There is nothing like contemplating a ruined cathedral or palace, or, in my case this past week, contemplating the haunting National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims in Nagasaki, to bring very starkly to mind a) the fact that we have lost the ability to appreciate loss; b) that loss and melancholy are very much an integral part of the human experience, without which we are no longer human; and c) that humankind isn’t always on a trajectory of self-betterment; sometimes we throw ourselves a curveball of monumental proportions. Quite literally, in the case of Nagasaki (and Hiroshima).
Loss needn’t always hold a negative connotation. It could describe longing for a past (perceived as) infinitely better than the present. I am describing the phenomenon of Nostalgia – the second reason for my fascination with the Past. Nostalgia is a form of Escape – a deluded conviction that things were better before than they are now; and an equally deluded attempt to try to re-capture, or re-live that illusory Time Past.
Deluding one’s self, however, can be a delightful experience. My Grand Tour of the Far East is, after all, an epic exercise in Nostalgia – a highly elaborate re-creation of a kind of lush, luxurious lifestyle I, being non-European, would have been systematically excluded from in those halcyon days (the 1900s – 1930s) I lovingly describe.
Whatever the intent, whether lamenting Loss or indulging Nostalgia, my fascination with the past ultimately stems from a recognition that it is important always to Remember. As our lives become more modern, more fast-paced and more concerned with the future, we have become increasingly become forgetful as a civilization and as a species. This is a worrying trend.
Remembrance affords us the opportunity to evaluate our past, building on our successes, and most importantly, learning from our mistakes. The risk we take, in constructing a modern society where the past has no place – where the dead have no place (cue: Bukit Brown in Singapore) – is that then we lose our ability to properly venerate death and the past; and in so doing, inevitably let slip respect and appreciation for life and/in the present.
Not remembering the past means not learning from our mistakes. It suggests – and what a horrifying thought this is! – the possibility that the events leading up to the incident memorialized in Nagasaki’s National Peace Memorial Hall may one day repeat themselves.
Surely a possibility if we don’t even remember anymore what all that sturm und drang was 70 years ago; and how it all came about in the first place.
Let’s not take History and Heritage lightly.