I enjoyed this week’s reading on the significance of the Buffalo Bill mythology to constructing a communal memory of the American past, and particularly the Old West. The article argues that, both for good and bad, people tend to romanticize the past, and those ‘memories’ can become the basis for co-creation of an often imaginary past. Of course, our nostalgia for the past isn’t always based in apocrypha, and it tends to be stronger when it isn’t. At any rate, it seems clear that our reality today is not as direct a consequence of the objective past as is usually assumed; broad swaths of our modern identity are assembled through the filter of a common subjective past.
It’s important to critically consider artifacts from the past in order to prevent prevailing sentiments from overshadowing actual history. The reading tells us that it’s often inaccurate to depict these accounts of history as “revisionist”, though they may often be simply misunderstood.
Pictured here is button from my grandfather’s dress uniform. The Essayons (French, meaning “let us try”) button is an emblem of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in which my grandfather served during World War II. I heard very little of this while he was alive. What I heard after he died was that he had served in the Battle of Anzio, during which period he refused to carry his service rifle, preferring to die than to kill.
In the modern American conception, World War II is often blithely remembered as a victory, of ‘us’ over ‘them’, of freedom over oppression, of good over evil. While it may have been all of those things, I think too often that sense of ‘victory’ supplants the recognition of the awfulness of that period, that if it was a victory for America it was still a defeat for humanity. I think physical artifacts can help us remember what happened in the past, but they can never tell us what it was like. A lot of dangerous mythology can be generated when we confuse one for the other.
The text on the Auschwitz exhibit slides refers to Santayana’s admonition that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, amending it with the claim that it’s the past we do remember that we’re most at risk of revisiting. Personally I’ve always found Vonnegut’s take on the quote more accurate; it doesn’t matter what we do or do not remember, we’re doomed to repeat the past because that’s what it means to be alive.