One of the foundational myths of our culture is that everyone of us is a new beginning. That we suffice to ourselves and to others. That we are in control, like the author on her page. That transmission is an act of grace, something we do for others, something we offer with passion and creativity.
We rehearse the same story over and over again. We are inventors, trailblazers, architects of exciting novel structures. Where everyone is thinking of new worlds, what need do we have for old ones? We reverse Bernard of Chartres’ famous dictum, we are giants looking at a dwarfish world over our shoulders.
It is easy to see why these myths hold such traction in our culture. The transmission imperative has all but faded from our mental horizon. Our societies no longer feel at risk of transmissional breakdown. Where biological or cultural, continuity feels so assured that we no longer see ourselves as actors of that continuity, but directors called upon to enact new scripts.
Transmission, however, had always been a source of anxiety for generations who didn’t understand the future as we do it today, open and promising. Ancient and medieval cultures were dominated by an obsession for the past, for done deeds and pots of wisdom. The ancient Romans, for example, mined the past for exempla, examples of imitable behaviour and heroic performance, the anxiety of a culture aware of its insufficiency for not living up to the standards of its forebears.
Hence the importance of history and absence of a mythology of progress. Quite the opposite of where we are today – the idea that no past behaviour can live up to our expectations, that the golden age is ahead, and we shouldn’t ever look back, except to sigh and weep.
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