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History and Its Discontents

 I would like every hour of my life to be new, though connected to the ones that have passed. No day of celebration with its mandatory collective rhythms, to share with all the strangers I don’t care about. Because our grandfathers’ grandfathers, and so on, celebrated, we too should feel the urge to celebrate. That is nauseating.

“I Hate New Year’s Day” – Antonio Gramsci

One of the interesting characteristics of the Left is its obsession with the new. The grandest example is also the first, the French Revolution. Alone among Leftist Revolutions, it was the only one to completely eliminate the past in preference to its ways of doing things. Some of these inventions, the metric system chief among them, survived the French Revolution.

Most, however, suffered the fate of the Revolutionary Calendar. Twice in history, governments used the calendar. The first was the First French Republic for roughly twelve years, from 1793 to 1805. Later, the Paris Commune used it for not even two revolutionary weeks in 1871.

The calendar has nothing particularly wrong with it. You can make an argument the names of months are better than those we inherited from Rome, names which are meaningless to moderns and, in a few cases, wrong1. The Julian and Gregorian calendars are unique in not tying the new year date to one of the equinoxes or solstices. The ten-day week continues the love of decimal measurements that drove the metric system and decimal time.

Yet, the Revolutionary Calendar failed. It would be easy to say that failure was due to the reactionary movements that arose against France after the Revolution. However, if that were the case, one would have expected them to survive the Napoleonic era.

The quote by Grasmi I opened up with comes from his essay “I Hate New Year’s Day” and contains what I suspect is the real reason.

Man is not a strictly rational creature. He is, however, a social one. While Grasmi ends by saying he is nauseated by celebrating things our forefathers did, the mass of humanity is not. We desire a connection to our deeper past. That is why the oldest continuous large-scale institutions, the Orthodox and Catholic Christian Churches and the Japanese Monarchy, date to the fourth century AD. I suspect there are Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Buddist institutions that are even older. Other traditions outside unbroken institutions are still older. I know of one celebration in India with incantations so ancient they are in no known language, and linguists can find no patterns matching them in other human creations. The closest comparison is birdsong2 so that they may predate language.

Gramsci wants his days new while remaining connected to those of his past, but his history begins only the day he is born. Perhaps it is not that old but only dates to his first memory.

For a belief system predicated on scientific history, this obsession with escaping all history into the new seems to be a contradiction. Perhaps there is a squaring of this circle of which I am unaware.

I returned this week from visiting Texas. The visit had two purposes. It was my older’s niece’s birthday, a celebration drawn not from my days but those of another. The other purpose was to take family photos. My mother will be 82 next month and wanted family pictures with her and the twins and my other three nieces and nephews. The pictures are more for them as she may pass before they are old enough to have lasting memories of her. The trip was an exercise in history. The history drew from before my birth and after. The past was mine and others.

I would not trade those days for new ones entirely my own. Even if I created new celebrations, they would be of things done by people other than me.

I would not be as lonely as Gramsci wishes his new socialist man to be.

  1. The last four months of the year are named seven, eight, nine, and ten, but are later in the calendar[]
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