Making Up The Past Can Be Arduous. Overcoming The Past Is A Fruitless Endeavour. Ultimately, Each Of Us Is Responsible For Living With The Past. That’s The Really Hard Part.

In his address upon winning the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature, William Faulkner said

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Please forgive him the sin of using ‘man’ in place of ‘humankind.’ His was a black and white time in the English-speaking world, and such disparities as are evinced in sexism were soon to be brought to light, in much the same manner as Faulkner’s illumination of the South’s entrenched racism helped bring down that scourge of social inequality. Both are still awaiting redress to a greater or lesser degree. So, the artist Faulkner can, I think, be forgiven the man, Faulkner’s foibles.

All this is my way of introducing what another great American wrote, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Gatsby’s lesson rings too true to this archaeologist. We can’t recreate the past. All we can do is offer alternative interpretations, whether those alternative pasts ameliorate our collective pain, or not. Not only can’t we go back: we’re doomed to narrate alternative pasts until, in increasingly accurate tellings, one of those pasts is accepted, generally, as a reasonable facsimile of the way the human past unfolded.  

The truth of these adages—Faulkner’s and Fitzgerald’s— has recently been brought home to me in a palpable way. One hopes that one has the strength to accept the past, as unthinkable as it may be, and as difficult as it is.Somehow, one must learn to live with one’s memories, and in doing so, not merely endure, but prevail, despite a frantic desire to turn back time. We owe that much not only to ourselves, but also to every Faulkner or Fitzgerald who ever confronted the complexities of human existence, and lived to tell the story.

I’ll admit this was rather thin on archaeology. As a discussion of archaeological method it has more valence. And it’s more philosophical than empirical. Mostly, though, I was hoping to divert attention from my late inattention to The Subversive Archaeologist. For the moment, at least, I’m waving, not drowning.

Thanks for your loyalty and encouragement. Next time it’ll be onward into the past. I promise. For reals.

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