Of course, I refer to the funeral of King Edward VII, on May 20, 1910.
Y’all remember that one? It was a biggie. I cite the first paragraph of The Guns of August:
I don’t mean to disrespect Her Majesty’s funeral yesterday, by any means. Based on all I’ve heard and the few photos I’ve seen (the reverence, the solemnity, the dazzling colors — except for the two disgraced princes in mufti), it was splendid — as it should have been.
I’ve just got this one on my mind because a couple of days back, I started re-reading the Tuchman book. I’m using the term “re-reading” loosely here, because I didn’t finish it the first time. After it shifted to the Eastern front, it seemed to bog down. All I remember about it was the incompetence of the tsar’s government (sort of like Putin’s in Ukraine), which gave me a bit of insight into why the revolution happened.
So I decided to start over, partly because I knew the first chapter was awesome, beginning with that portrait, excerpted above, of the old world that was about to end — that ruled by closely related kings, attending the funeral of their kinsman. He was known as “the uncle of Europe,” which Mrs. Tuchman explained thusly:
Anyway, I had remembered all that — not each and every relationship, or even the precise number of royal highnesses and such in the cortege. But I had remembered the main points — the pomp and splendor, the significance of this last gathering of the fam, and the general reasons why this was all to come to an end.
But I didn’t remember everything. And that’s my point. When I was young, I remembered any book I had read — no matter how much earlier — in absurd detail. Not photographic memory exactly, but I remember details clearly, and could quickly find them. Long before Google, I could in a brief moment find a quote I wanted in a book read 20 years earlier, by leafing through it thinking, OK, it was in the upper part of a left-hand page, and it was before this… but after that… a couple more pages… there! And when I got there, it was as I had remembered.
To some extent, that’s still there. And I remembered there were certain alarming ideas current in Germany at the time, and how I was impressed when I first read about them, thinking, As much as we make of Nazi ideology, this stuff didn’t just come from the twisted mind of Hitler a generation later….
But I had forgotten her portrait of the most prominent of those foreign cousins riding in the cortege — Kaiser Wilhelm II. “William” was glad his uncle Edward was dead. It meant, he thought, he — and Germany — would get more recognition, more respect. Note the way the author describes the kaiser’s reaction to Edward’s triumphant visit to Paris a few years earlier:
(Sorry about all the long screenshots, by the way. I would copy and paste much shorter quotes, but Google Books won’t let me, so I do this. I know it’s rather unsatisfactory. I don’t do it just because I’m lazy; retyping introduces a greatly increased possibility of errors.)
I’d forgotten what a cranky, needy child the Kaiser was. Of course, he comes across a lot like Trump — all that whiny me, me, me. Maybe it strikes me more strongly now because I first read that chapter pre-2016, when Trump was still this ridiculous figure from the 1980s whom we are all free to ignore.
Now, I think, Well, as messed up as our democracy not is, and as much as I like and will miss the queen, here’s another reason to appreciate that we don’t have a monarch. Think about it. As much as Trump tried to become king — on Jan. 6, and so often before and since — he failed. But imagine how much more awful things would be were he a sovereign, and his identification with the country were such that he was the country and the country was him? (Yes, I know this isn’t the Middle Ages and things were different by 1914, but there’s still the psychology of identification that lies at the heart of the idea of monarchy.)
Of course, if we had a monarchy, Trump would never have been the king. But let’s not get lost in speculative details.
Anyway, that’s not my point. My point is to bring up one of the few fun parts of getting older: It’s forgetting things, and enjoying the delight of rediscovering them.
It’s not that I’ve become a goldfish. I remember most things, and since I’m an intuitive type, I pretty much always remember, and can accurately describe in general terms, the forest. Which is what matters to someone who thinks the way I do. But I let go of a lot of the trees.
I first saw this coming on maybe 15 or 20 years ago (or, from my perspective, a few days ago) when I suddenly realized that I longer remembered all of the lyrics of every single Beatles song. I had always taken that knowledge for granted, and now there were many holes in it. Big deal, I was able to say to myself — those weren’t details I needed in my life. Still, it was a loss.
Then, about the time I entered my 60s, the delightful thing came along: I didn’t retain any new TV shows I saw. Oh, I remembered what Jethro did in “The Beverly Hillbillies” back in the mid-60s. But I could watch an episode of some British murder mystery and enjoy it in 2012 or later, and then come back in a year or so with NO idea whodunit, and enjoy it all over again. Because my personal hard drive was no longer adding this stuff to the database.
Which is awesome. Lately, my wife and I have been rewatching “Endeavour” from the beginning, and having a great time. Oh, something about a scene will be familiar; I might even say “I know this scene; this is the moment I realized the writers were basing this episode on ‘The Great Gatsby’.” But I still won’t know what’s going to happen. And there are episodes I don’t remember at all.
Which is great. It’s so much easier to be entertained whenever I want to be. I don’t have to look so hard for “new” content.
For some time, I’ve been thinking, What if this could happen with books, too? I mean, what if I could completely forget O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and start over and experience it for the “first time” again? That would be bliss.
I’m not there yet, by any means. But this bit of forgetfulness with the Tuchman book is a promising beginning…