Sex Trumps History

Even our current politics and dominant economic policies, concerned as they seem to be only for the immediate moment, bear all the marks of the pornified culture of the sempiternal orgiast.

At the heart of this anti-historical present age, however, stands that great hero of our time: the sempiternal orgiast, the one who lives for the pleasure of the moment. Once the end of human existence was identified with happiness and happiness came to be identified with pleasure and pleasure came to be identified primarily with sexual gratification, the game was up for history. For the sempiternal orgiast has no need for history for he has no time—no past and no future, just the intensity of the pleasure of the present moment.


In giving the Annual Lecture to the Ciceronian Society last week, I chose to speak on Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, against the background of the interpretations offered by G. W. F. Hegel and by Seamus Heaney. I argued in part that Antigone was (pace Heaney) an alien figure today because she was so profoundly and consciously shaped by her history, her family commitments, and the presence of the dead in the land of the living. Yet modern audiences have no conception of what that means because history, family and the dead have today become not so much a given source of identity as either an irrelevance or a set of problems to be overcome.

As a teacher of history, I often wonder why history as a discipline occupies such a low place in today’s society. When I tell people at parties that I teach church history, it is hard to tell whether it is the church or the history part which more marks me out as a sociopathic weirdo. Indeed, there are few trades which seem more irrelevant today than the traditional study of the past.

In part, I suspect this is because it is often badly taught. For my generation, too many of us experienced it as a mere concatenation of names and dates, trotted out in a dusty monotone by a teacher who really wanted to be an actuary but failed the personality test. It was tedious but not a problem. For this generation, however history is so awash in angry tales of the oppression of this or that micro-identity that it has become little more than present-day politics pursued through the idiom of the past tense. As Philip Rieff memorably expressed it in Fellow Teachers:

But, for Americans, all pasts are embarrassments, beyond recall except as tactical instruments of scarcely concealed rancor against present or imagined inferiorities.

Sadly, what was true of Rieff’s America in the early 1970s has become a general characteristic of the West in general. History is now useful on college campuses primarily as a means for bestowing much-sought-after vicarious victimhood on a generation that knows little or nothing of what it actually means to be a real victim of anything beyond over-indulgent parenting and a society that knows not what it means to be an adult.

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