Karl Marx begins his famous essay of 1851, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” with the statement that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” A few sentences later Marx goes on to say “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” [My italics for emphasis]
These two passages have haunted me ever since I first read them in college, when I was only beginning to sense the historic and burdensome memories that shape our present action. It wasn’t until the events of January 6 that I realized what forms the farcical repetition of tragic history might take—and that they can be comedic and deadly at the same time. (The actual events in France at that time are mind-numbingly complicated but bear eery similarities to some of our own recent history.)
From the time we dress up for Halloween as little children we begin to shape our lives and actions through the costumes handed down to us by the Big People who are guiding our lives. By the time we realize that the Big People running our lives are simply older and no longer bigger, we think that History or God must be the guiding author of the drama for which we costume ourselves every day, especially for the great occasions of graduation, marriage, funerals, work, and court appearances. We know what to do, we know the scripts, we know the plot. We are secure in the immense uncertainty of action.
That is our everyday life. If we become responsible for thousands, yea millions, of others whom we are designated to represent, the power of these costumes and roles becomes even more enormous. For those who act in the pure freedom of not having a script, bold actions can result in victory, praise, the confirmation of the crowd and oft-remembered stories for future generations. If they fail, even with the best of intentions, it is tragedy. The noble effort falls into a black abyss of self-destruction.
The costumes, scripts, and plots of great successes in the storied past become the props of risky action in the present. We act believing that history will repeat itself, that it will fulfill and confirm the play that once worked upon the world’s stage of our ancestors. But, Marx intones, it ends in farce. Why? Because history is not a stage that can be reconstructed for each play. It is constantly changing in response to deep contradictions and unseen forces, not to mention fresh players. The players come dressed for a stage that no longer exists. Their once-victorious performances are soon exposed to ridicule because they no longer fit the stage on which they seek to enact their noble drama. They are no longer vessels of greatness but of mindless parody. Their efforts to re-enact heroic epics soon reveal themselves to be a farce.
And so the horrendous attack on the Capitol—the first effort in American history to overturn an election—was enacted by men in Revolutionary War hats, Norse warrior get-ups, Confederate flags, and more, I am sure. They had scripts of Revolutionary Patriotism and Confederate rebellion to guide them, but now detached from the actual, present-day world they sought to rescue or destroy. And indeed, they, like many of us, did not acknowledge that the historic successes of our past all contain profound expressions of tragedy: the compromise over slavery that made possible our Constitution, the genocidal attacks on indigenous peoples that cleared the land for European settlement, the despoliation of the land in the drive for “progress,” and many more. They dressed in the costumes and chanted the scripts of their imagined heroes. It was as if the play world of a million TV programs had been unleashed upon the world while its author watched it all with delight on TV.
In the face of seeming anarchy we all search for scripts to guide us in our action and quell our fear. But history does not repeat itself, though we would have it do so for our sakes. What we must do is try to see the world around us as it really is, not merely as an instant in some all-encompassing drama whose outcome is clear and whose author is known. We are like children seeking the Big People who will provide us with the costumes to navigate this strange world. But they are not here. What Marx was trying to tell his would-be leaders of the revolutionary Proletariat in the mid-nineteenth century was that they needed to look at their situation with the eyes of a scientist trying to understand what is going on around them. Marx may have been wrong about those facts, but that is what we need to do now.
What is the real world? It is shouting at us in extreme weather events arising in the warming of our atmosphere, in the unparalleled global systems of communication and information transfer, in the immense immediate diversity of the varied peoples of the earth, in the suffering of our fellow creatures and the diseases of a disrupted ecology. The destructive farce of recent weeks must not leave us in anger, searching for outworn plots and costumes, but open to discovering the world that scientists (yes, scientists), craftsmen and women, mothers and fathers, farmers and healers are finding in their actual lives. There is where we are called to act in response to the extreme disruptions in the real world around us.