Last night while watching the cable network TNT, I saw a handful of different promos for the upcoming second season of a show called Murder in the First. (Ordinary people would call them advertisements, but “promo” is the industry term for what a TV network transmits to promote itself or its programs.) Surprisingly, one of them quoted W. H. Auden in its onscreen text: “Those to whom evil are done / Do evil in return.”* In that context, the lines were foreboding, but they also seemed somehow platitudinous. In rechecking the text, I found that Auden acknowledged that quality by pointing out that this precept is something “all schoolchildren learn.” It has to be admitted, though, that if those lines may strike sensible people as a truism or platitude, it’s one that insensible people could stand to accept on faith, since they’ve failed to learn it from their own experience. The example uppermost in my mind is that of the Israelis and Palestinians, many of whom act as if their obligation to all those who have already killed and been killed is to continue the tradition. But other examples can easily be found.
The injunction never to forget gets you nowhere if you have no idea, or only a bad idea, of what to do about what you remember. If the heedless are doomed to repeat the past all unknowing, what of those who deliberately replay it?
*The poem quoted in the TNT promo is “September 1, 1939.” Its full text can be found here (I trust the link, though a server error prevented me from confirming it). An admirable commentary, which comes to grips with the poem’s occasional approaches to “sloganeering,” is here.