September 2017 – Obscurity: what survives?

A very short essay for this month; very much more could be written about this, but events have conspired to delay its completion.

I began this in the week in which, at last, my mother became a great-grandmother, and my father would have become a great-grandfather for the first time. Perhaps oddly, I am drawn to the feeling of the long span of time: my new nephew’s great-great-great grandfather was born 150 years ago in the same town that he now lives, and he was just five days short of the 122nd anniversary of his great-great-grandfather’s birth. I knew the second of these ancestors, and a few weeks ago was talking to my cousin, who recalled her great-grandfather from the early 1950s. The only way in which memories of these ancestors can be kept alive is through the website which I created to record my own memories of my father. In April I commented on Yevtushenko’s poem No people are… , which suggested the pessimistic view that all humans become obscure, even though some of what they create may live on. To my new nephew, his great-grandfather and earlier ancestors will be entirely obscure, part of a history that must feel irretrievable, even if attempts at recovery were made.

To return to Yevtushenko, is that obscurity to be condemned? He suggests not: “no people are uninteresting, their destinies are like the histories of planets”. I wonder if it is an effect of the prevalence of mass media that many of us wish for, if not seek, some sort of symbolic immortality by being considered to be a public figure. The corollary to that is a condemnation of obscurity. And yet, no matter how the good society, however defined and attained, may bring about the conditions for better and more fulfilling lives, it seems probable that most of us will remain unknown to the majority of the billions in our society. It may be that our validation as individuals will still depend on a small number of individuals to whom our lives matter, and whose lives matter especially to us. Perhaps they will develop the memorialisation, the media, that sustain lives within a relative obscurity. Individual happiness and contentment may be experienced, at least in part, within small networks of individuals linked by mutual concern rather than economic or practical dependence. If such networks can prove today to be the source of personal and psychological danger and disorder, that does not negate the potential, sometimes realised, for the greatest fulfilment that could be obtained – within obscurity, indeed.

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