Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Sinking Ark (1)

Those of us who teach habitually complain that college students don't know any history. The Middle Ages are the Dark Ages; World War II is vaguely before or after the American Civil War; "Hey, did you know Paul McCartney was in this other group before Wings?"

From Lawrence Wechsler's Vermeer in Bosnia, p. 22 (a piece first published in 1995): "David Rieff tells a story about visiting a recent battlefield at one point during the war in the company of a small band of fellow journalists: Muslim corpses strewn across the muddy meadow, a Serb soldier grimly standing guard. '"So," we asked the soldier, this young kid,' Rieff recalls, '"What happened here?" At which point the soldier took a drag on his cigarette and began, "Well, in 1385 . . ."'" Saki (H. H. Monro) says somewhere that "the Balkans have always produced more history than can be consumed locally." In parts of Greece it remains true that people won't do anything chancy, such as get married, on Tuesdays, because May 29, 1453, the day Constantinople fell (to the Ottomans, not to the Latins; that was on April 12, 1204, a Monday), was a Tuesday.

George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As if that weren't enough he adds, "This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience." He says this in a book entitled The Life of Reason. It's published in 1905, the year during which work on H.M.S. Dreadnought begins, Mata Hari has her debut, Norway secedes from Sweden, Las Vegas is founded, Ayn Rand and Albert Speer are born, Tagore and Verne die, and in January demonstrators are massacred in St. Petersburg's Bloody Sunday. The phrase "Bloody Sunday" refers to dates in 1887, 1900, 1905, 1920, 1939, 1965, and 1972.

True, 1905 is also the year a Technical Assistant Examiner in the Swiss patent office published four papers, including one on special relativity and one on the quantum basis of the photoelectric effect. The following year he was promoted to Technical Examiner Second Class.


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