Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Historical Curiosities



There is a nice article by Matthew Parris in The Times this weekend reflecting on the same-sex marriage vote. He suggest that those who vote no will one day blush as the lights of history shine on them, just as those who voted against the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1966 might now be puzzled or simply ashamed by their actions.

 In order to strengthen the point Parris quotes Leo Abse from 1966:

 "It would be as well, perhaps, to remind the house of other occasions on which legislation which impinges upon human relationships has come before the house. There was ... the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act, which finally became law in 1907, that ... ended the prohibition on a man marrying the sister of his dead wife ... No one reading the debates ... can but wonder (at reaction in) those days of yesteryear ... the passions that were aroused seem almost droll, and the threats to family stability and the institution of marriage ... now seem historical curiosities."

It's an instructive device. Suddenly we see the present in the image of the past. Abse’s prediction comes true, and ultimately the vote on same-sex marriage will be another Deceased Wife’s Marriage Act.  For most of us it alreadyt is. Some will only see this with the passage of time.

From this, two more general points came to mind:

To invoke an imagined posterity, with its radically different habits and values,  is of course a useful way of displacing and making strange the present, reminding us that what we might get passionate about will one day be seen as an arcane drollery or unjust or wrong. 

The mistake is to think that time will do this all by itself; i.e., that given the passage of time certain practices and customs will be exposed as prejudicial, silly, irrational etc and others will be revealed to be just and reasonable. It’s not simply the passage of time, the gradual work of progress which reveals certain laws, habits, customs and values as quaint, redundant or wrong. It is forces of resistance, contestation. It’s people who make visible and de-naturalise our assumptions and values, And likewise, such laws continue as long as other forces maintain them. History is not the passage of time but the contestation of such forces.

The other point is that Parris’s trick of seeing the present as already historical is something that should always be strived for. To angle the present, to find a vantage point from which it appears as arcane and dusty, as empty of meaning, as ‘curious’ and ‘droll’ as those debates of yesteryear. There is always history and we are always inside it, and it is likely that much of which is to us uncontrived, natural and self-evident is from another point of view, contrived, bizarre and allied to a particular form of life that we lack the leverage to get outside. 

But conversely, it is necessary to restore to those arcane and ‘merely historical’ debates the background of values, deeply internalised and taken for granted, which gave them meaning and passion. Not because of some antiquarian impulse, but so as to make our own background, by contrast, all the more visible.

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