Unbunking history: Nothing new under the sun

January 6, 2011

“History,” said Henry Ford on a day when he’d gotten out of bed on the wrong side, “is bunk.” In reality, of course, we are guided by history, defined as anything that happened in the past, including what we had for breakfast, every day of our lives. Indeed, we pretty well live by historical precepts and injunctions, whether set forth in the Bible or enacted by Congress.

And in the worlds of literature and music, there is nothing new under the sun, because someone has come up with it before. Thus, to avoid a charge of plagiarism, we must crawl over the scrap heap of the past, picking up ideas as we go, and disguising them sufficiently so we can pass them off as new. And scarcely less respectable is plagiarizing oneself by, for instance, writing the same novel several times over.

All this flashed through my mind the other day while listening to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and realizing how much Mahler mined from his masterpiece to flesh out subsequent works. I could appreciate how we all copy bits and pieces from the past, not just in conversation but also in published and paid-for text.

It may be almost inevitable. Newton gracefully said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” And T.S. Eliot, the 20th century’s greatest poet, wrote, “What there is to conquer … has already been discovered once or twice or several times by men whom we cannot hope to emulate.”

Indeed, Eliot went so far as to complain about how Milton had made it impossible to come up with new ideas, having explored virtually every avenue of thought in “Paradise Lost.” That may have been a bit disingenuous, as Eliot promptly went on to compose his own masterpiece, “Four Quartets,” from which I myself unashamedly quote at every possible opportunity.

In fact, prior to the introduction of compulsory education, it was perfectly acceptable to quote bits from the Bible, Shakespeare and even the Greek dramatists when discussing everyday events. Now, of course, you’d be run out of town for spouting Aeschylus at the dinner table.

And while quoting from historical sources is generally an admission that history repeats itself, as well as being a sly claim to erudition, there is also the reverse in which we profit from past mistakes to guide future action. There is no shame in avoiding an open manhole or stepping outside a ladder over the sidewalk if we have previously suffered from not doing so. And in our own day, the bailout of failing banks worldwide has been an explicit repudiation of U.S. government policy after the 1929 crash while Hoover was still president.

So, all in all, we may reasonably suggest, after giving Henry Ford full credit for originating the automobile assembly line, that he should have stayed in bed that day and kept his trap shut.

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