The value of remembering the past is contentious. This is seen in disruptive forces throughout the world, throughout time, that continuously destroy the artifacts of civilizations past. What can the past teach us, if anything? What’s the value of things dead and gone? If we forget history, as the old saw goes, are we doomed to repeat it? The analgesic of forgetting, as soothing as it can be for some, is to lose a part of ourselves and our collective culture, no matter how painful remembering can be. This is what Tony Judt, the late historian and essayist, returns to again and again in a collection of essays and book reviews, When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010.
As explained in the book’s introduction, written by Judt’s former student and later, wife, Jennifer Homans, the title sums up the author. Judt is interested in what happened and why. Romantic narratives held little interest, as well as “postmodern fashions of textual fragmentations or narrative disruption, especially in historical writing.” The facts mattered. History matters. As Judt put it: “When we ransack the past for political profit—selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons—we get bad morality and bad history.”
When the Facts Change ranges in scope and subject. Along with essays on Israel, globalization, the Balkans, social democracy in Europe, and the growing War on Terror, Judt’s love of trains and railroad timetables is clear and established. That’s a glib way to end a list, but it’s perhaps the best summation of what the author cares for, beyond the facts of what happened. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
The job of a historian, in Judt’s estimation, is perhaps more important today, and perhaps more thankless and laborious, than ever. Here he examines how easy it is to forget the facts of the past:
During the nineties, and again in the wake of September 11, 2001, I was struck more than once by a perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion. We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us. Ours, we assert, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.
Nothing exists in a void. To forget, fully, is to become detached from humanity, to become stuck in a pocket of the eternal present, with no roots and no future. Of course, Judt doesn’t advocate we shouldn’t forgive, his essays on Israel are insistent that the only way forward is to set aside the grudges of the past and to work together. Set aside, but do not forget.
As with any essay collection, the tone of each entry can waver. Judt can elucidate the promises and shortcomings of social democracy in Europe. In the next essay, he becomes a polemicist against the War on Terror, spilling ink and invective in equal measure:
Today we align ourselves with the world’s most brutal, terrorizing tyrants in a way ostensibly against brutal terror and tyranny. We are peddling a simulacrum of democracy from an armored truck at fifty miles per hour and calling it freedom. This is a step too far. The world is losing faith in America.
Such declarations can be jarring, yes, but they’re not off-putting. This is because the author cares so much for the mission of a historian. The subject can often appear passionless, a collection of facts and figures about remote and abstract events and forces, things that are dead. It’s like weighing in on VHS versus Betamax. At this point, what’s the point? In our 4K era of media-less, streaming content, what could be less relevant? Look to the here and now. Of course, those technologies are equally due for the dustbin, at some point, laughed at by our future robot/alien/ape overlords. As Faulkner wrote, though it’s been misquoted or paraphrased so much, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Judt’s passion, and how he often inserts his moral indignity in his essays, enlivens the subject. He’s moralistic, yes. But he’s not a moralizer.
That brings me to the author’s love of trains. Here Judt finds an apt metaphor, though he never states it as such. Trains are a collective endeavor, something agreed upon, whether it’s the public space of a station, the time it departs, or the communal aspect of travel. This represents society at possibly its best, I infer from Judt’s writings. It’s the melding of the private individual with the public space. Unlike the car, which is a wholly private, commercial conveyance (albeit on the collective roads provided), the train cannot go without a level of collective deliberation. Much like the ordering, agreement, and cohesion of society, which Judt cherishes, the train is equally so.
Though that makes for an apt metaphor, what makes it perfect is the train, like history, is in some parts of the world largely out of fashion. It’s still used, but often under a specter of impending privatization and route cuts. Margaret Thatcher once remarked that there is no such thing as society. Judt’s writing reminds us not only to remember what happened, but also to remember how we’ve gotten where we are in this place and time on the historical continuum. The choices and forces of the past shaped our present, as our time, of course, shapes the future. That’s a fact. And sometimes new facts about the past appear, and our understanding must change with it. Look to what did happen, not what we think should have happened.
Be suspicious of romantic narratives, Judt reminds us, for they will only derail our understanding, and take us nowhere.