I once read somewhere that the marking of historical anniversaries (other than that of the supposed birth of Jesus Christ) was something that only took root during the long reign of Queen Victoria, who ruled from 1837 until her death in 1901. In an age where life expectancy was shorter than it is now, the monarch’s nearly seven decades on the throne was an unusual stretch of continuity on which observers could not help but remark. Today, as people commonly live to ninety or one hundred years old, anniversaries are much more widely remembered, since the concept of “living memory” has been stretched farther than in previous centuries.
The coming year, for example, will see the 100th anniversary of the now-infamous Tulsa Race Riot in the US; the 75th anniversary of the Operation Crossroads nuclear detonations in the Pacific Ocean and the Nuremberg war crimes trials; the 50th anniversaries of the releases of Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On; the 40th anniversary of assassination attempts on Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II; the 25th anniversary of Prince Charles’ and Princess Diana’s divorce and Bill Clinton’s election to a second term as US president; the 20th anniversary of 9/11; and the 10th anniversary of the first Occupy Wall Street protests. No doubt all of these, and more besides, will be commemorated in a variety of media.
By and large, this is probably harmless, but the constant looking back on purportedly significant events can become oppressive. After all, we have already memorialized these milestones several times already: the Nuremberg trials have been reflected on from a distance of 10, 25, and 50 years, in 1956, 1971, and 1996, and I recall the 2011 fuss over the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The satirical news website The Onion once ran an article on the 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon – “I can’t believe it’s been 25 years already,” said an imaginary “American Voices” interviewee. “It seems like only yesterday that Lennon was dead for nine years.” Are we remembering the original occurrence, in other words, or are we remembering our remembrance?
After a while, the emotional power of those ten-, twenty-, twenty-five-, or fifty-year considerations begins to diminish, especially when they seem more driven by hype more than real public sentiment. How many slow news days are amped up merely by digging out and slightly updating the ten-year-old files about something’s tenth anniversary? How many “Special Edition” movies and albums are annually released to cash in on the nice round figures separating the year of their debuts from now? And what will the nostalgia industry make of 2021, when the Attica prison riots and the release of the Pentagon Papers hit their Big Five-os?
The paradox here is that as our cultural memory becomes longer, our cultural perspective shrinks. When I am dictator of the world I will make improper use of the phrase “Of All Time” a capital offense. As lists like “The Top 100 Guitar Solos of All Time,” “The Best Action Movie One-Liners of All Time,” and “The Funniest Animal Photobombs of All Time” proliferate, I’m tempted to ask, But what about the guitar solos of the Elizabethan Age? Or the Action Movie One-Liners of the Roman Empire? And don’t forget to include all the Animal Photobombs cited in the Old Testament! In his novel A Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell’s protagonist found herself teaching at a shabby girls’ school and struggling to impart to her pupils “the notion that the past has any meaning for the present.” That distorted sense of time and change is now widespread: on one hand, there is the superficial regurgitation of far-off dates which amount to birthday parties for history, invoked on behalf of partisan factions from all corners; on the other, there is the reflexive indexing of every ephemeral phenomenon into some grand hierarchy of immortality. Perhaps the famous aphorism of historian George Santayana should be revised. Instead of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I would say, “Those who cannot stop recounting the past are condemned to forget it.”