Zamani Revisited

  Jerome Shea       May 30, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Well, I thought that Sasa and Zamani, this hobby horse I’ve been riding, was finally going to become Sasa. Then I heard from Joe, my old friend and trusty correspondent from Colorado. So he gets the credit (or the blame) for this one last look.

Sasa is a concept we can warm to; Zamani, though, is troublesome. Last week I noted that James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me) applies the Sasa and Zamani concepts to historical events, not just people: the Vietnam War is Sasa for many of us, while the War of 1812 is definitely Zamani. Loewen is dismayed that in the high school history textbooks that he studied extensively the writers gravitate toward Zamani history while Sasa history is treated warily if at all. He surmises that this is partly because anything Sasa is still controversial, and, textbook adoptions being a high stakes game, these textbook writers are anything but boat-rockers.

Anyway, along comes Joe, questioning whether in our culture there really is such a thing as Zamani history. But let him speak for himself:

I suppose there is a sense in which we all still think in the binary terms of Sasa and Zamani, but it seems to me that this is a system of thought rooted in preliterate habits of memory…most of us feel a certain familiarity with those eras that a person who has only the Zamani box to put things in can never experience. Because in pre-literate times it is impossible to preserve anything but the merest mythical outline of the remote past, it more or less ceases to exist.

This is a very valuable distinction and one, I confess with some chagrin, that should have occurred to me. Preliterate cultures, oral cultures—people who have no written language—would naturally have recourse to the concept of Zamani. But Joe is questioning whether in a literate culture, a writing and reading culture, the past really is Zamani after all. Is Roman history truly Zamani for one who can read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, itself researched from primary sources?

Gamely I replied that even oral cultures have their bards, their storytellers, and isn’t it their job to keep history alive? The Trojan War actually happened (didn’t it?) and we know about it because pre-literate Homer sang about it (and eventually literacy caught up and his long epic got written down). So what about Odysseus’s crafty strategy with the big hollow horse? (I’ve gone from hobby horse to Trojan horse in a single page: a desperate man I am.) Was there really such a thing or was Homer merely embellishing a good story? I suppose we’ll never know. Sheepishly I remember that story about Harold Welsch and the colon (see “Great Moments in Teaching” and “Harold Welsh… Revisited”) wherein I believed as true (i.e., historical) an incident that happened only in my imagination. Could the same thing have often happened to Homer? “To the singer of songs,” says Joe mischievously, “the only useful facts are those that make a good tale.”

Let’s remember that even in this culture most of the past is Zamani. “Many a flower is born to blush unseen,” and all that. Some things are simply not memorable or important. This is proved by the exceptions, such as Samuel Pepys’s diary (which, significantly, you will read in your English class, not your history class). Many a chambermaid has been compromised over the centuries, but we don’t treat such groping as the stuff of history. And you and I will go the way of my great-grandfather Matthew Shea, a testament to Zamani.

I was explaining Sasa and Zamani to a friend last weekend. “Surely,” she said, “Shakespeare is still Sasa.” “No,” I replied primly, “he’s Zamani as a door nail–unless there is someone still alive who used to carouse with him!” But of course I knew what she meant. William Shakespeare is a towering historical figure. He will never be forgotten, so we cannot bring ourselves to think him Zamani.* Rachael was just recasting Joe’s point about historical events. The same is true for any famous figure. Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, Jane Austen, Joan of Arc, Adolf Hitler—they will remain in our memories because—unlike Matthew Shea—they made themselves famous or infamous.

A vexed question indeed. History is a story we tell ourselves (and hope to get right), but there is no question that literate cultures have the advantage over oral cultures. For literate cultures is there some middle ground between the two states? Samani? Zamasa? What do you think?

*But in fact Shakespeare is an odd case. His great works will always be part of our culture, but the man himself is, in a way, Zamani. So little is known about the man from Stratford that people can seriously (and heatedly) maintain that Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or Lord knows who else must have written those plays and sonnets.

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