09 June 2010

David P. Hamilton : Where's Our Sense of History?

Rocamadour, a historic village in the Dordogne region of France. Photo from Les Bau-Tremblay en voyage website.

A sense of history:
We don't have it. France does.

By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / June 9, 2010
“Living in France is the first time I can honestly say I feel at home.” -- Johnny Depp, Owensboro, Kentucky
I recently got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (sic) and hated it. I’ve never been a fan of Tarantino, principally because of his idea that gratuitous violence is funny if not liberating. I expect him to soon remake the Three Stooges with AK-47’s. What bothered me more on this occasion was his contempt for history and that he seemed to relish that contempt.

To fictionalize history is normal. Tolstoy’s War and Peace centers on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. More recently, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise brilliantly deals with the same subject Tarantino tackles, the Nazi occupation of France. These authors honor the actual history. Tarantino mocks it. The events he depicts not only did not happen, they are wildly contradictory to what did.

It’s like remaking The Alamo, but having the Texans win or having regiments of newly liberated slaves marching across Georgia at the head of Sherman’s army. Tarantino’s cavalier approach to history is typically American and contrasts sharply with Europe where history is an ever-present feature of people’s lives and they take it seriously.

During our trip to France this year, my wife and I visited Rocamadour, a historic village in the Dordogne region. The date of its founding is uncertain, but by the Middle Ages it was already a major pilgrimage site. On important occasions, tens of thousands were said to have gathered in the narrow valley below its ecclesiastical center. In May of 1270, the French King Louis IX (aka, Saint Louis), his queen and three brothers visited. That was in its heyday.

Rocamadour’s setting is striking, ancient churches clinging to vertical 500 foot limestone cliffs. Centuries ago, penitents climbed hundreds of steps leading to the cathedral on their knees in chains. A medieval village nestled below provided services for the pilgrims. Today, those steps are traversed daily by thousands of unrepentant tourists. The medieval village has barely changed, ancient buildings and still full of restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops.

Not far north of Rocamadour are the ruins of the village of Oradour-Sur-Glane. On June 10, 1944, four days after the Allied landing on Normandy’s beaches, a detachment of Nazi SS troops entered the village, rounded up the inhabitants, including 247 children, and massacred them all. As the Michelin guide says, it was “chosen for its very innocence and insignificance, the better to terrorize the French.” In April 1945, before the war was even over, De Gaulle made a pilgrimage there and declared that the ruins should remain forever untouched as a memorial. And so they have.

Sally and I stayed a week in the nearby village of Sarlat, a gem of medieval architecture with many half-timbered houses dating from the 15th century. The town’s cathedral, dating from the 12th century, contains the memorial that one sees in literally every French community to those who died “pour La France” in WWI. Although Sarlat has only about 10,000 inhabitants today and had fewer then, the memorial lists hundreds of names, many family names appearing more than once.

Overall, France suffered 1.4 million soldiers killed and five million wounded in that war, fought largely on French soil, out of a total population of roughly 40 million. A short distance away on the edge of its medieval town center is a quiet park with the monument to the martyrs from Sarlat who died in the resistance to Nazi occupation. It lists over 500 names, many with the same surnames as found on the memorial in the cathedral.

All around Sarlat are chateaus and churches dating from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, and before. One, the Chateau des Milandes, was once owned by the black expatriate American performer, Josephine Baker, a sensation in Paris of the 1920’s and 30’s. There she gathered together her numerous adopted children of different races, religions, and nationalities, bringing them up to create a “world village” of mutual understanding. She was decorated by the French government with the Legion of Honor for her support of the resistance against Nazi occupation and returned to the U.S. briefly in August 1963 to march for civil rights with Dr. King in Washington.

The Dordogne area is also extraordinarily rich in pre-historic sites including the famed Cro-Magnon cave paintings at Lascaux. People have chosen to live in this splendid valley continuously for tens of thousands of years.

In terms of its historical richness, this area is not unique in France, nor would it be in many parts of Europe. A couple of years ago we toured Burgundy, staying in Sens, Auxerre and Autun, all stops on the road from Paris to Rome during the Roman empire. In Provence, we stayed in St. Remy-de-Provence where, along with nearby Arles, Nimes, Orange, and Marseilles, there are major Roman ruins. Neighboring Avignon was the seat of the papacy for 70 years in the 13th century. Many small villages in the area date from
the Middle Ages if not the Gallo-Roman era.

Houses in France are still built of stone. They are meant to last a long time. I would guess that there are close to a million houses in France that date from the 19th century or before. The restoration business is lively. A few years ago we saw the Samaritaine department store on the Seine in Paris being remodeled. A giant framework of scaffolding preserved the 19th century façade while they modernized the interior. Then they reattached that façade so that it continues to look like a 19th century building.

When I was in the U.S. Army in Orleans, France, from 1964 through 1966, much of the area between the 12th century cathedral and the Loire River was bombed out ruins from WWII. When I returned in 2000, the area had been rebuilt as it had been centuries before and was considered the “medieval center” of Orleans.

Paris has an even more dense historical quality. Hemingway wrote here and Chopin composed there. In Paris, Marx met Engels, Lenin was a waiter, and Ho Chi Minh was a pastry chef. Victor Hugo lived on the Place de Vosges and Voltaire was born nearby. A short walk from there brings you to the Pere Lachaise cemetery where the Communards fought to the last man and hundreds of notables are buried. Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and hundreds of other aristocrats were beheaded on the Place de la Concorde.

Walk from there down the Rue Rivoli past the five star Hotel Meurice where German general Dietrich Von Choltitz refused Hitler’s orders to destroy Paris in August 1944, past the Hotel de Ville, site of innumerable historic events including De Gaulle’s assumption of power the day after von Choltitz surrendered, past the 16th century St. Paul’s cathedral and soon you are at Place Bastille where the French Revolution began.

Modigliani and Diego Rivera lived in Montparnasse, Picasso lived in a dozen different spots, and almost every major artist or writer of the early 20th century lived somewhere in Paris. Practically every block has centuries of history and the catalog of notables and events is endless. The walls could crumble under the weight of commemorative plaques.

Replica of John Neely Bryan's original 1840s log cabin in West End Historic District, Dallas. Photo by Artdirectors / National Geographic Photo Gallery.

In contrast, most Americans rarely see a building that is over a hundred years old, let alone five hundred. In Dallas, where I grew up, there is a reconstructed log cabin in a park downtown that was originally built by some early settler. That’s about all.

Houses in the U.S. are built of wood and sheet rock and typically last a few decades at most. They are built with planned obsolescence, meant to be torn down and replaced so that capitalists in the construction industry can continue to maximize their profits. The solid brick house where I was raised was built in 1940, torn down and replaced in the 1980’s by a McMansion, and replaced again only a few years later to please someone’s swelling vanity.

A large majority of Americans never possess a passport or leave their own country. With naïve sincerity, I’ve heard them question why anyone could possibly want to go anywhere else since we already live in the best country in the world. Pangloss would be proud.

Europeans see their history all around them every day of their lives and, hence, have an innate sense of their history that it is simply impossible for most Americans to fathom. You can’t visit any of the sites mentioned above without seeing groups of French students. Entrance to most historic sites and museums in France is free to those under 25 years old. These groups may be composed of inattentive teenagers, but their heritage can’t help but sink in because it is ubiquitous in the environment in which they live. By contrast, the environment in which most Americans live is a historical blank page.

As a result of this historical deprivation, most Americans are unable to grasp their role in history or the world. A foundation stone of American exceptionalism is obliviousness to the past. The result is a national egotism that can only exist through denial of a sense of history. To most Americans, history is unimportant. The rest of the world is far away or
long ago and doesn’t matter anyway. Why should it matter that my ancestors owned slaves or that the U.S. stole half of Mexico or that the Red Army was primarily responsible for defeating the Nazis or that our invasions of Vietnam and Iraq were based on lies rooted in historical fabrications?

History is just a boring course we are compelled to take in high school, often taught by an ill informed football coach who doesn’t much care about it anyway. We slept through it since it had no relevance to our future earning power. What little we know of our past is distorted by unalloyed chauvinism, the fount of a plethora of national prejudices that make us uniquely vulnerable to political manipulation.

Of course, this is not to say that the U.S. doesn’t have important history or great historians or a significant population of historically well-informed people. But these people are too few and they had to work extra hard to dig their knowledge of the past from books, not from their immediate surroundings. In Europe, the past confronts you every time you walk out your front door.

In the early 1980’s I met a local woman in Oaxaca, Mexico, from the village of San Juan Migote. Flor was the housekeeper working for my friend and mentor, Dick Hodge. He was elderly and lived alone in a large house. At that time, archeologists were excavating major tombs in the vicinity of Migote. Lots of ceramics, sculptures and jewelry were being found. They had established a regional museum of local pre-Columbian artifacts in the village.

I asked Flor, probably in her 40’s, if she had always lived in Migote. Yes, and her parents and their parents as well as far back as she knew. So, the artifacts being unearthed were from her ancestors? Yes, of course. She was proud of the recognition the new museum gave her ancestry. I could in no way comprehend that sense of being rooted in history.

At the beginning of our 2010 trip to France, we had a long conversation over dinner with a middle-aged American couple sitting at the adjoining table at a restaurant in Chinon. They were very congenial and seemingly intelligent people. Both were U.S. Department of Defense civilian employees, teachers working with the children of U.S. military personnel at a school at NATO headquarters in Belgium. They had been there for the last five years and before that taught several years at schools on U.S. military bases in Japan.

I asked them why the U.S. Army was still in Europe 65 years after the end of WWII and now almost two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. They were taken aback by the question as if it had never occurred to them before. After a moment of reflection, they admitted that they had utterly no idea.

[David P. Hamilton is an Austin-based activist and writer.]

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