On the eve of my summer leave, here follows two quotes (relevant for topics I addressed earlier on this blog) from books that might be worth taking in your luggage.
Milan Kundera, The book of laughter and forgetting
«The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten. In times when history still moved slowly, events were few and far between and easily committed to memory. They formed a commonly accepted backdrop for thrilling scenes of adventure in private life. Nowadays, history moves at a brisk clip. A historical event, though soon forgotten, sparkles the morning after with the dew of novelty. No longer a backdrop, it is now the adventure itself, an adventure enacted before the backdrop of the commonly accepted banality of private life». (pp. 7-8 of Penguin’s 1983 edition).
Communication overkill in the mass media: does this necessarily reduce news to a product, ever changing in order to provide the thrill of adventure to the ‘banality of private life’? Or can there still be – nowadays even more than at the time (1979) of Kundera’s book – mass media as a source of information to build knowledge from? Are periodicals such as Le Monde Diplomatique and Die Zeit examples of informative mass media?
Photo from the News & events page of King’s College, London.
Marc Bloch, The historian’s craft
«What is it, exactly, that constitutes the legitimacy of an intellectual endeavor? No one today, I believe, would dare to say, with the orthodox positivists, that the value of a line of research is to be measured by its ability to promote action. Experience has surely taught us that it is impossible to decide in advance whether even the most abstract speculations may not eventually prove extraordinarily helpful in practice. It would inflict a strange mutilation upon humanity to deny it a right to appease its intellectual appetites apart from all consideration of its material welfare. Even were history obliged to be eternally indifferent to homo faber or to homo politicus, it would be sufficiently justified by its necessity for the full flowering of homo sapiens». (pp. 9-10 of Manchester University Press’ 1954 edition)
As far as higher education and democracy are concerned, I think that few people better than French historian Marc Bloch embody the idea of critical thinking as essential to political freedom (and courage) and a healthy democracy. In case you don’t know: despite age and his position at the Sorbonne, Bloch not only volunteered for the French army at the outbreak of World War II, but also joined the Resistance in 1942. He was arrested, tortured and killed by the Nazis in 1944. Bloch was also a Jew «if not by religion, which I do not practise, no more than any other, at least by birth. […] I never claim my origins, with one exception: when facing an anti-Semite» (English translation – from Bloch’s L’Étrange défaite. Témoignage écrit en 1940 – is mine; original French text available online at the website of the Université du Québec à Quicoutimi).
Marc Bloch’s photo from the website of the Association Marc Bloch.