Tuesday, November 29, 2011

There Is No Life Outside of History

“There is no life outside of history.”

That phrase struck me as profound. It was offered by Karen Chase, Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English literature at the University of Virginia, speaking about the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities. Professor Chase was part of a panel discussion the book on an older episode of The Diane Rehm Show (October 20, 2010), to which I listened as I prepared Thanksgiving dinner.

“There is no life outside of history.”

We are part of history, influenced by history, and influencing history. We are in history, of history, and carried in the inexorable flow. We cannot resist history, we cannot deny history, and we cannot exist outside history.

It is a profound understanding.

If you haven’t read A Tale of Two Cities recently, or (gasp) not at all, here’s that remarkable opening paragraph, which surely is the best-ever opening to any novel in the English language:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. ―Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870), A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Here’s Professor Chase’s complete quote, for context:

“There is no life outside of history. That everybody lives in time and that previous incidents in history have everything to do with contemporary incidents that [Dickens] may not want to discuss openly.”
You might enjoy listening to the entire discussion:


If you haven't read the book, do so. It is profound. It will enrich your understanding of history, life, and love.

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