restricted access November 5: The Living and the Dead (Character)

From: November

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[ ∏≥ ] n o v e m b e r 5 The Living and the Dead (Character) A thing is alive only when it contains contradictions within itself. —Juergen Moltmann On November 5, 1863, Abraham Lincoln conferred with a former Louisiana congressman about how to restore state government there, and followed up with a letter to the general whose work overseeing the process had been, thus far, unsatisfactory. A little later he met with a committee of the African Civilization Society who had come to ask for a grant of $5,000 toward solving the problems of race and slavery by sending former slaves to Africa. He collected his October salary voucher ($2,022.33). In the afternoon he rode to Georgetown Heights with John Hay, one of his secretaries. Meanwhile, John Nicolay, his other secretary, a native German, returned healthy from the Rockies, where he had been taking a cure. We, not Lincoln, seem to be in the position today of deciding which, if any, of these activities was important. Already there is an incurable divide between Lincoln and us. History is di√erent from life: Among events that have already happened, historians filter the interesting from the uninteresting . We select History—we make History—from the standpoint of its consequences. Even the consequences change. What one historian finds interesting today, such as Lincoln’s attempts to send African Americans out of the n o v e m b e r 5 [ ∏∂ ] country, others might dismiss tomorrow. Even today we disagree about Lincoln’s intentions, motives, and judgment. Is the African Civilization Society important because it shows Lincoln’s understanding of black and white Americans, or because it symbolizes his lack of understanding? Either way, a hundred years of subsequent events creates the backward look. When one considers that Lincoln was a modern and we are postmoderns , the sense of how little we know, or can know, begins to dawn. We cannot go back to Abraham Lincoln any more than I can wish away the First World War and grasp Wilfred Owen’s hand. It is our own minds we cannot go through; it is our own knowledge we cannot dissolve. We have lost an innocence that no absolution can restore. The Modern World is dead, and with it any mind that could know where Lincoln stood and hear the man talk. All I can do is make a Lincoln with my bits of knowledge; but to believe that my construction is actually Abraham Lincoln would be foolish. He is gone; he is dead. Perhaps I should go back to my books and leave the world I cannot know in peace. For lo, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed. But his world will not leave us in peace. We will listen, in spite of ourselves. His words are enough. Verily, if we do not believe what he said here then, we will not believe though the man should come back from the dead. There is only one way to find him and to hear his voice. It is through the imagination—and there is no way rationally to verify the imagination. The modern mind rejects it; the postmodern mind mistakes it for desire and fantasy. It is for poets to accept it—those we recognize only after time and wars and tides have come and gone. Shall we let the man rest, with his soldiers in their graves? The world is di√erent now. History is not a record of the acts of the dead. It is a struggle between the living and the dead. The living are like Jacob wrestling the angel: To receive the blessing of the past, we must fight it for our lives; we must not let it go. It is stronger than we are, and by it we are named. In History we ask why. Why do human ashes drift over the ruins of time? To ask why is to wrestle with God. The imagination works by analogy. One thing is like another. The human heart beats the same in all of us. Thus the living understand the dead. * * * Up in Evergreen Cemetery again today, I find that the superintendent is still away. I must have a look at the burial records to verify my theory. t h e l i v i n g a n d t h e d e a d ( c h a r a c t e r ) [ ∏∑ ] Tomorrow, perhaps. Meanwhile, I again remember the past...