I began reading Twilight of History by Shlomo Sand. Wow, is it going to be a thinker! The short preface alone is full to the brim. It is both exciting and exhausting at the same time.
Sand began studying history at the University of Tel Aviv in the 1970s. After studying there and abroad, he is now a professor at Tel Aviv. I get the feeling his lectures would be quite an experience. He seems intense but not devoid of a sense of humor. Not that his sense of humor is on display in this book, but I imagine he is the sort to have a dry wit and a great appreciation for irony. I can’t say exactly what has given me this impression, but there it is.
Twilight of History is scholarly yet personal. In the preface Sand talks about how he has given up on the idea that history is a progression of human advancement toward something better. He says when he was young he used to believe this, that much of history is still taught this way, but that these days the past seems more uncertain than ever, and the future, who knows? This does not mean the study of history is not worthwhile, only that it must be undertaken in a much different way than it has been traditionally.
I sometimes have the impression of riding in a vehicle without brakes that is running faster and faster; the windscreen is covered with a layer of dust that completely obstructs my vision. The wiper blades have long since been stolen — by Stalin, Mao, Castro, others. Among the disappointed of my generation, many think that we can continue to drive by looking in the rearview mirror: devotion to collective memory, memory of family, religion, ‘ethnicity’ or nation, has gained popularity in the last two decades. But to drive in this way, I am persuaded, means heading straight for catastrophe. I still believe that we have to invent a new type of windscreen wiper; or rather, as a student said to me one day, break the windscreen and go forward into the fresh air with our eyes wide open. The rearview mirror, history or memory, is only a secondary tool, and entirely dependent on the gaze we project ahead, into the future. To continue to drive, we have to break this dependence on rearview mirrors, or in other words study history above all to learn how to free ourselves from it.
This is more than studying the past in order to not repeat our mistakes. It seems to me it’s a call to move beyond familial, tribal, ethnic, national borders to something else beyond the inside/outside us/them friend/enemy framework. Like I said, exciting and exhausting.