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June 18, 2017

HOW HISTORY BECOMES IMPROVISATION

Filed under: literature,philosophy — ABRAXAS @ 2:16 pm

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The idea of process implies that things happen one after the other, either in the form of sudden leaps and bounds (revolution) or in the form of gradual changes (evolution). Progress is a synonym of process because it is thought that every change results sooner or later in an advance. Both modes of succession, the revolutionary and the evolutionary, correspond to a vision of history as a march toward something – we are not exactly certain where this something is, except that this where is better than the situation today, and that it lies in the future. History is envisioned as a continuous, never-ending colonization of the future.

There is something infernal about this optimistic vision of history; the philosophy of progress is really a theory of the condemnation of man, who is doomed perpetually to move forward, knowing that he will never arrive at his final destination.

This way of thinking is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its mythical counterpart is the expulsion from Eden. In the garden of paradise, a present without a single flaw shone brightly; in the deserts of history, the only sun that guides us is the fleeting future. The subject of this continual pilgrimage is not a nation, a class, or a civilization, but an abstrac entity: humanity. As the subject of history, “humanity” lacks substance; it is never present in person: it acts by means of its representatives, this people or that, this class or that. Persepolis, Rome, or New York, the monarchy or the proletariat, in turn represent humanity at one moment or another of history as a member of the legislature represents his electors, and as an actor represents the character he is playing.

History is a theater in which a single person, humanity, becomes many: servants, masters, bourgeois, mandarins, clergymen, peasants, workers. The incoherent shouting of all these voices turns into a rational dialogue and this dialogue into a philosophical monologue. History is a discourse. But the rebellions of the twentieth century have violated both the rules of dramatic action and those of representation. We have unforeseen irruptions that disturb the linear nature of history. Both the events and the actors betray the text of the play. They write another text, or rather invent one. History becomes improvisation. This is the end of discourse and rational legibility.

Octavio Paz
Conjunctions and Disjunctions
1969

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