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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward





Historians have long been fascinated by the cyclical unfolding of history, primarily for its predictive value. With a Delphic penchant for unravelling the barely discernible patterns of human endeavor from the froth and chaos of daily life, the historian would have us believe that he is able to predict and rationally account for the rise and fall of empires or, on a smaller scale, major national trends and outcomes. His theory, which he spins like a cocoon to protect him from competing theories, allows him to confidently plunge into the maddening molecularity of the human spectacle where he magically brings into unconcealment an intentionality that reveals the destiny of a people or way of life. Having read his Hericlitus, he understands that all things must pass, that along the way are leading indicators that foretell what’s to come, foretellings that are self-evident to only the very gifted historians, such as himself.

In his famous Decline of the West (1918), Oswald Spengler argued that every culture passes through stages of birth, development, fulfillment, decay and death. From this, he famously predicted the decline of the West, which he believed was irreversible. (So far so good, G.W.B.). Francis Fukuyama, referring to what is ‘universal in history’ in The End of History (1992) and especially Arthur Schlesinger, Cycles of American History (1986), focus on the modalities of repetition in order to provide road maps to historical outcomes not yet arrived. Could it be that these celebrated prognosticators are confusing historical cycles with human nature, whose genotype is at least as effective a prognosticator of human behaviour as any repeating historical pattern?

Take the great wave of liberalism that was introduced through the English, French, and American revolutions. Idealistic at its inception, the era’s greatest minds converged to draft constitutions that would enshrine man’s noblest thoughts and aspirations, including a Bill of Rights and the various consent and separation of power clauses, so societies could conduct themselves in orderly fashion where every citizen would have equal opportunity to acquaint himself with the range of options available to him.

But an historical accounting of what has passed since these constitutions were written tells a very different, and yes, predictable, story: mostly of the systemic corruption and abuse of the principles set forth in those heady days of nation birthing. From Robespierre to Bush-Cheney, the complementary arts of dissembling and paying mere lip service to time-honoured consent clauses have proved Orwell right (Animal Farm) and Machiavelli righter, in supposed democracies whose elected representatives treat the laws of the land like ‘noose-ances,’ the apparent purpose of which is to keep the electorate in a state of permanent obedience and ignorance. All of which begs the question: can we discern in our constitutions an implied position on whether or not repeating historical patterns are attributable to the cyclical nature of history or to inclinations deeply embedded in the nature of man?

What example teaches us is that the framers begin by constructing an ideal polity, the product of their imagination, only to see in practice their best intentions trumped by man’s baser self, the product of his genotype. If it’s a given that any constitution worth its salt includes separation of power provisions, it’s only because the record shows that humans, left to their own devices, aspire to absolute power. And while democratic institutions are founded on consent, an elected leader would still rather lead for life than submit to the double jeopardy all elections entail: either losing them or getting caught fixing them.

But to what is Nietzsche referring when he introduces the ominous ‘eternal recurrence of the same’ formulation, and do the philosophical inferences implicate either cycles or genes? Weighing in on the debate, Pogo Possum, in a moment of first person enlightenment, declares, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” which I take to mean he holds our genotype responsible, which is why, since the Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century, there has been, almost without exception, a Balkan war every 25 years, just as every nation, at some point in its history, will be involved in a war. In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy observes, “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

So where does this leave the historian whose cachet and tenure have depended on the broad acceptance and applicability of his cyclist theory? Since the historian knows his own genotype, his primary, instinctive self which is repeated in every member of the species, he must know that his theory depends on either the strategic omission of facts or tendentious assembling of them, which raises the question of his motivation.

The great advantage (the temptation he can’t turn down) of the cycle hawking historian -- erudite equivalent of the crystal ball reader -- is that it gives him a major prognostic edge over his less ambitious, fact-finicky confrères, to the effect that the theory he knows to be deficient (counterfeit) grants him access to elite worlds that would otherwise be off limits.

The philosopher Ortega y Gasset notes that every life is a reaction to the basic insecurity of life, that at the heart of the human condition lies a ceaseless yearning to know the future. Into this most human of vulnerabilities arrives the historian who sets himself up as de facto oracle in order to ingratiate himself into the favors of the powers that be, and through association assume some of it himself. After all, what leader can afford to refuse not to be attracted to an historical theory that essentially removes contingency from any future?

If Man’s history has been the blood history of his wars, where the horrors of war must be relearned anew in anguish by every generation, we don’t have to gaze into the cycle historian’s crystal ball to divine if and when there’ll be a next war. We need only look into the mirror (into our genotype) to know that. And if we don’t like what we see and decide to do something about it, we must first of all learn not to like what is there, and then learn to refuse what is there when it is most likely to prevail. Less than that, the next war is the next sure thing. Which is why I have adopted the peculiar position against genetically modified food but all for genetically modified human beings, if foregoing the latter means foregoing the means to save us from ourselves.



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