OWhat have we forgotten? This is a good question to ask yourself on this Remembrance Sunday. Forgetting isn’t just a matter of missing friends’ birthdays or not sending Christmas cards to first cousins. There is a deeper, almost metaphysical form of forgetting when we forget the inner meaning of an outer sign.
The tragedies of daily life are made up of such oversights. One day a woman looks up and forgets to see the man she loves in her husband’s face. A man breaks a window and searches a cash register. He forgot what it was like to be a child who felt a creepy fear at the fault of breaking the law, innocence is the easiest thing to forget. A student sits alone in his room, staring at a screen, he has forgotten the joy of leaving home in the morning, the smell of the air, the wave of sound and light that carries you from your doorstep into the world.
Tradition, praised on the right, decried on the left, is literally neither more nor less than memory. We cannot and should not seek to stop movement and change, which is the nature of life, and those who forget the past are as guilty of it as those who cling to it. Tradition looks at Janus facing the past and the future in the same gesture.
Each new account of what has gone before changes and adds to it
Creativity is nothing more than contemplating the works of the past, our natural and human histories, and responding to them with word, gesture and sign. Each new account of what came before changes and adds to it, things are new and fresh because each addition is a differentiation that changes the structure and meaning of everything that came before it. Like adding new words or punctuation to a sentence, meaning and meaning can reverse and reverse again, without losing a word.
Locke’s modern idea of the self-created and self-generated self tabula rasa or blank slate, is really a form of oblivion, a toxic Lethe that we baptize ourselves into, hoping to rid ourselves of our given biology and inherited culture. But the biology and the culture remain, and all that is removed is our memory of them, leaving the modern subject, a lost soul that perpetually redefines itself in search of a meaning they believe resides within, but which is actually outside and beyond themselves.
Beyond thinking about it in abstractions, our basic ability to live together successfully and have a common stock of common language and culture to draw on is degraded. In villages and towns across the country, communities gather to observe Remembrance Sunday as they have done for 100 years. After World War I, so many young men had died that the ratio of women to men was 109 percent in 1921, an even higher ratio among young men and women.
Although 100 years separate us from it, this century is not as long everywhere. In British regions and communities where many have lived for generations, history is as short as collective memory. In Nottinghamshire where I grew up and where my parents still live, the old factories, mines and wars seem much closer in time than they do in restless and uprooted London.
Many left-leaning media and politicians, particularly but not only Corbynites, are often wary of the ubiquity and alleged militarism of Remembrance Day. They complain about the “poppy police”, the BBC’s obsequiousness and generally regard it, like the monarchy, as a conservative institution.
The prevalence of this kind of perspective is worrying not because of the relative merits of Remembrance itself – indeed the pacifist reaction to it and the White Poppy movement received considerable support in the 1930s, including among veterans. military. It is the misunderstanding of communities for which Remembrance is a natural and important ritual.
You rarely see a white poppy today because much of the anti-war sentiment has been absorbed into Remembrance itself, with anti-war poems in the school curriculum and an atmosphere of tragedy rather than celebration. The average Brit today supports the troops but does not want to send them into battle.
Divisions around the war and issues of militarism and nationalism are no longer living issues dividing British communities, and for most remembrance has become a means of connecting to a sense of history and belonging. shared. So why is does it divide some of us? What are the lines today?
The clue is the difference between my old house and my new one – call it Lambley vs. London. Few people have heard of the village of just over 1000 souls, with a magnificent parish church and an ancient wood in which you can walk. I knew it when my mother worked there as a priest.
The people who lived and worshiped there were incredibly warm and hospitable to me, an awkward teenager, and were deeply invested in the life of their community. Even those who didn’t go to church helped out at parish feasts. And of course, alongside the importance of things like the agricultural show (elsewhere in the county, my mom always draws huge crowds when she goes to bless the tractors), Remembrance Sunday is a big deal.
Lambley Parish Council raised funds to place a war memorial at Passchendaele in Derbyshire stone for the sake of the nine Lambley men who died in the conflict. I doubt they had British foreign policy or the merits of war in mind when they did this. One of the reasons why I suspect so many left-wing personalities are wary of Remembrance Sunday and why you hear so much about the BBC and ‘poppy fascism’ is that many of them only experience Remembrance Day through the BBC and national ceremonies involving top politicians.
London is not devoid of traditional communities, and its diversity does not necessarily disconnect it from wartime history (as Rakib Ehsan has writing over a million South Asian men served in the war). However, the way people live in London, with the constant turnover of internal and external migration, the large population of young tenants, the relentless emphasis on global capitalism rather than a national economy and culture, has created a increasingly uprooted and characterless city. . What goes for London also goes of course for the way many professionals live increasingly disconnected from place and tradition.
The objection many have with the “official” form of Remembrance may represent a serious disconnect with the organic, local version, but it may also have a half point. Although officials and politicians follow the same movements as people in parish churches across the country, the meaning is wearing thin.
I remember at my local Church of England school, little sense of moral depth and shared culture was passed on. The attitude of those who ran and taught at the school was that education was a series of practical skills, and that the most important value to internalize was “respect” – a sort of banal passively caring attitude of “I won’t bother you”. if you don’t disturb the men”. It is this, and not the most extreme excesses of “revivalism”, that represent the decline of British education and culture.
We just turn them into numbers
Although we honor the generations now dead and gone – the Edwardian and Victorian men who gave their lives on the bloody fields of France and Belgium – do we really remember them? We content ourselves with making it a number for a reverent burial in our past, or a tearful reflection on the tragedy of war, but do we learn from it?
The Britain they gave their lives for was an exceptional nation – a parliamentary democracy in a world where political freedom was the exception, a rich country where most were poor, the leading industrial power, a beacon of thought and culture, a vibrant and vital nation at the heart of world history. In addition to these national glories, men fought and women sacrificed on behalf of the mosaic of lives, families and communities that made up this national project. They fought or courageously refused to kill in the name of deep religious and ethical principles.
We cannot honor the sacrifices made by our ancestors if we do not remember what they died for. We don’t have to believe exactly like them, or live exactly like they lived. But if we forget their life, we are doomed to forget ourselves. As we all come together on Remembrance Sunday, we should ask ourselves what we remember and why. And what we forgot to remember.