Age of Revision

Reading Jacob Burckhardt at my leisure (enforced by physical and mental decline), together with other idle writers of history. I seem to have drifted to the view that we live in an Age of Revision. Not an Age of Revolution, as previously advertised, or at the forefront of Progress, as optimists continue to aver. Indeed, Burckhardt could be said to have partially predicted it.

Of course, it is difficult to know any history, and impossible to grasp universal history, for we would have to know where it begins and ends to say anything intelligent about it. As we depend on “outmoded” religious conceptions of why we are here, “theories of history” are the best we can do. These are uniformly silly, and more so as they become sophisticated. They are woven into the Age of Revision: the constant fluctuation of meaning. We can be “freed” of this only by accelerating the change of which we have an unwanted surplus.

Burckhardt pioneered the conception of our collective life, as consisting of three principal entities: the State, Religion, and Culture. (“Science” is a cultural thing, like pop or Gregorian music.) The more lively and recent historical sages (I think of Christopher Dawson) have largely worked within this scheme. It is serviceable, for it includes almost everything, and these are independent strata. None is permanently dominant.

In our Age of Revision, all three are in flux. Nothing can be relied upon. The task of making even transient sense of events, or facts, is sabotaged when even these become “relative,” or a matter of opinion. I have or had a general idea of what was going on in the world, but my scepticism even towards trusted sources has been growing, as I learn more about them.

For a fortnight or so I had the experience, in hospital under powerful drugs, of an Age of Revision in myself. I had dreams such as I had never had, including some which were frankly paranoid (though most contained comic reverses, which were fairly entertaining). Little fragments of real events and persons were worked into the narratives, often rather cleverly by my plot-composing mind. These dreams were different in kind from most, that are forgotten after waking. I still remember them, vividly, including those so plausible that I am still at pains to dismiss details and anecdotes.

This seems to me analogous to our present social (political, religious, and cultural) situation.