Safeguarding and Preserving Cultural Heritage:

Pros and Cons



A big question that has become very close to our heart in our time, concerns the complex issues related to the safeguarding and preservation of cultural heritage.

Iin such matters I painfully feel my “divided self”, somewhat like Robert Schumann experienced the Florestan vs. Eusebius conflict.

The emotional Florestan in me would like to preserve everything (come and see my apartment, and you will have no doubt about that). Yes, I would, if I could, entirely incorporate the past into the present. And yet the less emotional Eusebius argues that it is not only impossible, but probably not even desirable to do so. In the end, “my” Eusebius asks whether we should contemplate circumstances and establish criteria to decide when a cultural practice of any kind, could/should be let go, die, and – so to say – rest in peace.

My parents, whom I dearly loved, have been dead for a long time. I sure wish they could still be with me. And yet, if they could be revived – not as the old people they eventually became, but as they were in their 40s and 50s – then it would be difficult for me to be the adult person I am now. I would have to recede into the role of the “son” of parents who would certainly worry about me, and would wish to have a say on how I run my life. That is why, I guess, it is beneficial to each new generation that the previous one at some point grows old and eventually dies.

Let me take it from a different angle. The idea that languages shape our thinking is much older than the Sapir-Whorf debate. It has been controversial all along, but it would be hard to deny that languages codify idiosyncratic forms of knowledge. Once a language disappears, the knowledge embedded in it gets easily lost. When “dead languages” leave a written trail, they no longer grow and intertwine with our daily perception of reality.

It would be wonderful, wouldn't it, if Latin could have been preserved as a living language to this day. Or would it? Had it been capable of surviving, we probably would not have Italian, Spanish, and French – and we would not enjoy Dante, Cervantes, or Proust. I therefore wonder whether we should accept that when languages no longer keep up with cultural change, when the world of which they are part is waning, maybe we should let them go. This is Eusebious speaking, of course. The Florestan in me feels differently. I am in contradiction because Florestan and Eusebious are both part of me. Walt Whitman comes to mind, who once wrote: “Do I contradict myself? … I am large, I contain multitudes!”

But let me once again give voice to Florestan who thinks that not only would it be fascinating to experience Latin alive, but it would be equally fascinating to experience the Isorhythmic Motet or the Madrigal as living compositional practices. But, had they survived, would it have been possible to have Mozart's “Don Giovanni”, or “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis? It is hard to say of course, except that
whatever is alive, takes up social and mental space away for other things to exist. That may be one reason we forget, and let things go out of fashion or drop into oblivion. Style Louis XVI would not have existed if Louis XV and Louis XIV had not gone out of fashion.

I guess what I am getting at is nothing less than a “meditation” on... death. People die, and presumably will continue doing so. And yet death we can never really accept. Even in the domain of culture the Florestan in us is constantly looking for the delusion of immortality. But if a cultural practice really is alive, should it not be reasonable to expect it to die at some point? Or do we wish to make of our planet a universal museum where, one day, there may not be mental and social space for anything new? There can only be so many masterpieces in the world, so many great composers, so many musical genres...

You do understand I hope. Eusebius is not advocating deliberate destruction of anything, any more than he advocates murdering old-timers like myself. But there is a natural life span to all things – why should we wish to make things immortal. Even a work of art (and by no means “music” is to be considered solely an artistic endeavor) really makes full sense at the time of its making. It may continue to make sense for a while afterwards but, eventually, it is bound to lose the function and the meaning it originally possessed. New life can be created if space is left for it by the old (non-human species regulate reproduction). Likewise cultural practices need social space to fulfill their function. Oral traditions show us how, in order to have new music, older styles and practices need to be progressively phased out. Something of them may in some way survive; just like the phonological characteristics of disappeared languages re-surface in the speech habits of the newer languages that replace them.

At this point I am reminded of Funes el Memorioso, the character invented by Jorge Luis Borges, a man who had complete and precise recall of everything he had ever seen. Sadly, unable to forget as he was, he lost the ability to make sense of things – sensory overexposure we might call it.

However, just like animalists do their best to protect cats, dogs, dolphins and other likable animals, but do not come out (to my knowledge) in defense of mosquitos and cockroaches, not all cultural practices receive equal attention and protection – intriguing. Opera is kept alive with the oxygen tent, and a lot of public money. But the loss of Operetta and film genres (such as the “western” or “silent movie”) is seldom regretted. The Minstrel Show is dead, so is the Café Chantant, and nobody is making a fuss about it. Somehow they do not seem to fit into anybody’s agenda.

The cultural associations I am a member of appear to be decidedly on the side of Florestan. That is why here I gave voice to Eusebius. Where the latter will eventuyll win or not is anybody’s guess.